Roscoe Mitchell & the Art of Experimentation

Roscoe Mitchell & the Art of Experimentation


D. Scot Miller (for novometro.com)

April, 17 2008

For more than thirty years, saxophonist and composer Roscoe Mitchell created what has come to be known as Great Black Music with Cecil Taylor, Malechai Favors, Joseph Jarmen and Anthony Braxton in the Art Ensemble of Chicago and their non-profit organization, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music and the Art Ensemble continues its work with new voices, visions, and projects.

The Art Ensemble has been known to wear African-inspired face paint, but seeing Mitchell en masque is rare, or non-existent. His saxophone may be a swashbuckling blade, but his bare face and stoic composure let you know that Roscoe Mitchell is a serious man. Mitchell, 67, is at Mills College in Oakland, California as the Darius Milhaud Chair of Composition. He spoke with NovoMetro about his work, his upcoming recording in June, and why he won’t paint his face.

For more than thirty years, saxophonist and composer Roscoe Mitchell created what has come to be known as Great Black Music with Cecil Taylor, Malechai Favors, Joseph Jarmen and Anthony Braxton in the Art Ensemble of Chicago and their non-profit organization, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music. Though Favors has since passed on, the Art Ensemble continues its work with new voices, visions, and projects.

The Art Ensemble has been known to wear African-inspired face paint, but seeing Mitchell en masque is rare, or non-existent. His saxophone may be a swashbuckling blade, but his bare face and stoic composure let you know that Roscoe Mitchell is a serious man. Mitchell, 67, is at Mills College in Oakland, California as the Darius Milhaud Chair of Composition. He spoke with NovoMetro about his work, his upcoming recording in June, and why he won’t paint his face.

NM: What is the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM)?

Mitchell: It’s a group of guys that came together out of their association in the Muhal Richard Abrams Experimental Band and sat down to have a look at the way some musicians’ lives had gone, out there on their own, and who wanted to have more control over their destinies, sponsor each other in concerts of their own original music. They wanted to maintain a training program for young, aspiring musicians in the community. They wanted to set up an exchange program with other musicians in other cities thereby establishing a form of employment for musicians. The AACM is still going strong today with two chapters, one in New York and one in Chicago still following its basic rules it made at the beginning. I see a lot of younger musicians back at the same place when we first had a look at all of these things.

I was lucky to be around people who had the same vision as mine. Nobody ever thought we were in there for the short term. We knew we were in there for the long term. We just stuck to our original ideas and stayed with that. The Art Ensemble was a barn-storming band and we’ve been able to establish a network to bring younger people along so they don’t have to do the things that we had to do.

A long time ago, it took twenty years to be known as a musician. You’d have to go out to go to different places so people could hear you. Before we went to Europe, we’d already come to California twice in 1967-68, traveling in a van. We always did that --connecting, finding younger musicians.

NM: What are you working on now?

Mitchell: I finished work on my Orchestra piece, Noncognitive Aspects of the City, a poem written by Joseph Jarmen in the sixties for orchestra and baritone voice. That’s going to be recorded in the Czech Republic in June. I’ve performed it with him in the context with the Art Ensemble a few times and I became interested in the text, so I decided to set the poem to music. I’ve decided to use the orchestra for that context. That’s a lot right now.


NM: What is your approach to text and music?

Mitchell: I’ve set several texts to music. I’ve worked with poets in live situations also. What I did with Amiri Baraka is that he sent me the poems in advance so I could read them and get a feel for them. If I’m writing a piece that incorporates the text, you have time to consider the text in a compositional form. As an improviser, I’m working to be able to do the forms spontaneously, I work with it from both sides.

NM: Do you work in any other media?

Mitchell: I’ve worked with different people throughout the years. I have a long-standing relationship with David Wessel who does computer music. I’ve been working with him since the late sixties. He’s one of the first people to start the computer music conference in the states. Of course, I’ve worked with George Lewis on several of his computer music programs throughout the years. I’ve done collaborations with artists, inventors, poets, and dancers. There were more interactive collaborations going on a long time ago. It’s starting to come back now. Things change as we go along. I’ve found things go away and come back. It’s just time for those kinds of collaborations again.

NM: Is revolution still possible?

Mitchell: Back in the 60s, if you would have asked me that I would have said, “Oh yeah, definitely.” Now, I think that something will get our attention one way or the other. If we goof up the planet, that’ll get our attention. Try to remain optimistic. Somebody comes along in your life that brings you into focus onto something that you may have missed. Those are the things we appreciate the most in life. Always keep yourself open because you never know who that’s going to be.

NM: Why didn’t you wear the face paint?

Mitchell: I tried that, but I discovered that if you sweat, you couldn’t wipe your face.

NM: Simple as that?

Mitchell: Simple as that.