Expanded Expansion 3

Roscoe Mitchell at Mills College: Daniel McKemie

Zeena Parkins

Interview with Daniel McKemie1

DMI studied with Roscoe during my whole time at Mills, and we primarily discussed early music, Baroque music, and orchestration. I also played several concerts of his orchestra pieces and some of his chamber works on timpani and percussion, so I had a fairly good idea of what his style was and where he was going with orchestration. 

Roscoe called me to do a transcription from the Conversations trio record. This was originally for the Tectonics Festival in 2015 in Iceland. They commissioned Roscoe to do an orchestral work, and he chose to explore transcribing improvisations to create a suite. I chose Ride the Wind

ZPI know because Christopher Luna said he wanted to do that one!

DMYeah, it was a lot more electronics, slow moving, really subtle. I dove into that and was transcribing in the best way I thought possible for the recording. That was in the late winter, 2014. I remember because I was in Canada, and it was freezing, snowing, everywhere. I did a lot of that transcription in a car ride from Toronto to Montreal and back. The gig was in the spring, and I think it was about February when Roscoe called. He said we’ve got to take this transcription and now write it for this huge orchestra. 

When working on the orchestrations, I found he had these very particular combinations of color that I wouldn’t expect. For example, in Noncognitive Aspects of the City for orchestra and voice, he had these passages for tubular bells and flute that worked so well. Usually, I would expect glockenspiel and flute or piccolo, and instead it was these really subtle tubular bell passages there. 

I would go to Roscoe’s house once a week. We’d go through the pieces and what he was doing. Chris [Luna-Mega] was going to school in Virginia at that point; he and I talked often about the process, too. I was right back into this mode of working with Roscoe, talking about orchestration, working on this big project, and it was all so fresh. 

Around the time my movement was close to finished, he called me and said he needed me to go to Iceland. He said, “I would love your guys’ help rehearsing the orchestra and being another set of ears.” From there it became a real group effort with Roscoe leading the vision. 

ZPHow did you transcribe the electronics? There’s already a lot of you in there, the way you hear and understand electronics, even though you are staying true to Roscoe’s sensibilities. What were the issues for you, in doing it? 

DMYeah, that’s a great question. So, with Ride the Wind, there are these drawn out, droning electronics. To try and capture those timbres, I took the approach of the spectralists, especially Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail, and I did a lot of spectral analysis of the recording and picking out the harmonics on the piano. I stacked these harmonics on top of each other to have these bands of frequencies with the goal of mirroring the sound that Craig Taborn achieved on the record.

ZP. . . like making a graphic EQ in sounds?

DMRight! Doing the analysis in SPEAR [Sinusoidal Partial Editing Analysis and Resynthesis software], I got the spectrogram and saw the most prominent frequencies. Then, to fill additional space in the orchestra, I would grab the partials of the most prominent frequencies and sprinkle them throughout. The challenge was segmenting the parts to distinctively reference each player on the record. For example, Craig is doing an electronics part and then Roscoe enters. I would ask myself: “How do you distinguish Craig’s part from Roscoe’s without simply stacking more notes?” This is where being mindful of the instrument groups of the orchestra was so important. Roscoe worked similarly, in that he’s really taking into consideration the color of that moment as opposed to first constructing a melody or counterpoint. He would focus on the vertical stacks of the orchestra. 

ZPWas there a lot of divisi writing? 

DM. . . for mine, not a ton. Any divisi was used to support the strings against the winds and brass, who sometimes played simultaneously. There were also certain parts in the percussion section that were quite important: the crotales, cymbals, and sustaining metals. The drum parts were spread across the section, and they sort of took this semi-improvisational approach to it that worked great.

ZPYou did the transcriptions on your own, and then Roscoe invited you to do the orchestration. Would you have meetings with him and go through your work-in-progress?

DMHe asked me to do a transcription, and I was just about finished when he asked me to orchestrate. But I don’t think he had seen the transcription yet. It was very organic. He was the creative director you could say, but it was rare that he would shoot down ideas, if he did at all. It was a lot of back and forth.

ZPHe wasn’t micro-managing. 

DMNot at all. We were all working together to faithfully re-create what was captured on the record. But, as things often go, it evolved, and the goal became to get something that sounded good and was interesting. 

ZPSo, just a little bit about that first meeting with the orchestra . . . you had a week working with Ilan Volkov, which is a luxury. You were translating an improvisation, trying to make something that is alive and flowing and vibrant in all respects—sonically and spiritually—into a composed composition for an orchestra. When you finally heard the orchestration for the first time, do you remember what it was like? 

DMI had never had a piece of that scale performed or read before. I was just kind of floored for a minute. The orchestra is an institution, and their general approach or attitude about new music can be a challenge. Thankfully, the percussion section was the engine of the whole thing. They were signed on and really made their presence known during rehearsals. I also scored the piece to be 60 bpm, in mostly 5/4, so it was very easy to align the time of the record with the score and alleviate the heavy demands on counting.

ZPWhat were the adjustments you had to make once you heard it live? 

DMThe sustained metals in the percussion needed adjustment. At first, they were sort of improvising, but it was clear they needed to be locked in to what was on the page. I most often deferred to Ilan’s suggestions bringing the piece to life. We had discussed nuances both in and out of rehearsal times, which was an amazing experience on its own. A lot of changes were centered on exaggerating everything: dynamics, articulations, tempo fluctuations, and so on. There were also these mini-cadenzas with soloists that would emerge in the work. As the piece unfolded, it was almost like the baton was being passed around momentarily, and Ilan was very into this sort of group effort toward driving the piece.

ZPWas there improvisation?

DMIn the score no; it was all completely notated. But there were these passages that would belong to certain players, and when we got to rehearsal, we were into letting the players run with it a bit. Most of them didn’t, though. There were a few players in the orchestra that were very much into Roscoe’s music, knew it well, and knew where to go. 

ZPCan you say then how it worked when you went to different orchestras?

DMThe Montreal-Toronto Art Orchestra was twenty players assembled between the two cities. I did the same piece, Ride the Wind. This group was made up of players that knew Roscoe’s music very well. The instrumentation was wide ranging, with the biggest difference being that they had dedicated drum set and vibraphone players. So, the sustained metal parts went to vibes and crotales, and the percussion parts were truncated for drum set. The piano took on a lot of what the harp played and filled out some of the notes that had to be pruned otherwise. 

We just had a lot of fun with this group. We had five rehearsals over five days—a few hours each—and we dug into the intangibles of the music at that point. We talked a lot about styles and players, but also a lot about philosophy, art, energy. And there were moments where nothing needed explanation at all, it just happened. The group was incredibly prepared. There were also other people in the space throughout the week—journalists, students, fellow musicians—and that contributed too. It felt as if the environment itself was really being injected into the music. I remember not so much discussion about notes but about ideas and approach and feel.

ZPWould Roscoe say anything? 

DMNot a whole lot. But when he does, it transforms the room. And he usually does it at a moment where you say to yourself, “Okay, I’m going to walk away and think about that for the rest of the weekend.”

ZPDo you remember anything that readjusted your reality? 

DMHe is very big on the idea of being in the moment, or ahead of it. He would expand on this at Mills too, but during the rehearsals in Canada, he would explain that if you’re following while you’re improvising together, then you’re already behind. This really morphed the approach of the group to be much more urgent in their style, but not frantic. It stepped everything up a notch. 

Another moment came at the end of a rehearsal in Iceland. Ilan was pushing the idea for Roscoe to play saxophone over Splatter. Roscoe was very unsure about the idea because he was also playing a solo concert during the festival. He voiced concern that he wouldn’t have much more to say if he had to play with the orchestra; it wasn’t part of the plan. That was a pretty impactful moment for me, because you think it’s Roscoe Mitchell, and he can just grab his horn and go. While he certainly can do that, and does, seeing how that process of feelings played out was fascinating. It’s not that he didn’t want to play, because he did play, and it was awesome. 

ZPOkay, then what happened in Berkeley? 

DMThe Berkeley gig didn’t have performances but was a recording session at Fantasy Studios for Wide Hive Records, the same label that put out Conversations. Greg [Howe] at Wide Hive funded the session, and Roscoe hand-picked about a thirty- or forty-person group in the Bay Area. Steed Cowart conducted the group, and the group were all top players in town. A lot of the group had studied or played with Roscoe at some point. 

I transcribed and orchestrated Cracked Roses, which was a shorter piece on Conversations. For that one, there was the least amount of deliberation. We were in such a mode with the process that we felt it would all fall into place, and it did. I also knew most of the players in the group and had written for a lot of them at some point, so it was easy to know what you could throw on the page and how it would get handled.

ZPSo, was it through-composed?

DMThat was all through-composed. I didn’t really want to put any openness in there, because that hadn’t been something we were doing up until that point. If players were taking some liberties with notes, that could sometimes fly, but generally the plan was to still be transcribing and arranging. 

Wilfrido Terrazas, an amazing flute player from Mexico—now based in San Diego—came up on an invitation from Roscoe, and they did a lot of improvising together. He was featured as a soloist on a couple of the pieces. Over the course of a couple of days, we recorded the large ensemble pieces, and in the breaks between, Roscoe and Wilfrido would record some duo stuff. Or Roscoe would pick some players from the group and do a session.

At that point there weren’t a ton of surprises. I worked with Steed on the score, and he did an awesome job of translating all of that to the group. Musically speaking with Cracked Roses, it was more of a piece that fell into place just fine if you followed the notes and markings. 

ZPAnd then have you done anything with him since? 

DMNo, that was it. We talked about doing something with Ensemble Intercontemporain, but to my knowledge, the transcription project was done, and he started in a new direction. 

ZPIs there anything you can say about what your takeaway from all this is, both from the student’s point of view, and then as a colleague? 

DMIt’s one of the highlights of my musical career, for sure. Studying with him as a non-practiced improviser was probably much different for me than some others. I can play some jazz vibraphone, but I came up playing in wind bands and orchestra, and then later new music. Like I said earlier, we didn’t talk much about improvisation except in the context of composition and how to place it in a piece, not necessarily how to do it or practice it. 

Roscoe is really into Telemann, Mozart, and Bach, and I know that stuff from my undergraduate studies. We talked about the classics, rhythm structures, counterpoint, voice leading. It was very different than what one may expect when discussing or studying composition with Roscoe Mitchell. 

Roscoe was also really into John Philip Sousa and wind band music from his time in the Army. After my first year, we put together a group that met in the concert hall to play Sousa marches. We met once a week, and eventually it was about a dozen of us, half of which were faculty in the music department. It was great.

We got more into modern music during my last semester, specifically around orchestration. I was writing a chamber concerto for contrabass clarinet, and there was a lot of work dealing with improvisation and timbre and blending, so we would both bring in books on the subject and talk about what we took from them. Stuff like the Alfred Blatter, Walter Piston, and Samuel Adler books, but also older ones like the Hector Berlioz treatise. We would go through the books and just see how composers would break things open a bit, and then we’d discuss ideas on how to break it open ourselves.

I feel like I’ve taken that attitude out of those lessons to this day, sort of letting the classics inform modern ideas but not run the show. And just going for it, taking the risks. That’s what new music is all about. But I always see him as a teacher. We were collaborators and worked together on a sizable project, but I was always learning from him. And still do! I feel very fortunate to have been able to work alongside him during that time.

1Daniel McKemie is an electronic musician, percussionist, and composer based in New York City. Currently, he is focusing on technology that seeks to utilize the internet and web browser technology to realize a more accessible platform for multimedia art. He is also researching and developing new ways of interfacing handmade circuitry, modular synthesizers, and embedded systems to various softwares both new and old. This recent work has allowed for complex, interactive performance environments to emerge, in which software generates compositional processes and actions in the form of analog signals sent to the hardware, and software that can analyze said signals from the hardware to determine musical behaviors.

Roscoe Mitchell at Mills College: Daniel McKemie