Following two suites composed as a tribute to Octavia Butler, the Afro-futurist flautist is set to release her new sci-fi novella and album Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds
Former president of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Nicole Mitchell is a flautist, composer and educator. She is the founder member of The Black Earth Ensemble, with which she released Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute To Octavia Butler (2008) and its follow-up Intergalactic Beings (2014). As well as other projects, she has worked with Roscoe Mitchell on Three Compositions: Live At Sant'Anna Arresi.
Now Nicole is about to release her new multimedia project Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds. Commissioned by the Museum of Contemporay Art in Chicago, it is both a novella and an LP. Based in 2099 when the World Union society is in decay, the short story is follows a couple as they navigate their way around two contrasting civilizations – one far more utopian than the other. We spoke to her about the work.
The Wire: What came first, the music or the story?
Nicole Mitchell: The story came first, although it has changed over several years. There was an earlier story that I originally was working on called Mamapolis. Mamapolis evolved from a fascination I had with trying to understand how patriarchy began. I mused that at first, women were seen as Goddesses, because perhaps no one understood the male’s role in making a baby. It might have just been this magical happening that women became pregnant and bore children and had this special relationship with the universe. I imagined that this would echo into other aspects of leadership given to women, because of this special power. Then when men discovered their role, it became important to them to seize as much power as they could from women, and in their jealousy of women having such a creationist role with children, they could feel better to be the property owners and the protectors, then rulers in every sense. But, after a while, I decided that focusing on gender problems was not as important to me as really looking at the self-destructive nature of humanity in our times, and how technological advancement is not aligned with caring for ourselves and the Earth. I see that as the core problem -- how do we learn to see ourselves in each other? How do we honour our wonderful diversity rather than be threatened by it? How do we learn to share our resources and care for all, rather than being selfish? That helped me to arrive at my narrative, which riffs off the question: how do we create an advanced society that is in tune with nature, and how do we actually move away from our addiction to greed, which compromises our love for each other?
What inspired you to write this?
I was interested in creating a narrative that symbolically explored our struggle to move forward as human beings to really actualise our creative potential without being compromised by our self-destructiveness. It expresses the idea that perhaps an isolated population inspired by the healing power of their surroundings, had been able to advance without compromising the Earth. It has to be possible!
You mention in the text for the release that no one model of society is completely optimal, saying, ‘With the project, I enjoyed merging the chalice with the blade, the urban with the earth-focused, the electronic/electric with the acoustic, the female with the male.’ How do you approach composition and writing music so as to reflect this idea?
I believe that every society and culture has attributes, and that Western society is faulty in many ways that more earth-focused societies are not. So, the myth that Western ways are ‘more advanced’ is not really true, and we need to let that go. How is it ‘more advanced’ when the killing and hegemony is more abundant? Yet I wanted to merge these dualities, to find the common place of goodness that each has to offer. The music explores this through the idea of merging urban with country – electric guitar with banjo, electric (powerful) with acoustic (vulnerable), and also through merging different improvisational languages – gospel, Japanese taiko, shakuhachi and shamisen, free jazz, and also merging contemporary classical sounds with very simple folk melodies, rock and more. I was interested in exploring co-existence where each authentic musical voice can maintain its identity, yet connect and dialogue with the others.
Narrative has been central to my music-making. I'm really interested in developing my creative writing more and sharing it more.