Editor’s Note: Zeena Parkins—a revolutionary thinker, musician, composer, and educator herself—took the time to interview a number of Roscoe Mitchell’s colleagues and students for this issue. Three of these interviews, with ex-students who worked with Roscoe on the transcription and orchestration of his music for recent large-ensemble events, are featured here with special thanks to William Winant, the Eclipse Quartet, and Roco Cordova, for their deep insights that space forbids including.
These conversations celebrate the collaborative nature of Roscoe’s work, his method of teaching, and his ways of learning from his students. After Parkins’ introduction below, the interviews will be interspersed between other articles to keep the overall text broken down to a digestible size and to give the full due to each of the artists/students that they feature.
Roscoe Mitchell taught at Mills College for twelve years, holding the distinguished Darius Milhaud Chair of Composition. While living in the East Bay, he continued long-term relationships with local artists, like visionary scholar, inventor, composer David Wessel (1942–2014). And, in his never-ending pursuit for locating/divining
musical hotspots, Roscoe formed new working relationships, rehearsal partners, and friendships that generated more great music. It was an extremely productive time for Roscoe.
For everyone at Mills, Roscoe was a force to be reckoned with, always working, always improving. His artistry is focused on self-respect, deep inquiry, curiosity, and an unwavering desire to upend the next challenge. And, of course, there is his legendary four hours-a-day practice regime. He set the bar very high for all of us in the Mills community.
Roscoe always follows the music—music-making at a supreme, uncompromising level. He hears it; he wants to be near it, understand it, interact with it. He commands a reverence. He is a genuine workaholic: practicing alone in his office, giving private lessons to students, or playing Baroque pieces weekly with harpsichordist Belle Bulwinkle (piano faculty, Mills College). He was often spotted in the hallways sporting a dapper suit, or outside sharing a cigarette with Willie Winant or James Fei under the shade of the Eucalyptus trees. During department meetings he rarely said anything, but when asked for an opinion, he gave a clear, insightful response without fail.
The following interviews give a brief look into some of the important relationships that students had with Roscoe while he was living in the Milhaud House in faculty village on the Mills campus. In listening to former students speak about Roscoe, what is most evident is his generosity. Roscoe provided us with the opportunity to be in close proximity to a life lived with rigor, in devotion to music. At Mills, he created a micro-community that swirled around this force of devotion. This offers a starting point to understand the nature of his creative practice, as it passes through resting spots in the between-spaces of pedagogy, improvisation, composition, performance, and documentation.
Here we get a glimpse into the mechanisms of making music as Roscoe sought out different animated points of contact within the Mills community. What were Roscoe’s various strategies for these interactions? How did it work? What’s tricky is that Roscoe often doesn’t say much. He chooses his collaborators carefully and then doesn’t micro-manage. He sits and listens.
While teaching at Mills, a new phase of Roscoe’s career emerged. He started to receive numerous commissions for orchestra pieces. It was an exciting moment, but he was teaching full time and deadlines were often tight. Roscoe chose his source material for many of these new orchestral works from previously recorded improvisations. He had already set a precedent for revisiting earlier works, and transforming them over the course of many years, refusing the notion of an untouchable finished composition. He gave permission for an ongoing engagement with the materials. Within this model, elements of various works are reconsidered, reimagining musical elements from different perspectives. Roscoe used this precedent to investigate how pieces might migrate to other orchestrations and to different kinds of players. What is revealed about the essence of a composition through these translations?
Roscoe was particularly interested in transforming pieces from Conversations I—a collection of improvised compositions by Roscoe Mitchell (saxophones), Kikanju Baku (percussion), and Craig Taborn (piano/electronics)—into orchestral works. In creating the transcriptions and orchestrations, he sought the help of several people around the country, including a number of current and former students from Mills College. With this cross-
generational team, new readings and interventions emerged as these improvisations morphed into their new expanded settings.
As demonstrated consistently throughout his career, Roscoe’s vision resists definitions of what a work can do or should be. By example, Roscoe offered us at Mills new ways to think about teaching, creative processes, and the ever-malleable locations and meanings of improvisation and composition.
Interview with Christopher Luna-Mega1
Chris met Roscoe at Mills when he was a graduate student in the Music Department between 2011–2013.
CLM[Roscoe] knew that I was working with transcriptions and the translation of non-musical events into music for performers. He was teaching the advanced orchestration class, and he invited me to be his TA, which I was super grateful and excited for . . . and financially relieved.
Roscoe was very interested in how I was embarking on the transcription process of something as abstract as water. When working with Roscoe, I always had the feeling that I was talking with a friend. More than feedback, it was the questions he was asking that were allowing me to clarify my processes.
After graduating from Mills, a great saxophonist that was in my class, Josh Marshall,2 emailed me saying, “Roscoe is wondering if you’d be interested in doing a project with him. It’s a project for the Iceland Symphony Orchestra with Ilan Volkov for the Tectonics Festival.” Am I interested!? That is not really a question; it’s an honor. I got the email on December 20th, and I spoke with Roscoe on December 22. He told me we needed to have the score and parts ready by the first week of February. Oh, wow!!! I mean, I’ll give it my best, you know.
ZPThe trio version of Splatter is a spectacular jewel; so dense, so compact. How does one transcribe and translate it into an orchestra piece?
CLMFor the transcription, I needed to create a score that non-improvisers can read; a score you could give to someone that allows them to get into the sonic world that is happening in an improvisation.
ZPDid he say anything about the task or how he wanted you to approach it? He knew about your relationship to transcription, which is very deep already.
CLMHe gave me the details of the players, but he didn’t give me any kind of prompt as far as what needs to happen, or how I should approach it. I was very interested in knowing from a technical point, what was happening in the saxophone, so that I could extrapolate that into the orchestral writing. In my initial vision of the project, I wanted to check with Roscoe and find out how all of the multiphonics were working, what kind of tonguing [he was using], how he created all of these polyphonic moments in Splatter. It’s linear polyphony in the sense of different ranges that are constantly talking to each other. You get the sense of the line because it is constantly being iterated. But with the deadline, reality hits, and we didn’t have the time to meet about what he’s doing in terms of the multiphonics or a particular technique.
ZPWere you familiar with the piece or that trio before you said yes?
CLMI had heard the Conversations record while I was at Mills, because I was getting my feet wet with everything that all of you were doing there. And Roscoe told me that certain pieces were already chosen. I remember, I wanted to do Ride the Wind but Dan (McKemie) had already chosen it. I was very interested in the impossibility [of transcribing an improvisation]. What would be a crazy piece to try to tackle?
I chose Splatter, knowing it would be challenging because of what’s going on in it. On that piece, Craig Taborn is actually not playing piano, he’s playing electronics. But if I achieved what I thought could be achieved with this piece, it would be an incredible experience. And then we went from there.
ZPI was intrigued by the profound difficulty of transcribing Craig’s parts. This is where your skill of translating water or wind came to the fore, because you’re dealing with a translation that is not just identifying the pitches or the rhythm. Perhaps it’s like translating poetry from one language to another, where it is not always possible for a literal one-to-one translation of meaning. Its musicality, and its sensibility.
CLMThe decision of how to deal with that component came at an interesting time, as this project opened the door to automatic transcription for me. In this type of transcription, software identifies the harmonic spectra and their different onsets and offsets. It’s giving you the content of what the software is getting, which oftentimes is different from what the user’s ears perceive. That year, I had just begun getting my feet wet with that. A good friend of mine, Max Tfirn, helped me to devise a patch on MaxMSP to be able to enter Splatter, and it gave me some pitch data of the electronics.
ZPOf course it’s giving you only one aspect of the content.
CLMIt’s giving you, let’s say, undigested sonic data. The ears are still very necessary even with that.
ZPYou are making musical decisions about the content and feeling of the sound based on the data that you have collected, and then you hear how it interacts with the other instruments. It’s very complex.
CLMIt is. The automatic-transcription-derived portion of the score was limited to one section of the piece in which the strings play different clusters. This string material emulated the timbral clouds that Craig was generating in the electronics. It ended up being material that I liked in the piece. It made formal sense, but it didn’t germinate into a process of larger consequences. If I had a year, and maybe some assistance, the full electronics would have been there.
I was happy with the piece. And of course, it became something different than the original Splatter. It felt similar to my translations of nature into instrumental music. The complexity of the noise characteristic in nature is reduced. It’s like a lo-fi version of nature. This is not in a pejorative sense, but in the sense that the complexity is reduced to a degree. This reduction in complexity can actually help the listener understand complex phenomena a little bit better.
The orchestral version of Splatter makes it more intelligible for people who are maybe not used to that kind of sound. I see it as a strength of the piece. But there are some weaknesses as well, because I did not grasp that potency, that energy of the untamed sound. And by untamed, I don’t mean that Roscoe is not taming it—we know how obsessive he is with his sound—it’s more of this wildness that is in the piece . . .
ZPWhat would it take to translate that? You translate wind after all. How do you put a frame or boundary around it to identify and shift it from one context to another?
CLMIt’s still a question that I’m asking myself. If I were to do another improvisation piece, either Roscoe’s or whoever’s, I would probably use notation strategies that are a little bit less determinate.
ZPOkay, so that’s something to talk about, because you’re making a translation between sensibilities, not just between the sounds. When you go into an orchestral environment you encounter musicians who, for the most part, are not improvisers. They’re trained to receive their musical information on fully notated scores, and they are very good at making the translation of those notes on the page into music. What happens when you begin with a piece that was generated from an improvisation. How would you articulate that?
CLMIt’s got many aspects to consider. There are many ways of controlling a sound. I know Roscoe controls his sound in a way that there’s going to be a high degree of noise, but in the conservatory, control means a higher degree of pitch. Pitch is essential. Noise is undesirable.
ZPTell me about working with Ilan Volkov in Iceland. Both you and Roscoe were hearing the orchestral version of Splatter for the first time.
CLMI think we had maybe three rehearsals, and then a fourth was the dress rehearsal. The first rehearsal was intense, because you have to come to terms with the fact that many of the things you have planned are not going to sound. There’s a section of the piece that is more discernible in terms of melodic contour. That material I found very interesting in Splatter, because it was not foregrounded, but it was kind of there. I gave that material to the bassoons. I don’t think it was a good orchestration choice, because I wanted that to be louder. And at least with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, it did not have the body that it needed to have.
I needed some material to be wilder in terms of noise content. And that was the kind of thing that I was trying to convey to Ilan. Roscoe and I thought the piece was feeling a little bit loose in terms of the sound. We needed intensity and punch in the piece, and it was not there. And so Ilan came up with this idea: Roscoe would go on stage and improvise over certain sections of the orchestral version. Roscoe had other compositions that used improvisation, and it was built into the structure of the piece. In Splatter that was not the case, so it was a very tricky thing. Two hours before the concert, Roscoe and I were designing points
ZPSo together you picked three or four places?
CLMExactly. And he just said, “You cue me.” I was sitting in row one giving him signs as I looked at the score.
ZPLike a side conductor! That’s amazing.
CLMIt was a great experience, but I wish that we had the time to actually rework the score. Both Roscoe and I were not very happy with how that worked. We felt like the orchestra got in the way of Roscoe’s improvising, and that he was getting in the way of the orchestral material.
We had different performances of that piece with other orchestras: the Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna and also the performance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.3 I feel like both of those versions had that punch that the pieces needed. In the Bologna version, the conductor was Tonino Battista, and that was for the Angelica Festival. It was a different size orchestra, so there was the ability to have a little bit more gain in their sound. That was one thing, but then another thing was the expressive traits of a culture, a sensibility. The Italians were willing to push their sound a little bit harder, their dynamic range was a little bit wider, and their intensity was louder.
Also, Tonino Battista did a very interesting thing by slowing down the piece considerably. It made the sound bigger. It was very slow compared to my initial idea of tempo, but when I adjusted, it all made sense.
The most successful version of the piece was the one that the Montreal Toronto Art Orchestra performed. Roscoe and I had the luxury of working with the musicians five hours a day for five days. Many of those performers were improvisers. The drummers that we had were improvisers, and they were reading all of the drum sections that I had transcribed from Kikanju (Baku). They said: “We get the idea. How much do you want us to stick to the notation? Or should we just go for it?” I said, absolutely, just go for it. They made it better, because the sound was more visceral, bigger, and free from the temporal grid imposed by music notation. It sounded more in the spirit of what Kikanju was doing. And the actual content didn’t change much.
ZPThat’s a beautiful trajectory from the premiere to finally getting the most successful version where the drummers went off part. What does that tell you?
CLMIf I was to redo this, first it would have to involve musicians that are comfortable with improvisation, and the notation would allow for them to be more in the moment. I remember Roscoe calling me after listening to that version of Splatter.4 This is one of the highlights of my life. He called me in tears, full of excitement. He was very touched, thanking me for the work I had done. Just having Roscoe express that level of excitement with the collaboration was truly a gift.
ZPWhat did you take back to your own work from it?
CLMI have considered many possibilities for the translation of environmental soundscapes into music for performers. The most feasible possibility usually is working with professional musicians who are not improvisers but are able to read quite accurately and provide the environmental sonic translations with their own angle of interpretation. These musicians bring qualities that I often find fascinating and gratifying, even when they deviate from my original conception.
For the task of translating improvisation into notated music for performers, I would prefer to write for ensembles like the Montreal Toronto Orchestra, for an ensemble of improvisers or trained musicians who are comfortable with different sorts of notation, in order to convey certain events—graphic, indeterminate, proportional, text, etc.
On the other hand, for the task of translating complex events of natural and anthropogenic sound, it is ideal to work with performers trained in both conventional and extended notations that allow the most precision. I agree with [Iannis] Xenakis that complex events of nature require very precise notation rather than indeterminacy in order to prevent the stylistic backgrounds of the performers from bleeding into the musical idea. Precise notation for complex events of nature works both as a prescription—as a score—and as a description of the sound.
ZPWhat does that mean for you?
CLMI need to use a notational system that can be flexible depending on the sonic contents. I am protecting the acoustic image that I have analyzed through sonograms, computer-assisted transcription, and my own ears. For example, a bird is creating rhythms happening in fractions of a second which is the filter through which I’m listening to them. Of course, it’s not the bird, it’s me who is listening to that bird. It’s still my aesthetics, and what I think that the world is sounding like. So, notation is a descriptive layer, but it’s also a protective layer. If I use indeterminacy or improvisation, and the original sound source is not fully understood by the performer with her own ear, then the translational work that I’m doing can be easily lost.
ZPSo, what you’re saying is that you need the musicians to adhere to the specificity of the notation. But there’s something about that translation that needs, at least at moments, that kind of openness. So that’s the difference.
CLMRight. And, for my own work, it’s not a clear-cut answer. If you’re dealing with material where there’s a predominance of noise, some degree of improvisation there might portray that
ZPYeah, it’s wonderful. And what an experience.
CLMIt’s been a great project. I felt very happy to be able to participate with Roscoe on that and we had such a long trajectory for performances. We had four performances of the piece. It was wonderful to discuss what the music needed as collaborators.
1Christopher Luna-Mega is a composer and improviser from Mexico City. He is interested in focused listening, instrumental performance strategies, audio technology, and interdisciplinary collaboration. His work analyzes sounds and data from natural and urban environments and translates them into notated music for performers and electronics in various forms of media. These interests and skills which were evident when Chris was still a part of the Mills community, proved immensely useful for Roscoe.
2Roscoe asked Josh to write liner notes to his 2017 release, Discussions. They can be found here: https://www.widehive.com/linernotesdiscussions
3Premiere: April 15, 2016. Iceland Symphony Orchestra, cond. Ilan Volkov. Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik. Subsequent Performances: October, 2016. Montreal-Toronto Art Orchestra, cond. Gregory Oh. Gesù, Montreal, Canada; October, 2016. Montreal-Toronto Art Orchestra, cond. Gregory Oh. The Music Gallery. Toronto, Canada; May, 2017. BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, cond. Ilan Volkov. Grand Hall, Glasgow; May, 2017. Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna, cond. Tonino Battista. Teatro Manzoni, Bologna. From Chris Luna in an email received August 23, 2022.
4The name of the album where this version is featured is Ride the Wind, on Nessa records.