Update at Thu 8/30, 4:30 PM: Due to a family medical emergency, Nicole Mitchell will not perform at the Jazz Festival. The Black Earth Ensemble’s set will go on, led by cellist Tomeka Reid.
I have trouble not thinking of Nicole Mitchell as a Chicagoan. As a flutist whose every gig I couldn’t wait to hear and as the first woman president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, she was a vital spark and independent spirit here for so long—22 years, to be precise—that I still expect to bump into her at a concert or even at the grocery store. She was a community builder and a constant source of positivity. Her presence helped keep Chicago the right scale.
In 2011, Mitchell moved to southern California, where she’d spent much of her childhood, to accept a teaching opportunity at UC Irvine. Before she left, though, she’d started work on a story called “Mamapolis,” which she eventually reimagined and renamed Mandorla Awakening. It evolved into a suite of music embedded in a complex intermedia project, commissioned by Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and premiered there in May 2015. She’ll present a modified version of that 74-minute suite at the Jazz Festival. “I’m so excited to bring Mandorla Awakening home to where it was conceived!” she says, so gleefully that it’s easy to hear how much she misses being here.
Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble: Mandorla Awakening
Thu 8/30, 6:30-7:25 PM, Jay Pritzker Pavilion
Though this project started its life as a text, you still can’t read it. “The novella has not been published,” says Mitchell. “It’s existed as a bit of a myth, because I haven’t released it yet. But what I’ve realized is, what I’m doing with music is storytelling. Narrative has always informed my compositions, even if I don’t share that narrative with the audience.”
Mandorla Awakening has underlying thematic strands of Afrofuturism and global ecofeminism, even in its music, and some of them seem to have been inspired by the heterogenous sounds Mitchell absorbed in Chicago. “It’s a party of many different instruments, some exotic and some familiar,” she explains. “I wanted to explore the idea of diversity and coexistence in new ways through music, partly by creating music that brings together contrasting musical languages.” Working from the novella for an early incarnation of Mandorla Awakening, she’d unpacked its story through video and choreography. “That project was the origin of this experiment of asking, ‘What would an egalitarian, technologically advanced society look like that is in tune with nature?'” When the MCA invited Mitchell to write something new, she continued working in video, initially with fellow Irvine professor Ulysses Jenkins and then with Chicagoan Tatsu Aoki. “Many people love Tatsu as a musician,” she says. “But he’s also a badass experimental filmmaker.”
Mitchell debuted the piece at the MCA with her Black Earth Ensemble, which for the occasion featured Aoki on bass, shamisen, and taiko drums, Reneé Baker on violin, Tomeka Reid on cello and banjo, Alex Wing on electric guitar and oud, Kojiro Umezaki on shakuhachi, Jovia Armstrong on percussion, and Avery R. Young on vocals. (They’ll all appear onstage at Pritzker Pavilion this Thursday too.) Mitchell brought together genres and media into a fully integrated sonic narrative, and the museum performance was recorded and released by FPE Records in 2017 as Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds, with a splendid cover by artist and Eternals front man Damon Locks. It’s as world-colliding as promised, combining pan-Asian instrumentation, free jazz, science fiction, dazzling flute, and electronic processing. Its blend of the extraterrestrial and the earthy recalls Mitchell’s love of Sun Ra.
Mitchell locates Mandorla Awakening in an ongoing stream of her Afrofuturist works. At the Art Institute in 2017, she premiered a new project with composer and singer Lisa E. Harris called Earthseed, inspired by SF writer Octavia Butler; she’s also started a duo called Iridescent with electronicist and vocalist Christina Wheeler. Mitchell just released the album Maroon Cloud with a quartet featuring Reid, singer Fay Victor, and pianist Aruan Ortiz, and she’s playing in what she refers to as a “super magical healing trio” with percussionist Val Jeanty and vocalist Imani Uzuri.
“In this moment, genres are dissolving, but they were really prohibitive silos when the AACM started out,” Mitchell says. “They were able to crack open this idea of black experimental music, stretching people’s minds about what the possibilities of black music can be.” She thinks those possibilities are proliferating elsewhere too: “I’m a total believer in African-American contemporary art and feel super blessed to be part of a strong community that supports that.”
Mitchell is a powerfully upbeat being, as that belief suggests, but that doesn’t mean she’s oblivious to the mounting number of reasons to feel otherwise. “I would say my outlook has become a bit more dystopic since I left Chicago, but that might have happened if I stayed as well,” she says. “It’s a reflection on the world right now. There’s a lot of suffering because of our unwillingness to change our Western lifestyle. Advancements in technology are not raising the quality of human life—they are widening the gap between the rich and poor. Our intent for the well-being of people and the earth needs to be recalibrated.”
The inhabitants of Mitchell’s remote island of Mandorla have a cooperative ethos and communal spirituality, in stark contrast with the selfish, destructive, and ultimately doomed society that dominates the planet—they balance resources and needs, technology and emotion, and human and nonhuman. “I believe in the power of art to give us new perspectives and to envision new possibilities,” she says. “Imagination is our greatest resource for changing things. And music has a big role in that.” v