Expanded Expansion 2

Roscoe Mitchell at Mills College: John Ivers

Zeena Parkins

Interview with John Ivers1

Mills and Roscoe are two forces that acted on each other.

JI A one-minute rundown on my pre-Mills background and how I met Roscoe:

I was at Marlboro College, where I studied music in a more conservatory-like atmosphere. We had three semesters of counterpoint, three semesters of orchestration, a lot of theory, classical composition, hard notation. I wrote papers about timing and structure and form and listening. There’s a time and a place for that, but I was seeking more.

At Marlboro there was strong collaboration between programs, and I was learning physical theater and contact improvisation. I started exploring different creative practices. Some students were doing capstone projects with process-oriented works for body and movement inspired by Deborah Hay. We would meet daily to meditate, improvise, and develop works for months as part of the score. I also regularly began improvising for dance classes. My last year at Marlboro I went to see Pauline Oliveros at Amherst. It was a great show, and I got to talk to her afterwards. We had done some scores of hers, and she was like, “You should go to Mills.”

When I got to Mills you [Zeena] got me back playing clarinet which became a big part of my life. I hadn’t touched the clarinet in a decade. And I jumped into this orchestration masterclass with Roscoe. I had been making money working as an arranger and orchestrator for Bollywood singers. I was really into soft music then, a lot of light-touch harmonics, barely audible; soft and airy was the vibe I was going for. Roscoe heard what I was doing in class during the first semester’s string quartet reading, and asked me if I could work on his piece, Distant Radio Transmission. It was already partially transcribed.

ZP You eventually wrote about Roscoe and your experiences working with him in your thesis paper. That is why it was so important for me to talk to you in particular. I remember the discussion regarding hybrid practice . . . actually, no one else uses that term. Where does it come from?

JI I made it up actually. The point about Roscoe’s work, in hybrid practices, is there’s all these nodes of feedback happening. He might listen to it and re-compose it and then re-improvise over it, or hear something from somebody else and ask us to recreate it. It’s a complicated network of input versus output. His whole creative process is about that network and those connections. A lot of the orchestrations are transcriptions of improvised works, and then they get re-composed with many people in a really complicated way.

ZP From an educational point of view, I was really struck by Roscoe trusting the students. Making a transcription of an improvisation is in essence creating something new. It’s unusual how Roscoe made himself available and permitted this kind of intense lively exchange.

JI It was very much that way. I had a unique experience that I am very grateful for.

I think Roscoe trusted my vision of the landscape generally. I was really in deep, active engagement and knowledge sharing.

ZP One could argue that it’s impossible to transcribe an improvisation.

JI The impossibility of it seemed explicit at the beginning. I was into these sounds—like the air or two minutes of just playing on the bridge—and he was into the fact that I was exploring this sonic world that he was hearing in his saxophone. I listened to it on repeat for maybe twelve hours and asked myself: “What are the air sounds like? How does the instrument, that sopranino saxophone, vibrate with wind and spit?”

ZP Sounds that might be considered non-musical sounds, the sounds you might take out if you’re making a recording, because they’re not pure.

JI Yeah, exactly. Working on the piece was all in metaphor. It’s part of his whole sound world in that piece. His mastery of breath and the physicality of the instrument was very interesting to me. The drum and piano transcription was completed with some of the pitches for the saxophone mapped out. I had the recording, and I listened to it in terms of what are the abstractions of the structure which are based around exploring these sound worlds, like, this might be an A section, right? Or this might be a B. Or Roscoe has it this way. He has big cadences in his playing; he hits something and just stops everyone, or he’ll tell them to stop. I would notate what pitches I could from the saxophone using some tools for analyzing the sound, and attempted to represent them literally or metaphorically in the strings. The transcription and orchestration were tightly coupled.

ZP I was just going to ask if you used software to analyze sounds or noises and see where the frequencies were.

JI I did not do any auto transcription, which is a method that’s been used in other pieces for Roscoe. It works pretty good for some of those things, but I’m deciding what to take, especially in the pitches, so everything in terms of the pitch and rhythm is by ear. Timbrally, I wanted to analyze it digitally, but I feel like it needed a human touch with the musical things that were happening.

ZP Were you just working on transcribing his horn, or were you doing the entire trio?

JI I only transcribed the horn but used parts of the percussion and electronics in arranging the strings. We would reuse ideas between parts while orchestrating, and things naturally evolved and change. It’s complicated, actually. I think the unique part was that—right when he asked me to do this—his career really blew up. All of a sudden, he went from [writing for] a scrappy Mills orchestra to some of the best orchestras doing new music in the world. So he needed help, and he would call me at six in the morning: “Can we meet up?” I’m a morning person—I would drive over there, and I’d sit with him in his little office in his house at Mills. I think the longest I was there was fourteen hours.

ZP What?! What were you doing together? Would you present your work and he would give feedback, or you would actually talk about particular moments, like “What about this gurgle or breath?”

JI I would talk about what I did in a broad sense, and then we would listen. I felt like I was participating in the composition, because, in some sections, Roscoe gave me a lot of creative space. The process of notating the piece for orchestra was highly active, the piece was never really done. We would grab things from the keys or the percussion and add them to the winds, lengthen sections, add a coda or add new sections for improvisers. This is part of Roscoe’s practice. For example, he invites James [Fei] to play because what James will do with electronics is going to work great. He’s inviting a creative voice to contribute. That then becomes part of the composition as it evolves via transcriptions, edits,

The original intro was about twelve minutes and the final version was thirty-five minutes. The New York version is twenty minutes, and then the Bologna version, twenty-five minutes. After hearing a performance he might say, “I just want to improv here, or we’ll do brass. Any strings that you think would sound good here?” For the Thomas Buckner improv section, it started as a much shorter moment of music in the original that we liked the sound world of, so we lengthened it and explored different string timbres based on Buckner’s vocal style.

I sat in his little office, and we worked through things together. I’m also helping him with Finale, and there’s all sorts of stuff happening: I’m playing with his dog, looking at our computers, listening to music. We were really close during the process. We would both have our Finale files open, and sometimes we would sit there in silence for an hour while we’re both working.

It was almost co-working, then, “update: Oh, check this out.” We’d listen to it in Finale—Roscoe loved Finale playback—and we’d jam on it. And then he’d say, “Hey, look at this thing Anthony Braxton sent me,” and we would watch some YouTube videos. Or I’d show him pieces, sometimes my own compositions or recordings, sometimes things I was really into. I would say, “Check out the Kaajia Saariaho piece, how she does the strings here.” And he’d be like, “Yeah, let’s try it.”

ZP Saariaho’s has that very simple and direct way of show­ing the amount of pressure with those dark triangles that she makes in her scores. It’s very clear.

JI That’s exactly what I was exploring in some of my string works at the time. I love the Sept Papillions for solo cello. So, we would talk and share stuff we were into. I might share a new book I found on notation techniques, or he would show me some obscure sheet of multiphonic fingerings for bassoon someone sent him. We might do long tones. Sometimes he called and we’d just do Top Tones on Saxophone, or we’d sight read through Beethoven string quartet parts on bass clarinet. Then we’d have a snack, and he’d be like, “Let’s start writing music.”

Honestly, it was great. That’s his style, all together, but it felt like that informed a lot of the Distant Radio Transmission work.

ZP So, when he’s growing the piece, is he adding improvisers to do solos and then he’s putting pads or something underneath them? Or is he getting another improvisation that is done and transcribing that and adding that?

JI That’s a great question with a few variables. For some reason he was really into this Distant Radio Transmission piece. It was just this grand thing that he was very focused on.

ZP Something about it grabbed him.

JI Yeah, the ball was rolling. The first version was actually for the Angelica Festival in Bologna.

ZP That was the first time you heard it?

JI No. What happened was Petr Kotik called Roscoe and wanted to do this big AACM thing.

He wanted to do Distant Radio Transmission. It was before the original premiere, so we took this huge orchestra piece and we condensed it down. And this was the fourteen-hour session. I was reading from the Angelica score: bassoon to measure 13; two oboe, two octaves up; remove the last beat. I read through the old score, and Roscoe entered everything into Finale in a lone giant arrangement session to get this smaller version.

And Tom Buckner came in on that. We got recordings and Roscoe began thinking about how Tom can perform with this other composition happening. He found moments that he liked, or something that worked or, “Oh, this air sound with Tom Buckner was nice. Let’s make it longer.”

ZP So, you learned a lot from the Petr Kotik—the smaller live version—and that informed the version that you were getting ready to do.

JI Yeah. Based on that feedback, we started editing the new version. We added a coda where everybody improvises together, but at SEM, Roscoe thought James Ilgenfritz should play a solo there. So, invariably, now there’s a bass solo, and James gets brought on for sequential performances. So it lives in the moment.

Roscoe features people whose sound he likes, and who he can trust in a performance. I think some people feel excluded. It happens, you know; he might bring you in or tell you to stop
playing—this is not working; can we finesse this? Or do you want to finesse this?

But he’s always honest about his work.

ZP What was it like to actually hear that first rehearsal in Bologna?

JI I’m gonna be honest, the first two rehearsals were painful for me. It’s an uncomfortable piece, but one part of the discomfort was that it was being played by this giant opera orchestra, and they’re looking for this exactitude, even in notation. They want to know everything, and Roscoe actually leaves a lot of agency in his scores. You’ve got to figure it out. For example, the dynamics might naturally evolve or have more wiggle room than a traditional orchestra piece. You might need to sense when to play out or when to really make an accent growl; it demands a different thing from the performers.

ZP A different engagement.

JI And also, a friction is built into the institution schemas, in that orchestra players in these top level orchestras might not really play out in rehearsal; they might be kind of memorizing the music or fixing the sections. They’re on their own trip, because they know they can show up and play. And because it’s all written in this right way, they can play it perfectly. But Roscoe has this need to hear what it’s gonna sound like in rehearsal. He has very high expectations for that engagement in rehearsal, even though he sometimes seems like he’s asleep, you know. It’s funny. He’s full of contradictions.

ZP So, the first couple of times, hearing the piece was frustrating, because the players were maybe phoning it in a little bit, because all the information wasn’t there?

JI I think that piece was also finding its footing. And it was a big thing for me. I’m so emotionally attached to this piece, and I wanted it to sound good.

ZP Was Roscoe improvising?

JI Distant Radio Transmission is one of the few orchestral pieces that he is the improviser on. A lot of orchestras want Roscoe to play with them. They want to do an orchestral piece, but they want Roscoe to play saxophone on it. And sometimes Roscoe just wants to write an orchestral piece. But Distant Radio Transmission was explicitly for Roscoe to improvise on with Tom Buckner, from the beginning.

After Roscoe started playing, I loved seeing the face of the orchestra in Bologna . . . . Like, “Is he joking?” Then, he did another performance with an organ, and it just blew everyone’s mind. After rehearsing, after hearing Roscoe play, the orchestra begins to get it. There’s some nonverbal communication that happens, because if you know his work or you know him or you hear him play, it all starts to come together. The SEM performance—which came first—was uncomfortable because it was first orchestrated for a different sized ensemble. It was such a rush to get it ready, but we really honed it in there.

ZP And he played on that as well

JI He played on that as well, he and Tom. That was a great concert, and, listening to it, we learned some stuff. For instance, the beginning had this long bass thing James Ilgenfritz did. It was beautiful—all these overtones—and it sounded really electronic, so Roscoe got James Fei in on it. Then we had James, who has an opening improv, and added another interlude section.

Later, Petr Kotik programed it at Ostrava Days Festival and I think it’s the best version of Distant Radio Transmission. Ostrava is where it solidified into its current form. It found itself. We had the best players from SEM and the New York scene. Then the orchestra gets filled out with a lot of the best students in European conservatories, who come for this festival experience. We had the big orchestra, like Bologna, but with new music players. And Petr is a good conductor of Roscoe’s work in many ways.

ZP . . . the decisions he makes about tempos and stuff like that?

JI Oh, yeah. “Let’s cut this. Let’s change the tempo here. Let this fermata be longer . . .” He gets right in there. It’s not a light touch. And I think it worked in this case, because that orchestra really trusts him. Roscoe really trusts him. And he’s done a lot of amazing work with these AACM pieces.

ZP So, this final version ended up having very specific written material, but also a whole system of improvisers?

JI Exactly. [The improvising is] built into the score and the cueing. We ended up with three primary performers which would be James, Tom, and Roscoe. Each have their own section and some group improv sections. And there are sections we knew from doing it so much that you can add people here in the moment. There’s a layer of implicit modularity, so we would know who would fit in nicely for some of the improv sections, and that would change from performance to performance based on who was around. But we couldn’t do the piece without James, Tom, or Roscoe. It wouldn’t be the same piece.

ZP In the earlier versions, did you and Roscoe make decisions with orchestration that had to be corrected? This worked; this didn’t work; let’s keep this; let’s get rid of this . . .

JI I would sit there with a score and make notes in real time in these early rehearsals. I actually have the scores from each performance. I kept them, the big scores with all the markings we had on them. After the rehearsals, we would come back, listen to the recordings, and make updates to the score for the next version.

I learned so much. I learned more than any other musical experience about how to practice and how to work. It was a good experience for me, just to see it evolve. And it’s still evolving in some ways.

ZP When was it actually recorded?

JI I think it’s on three or four albums now, actually. The Ostrava version got released. I think the SEM version got released, and there are two Mills versions that have been released.

ZP So, it changes so much that it’s worth recording and releasing different versions of the piece, because it’s transforming in such a profound way.

JI That’s in my thesis. I talked about that, using “Nonaah” as an example. That piece exists in so many different spheres and albums and performances and orchestrations and arrangements that are all different. Roscoe really makes a point of asking: “What is the work?” It can’t exist on one album. Releases are really just documentation.

ZP So, you had graduated in the middle of this process, right? You went from being his student to engaging in this really different kind of relationship. Obviously, you’re learning a lot from him, but he was learning from you too. I mean, you were having a really rich interchange of sensibilities and knowledge.

JI I think we’re both lifelong learners in some sense. He’ll get some new book, and he’ll want to share it. Or I’ll do the same thing with a pdf of contrabassoon multiphonics, and he’ll print it out and put it in his archive. So, it was fun to explore within his experience, he didn’t have as much orchestral experience, actually, so a lot of stuff was new for him, like ranges of instruments. I’m sure it was a lot for him to come in as a master in his domain, but he’s always trying something new.

And then, towards the end, it really was a lot of woodwind work. That was a big part of our language, just playing. It seems really natural that we would actually just play together or listen to improvisations.

ZP Would they always be his improvisations?

JI No, I would bring stuff I’m working on too, and he would show me things other students had brought in. He was like, “Check out this thing Nathan Corder made with a nail on his guitar.2 Look at this contrabass solo.” Playing feels like a sacred space for Roscoe. He wants to do scales, exercises, different challenges. He sat down and taught me how to circular breathe. He worked with me getting our instruments repaired, we would go to the shop together. I think we bonded over woodwind playing.

ZP And then did you improvise together?

JI We did not improvise together.

ZP Why do you think that was?

JI It was already a little complicated. It was a great experience to be in this world with Roscoe, but I also needed to get out of the nest a little bit. I wasn’t there yet. He helped me get there.

ZP Do you feel it was a collaboration ultimately? Is there even a name for it?

JI It’s like trying to understand copyright in the age of artificial intelligence, something’s going to break. To be honest, my take on the transcription was aggressively non-exact, probably more so than some of the other composers. And it was more of a translation than a transcription. I felt licensed to push the boundaries. And Roscoe encouraged it if he liked how it sounded. This is part of the vision as it unfolds.

ZP What do you take with you now as you move forward with your work ?

JI I think it’s the hybrid practice approach and feedback systems. There are are individual actors and nodes of information, processes that connect to other ones in really complicated ways. It’s about the feedback of each node into the overall ecosystem. Composing in ecosystems, as humans, is really interesting.

Roscoe Mitchell at Mills College: John Ivers