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Performance Mon Apr 26 2010

Nicole Mitchell's Intergalactic Beings

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What happens when extraterrestrials and alien abductions are combined with jazz and spoken word? The result is Intergalactic Beings, flutist and composer Nicole Mitchell's musical performance based on the work of author Octavia Butler.

Here, Mitchell explains how and why she was inspired by the late author and how she musically transformed her books into a different form of art.

Your work is inspired by Octavia Butler, one of the few African-American science-fiction authors in the world. Why do you think this is such an elite group?

It is kind of up to African-American artists to think about the idea of artwork as reflection and it being visionary. For me, the majority of work by black artists is what I call "reflections of the past," meaning we have a great history. But what really inspires me about Octavia Butler is that her work is visionary, and it would be great if more black artists looked towards creating work that inspires us into a different reality rather than reflecting the reality that we already have, which is what I feel a lot of black artists do. What really inspires me about Octavia Butler is that she uses the idea of the future to give us new ways to look at social reality and social issues. She very much connects our history and our present with what we are doing now, and gives us a new way to look at ourselves.

Also, a lot of people have defined her, as well as jazz musician Sun Ra, as "Afrofuturists"--people who took this idea of "intergalactic" music--music that reached back into ancient times and then reached forward and beyond what had ever been done before. That's a concept I've also embraced as a musician. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) also embraced this "ancient to future" concept. It's almost like being a scientist--by using music as a way to experiment with new sounds and understanding the impact it can have and understanding its power to be transformative and inspirational to people. That's what I'm trying to do with Intergalactic Beings out of my inspirations of Octavia Butler.

Besides her ability to fuse social issues with science-fiction, is there anything else that sets Butler apart from the rest?

Octavia Butler was a very provocative writer. Her work--you really can't put it down! There's a certain fascination that all science-fiction brings, but she also puts you in very uncomfortable and emotional places.

How so?

For example, the Xenogenesis trilogy, my work based on her books, is a story about the end of the world, where human beings have gone into nuclear war and the earth is being destroyed. Extra-terrestrials come to save Earth, but have to go through a process of revitalizing everything that is almost dead as a result of our suicidal activity and destructive science (e.g., making nuclear bombs). There is this story of a woman who has been isolated and awakened from a slumber the extra terrestrials put her in, and she experiences being both abducted and dislocated in a new environment that isn't hostile, but it is strange. In some ways, it repels her and her senses and what she's used to. That's an uncomfortable place to be in, but at the same time it's a place that a lot of people have dealt with historically through slavery, colonialism, war, etc. Having to adapt, going through a process of fear and facing challenges is universal and is something we all deal with, but it's not a comfortable place to be. That's where her book takes you and that's what I used in my music after my experience with reading her work.

The heroines in Butler's books are all African-American, something that isn't always prominently featured in the arts--did that also inspire you?

Definitely. In a lot of ways, that's how I feel as one of the few African-American women jazz instrumentalists in music; I mean, there just aren't that many. There are lots of singers, but not a lot of women actually composing and arranging.

Intergalactic Beings is a combination of music and spoken word--how were you able to combine the two?

Well there is some spoken word but there's also text that I've written for the piece that will be included in the show's program. Some of that text will also be cast onto the stage, as well. I have a vocalist who the majority of what she will do is wordless, because I just wanted to get to the emotional core of the expression without using words.

Is there a message you want to send through the show?

Well, I hope it bridges the gap for people to see that jazz can really be presented in a lot of different ways--that's what I want people to come away with. In the whole time I've been a jazz musician, there has always been this argument, "What is jazz?" And it's always put into this little box--the same little box that I think we as African-Americans are put in. There is this concept of self-definition and then there's how society defines you. But African-American culture is broad and diverse and I try to do that with my music. I draw from a lot of different influences that are rooted in the history and legacy of jazz, but philosophically, part of jazz at its core is innovation. And to be able to embrace innovation is a good place to start for audiences and artists because it keeps them open to new things and they can walk away and say, "Hey, that was cool" or "That was different."

Did you ever get a chance to meet Octavia Butler?

I met her at one of Chicago State University's Black Writers' Conferences, and a few months after that, I decided to do the project. I submitted a proposal to Chamber Music America and the day I mailed it was the day she died. I thought I'd get to get her feedback and talk to her. [Her passing] made me feel like I had to do this, whether I got the support or not. I did end up getting a grant from Chamber Music America to do the first chapter of this which was called Xenogenesis Suite.

So Intergalactic Beings is the second component?

Yes, this is chapter two of the Xenogenesis Suite, but it's very different music from the first one. It has a very different theme.

Thank you for telling us about Intergalactic Beings and bringing it to Chicago.

Thank you. I am really looking forward to bringing the show to the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Catch Nicole Mitchell and her Black Earth Ensemble at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 211 E. Chicago, Friday, April 30, at 7:30pm. Tickets for the performance are $20-$25; $10 for students (based on availability). For more information, contact MCA's box office at 312-397-4010 or visit

Photo by: Lauren Deutsch

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