A World of Afrofuturism: Creating Nicole Michell’s “Xenogenesis Suite” (Part II)

Interview conducted by Rob Thornton: This is Part Two of an interview with avant-jazz composer and flutist Nicole Mitchell, who paid tribute to Octavia Butler in 2008 in her composition Xenogenesis Suite. For more information, see Part One. SPOILER WARNING: This part of the interview assumes that you have read the Xenogenesis Trilogy or don’t mind knowing its entire plot.

Rob Thornton: You have talked about the darkness and the complexity of Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy. How does your piece reflect the novels?

Nicole Mitchell: Xenogenesis is an intricate trilogy expressing a metamorphosis of humanity through the interbreeding of extraterrestrials. It exposes our lack of self love, and illuminates Butler’s vivid world of other beings more powerful than humans, while documenting a journey of human survival and resistance. I focused on Dawn for Xenogenesis Suite. I was fascinated with the concept of Lilith being stripped of our homeland and her having to work towards continual survival in an alien world, alone. I created my own narrative inspired by Butler’s story, which served as the foundation of my compositions. You can include some of this below, if you wish.

1. Wonder

In wonder, there is beauty, and in wonder there is power. The power can be equally beautiful and horrific as is the power of humans to be so creative and equally destructive to planet Earth and ourselves. There is a wonder to our intelligence to build societies, study and imitate nature through inventions, and a wonder to our immaturity expressed by our inability to hold life sacred.

2. Transition A

If everything you had known is no longer, and you were placed in a seamless space, what would you feel? The space breathes; you are in the bellow of a monster. How would you find comfort i the unknown, knowing that your state of terror can only be temporary, if you are to survive. The space breathes again, adn you awaken. There is NO WAY OUT and NO WAY Back to what you have known. The only way to survive is to be altered.

3. Smell of Fear

There is a smell of fear. A loud and indistinguishable smell that sticks to its victim. It is residue from the canal between LIFE and DEATH. When on nears the death experience, through accident or tragedy, but is saved on the side of life, she survives with the residue, the smell of fear.

4. Sequence Shadows

When one keeps trying to wake from a dream, but the dream is of the past life. Now you have awakened and try to accept the alien environment that is around you. you have entered a new and strange realm. One awakens to sequences shadows; the eyes cannot grasp the horrific strangeness it sees, so it sees sequence shadows. The new reality dances a strange dance and the human must breathe and accept this new vision in the eyes.

5. Oankali

The names of your caretakers on this new journey. Find humor in your capturers, identify with them, so that you can save your mind. 

6. Adrenalin

There’s nowhere to run, in a small space with no windows or doors, but the mind can find a place. Every once in a while, it can search for an opening somewhere, for peace, for the return of memory, of familiar. Where is this place? It is in waterside walks with family, sunshine and good food. The Earth is dead. Only in the mind can this place survive. In our Dreams we will run there.

7. Transition C 

Eventually, in your process of survival, you allow yourself to be altered, changed, improved by the unknown beings.

8. Before and After

Before being captured, before WAR and the destruction of the life we knew and loved, there were our busy lives. We were unaware and unappreciative of the simple things we loved. Then the explosions, the WAR, the suicide of humans. After, there is nothing. Nothing that we know. Just the unknown.

9. Dawn of a New Life

There is something after, the Dawn of a New Life. Only fragments of the past linger. Our memory altered, overwhelmed with new experiences, interacting with new and repulsive but fascinating beings. Together we enter the Dawn of a New Life.

RT: What method did you use to compose the Xenogenesis Suite? Did you compose for the Black Earth Ensemble or for a set of instruments? 

NM: I composed the work for Black Earth Ensemble, my main compositional vehicle. For each project, I choose specific artists who I imagine to manifest the project. For Xenogenesis, Mankwe Ndosi, the vocalist, played a central role, because I imagined her to represent Lilith, as a lone human within a strange extraterrestrial world that the other instruments would represent. I refrained from having her use a lot of language, because without it, her sounds expressed raw emotions ranging from innocence to terror. In that state, the expression of emotions through sounds without words, can also sound very alien, so the idea was to have her simultaneously represent the human element and the extraterrestrial element at the same time.  I used a hybrid score, including graphic notation and traditional notation. My handwritten score translated more to the vibe I wanted for the musicians, and the text I gave you above was a guide for them as well.

RT: When you introduced the Suite to the Black Earth Ensemble, what was their reaction?

Xeno was probably the most experimental of my projects at that time, so there were slight challenges. However, I worked with musicians that I trusted and that trusted me, because I was having them do things for this project that were often counter-intuitive, to illuminate what I was trying to express. For example, Dawn of a New Life, the last movement, would sound fantastic with a hiphop beat, but that’s not what I wanted. Marcus Evans, the drummer, had to resist that urge, to express the restrained intensity that I was seeking with the piece. 

RT: What was it like to perform the Xenogenesis Suite live? How did the audience react? Did it change when the Suite was recorded?

NM: We actually made the record at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, the day before the premiere at the Vision Festival in New York. It was a bit intense to perform it live, because the musicians really had to trust me even more in front of an audience, to resist some of the ways they normally play. But it went really well and the audience loved it.

RT: In “Before and After,” I hear some instrument (probably the piano) do a superb imitation of a nuclear weapon. Do you recall how that came about?

NM: I’m glad you heard that, because that was my intention. Actually, all the instruments are doing that sound together and it’s written in the score. The full title is “Before and After Nuclear War.” The musicians also have sections in that piece were they create animal sounds with their instruments, as well as cries for help. Butler’s Dawn speaks of nuclear war as the catalyst for the extraterrestrials to swoop down and save Earth and to take over humanity.

RT: For people who are not immediately familiar with avant-jazz sounds, could you give some advice to them on listening to the Suite?

NM: I found that science fiction is the perfect companion for experimental jazz and creative music, because both take the audience on a journey into the unknown. I’m grateful that musicians and audience members have shared with me that they started reading Octavia Butler after learning about this music. Hopefully it can be listened to while reading. 

RT: You composed the Suite back in 2008. Looking back at the piece today, how do you feel about it? 

NM: I still feel really great about the piece. This year, in 2022, it was incredible to perform Xenogenesis Suite at Carnegie Hall and receive a standing ovation, during the Afrofuturism Festival in February. I think when I wrote it, people weren’t as interested in Afrofuturism as they are now, and it is rewarding to see people’s interest increase now.

Epilogue (Nicole)

I wanted to add a few things….

Octavia Butler. Photo by and © Andrew I. Porter; all rights reserved.

Since Xenogenesis Suite, I created two additional suites of music for Octavia: Intergalactic Beings on FPE Records, which sonically revisits Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy, and EarthSeed, which was released in 2020 on Octavia’s birthday, inspired by Parable of the Sower. EarthSeed was a collaboration with Lisa E. Harris, where we created our own EarthSeed spiritual text, inspired by Olamina in the book. In 2017, I released Mandorla Awakening, which is an album inspired by my own Afrofuturist novella.

I really appreciate you interviewing me, because for a long time I’ve wanted to be more engaged with Octavia Butler scholars on the literary side. I know she would want us to be all connected.

 

A World of Afrofuturism: Meet Nicole Michell’s “Xenogenesis Suite” (Part I)

Nicole Mitchell

Interview conducted by Rob Thornton: Critic Mark Dery created the term “Afrofuturism” in his influential essay “Black to the Future” (1993). In the essay, he included an extensive interview with Samuel R. Delany and pointed to Black visions of the future throughout the world, including musicians such as Sun Ra and Parliament-Funkadelic who used science fiction tropes in their music. Afrofuturism in music has continued since 1993 with Black artists such as Janelle Monae, Kool Keith, Deltron 3030, Juan Atkins, Jeff Mills, and other Black artists such as Erykah Badu and Missy Elliot using futuristic elements in their performances.

Another contributor to the Afrofuturist tradition is Nicole Mitchell, a noted avant-jazz composer and flutist. She chose to take on Octavia Butler’s most challenging works, the Xenogenesis Trilogy, and create the Xenogenesis Suite, a collection of dark and disturbing compositions that reflect the trilogy’s turbulent and complicated spirit.

She has been president of Chicago’s legendary avant-jazz organization the Association of the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Influential jazz magazine Down Beat named her a Rising Star in flute from 2004 through 2009. Currently she teaches jazz at the University of Pittsburgh and leads her group the Black Earth Ensemble.

(Note: Given the care in which Nicole gave to her answers, the email answers are provided nearly verbatim with only minimal editing.)

Rob Thornton: How were you introduced to Octavia’s works and what was your initial reaction to them?

Nicole Mitchell: I grew up reading Octavia Butler’s books off my mother’s bookshelf when I was a youth. My mother, Joan Beard Mitchell (JBM) was a self-taught Afrofuturist painter and fiction writer, so at home, I was surrounded with visionary paintings. Two images that come to mind is one with Black women cradling their infants while sitting on planets, and another with a landscape featuring three setting suns on an unknown planet.  JBM was brilliant creative person from Chicago, who happened to be from the same generation and have much synergy with the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), whom I would become a part of later in life.

JBM was a big fan of Octavia’s work and had lots of her books, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Octavia had inspired her leanings towards writing sci-fi. On the other hand, my father, Michael E. Mitchell, had always shared his obsession with UFO’s with the family. He believed that there were people from outer space that were much more advanced than humans, and that our life on Earth was a school. My dad had moved us to southern California in the 1970s, partly so that he and my mother could connect with what they believed was a movement of people working to advance spiritual consciousness. They were of a very small group of African Americans involved in the New Age movement. So at my home, I was immersed in a world where Butler’s fiction really came alive and made sense.

RT: Why did you choose the Xenogenesis Trilogy as a source of inspiration?

NM: I had moved to Chicago, the place of my mother’s roots, back in 1990, to continue her artistic legacy. JBM (my mom) had left the planet in 1982 when I was a teenager, and I translated her mission into my own by seeking to make music that “bridges the familiar with the unknown.”  As JBM had been a self-taught poet and fiction writer, I gravitated to Third World Press (TWP), founded by Haki Madhubuti, and spent many years working there. I become a cultural mentee of Haki and Safisha Madhubuti’s Institute of Positive Education (IPE) complex, while simultaneously mentoring with musicians of the AACM, including Maia, Shanta Nurullah, George Lewis and Douglas Ewart. In 2006, met Octavia Butler when my Black Earth Ensemble performed for Chicago State University’s National Black Writer’s Conference, organized by Haki Madhubuti. In the moments that I met Octavia, her powerful, yet quiet and gentle mysterious presence reminded me of my mother, and I immediately had the idea to create a musical tribute for her. 

Dawn was one of the scariest books I have ever read, because it showed me the horrific side of human nature. With Dawn, Octavia opened up a fascination in me to ponder why we as humans are so compellingly creative and yet so incredibly self-destructive. I didn’t want to mimic Octavia’s narrative with my music, but with Xenogenesis Suite, I wanted to explore the process of facing fear, because Lillith was forced to survive in a constant state of horror, isolation, and disorienting circumstances on that space ship. I realize that Octavia was exemplifying real life horrors that humans have committed to each other over thousands of years, and still today. Power is too often abused. Yet, Octavia brilliantly creates fantastical settings to give readers space to see these human flaws more clearly. 

Xenogenesis Suite became a life-altering artistic challenge for me, because in a journey of facing fear, I had to access parts of myself that I was afraid of, and childhood memories where fear dominated. I had to create sounds that illuminated the uncomfortable and the disturbing, which pushed me beyond the boundaries of many of my music listeners’ expectations. (Even though I am a member of the avant garde and experimental side of the “jazz” scene, there remains a lingering expectation that music is supposed to make you feel good).

RT: Chamber Music America commissioned the Suite. How did that come about?

My original intention was to create Xenogenesis Suite in collaboration with Octavia, so that she could give input to my creation of the music. It would be a way to get to know her and to honor her as a living genius. But, literally the day after I turned my proposal to Chamber Music America in the mail, I heard that Octavia had suddenly died. So immediately I decided, whether I got support or not, I was going to do Xenogenesis Suite.

NM: Chamber Music America has a competitive program called New Jazz Works that I submitted my proposal to and I’m grateful that their panel chose to support Xenogenesis Suite that year. It allowed me to be able to fund travel for my eight piece Black Earth Ensemble from Chicago to New York so that we could premiere at the Vision Festival, and it made it possible for us to cover recording costs, travel, hotel and artists fees to record the Xenogenesis Suite album in New Haven for the Firehouse 12 record label.

[Read Part II of the interview tomorrow.]