Anthony Coleman is a composer – pianist who was born in New York City and studied at the High School of Music and Art (1969 – 73), New England Conservatory of Music, Boston (BM, Composition, 1977) and the Yale School of Music (MM, Composition, 1979). He has been on the faculty of the New England Conservatory (Contemporary Improvisation, Jazz, Composition) for the last seven years. He divides his time between New York and Boston and touring, both as composer and performer. He has 13 CDs available under his own name, and has played on about 100 others. Relatively recent activity has included a work for quartet, Damaged by Sunlight, issued on DVD in France by La Huit, the CD Freakish: Anthony Coleman plays Jelly Roll Morton (Tzadik); a month – long residency in Venice as a guest of Venetian Heritage, a commission for the Parisian Ensemble Erik Satie: Echoes From Elsewhere; tours of Japan and Europe with guitarist Marc Ribot’s band Los Cubanos Postizos; a lecture/performance as part of the symposium Anton Webern und das Komponieren im 20. Jahrhundert (Neue Perspektiven, Basel, Switzerland) and a commission from the String Orchestra of Brooklyn (Empfindsamer). His most recent release is The End of Summer (Tzadik), which features his NEC Ensemble Survivors Breakfast.
I can’t remember…the first time. When was the first time? I used to read a lot. And the whole idea of an Art Ensemble of Chicago sounded so amazing - like Kafka’s America with its Nature Theater of Oklahoma. I was lucky (I guess): At the end of High School, I had a girlfriend who used to write down everything she heard on our College Radio station, WKCR - FM. And one day she came to school with Lester, Joseph, Roscoe and Malachi’s names on a piece of paper - she asked me if I’d heard of them.
Then I got to hear them. A rushed set in Central Park, like 1972. Part of Newport in New York. Then buying some records. Reese and the Smooth Ones was a favorite. Also People In Sorrow. And then Fanfare For The Warriors came out. I was now a real fan. By the end of the seventies, the Art Ensemble and Parliament/Funkadelic were the only music I could think of that were really providing an adequate rejoinder to creeping standardization. I was reading a lot of Adorno…
I started seeing the Art Ensemble as often as I could. It was a lot. But it was never enough. These were things I loved: the characterizations - how etched each person’s musical persona was. Like a mini Ellington Band. The element of danger. When the flow was flowing, it was like a dream - the way one musical state morphed into the next. But sometimes you’d get 40 minutes of static percussion grooves. The message? Come often, and love the process.
When did I first hear Roscoe’s album Sound? I guess end of the seventies. But once it got on my turntable it didn’t come off for a long, long time. This was my record: Ornette, The Little Suite…This record was so close to the sound I heard in my head that it provoked a crisis. So much humor, so much seriousness. A language that privileged neither writing nor soloing. A language that didn’t come down on one side or another of the divide between Composition and Improvisation, but seemed to have discovered a new synthesis.
And that harmonica at the beginning of The Little Suite is one of the great données of music.
Nonaah? How many aspects of contemporary vocabulary are addressed within its simple and elegant structure? Free Jazz, Free Improvisation, Minimalism, Performance Art, The Theater of Cruelty, just to name the first ones to come to mind. Nonaah: A genius piece, both maddening and delightful.
I’ve only met Roscoe a couple of times. But it was wonderful to experience his work with students the first year I taught at NEC. And it was a great pleasure interviewing him for BOMB magazine. I was so impressed with his openness, his curiosity, his clarity, his modesty. He has always been, and continues to be, a real inspiration.
Table & Chairs Presents: Roscoe Mitchell Performs Nonaah on June 7th, 2013 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle.
Gust Burns is a Seattle-based composer, improviser and piano player and educator. Burns is recognized for his remarkable technique as an improviser in both jazz and experimental music. In addition to his own creative work, Gust Burns has for the past decade been director of the long-standing Seattle Improvised Music Festival. He directs and edits the online music and text journal Eulachon; he was co-founder of the experimental music space Gallery 1412. He is also pianist in the Wally Shoup Quartet.
having read about roscoe mitchell and the art ensemble of chicago in various texts from the 80’s and 90’s about “free jazz”, i was aware that there was something important for me to hear. however, i was late to the internet, and at that time i prioritized the piano whenever i made purchases.
so, it was completely by luck that i found a former radio copy of mr. mitchell’s nonaah album, including solo saxophone, saxophone quartet, and small ensemble pieces, on vinyl in a used record store in bellingham while i was living there around 1998. i had never heard roscoe’s music before.
this is my preferred method of finding music - not necessarily by luck, but slowly, contingently, in defiance of the instant expert information age.
and a ‘discovery’ like this is made to feel even more miraculous when the music that is discovered proves to be, over time, one of the very most important pieces in the world.
nonaah was novel and confusing. i knew i loved it, and that it was important to everything i was thinking about. its simplicity (on the solo live version) was revolutionary for me. it’s complexity (saxophone quartet version) delirious, elating, inspiring. the melodic beauty was of a type that i had not encountered before (ballad).
and now i marvel at the simple fact that mitchell made this music - that he made it when he did, that his vision was so unimaginable but so precise.
is it a feature of mitchell’s music or a feature of the times we live in, that his music isn’t really copied and imitated the world over by musician-admirers? i believe the former. a thousand self-proclaimed ‘monk influenced’ pianists don’t get anywhere near the meaning of that music, and the same can be said regarding the music of coltrane, ayler, cecil, et al. there must be something about roscoe mitchell’s music that makes it either unavailable or unattractive for the uninspired purposes and techniques of style-copping.
so everyone, please, continue to let the meaning of roscoe mitchell’s music soak into ours - informing our practices and decisions as any musical force of its magnitude will, when listened to.
Table & Chairs Presents: Roscoe Mitchell Performs Nonaah on June 7th, 2013 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle.
Grammy-nominated composer-pianist Vijay Iyer (pronounced “VID-jay EYE-yer”) has been described by Pitchfork as “one of the most interesting and vital young pianists in jazz today.” Iyer has released sixteen albums as a leader; his most recent, Accelerando (2012) is the widely acclaimed follow-up to the multiple award-winning Historicity (2009), both featuring the Vijay Iyer Trio (Iyer, piano; Marcus Gilmore, drums; Stephan Crump, bass)
In the last decade I had the privilege of working in multi-instrumentalist/composer/improvisor Roscoe Mitchell’s ensemble. A pioneer in experimental music, Mitchell is a founding member of the celebrated Art Ensemble of Chicago and the hugely influential collective of African American composer-performers known as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. He is noted for his novel approaches to form, texture, and timbre, unusual instrumentations, and interesting use of constraints in compositions and improvisations.
Mitchell’s work on various wind instruments frequently finds him exploring the most liminal behaviors of these instruments. He might construct an entire solo improvisation by passing air through the alto saxophone in various fingering configurations so as not to generate an actual tone; the sporadic pitches that arise from this process provide a dramatic emergent form that keeps the listener transfixed. Or he might circular-breathe through the horn for several minutes, allowing the resultant variation in air pressure to impose a periodic timbral surge on his sound. Or he might find a note on the soprano saxophone that squeaks or cracks, and then work through turn that squeaking into a formal element right before your ears, constructing a masterful solo piece from this odd, “impure” sound emanating from the horn. On these occasions we witness an intrepid sonic explorer in poignant performative dialogue with his instrument, creating music out of the experiential process of making sound. These performances and the act of listening to them are inherently non-repeatable, predicated as they are on the process of mutual discovery.
Mitchell’s ensemble music covers a wide range of instrumentations, stylistic points of reference, and degrees of complexity, and they vary from fully notated to entirely improvised to anywhere in between. In some of Mitchell’s ensemble pieces, he has the musicians improvise independent, focused streams of musical activity, without self-consciously interacting with the other individual musicians. This would seem at first to go against the standard view of “jazz” as a highly interactive, dialogic medium. But in fact Mitchell is privileging that very dialogue, insisting on a transparent counterpoint among the various melodic streams. He knows that this dynamic cannot be forced, so his directive is to listen closely without “following” or imitating one another. Musical counterpoint can occur in unexpected ways, and in this case it unfolds spontaneously from the juxtaposed sonorous actions of the participants. Having performed such pieces with Mitchell, I can attest to the rich variety and specificity of dynamics, textures, and emergent forms that arise from such deceptively simple principles.
At one point in the course of a weeklong studio recording project, he guided his nine-piece group improvisationally through the sculpting of an introduction to one of his notated pieces, titled “this” and based on a poem by e. e. cummings. A certain utterance he made in the process shed light on his creative perspective. Exploring the available options, he asked percussionist Vincent Davis to tap on a wood block, and then to hit a gong. Then he asked guitarist Spencer Barefield about the sympathetic strings on his acoustic guitar, and had him strum them by way of demonstration. Next, he asked percussionist Gerald Cleaver to try a few tremolo dyads on the marimba, first with hard mallets, then with soft ones. He asked to hear these sounds again, one by one, and then in sequence, presumably to compare them, I thought. Then, casually, Mitchell said, “All right, may I please hear that much music again?”
This request hit me hard, because it hadn’t dawned on me that what was happening during this process even was music; I had unconsciously dismissed it all as pre-compositional timbral exploration. But Mitchell knew we had crossed the line into music: a series of human sound events, intentional sonic gestures in organized succession. Of course it was music; how could I have thought otherwise?
In that instant, I learned something profound and difficult to explain. It struck me how the rawest sonic materials and the most primal human acts can be heard as compelling, even beautiful music. I saw that music need not be understood simply as the execution of pre-ordained gestures, and that it can be viewed as a process of inquiry, a path of action, an exploratory, in-time sonorous exploration/construction of the world – a description that sounds a lot like Nöe’s description of perceptual experience. It struck me, therefore, that perhaps humans are always making music – that counterpoint and form necessarily emerge from the sound of experiential, perceptually guided human action in time and space.
It was also made clear in this exchange that music can be viewed as a consequence of active listening; it is, at some level, through informed listening that music is constructed. Placing the skillful listener in such an active role explodes the category of experiences that we call listening to music, because it allows the listener the improvisatory freedom to frame any moment or any experience as a musical one. The improvisor is always listening; the listener is always improvising.
Table & Chairs Presents: Roscoe Mitchell Performs Nonaah on June 7th, 2013 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle.
Since his emergence on the west coast in the late 1970’s, Evander Music founder Phillip Greenlief has achieved international critical acclaim for his recordings and performances with musicians and composers in the post-jazz continuum as well as new music innovators and virtuosic improvisers. His ever-evolving relationship with the saxophone unfolds with an expansive sound vocabulary, a deep regard for melody and form and a rollicking humor and wit that is not dissimilar to the Native American Coyote tales.
Notes on Roscoe Mitchell
Like many of us, I discovered the music of Roscoe Mitchell through the Art Ensemble of Chicago - I’m not wholly sure which record it was, but I think it was right about the time of the release of Nice Guys (1979). I had discovered Anthony Braxton a few years prior and both saxophonists really seemed to be heading in a direction that fascinated me (and still do). When I look back at that time period, I can see that both Braxton and Mitchell were real visionaries in terms of the future of the saxophone.
These individuals represented a new squad of players who were blazing new territory. As a student of jazz and improvisation, I had already delved into the music of the bop era as well as the post-jazz recordings of Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and late Coltrane, but here was a startling new music that was being created now - in my generation - I didn’t feel that I was experiencing the music of a bygone era that had already seen its heyday - this music felt immediate and vital to the world I lived in and I longed to study it, play it, and one day try to make contributions of my own.
What startled me immediately was Mitchell’s approach to sound - not only the use of little instruments as a way of opening up the palette to include textures outside the boundaries of tonal music, but also the sound of his horn(s), in particular, the alto saxophone. It took a minute (not unlike my first experiences of Jackie McLean) to get close to his negotiation with pitch. But very soon I began to understand that Mitchell was using pitch as device for expression, in addition to adding microtonal elements as a compositional tool. I also appreciated his use of repetition - as a tool that can be remnant of minimalism - in terms of form and subject, but also as a tool to posit an emotional force to be reckoned with - a tool very different from the sounds you find in late Coltrane, but teeming with a similar commitment and passion.
Years have passed and I have continued to keep my sights on Mr. Mitchell - in my experience, he is still as vital as he ever was - still continues to challenge himself to further explore the question of what is music, and he continues to inspire players of all generations. Along with Sonny Rollins, Roscoe Mitchell is probably my all-time favorite saxophonist (for different reasons, obviously). I cannot underestimate his influence in my work - it can be hard to exist outside the sphere of his influence, in fact. Every time I think I’ve stumbled into something new on the saxophone, I often find that he has uncovered my discovery long ago.
I feel fortunate to live in the same time period with Roscoe Mitchell - to have been able to hear him so many times in performance, to have called upon him as a mentor, and to have shared some valuable conversations about music and improvisation. I am thankful for his generosity - not only for myself, but for all the music he has given to the world.
Wally Shoup is a compelling and passionate saxophonist and veteran free improvisor,having been involved in playing and organizing since 1974. He is among a handful of Americans who have devoted themselves exclusively to the practice of free improvisation.
Seattle-based Paul Hoskin began playing contrabass clarinet in the summer of 1985. Utterly self-taught, his reed playing life started in the fall of 1980—c melody saxophone, then clarinet, and the bass clarinet exclusively by the spring of 1981. Baritone saxophone added in the spring of 1984. Hoskin performs (and performed) extensively throughout the United States and Europe.
Wally: I first heard Roscoe’s alto playing on Sound and Les Stances a Sophie. It was bracing - a potent combination of edginess, intelligence and committment.
Paul: My name is Paul Hoskin. Clarinetist/saxophonist. Seattle resident. I purchased Roscoe Mitchell’s Nonaah in the winter of 1982. Have listened to [and played it] countless number of times.
History: Hoskin was a student at Oberlin College from 1976 to 1980. My initial Art Ensemble of Chicago performance experience. Fall of 1979. The one-person department of African-American music [Wendell Logan] at the Oberlin Conservatory had a required performance for all his students to attend. The Finney Chapel was “packed” for the performance. Yet, many were there via the requirement—-attend through set one. Thus, the end of set one— Joseph Jarman plays sopranino saxophone, Roscoe Mitchell plays E flat soprano clarinet—full volume, upper register work. Lester Bowie is dancing, Malachi Favors and Don Moye are bowing….bass and cymbals. The final ten minutes (or so it felt) of set one. Jarman introduces set two—after two-thirds of the audience has left—as a thank you. “We now know who is devoted to our music; we shall be devoted to you.” Two hour set of stellar improvisation. One year (or so) before I begin to play.
Second experience: Hoskin is living in Seattle 1984. Vending smoking material. Art Ensemble arrives for an extended stay at the Rainbow Tavern. A former Chicagoan puts Lester Bowie in touch—Lester visits my warehouse loft while I am listening to Cecil Taylor trio. A Jimmy Lyons solo. (Lyons’ constant cigarette smoking is quite known, a signature.) Lester: “Y’know sometimes it’s oral fixation, man.” One of the key thoughts of my life. At the Rainbow, Roscoe was so pleased by the material, he offers to give me lessons if I care to visit Madison, WI. One of my mistakes—-I do not do it.
Addenda: In 1992, Hoskin does a solo performance at an oyster bar in Jackson, Mississippi. Am playing alto saxophone at that time. Another musician is sitting at the back of the room, listening carefully. When I finish, he approaches. A pharmacist living in Meridian, Mississippi. Alvin Fielder—an AACM percussionist from many years past—asks me how many years have I studied with Roscoe Mitchell. I tell him that I have listened to Roscoe’s work (and played Nonaah), yet I have never studied with him. Further compliments and utter disbelief follows. I return the compliment. The Roscoe Mitchell Sextet Sound (Alvin is the percussionist) recording has always been formative.
William Parker is a master musician, improviser, and composer. He plays the bass, shakuhachi, double reeds, tuba, donso ngoni and gembri. He was born in 1952 in the Bronx, New York. He studied bass with Richard Davis, Art Davis, Milt Hinton, Wilber Ware, and Jimmy Garrison. He entered the music scene in 1971 playing at Studio We, Studio Rivbea, Hilly’s on The Bowery and The Baby Grand, playing with many musicians on the avant-garde school Bill Dixon, Sunny Murray, Charles Tyler, Billy Higgins, Charles Brackeem, Alan Silva, Frank Wright, Frank Lowe, Rashid Ali, Donald Ayler, Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons, Milford Graves and with traditionalists like Walter Bishop, Sr. and Maxine Sullivan.
Is one of the most unique musical thinkers in the world. He has been able to develop a highly personal yet universal language of sound. By universal I am referring to any truth that can relate to an entire civilization to be rare and wonderful. Roscoe is the history of the ancients who are also the future and the living now. Committed to speech to the poem to the grand theatre of always aware of ‘People In Sorrow” committed to music to the aspiring age of Sound and Silence Rhythm and Blues connected to synapse of revolutionary thought.
Enjoy this little taste of magic from CavityFang, the newest addition to the T&C roster.
CavityFang was dreamed into creation by Bay Area keyboardist/composer Michael Coleman. While onstage at the Hollywood Bowl backing the experimental pop group tUnE-yArDs along with three exceptional drummers, Jordan Glenn, Hamir Atwal, and Sam Ospovat, Coleman had a revelation. He saw that by combining the musical power of these three he could create a truly demented jazz sound never before heard by human ears.
The CavityFang suite takes the listener on a sonic journey exploring the multifarious functions of the drumset and an array of musical traditions. If you listen carefully, you will hear the influence of Free Jazz, Captain Beefheart, Haitian carnival music, Jimi Hendrix, and Ligeti as well as Coleman’s own distinct musical language developed through work with his trio, Beep, and his quartet, Arts & Sciences.
Along with Coleman (on vintage synthesizers and organs), Glenn, Atwal, and Ospovat (on vibraphone, drums, and percussion), the group is rounded out by virtuosic guitarist Ava Mendoza and the inimitable Cory Wright on baritone saxophone. Their debut album, “Urban Problems,” was recorded and mixed by Bay Area legend Eli Crews (tUnE-yArDs, Deerhoof, Ben Goldberg) at Tiny Telephone and New, Improved Recording.
For those of you in the Bay Area don’t miss a special “advance-release show” on May 12th at the Swarm Gallery in Oakland. “Urban Problems” hits the streets officially on July 2nd.
Randy Pingrey is a Boston-based trombonist and composer. An active participant in many genres of music, he has performed and recorded in New York and Boston with jazz musicians like Frank Carlberg, Bill McHenry, Anthony Coleman, and Jerry Bergonzi, with indie rock bands like Bon Iver, Akron Family, and Land of Talk, and with classical musicians like Norman Bolter, John Faieta, and Doug Wright.
Randy is a graduate of New England Conservatory and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and writes music which combines his love for improvised jazz music and the American experimental music tradition.
One day, when I was a kid growing up in Wisconsin, I got this documentary from the library: “The World According to John Coltrane”. What struck me more than anything was a segment at the end of the movie with Roscoe Mitchell playing soprano saxophone. He was playing solo, outside by the side of a stream in Morocco. What he plays in the clip is so beautiful and so expressive and it totally matches the vibe of the environment he’s in. Because of that moment I started to check out his recordings - I remember the solemn beauty of Leola, the first track on Nine to Get Ready, and I remember the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Nice Guys album making big impressions on me.
A few days later, I mentioned to my mother - who is a professional harpist - that I was checking out Mitchell’s stuff. Imagine my surprise when she went to her file cabinet and pulled out a harp part that she had played with him in the early 90’s. At the time he was living in the Madison area, and I remember going through the phone book and finding him in the White Pages. He even lived in the same neighborhood as my grandparents! That blew my mind, although I never worked up the chutzpah to call him.
Like that little stream in Morocco might carve out a groove in the rock gradually over the millennium, each note Mitchell plays has that same perfectly beautiful sense of timelessness. Mitchell’s melodic lines really are the best in the business, and the care he gives to the whole sound envelope is indicative of a heroic attention to detail. This is exactly what I love about “Nonaah” too. Every moment is its own masterpiece.
Saxophonist Dan Plonsey performs his own music and music of others frequently in the Bay Area and beyond in a wide variety of contexts, including Anthony Braxton’s tentet (a DVD of 6 hours of music released in 2005); John Shiurba’s 5x5; TriAxium West (a cooperative group devoted to the music of Anthony Braxton); John Schott’s Diglossia ensemble; Ben Goldberg’s Brainchild; and Eugene Chadbourne’s Insect & Western ensembles. Since 1978, Plonsey has written hundreds of works for large and small ensembles including Daniel Popsicle, his 10-20 person ensemble of unfixed instrumentation.
I don’t remember there being a single moment when I decided to become a composer — from this vantage point thirty-five years later I just remember a lot of pushes and pulls in that direction: certain pieces of music that went beyond being merely beautiful to actually talking to me, beckoning me in. At twenty, I knew nothing about modern music, but had a roommate who did. He played me Stockhausen, Kagel, Ives, Messiaen, Schoenberg, et al. At first I thought he was crazy, but I was shy, hadn’t made many friends, had nothing better to do than listen to this stuff hour after hour. As a saxophonist, I started to explore the jazz avant garde about which my classical roommate knew and cared nothing. My first discoveries were Sun Ra, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. And then just when compositional ideas had begun to emerge from wherever they emerge from, there was this article about Roscoe Mitchell’s “Nonaah,” accompanied by that great photo of him from the cover in which he’s staring at you with his boot (or is it a hushpuppy?) in your face. I bought the album, and listened to the sax quartet over and over. I consider myself extremely fortunate that it is this composition that I glommed onto as a beginning composer, the piece that baby me recognized as one of my musical parents. I had written a small set of non-instrumental conceptual pieces, but the first instrumental piece that I would ever write would be the “Alto Saxophone Quartet.”
It would be impossible to list everything that I’ve learned from Nonaah, but I’m going to try to say a few things below. But first, I want to recognize what I’ve learned from Roscoe Mitchell himself.
I attended the Creative Music Studios summer session in 1979, which was directed by Roscoe. My approach to music was closer to the analytical than to the intuitive, and it took me a while to process everything that was happening there. Roscoe didn’t talk much: he led us through several of his pieces. We played one, “Rhythm,” a post-bop piece based on rhythm changes, over and over and over. He had it in all twelve keys. He told us to practice more. “When?” someone asked. “Wake up at six and practice then,” he told us. “At six? That would annoy everyone!” Roscoe glared at him. “Not if you’re doing it right,” he said. I learned that his own practice regimen is very strenuous, beginning with hours of long tones before anything else.
Roscoe didn’t tell us much about his own compositional process, but I remember two things: He said that he often had five or more compositions going at once. “Then, no matter what idea I get, it will fit into one of the compositions.” He also said that Nonaah was not a single piece, but a gradually evolving concept, which was emerging as pieces for various ensembles. I believe he was working on a Nonaah for cellos. (On June 7, 1998, I would play the alto sax quartet “Nonaah” with Roscoe, and Steve Adams and Jon Raskin of ROVA at Beanbenders, in Berkeley. By then it was a very different piece.)
I also learned a very important purpose for composition for an improviser: to help avoid and defeat the tendency to repeat oneself, or to sink into cliché. Thus, I came to believe that one purpose of the extended repetition of the first bar of “Nonaah” was to hold off reaching improvisation for as long as possible. And Roscoe’s “Cards” made you switch instruments every couple seconds, before you could do much damage to the piece. And a decade later I would learn from Roscoe that his reluctance to talk much about music stems from belief that we are all students of music: we are all in the process of learning.
Now about Nonaah itself. Begin with the name. Who is Nonaah? “No” and “nay”: a double negative, which is sometimes a positive, other times an intensified negative. It was the first I knew of the practice of assigning of a mythic or archetypal character to a work.
The extreme use of repetition, interesting in itself, interesting in how it radically destabilizes the form. Interesting also that no matter how many times I hear that prickly five-beat theme I can never quite get to its center. I’d be happy to have it repeat twice as long!
The use of non-tempered intonation: has anyone made a detailed study of Roscoe Mitchell’s intonation? Is there a system? The slow second movement is full of impossible chords. When I would listen to this with classical composer friends, we would look at each other and say: “How would you notate that?”
The decision to write for four altos, rather than for a traditional sax quartet allows for an equality in the counterpoint, and makes the hocketing in the third movement more subtle. No instrument or player has more or less of a lead role.
The big melodic leaps and consequent voice-crossing act to de-stabilize the counterpoint, and no person is limited in register.
In my opinion, composition clearly wins the battle with improvisation in this piece, the improvisation acting as a relief from the compositional extreme. I like that the transition between the two is fairly quick, and just slightly ambiguous.
The contrasting character of the movements is very classical. There are also moments of apparent reference to even older music (“ancient to the future”), in the hocketing, and in some of the cadences.
As for Roscoe’s playing: his style, his sound… Aughhh! I can’t begin to describe the original and ongoing impact of his approach to the saxophone upon me! In live performance, I have thought exactly as Joe Morris: this is what hearing Coltrane live would have been like. The impatience, the ferocity, and the desire to go beyond that which is controllable.
—Dan Plonsey, April 3, 2013, El Cerrito, CA, USA
Tom Djll is a composer, improviser, and occasional writer on music. He is the recipient of a Masters degree from Mills College in Electronic Music as well as a Deeploma from the Deep Listening Organization, and was awarded the Paul Merritt Henry Prize for Composition at Mills. Djll’s group improvisation project Grosse Abfahrt enters its 10th year with recordings and performances with MKM, Frank Gratkowski, Lê Quan Ninh, Frederic Blondy, John Butcher, Fred Frith, Annette Krebs, Boris Baltschun, Serge Baghdassarians, Matthieu Werchowski and David Chiesa alongside core members Gino Robair, Tim Perkis, John Shiurba and Matt Ingalls. Djll’s reminiscences about studying under Roscoe Mitchell can be seen in the film Noisy People, released in 2007.
I first encountered Roscoe Mitchell at Karl and Ingrid Berger’s Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, at the 1978-79 New Year’s Intensive with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and again, the next summer, where he led a Composer’s Intensive that lasted five weeks and brought in other AACM artists such as Leo Smith, Anthony Braxton, and George Lewis. Every other day, he’d lead the student orchestra through his composition Nonaah, which I already knew from the Nessa recording. The version we played was scored for ‘cello quartet, but Roscoe took the players through it, reassigning parts and re-orchestrating it. On alternate days, the thirty-odd of us would freely improvise under his direction.
Those were challenging sessions. Roscoe placed himself behind a red table with just a stopwatch, the student players seated in a semicircle around him. He was a tiny figure, but his presence filled us with awe and respect. He’d bring his hand up and give a downbeat. At first, everyone jumped in. He stopped us after a few seconds, then waved another downbeat. The soundscape would again quickly devolve into a free-for-all, and he’d stop us again. The message soon made itself clear: You don’t all have to start playing when the space for creating sound is opened. Listen first. And if you don’t offer anything that builds, extends or complements what’s happening, lay out.
Slowing the process of improvisation down to something more like the pace of scribbling notes on paper revealed immense lessons for Roscoe’s students. First, that improvisation is composition (or, as Schoenberg said, composition is improvisation slowed down). Further, improvisation is fundamentally about listening. It’s a reflective process before it is an expressive process. Roscoe put forward the grounding lesson that making music is very serious stuff, and demands a microscopic level of attendance to the moment. As I look back, I see in his manner of pedagogy that Roscoe embodied another fundamental teaching that reaches across those thirty-four years with a resonance: Simplify your materials and methods, and let complexity arise out of the interactions that naturally follow.
Finally, group improvisation is a process owned and stewarded by community. Roscoe cared deeply about the ensemble as a functioning unit of people engaged in a common cause. Out of that naturally arises a sonic ecosystem that feeds and inspires everyone within. He taught us how to listen to the entire soundscape and how to place our sounds in a way that kept it alive and meaningful for everyone, not just as a backdrop for one person’s heroic solo. In this way the act of making group music can be a kind of perfect place, a utopia on Earth, if only for a little while. It’s enough for a lifetime.
Thank you, Roscoe Mitchell.