I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Roscoe Mitchell is one of the most important composer-improvisers of our time as well as a major musical thinker and conceptualist. His work has been important to my thinking since I became aware of it, over 30 years ago. He is certainly best known for his work with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but I have a special fascination for two of the records he has released under his own name: Sound (Delmark, 1966) and Nonaah (Nessa, 1978). In addition to his mastery of the saxophone, he is an innovator in the use of collage techniques, repetition, silence, noise, and the AEC’s specialty “little instruments”: recorder, harmonica, whistle, and a range of small percussives like gourds and bells. Mitchell, along with his colleagues in the Chicago-based AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) particularly Anthony Braxton and Leo Smith, took the next step from the innovations of first-generation Free Jazz (Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor. Albert Ayler). The paroxysm or “ecstatic moment” that one finds in so much of early Free Jazz is channeled into a music which follows the stream of consciousness through a vastly different arc, one which relies much more on peaks and valleys. Where and how did this group of composer-performers grasp the necessity of this step? Although it has global implications, the jazz mainstream has never truly embraced it. On the fringes, however, this work has been extremely influential and I was delighted to have the chance to ask Roscoe Mitchell some of the questions that his music has raised for me.
Anthony Coleman So, I just got to hear the rehearsal of your new piece, “The Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City.” Where does the title come from? The text is from Joseph Jarman, is that right?
Roscoe Mitchell Yes, that’s correct, it’s from a poem he wrote. I became interested in setting it to music after doing a performance with Joseph reciting it back in the ’60s, A recording and videotape of that performance was originally made by Channel Four, the English channel. The videotape was later reissued by DIW/Art Ensemble.
AC It’s been very good for me to go back and listen to your records. You use radically different languages depending on projects. Some pieces are almost minimalist, with phrase repetition, and other pieces come much more clearly out of the jazz tradition. I’m thinking of the the Moers Creative Orchestra …
PM Well, that is true. All of these different aspects of music are great and you don’t want to be excluded from any of them, so the best thing in your studies is to look at all of these things. Talking about the Moers Creative Orchestra music, one piece on that album is a swing piece, there’s another one that is rather minimalist but that comes out of a system of cards that I developed. I was doing a lot of workshops with improvisers and I noticed that there were some common problems that most of these ensembles would have. So I went about trying to create something that would help people with these problems. The cards have music written on them and each musician gets six cards that they can arrange in any way that they want, at their own tempo, to create their own improvisation. You actually score the improvisation, thereby eliminating the musician having to come up with the material to play, which is one of the problems I’ve had in playing with inexperienced improvisers.
AC I noticed on Song For My Sister, you also have a piece that talks about the cards.
RM Yeah, that piece was also generated from the card catalogue.
AC Would you talk a little bit more about the problems of inexperienced improvisers? I played for a long time in John Zorn’s project Cobra, that’s not about inexperienced improvisers, but about the kinds of things improvisers do by rote. For example, improvisers tend to show that they’re listening by imitating what the other person’s playing. That can get to be an enormous cliché and in fact you can really show that you’re listening to people by doing something radically different from what they’re doing. Cobra sets up both situations.
RM Well, you actually hit on one of the problems. You’re doing the phrase and then someone else is coming up and doing it. That means that they’re not really there in the moment. They’re waiting around to listen to see what you’re doing. I would describe it like being behind on a written piece of music—you really know your part, and I don’t really know mine, so I’m kind of following and listening to see what you’re doing and because of that I can’t really be with you. That was one of the problems I wanted to correct, getting people to function as individuals inside of the improvisation so that counterpoint is maintained, which is a very important element in music. I also addressed the issue of people leaving some space of rest in between what they’re doing. You wouldn’t compose a piece that was a run-on sentence, but this is what a lot of inexperienced improvisers do. I introduce complex rhythmic figures so that everybody’s not always hitting on one all the time. You know, I bring them in at different parts of the beat—all of these things that you would have in a written piece of music.
AC You mentioned silence, AACM brought the use of silence to the world of black music or jazz as a very strong parameter. It’s something you and [Anthony] Braxton and Leo [Smith] all share in your music. When I listen to your record Sound, Braxton’s For Alto, and early Leo, the connections are so obvious and very deep. You’ve mentioned the concerts that you did together. Did you all talk about theories of silence or was it just understood that you had arrived at this moment together?
RM See, this is the difference between Chicago and New York. Musicians really got together and rehearsed in Chicago, over a long period, on a consistent basis. So all of these questions came up, and we were constantly trying to figure out how the improvisation related to each piece in the song. And we spent a lot of time developing improvisation for a particular piece. If you were to write a piece of music, you might have these instruments leading for a minute and then these over here and so on, and then some silent, and some playing at one point and then those instruments silent. So, it’s all those kinds of things. I feel like if you want to be a good improviser you have to know how composition works. Music is 50 percent sound and 50 percent silence. If you sit down and listen to nothing but silence, it’s very intense. So, when you interrupt that silence with a sound, then they start to work together, depending on how you use the space. I’ve practiced it in lots of different ways. A lot of younger improvisers will get into this rhythm that doesn’t exist, that they feel somehow committed to, and just pound away at that. I’ve found that these different card strategies can move you out of that and move you into an area where things start to become a bit more open.
AC Were you at all influenced by Cage?
RM Oh, we used to have concerts with Cage. In the early days, Joseph Jarman and John Cage would do performances together. See, this is the thing that we’ve gotten away from. Back then, you’d have concerts with a very wide palate musically; you were always listening to all these different people. Now people get involved in these narrow fads and that has really cut off a lot of their options, when in fact most of our listeners are accustomed to being challenged on several levels.
AC This may be a side question, but when you look at Cage’s statements on black music or jazz, they’re very, very limited. Was he present at these concerts?
RM Yeah, they were performing there. Though I wouldn’t call what they were doing jazz, either.
AC Right, but still, it should have given him some sort of idea that there were other possibilities in that language.
RM The impression that I got was that they were meeting as improvisers, and they were exploring from that end. I mean, John Cage would be hooked up to different microphones on his throat and he’d drink something, and so on. It didn’t really have any elements of jazz or rhythm in it.
AC So much of what the AACM was about, and so much of what the Art Ensemble was about was the distinctness of the personalities involved, the counterpoint between the personalities. Do you feel any kind of stylistic difference between your own music and the music that you’ve done within the Art Ensemble?
RM No. The way I see it, the Art Ensemble is like what you just said. It was a band of individuals who would go out and explore different things and bring in new ideas to the collective. It was a unit that studied music all the time and was constantly exploring different ways of doing music. Over the years, you develop this vocabulary that you can expand and extend. I can go back now and look at some of those concepts in a whole other kind of way that I couldn’t have done back then because I didn’t have the knowledge or the language to be able to do that. For instance, in the ’60s I heard these long lines at a rapid pace that never stopped. I couldn’t put those lines together then because I couldn’t circular breathe. But once I was able to, I could practice and perfect them. With me, everything is a study. If I’ve done something this way tonight, I’m trying to do that a little bit differently the next night, because the element of music that interests me is the exploration. I think I’ve probably said this before, but we’re living in the era of the Super Musician now; this is what I’m trying to be.
AC So you want to be able to fit into all of these contexts equally, with equal strength, equal passion.
RM Oh, that would be great. I can’t stand to hear somebody doing something that I really like and then I don’t know how to do it. And that’s part of the motivation.
AC What’s the thing you want to find out how to do now?
RM So much, man. I need another life! I definitely want to go back to working with the earlier instruments after I get off the road this time. I’ve already set up a bunch of rehearsals. I was really starting to get into the whole concept and improvisational aspect of it, playing with recorders, the baroque flute …
AC Do you listen to a lot of Renaissance music?
RM Oh yeah, definitely, and play it. We did a big concert in Madison where I took some existing pieces that we had and brought Joe Kubera and Thomas Buckner. Like I said, there’s a lot of stuff out there to learn. My fascination with the instruments is that the sound is so incredible.
AC I’m interested in all the different musical languages that you access. But when I think about your music, there are certain patterns that really come to me as your thing. If you look at Noonah, for example, there’s an obsessiveness that you’re able to access that seems to be yours. You don’t use it all the time, of course, but it’s in a certain relation to early minimalism, you know, minimalism before it became fun. (laughter)
RM Right. You know, there are different types of minimalism too. There’s a minimalism that deals with things rhythmically, there’s another type that deals with very few notes. The piece I’m working on right now is like that. It’s for this thing in Munich called Symposium in Munich, two weeks of music, lectures, demonstrations with myself and Evan Parker as the composers. We have a 12-piece ensemble and our concerts will be recorded by ECM. What I’m interested in with this piece is that it’s limited to a few notes but then when you put all these different rhythms together, that makes things react in a very strange way, all of these different sounds come out.
AC So the pitch field is set? How limited is it?
RM Three notes.
AC And then the rhythms are given? Or they are freely improvised?
RM No, I’m writing them down. There’ll be improvisation with the piece, but it’ll be on the improvisers to construct the improvisations according to what they have experienced in the piece. And I’ll probably suggest a few approaches for improvisation. There’ll be one section where each player has three notes. And then maybe I’ll work up a section where each player only has one note of the three, and then at the end of that, the selected player or players would be asked to do an improvisation with just that one note to see what they can really do with that one note.
AC I’m glad you still work in that way. It’s a part of your music that has always meant a lot to me. From the record Sound to Nonaah.
RM Well, it’s a constant study, what I find is that it just doesn’t stop. If you really want to develop yourself as an improviser, you have to do it that way. Sometimes you jump up there and can’t do any wrong, but most of the time music is work.
AC For sure. I was talking about the similarities between you and Leo and Braxton, how they never worked with those repetitive phrases. This is a kind of a personal question, but in the Art Ensemble did you ever find that your obsessive way of working was not well received? It’s very different from their music.
RM Well, see that’s the thing about the Art Ensemble. Nobody tried to tell anybody what to do. What I do is study extremes. So if you have the obsessive, you also have things that are not so obsessive.
AC But even in your bebop tunes, I’ve noticed sometimes, there’ll be a cycling of a couple of pitches, almost Monkish, or maybe even more connected to someone like Sonny Rollins’ playing, where a couple of notes are sort of worried or turned around, like in “Song for Atala.”
RM Oh, yeah, that’s the song I wrote for my daughter. That’s a little bit different format. Instead of being 8-8-8, and a bridge, it is an A-A-B-A but 16-16-8-16. A lot of my tunes have a twist in them like that. Like the “Ninth Room” is 9-9-9-9-9, it’s nine measures. It is, I guess, just trying to take something a little further or put a different twist on it. Actually, different forms for things are created, and so you either stick with that or you create yet another form.
AC There’s something I noticed around the end of the ’70s, where the Art Ensemble went from being more stream-of-consciousness, a big canvas where one kind of stylistic thing flowed into another, and became more like a catalogue. A Message to our Folks was a partitioned record from earlier, but as the late ’70s came along discrete pieces seemed to become the rule: the Roscoe piece, the Lester piece … How conscious was that?
RM I don’t know if it was a conscious thing. You know that as that era approached, everything was changing. The Art Ensemble was one of a very small number of groups that even survived the late ’70s. The music in general changed, in some ways it got a little more conservative, but thank God we’re coming to the end of that.
AC You think?
RM Yeah, I think we are, man.
AC I hope so. Do you see it from your touring?
RM In the touring, from students asking me different questions … A lot of them have gone to college, they come out and they’re disillusioned. A young trumpet player that I’m playing with now, Corey Wilkes, he goes out to sit in at a lot of jam sessions, the same thing that I used to do when I was young, and he’s getting tired of it. Everybody’s up there sounding the same or playing the same kind of a thing and it doesn’t have any meaning because they don’t really know what they’re doing. I mean it’s hard to think of a situation that doesn’t really exist anymore and try to relate that to something that’s really happening. But you can look at it in the sense of re-creation.
AC You think the idea of a jazz repertory orchestra is good thing?
RM Oh yeah, I think it is. But I don’t think it’s a good thing to say that they’re the only thing happening and nobody else is.
AC But the jazz repertory orchestra brings up a lot of questions. Like when you have the saxophone sound not being the right saxophone sound, then it’s not really—
RM —It’s not right.
AC But on the other hand, take an improviser, if they’re going to get themselves to be able to play with the saxophone sound of a Johnny Hodges, how creative can they be with it in terms of their own playing?
RM It’s hard, because if you look at the real-life stories, I mean, Bird used to listen to Lester Young. They don’t sound anything like each other. What I’ve noticed about the masters of the music is that it’s really music. It’s not mechanical in any sense of the word. They’re hearing ideas and bringing them about based on their lifestyles. This is what I think makes their music so important. I look at the saxophone as one of the most versatile instruments there is. There are so many people with so many different approaches to the saxophone; it’s a study. So you study these different styles. You think about the tenor, there are a lot of people to study there. It goes on and on. What I would say to a musician is this: That’s there for you to study, you take that, and then you bring your own thing to it, and that’s where your own message comes from.
AC Tell me a little about your approach to saxophone sound, especially on the tenor. You have a unique, very particular sound on the tenor. I could recognize you anywhere. Also on the alto, but on tenor you have this way of approaching articulation where you really put it in the face of the listener. I could say maybe it comes out of Rollins, but it’s still very much your own thing. Sometimes almost consciously not articulating. I know you’re a master of articulating. But sometimes you use the same articulation with a lot of notes in a row.
RM There I am at the extremes again. I’ll take a particular rhythm through all of its courses. That way you really do get familiar with it. But the tenor for me was problematic. I was always hearing it higher than what it is because I come from alto. And then with the alto I’d be trying to get a lower sound. But once I came to grips with what the sound of the tenor really was I think then I started to advance a little bit on it. If I’m playing the soprano, I’m trying to get it down low, so it doesn’t sound irritating. Those higher instruments, there’s a special skill in playing those to get them where they really sound warm. Now I’m starting to get a sound on the tenor that I can rely on. And that’s been a long time coming. What helped me with it was playing the bass saxophone because I could approach it the other way, and that helped put it in perspective.
AC Bass saxophone is really special.
RM Oh my God. I love it. It’s just so difficult to get around. And now, they make it so hard for you, like at the airports.
AC (laughter) What about this new piece that we just heard in rehearsal? It has a kind of tonal language that is surprising in a way. I guess I don’t know some of your other music that goes in that particular direction. It has something to do with the instruments, the way the voice is underscored. It’s a very attractive tonal language with a lot of diminished coloring. I’m curious about how you approached that. Having heard some of your earlier orchestral music, not particularly for symphony orchestra, but the Creative Orchestra music, it’s surprising.
RM What I’ve found working with text is to a certain degree the text dictates how the music should be. You can’t take a sad song and write a bunch of major stuff around it, so a lot of the time a text will inspire the way I approach it musically.
AC Have you written a lot of pieces that use musical language in this way?
RM For orchestra I have Variations and Sketches from the Bamboo Terrace and Fallen Heroes. Those are the largest works. But a lot of times the musical pieces develop over a long period. If you look at Variations and Sketches from the Bamboo Terrace, it started out as a piece for the trio space, Thomas Buckner, voice, Gerald Oshita, and myself on woodwinds. It eventually developed into a chamber orchestra piece that incorporated improvisation inside of it. A lot of my works start off with an initial idea that I may decide to continue later. After hearing the improvisation, I was inspired to extend and write some of it out. It has two parts for soloists in it, one for bass, which was inspired by an improvisational solo that Mel Graves played on this piece, and it also has a rather extended, written-out part for the violin. I wrote that after I wrote the bass solo, just in terms of the way I wanted to lay the piece out. It’s the voice, which is featured in “Variation Number 1” and then you move into the second part, which is “Sketches,” that features a solo for bass and a solo for violin, and then the last part is “Variations Number 2” which features the voice again.
AC I want to talk a little bit about the Note Factory. I’ve seen the Note Factory in concert a couple of times, I’ve heard the records, and its interesting, when you were talking about the Super Musician of today—people like Craig Taborn, Vijay Ayer, these are really the prime examples of what you’re describing.
RM Well, I would say that the Super Musician is concerned with the study of music, wherever it takes him. The Super Musician is someone that is able to move freely in and out of several musical genres. And that incorporates a lot. I see the Super Musician as someone who not only plays with an ensemble but who also does solo concerts. You have to know how to do that on your own and it helps you because it really teaches you how to function individually.
AC But if I think about the musicians of the ’70s, who were Super Musicians in their own way, but more quirky in a sense, they had one thing that they could do fantastically. Jarman is a genius, but I would never say that he was a Super Musician in the terms that you were talking about. His limitations, like some of the early greats such as Johnny Dodds or King Oliver, were so much a part of what made him who he was. If you listen to the early ’70s players, there was always a big edge on the sound. I find I’m not as drawn in by the Super Musician’s sound today as I have been by some people who maybe didn’t have as big a vocabulary.
RM Well, I think that’s what draws you in, the sound. I certainly get drawn in by the sound. If I hear Johnny Griffin, it’s the sound. If I hear Sonny Rollins, I’m drawn in. It’s the sound.
AC I’ve played with Gerald Cleaver, Craig Taborn. They have the ability to leap between the mainstream and the avant-garde with no trouble.
RM Yeah, I agree. But it’s still a long road. At some point I’m going to do a record of classical flute.
AC What repertoire would you want to play?
RM Well, I like all the great composers, like Bach and Beethoven. And I do concerts where I perform their music. I have a trio called the Nonaah trio for flute, bassoon, and piano that performs concerts regularly here in Madison.
AC Who’s the pianist?
RM Jim Erickson. And Willie Walters is the bassoonist. I’ve got a piece that I’m working on right now with a composer from Puerto Rico named William Ortiz for flute and guitar. Before I was on tour, Jaime Guiscafre and I were working on it rather consistently. William sent us the piece because he heard this recording of Jaime’s where I’m playing flute on some of the pieces, bossa novas, sambas and stuff like that, flute and guitar and so on. There’s a lot out there that I’m fascinated by. I figured the only way that you can really learn the flute is by taking it through the standard repertory to avoid becoming a saxophone player that just plays the flute on the side.
AC One of the most interesting things I’ve ever heard was when I asked John Zorn whether he considered himself a jazz musician. He said, “Listen, I play the classical music of the saxophone. And the classical music of the saxophone is Charlie Parker, Lester Young. If you learn the classical repertoire of the flute you have to learn Bach and so on, if you want to learn the classical music of the saxophone, it’s not going to be Jacques Ibert.” That’s not what has established the saxophone as a language.
RM But see, like, I’m interested also in Jacques Ibert. (laughter) I mean, all the tonguing and stuff in there, man.
AC Marcel Mule, you interested in Marcel Mule records?
RM Definitely. And Rudy Wiedoff.
AC Rudy Wiedoff is a very special case. Chicago also, right?
RM That’s right. Rudy Wiedoff had this tonguing thing happening. I have all his books. These pieces where he’s got the saxophone laughing. I love the saxophone, anybody that’s playing. I mean, I’m not crazy, I know whether or not somebody’s playing the saxophone!
AC Those guys were, definitely. I mean Lester Young adored Frankie Trumbauer. Whatever else you can say about them, they’re definitely playing the saxophone.
RM That’s right.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Constant Nieuwenhuys and Linda Boersma, Julie Mehretu, Alexi Worth, Pearl Abraham and Aryeh Lev Stollman, Robert Antoni and Lawrence Scott, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Jim O’Rourke, Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Coleman, Brad Cloepfil and Stuart Horodner, and Bruce Mau and Kathryn Simon.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee