Mitchell’s compositions range from fully improvised to fully composed. How does she define the word?
“For me, composition is really about concepts. Just like language. We’re sharing concepts when we’re talking, and the music can do that. There’s an energy that’s transmitted and shared because we’re actually creating the sound with our ears when we’re listening. It is a collaboration.
“A composition is a vehicle for the music, but it doesn’t really control the music. It facilitates the music, just as the music facilitates the connection between people. The music is what brought everybody together in that room. And, the composition, I would say—it’s not secondary, but it’s flexible. I like it to be flexible because the people playing the composition are bringing different energies to the music.”
Whispering Flame (2017) is the second movement of the EarthSeed suite, a project commissioned by the Art Institute of Chicago and co-written by Mitchell and Harris, an interdisciplinary artist who was the 2021 recipient of the Dorothea Tanning Award for Music/Sound from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever co-composed with anyone, and we really clicked,” Mitchell says. “It’s nice because Lisa will get to show her amazing power on stage as the vocalist for the performance, and also shine as the composer.”
EarthSeed’s texts were inspired by Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993), speculative fiction that has grown in popularity and power along with our awareness of climate change. Set in the year 2024, Lauren Oya Olamina, an African American teen gifted with hyper-empathy, an ability to feel the emotions of others, attempts to survive post-apocalyptic California. She founds a religion she calls EarthSeed, collecting its holy texts into her Books of the Living.
In their suite, Mitchell and Harris have engaged in a kind of fan fiction, authoring Lauren’s holy book which does not exist as such in Butler’s novel. The dramatic fire and brimstone preaching captured in Whispering Flame, is about “transformation to truth,” Mitchell explains. “To really know yourself, there’s a fire that burns. You have to let go of parts of yourself that are holding you back and lies that you believe in or secrets that you’ve hidden. You have to burn them away to get to your true self.”
Procession Time (2017), for alto flute, bass clarinet, cello, and piano, is written in four movements, two of which will be performed this evening. It was inspired by the paintings of Norman Lewis (1909-79), in particular “Ritual,” which features a semicircle of flame-like, vertical figures against a deep blue background.
Mitchell was introduced to Lewis’s paintings by her godmother Jean Ann Durades. “She leads tours of the Black artists in the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and her home is wall-to-wall paintings, including some by Norman Lewis,” Mitchell says. “She told me that my mom really liked his paintings and this one in particular. I saw a retrospective of Lewis’s work at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2016. He is one of the earliest African Americans celebrated as an abstract expressionist.”
A native of Harlem, Lewis learned to paint through industrial art courses in high school and regular visits to the Museum of Modern Art. His early works depict Black life, but these figurative scenes gradually loosened and dissolved into abstraction, like the canvases of his contemporaries Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning. Curator Ruth Fine of the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts describes Lewis’s post war years as “a very calligraphic period, where the use of line in fairly abstract terms for me reflects his interest in music.” Although his later paintings like “Ritual” are non-representational, they amass figures in assemblies full of movement and light.
“I was most interested in his fixation on the timelessness of ritual and procession, which we often see as ancient, but is actually a collective human activity that has continually expressed itself in a cyclic spectrum from celebratory to horrific,” writes Mitchell in her composer’s note. “These rituals have manifested throughout the ages as carnival, parade, protest, funeral march, dance party, birth ceremony, riot, lynch mob, and even witch-hunt. Procession Time is informed by Lewis’s ability to intricately articulate human movement and the emotions of jubilation and rage through texture, color and geometric form.”
The music, Mitchell says, possesses a “joyous, yet off-the-mark” quality. Asked how this manifests itself, Mitchell responds, “This piece is very composed. There’s not really any improvisation. Because it tries so hard, it seems like an ongoing struggle. And that’s not what life should be.”
Transitions Beyond was commissioned by Kamratōn and premiered at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh in 2021. Written as a combination of through-composed movements and graphic scoring, the work is dedicated to Interfaith minister and spoken word artist Calvin Bernard Gantt (1949-2021), Mitchell’s late husband.
In the album Who We Are (Black Earth Music, 2022), which the couple made together shortly before Gantt’s death, he offers an introduction of himself as a recent retiree who had worked for the Ford Motor Company, a teacher with the Chicago Public Schools system, and the Director of the Light House Youth Center. Unlike one of his contemporaries, who answered a question about his future plans by saying, “I ain’t gonna do nothin’. And I ain’t gonna do that ‘til 12 o’clock,” Gantt was ambitious. He was an organic farmer, a radio show host and self-published the book, As I Write, Right Now, all in the effort to inspire Oneness.
“The piece expresses the process of his transition as I witnessed it,” Mitchell explains, attributing a rawness to Transitions Beyond. It was the first piece she wrote after his death. “When someone we love is in that process of moving into the next realm—it’s the experience of what it is like for the person who’s left behind.
“My husband was extremely communicative,” she continues. “He talked for the whole last week before he died. He never went to sleep. I started writing down and recording the things he was saying, but I couldn’t make out what it meant. It was like he was trying to tell us what he was seeing, and also what he felt was important for us to do after he left. It was a mixture of vision and envisioning a future that he might not be a part of—or at least not a part of physically.”
Building Stuff (2015, rev. 2023), for an improvising ensemble, was recorded as part of a suite titled Moments of Fatherhood by Mitchell’s BEE with the French contemporary music group Ensemble Laborintus (Rogue Art, 2016). Commissioned by the French-American Jazz Exchange, the project’s point of departure was an exhibit put together by African American scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois for the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris.
At that historical moment, photography was being marshalled in a quest to undervalue Black Americans. In order to counter stereotypes prevalent in the media—pictures of African Americans as servants, sharecroppers living in poverty, and broken bodies in the so-called souvenir postcards from lynchings—Du Bois organized a display of over 300 pictures and data visualizations that demonstrated Black excellence. The pictures do not explicitly feature fathers and children, but union members, classes of college graduates, owners of businesses, companies of soldiers, sports teams, and church groups. They “bore urgent messages about Black American achievement, agency, and subjectivity,” write Jacqueline Francis and Stephen G. Hall in Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition (2019).
Mitchell calls the resulting collection of music a “cultural exchange and musical celebration of fathers that interweaves creative music with contemporary music. It’s very playful in its celebration. I put together an accompanying photo exhibit of slides of Black men as fathers to disrupt the stereotype of Black men not being present in their families.”
Inescapable Spiral (2017, rev. 2023), for a variable ensemble and open instrumentation, was originally written as an educational piece to be performed by a hybrid group with both student musicians and professionals. Commissioned by the International Contemporary Ensemble and performed by its members in a new version, it can contain up to as many as 20 sections of accessible miniatures, varying from thirty seconds to a minute a piece. Some are fully notated, while others use graphic notation, or leave spaces for the performers to freely improvise.
“Each one is a color,” Mitchell explains. “You can start with whichever one you want. You can rearrange them. You can repeat them. You never have to play it the same way twice. I made it so they overlap on top of each other. They’re not meant to be played end-to-end, but should seamlessly segue into each other, so they’re always in a state of transition.”
Mitchell’s color palette includes “Abalone,” “Aqua,” “Auburn,” “Charcoal,” “Cobalt,” “Gold,” “Indigo,” “Lavender,” “Magenta,” “Rust,” “Silver,” “Smoke,” “Sunburst,” and “Teal.” Inescapable Spiral refers to the inevitability that different stellar beings, pulled by gravity, will spiral into each other’s orbits.
For Mitchell, whose work is generous and open-ended, the music is in and of itself another dimension—an imagined location, a safe space, a place for liberation. It is a way to re-envision the world, to raise consciousness and reimagine our collective future. As she writes in the Mandorla Letters, “Visionary art does not appear practical, but it can help us fly.”
Mitchell says, “I believe that we can actually get somewhere. And I believe that we’re all looking for the same thing. We’re looking for peace, for belonging. We’re looking to feel a part of something—to feel in a sense that we matter.”