TRHow are you?
DBSorry we never did manage to pull it off before.
RMYeah, it’s fine. I’ve been plenty busy, man. I’m painting like crazy. I’m surprised at my own self.
TRWould you say that you’re painting more these days than composing?
RMI would say yes to that question. I get up with the sunrise in my sunroom, and I get stuck out there with the colors and ideas about the ways to develop the paintings and so on. I mean, sometimes when I go to bed at night—if I do something I’m not quite sure about—it bothers me and wakes me up. And then I have to solve the problem. I’m glad to have returned to this kind of activity at this point in my life.
DBIs there something that sparked the return to painting?
RMWell, a long time ago, I remember spending a lot of time just sitting in front of the painting and trying to figure out what I was going to do next. And that was enjoyment for me. But then, after a certain time, my life was changing, and I was trying to figure out if I needed to start taking care of other things. So, I just put that energy into composition. That kind of paid off, because [they] use the same part of the brain, and they both inform each other. And what I learned from that was development. The way that I develop my music, I do the same thing with the paintings. If I learn something new about composition [in a painting], I may carry that over to the next piece that I’m writing.
DBSo, there are times where you do something in the painting, and that sparks some ideas relative to composition and vice versa.
RMYeah. Like, a long time ago, I did some pieces that had color on them—musical pieces and so on—and I may go back and pick up some of that [for a painting]. I know you’ve looked at some of Anthony [Braxton]’s work. It’s like his compositions almost jump off the page with all the dimensions and things and colors that he has.
I say if you got a good idea, then you can use that in a variety of ways. One clear example of that would be Handel. He wrote several pieces, and he wasn’t afraid to use anything that was successful. He changed the movements just a little bit, or it’s the same piece with some changes in another key and so on, and all of these small changes change the piece. And he invented it, so he got the right to use it.
TRDo you have any favorite painters that are inspiring you today?
RMI don’t go out that much, but when Muhal [Richard Abrams] was alive, we used to always go to different exhibitions. I was really impressed by Ivan Albright,1 this painting that he did of this door where he spent ten years doing it.2 I went there with Muhal, and he was saying, “Look at the way he paints these people’s skin and stuff. He paints right past the people.” But that’s the concept of layering all of these different paints and so on.
TRCan you maybe describe a typical day?
RMWell, it’s relative to what I got going on. Right now I know I got this exhibition, and I want to have some killer paintings. So, I put a little more time into that. But a typical day with me is up at sunrise. Sometimes I beat the sun up because, out in the sunroom, it’s so beautiful when it comes up. That’s kind of like a ritual for me. I’m out there. It’s almost daylight. And, all of a sudden, the sun comes up, and I’m out there painting already.
TRAnd can you then talk about when you’re about to go on tour? What is the preparation for you?
RMWell, my policy is to be packed up long before I’m going anywhere, because if I don’t do that, I may forget some things. Like this last tour, I got there and found out I didn’t have the neck for my soprano, so I didn’t get a chance to play it the whole tour. I might take the stuff out of my bag when I come home, and then, once it’s washed, I just put it back there, so all I need to do when it’s time for me to go anywhere is just pick up my bag and go.
TRYou just stay ready.
RMYeah, but I’m starting to appreciate gigs in the States and stuff, too, because I can bring the instruments that I want to bring along. When I came back from Europe, we had bought a couple of vans over there, and I had an English Ford Transit with the double wheels on it and so on. And back then, I could put everything I owned in my van, including my dog. But now that’s all out the window. I mean, I have so much stuff, so I keep concentrating on being prepared for what’s coming up.
TRAnd I guess that translates into the music, too.
RMYeah, that does. I’m going back through all my rock and roll tunes and stuff. “I’m the Laundry Man,” “Daddy Rolling Stone.” You know that piece? [singing]
Girl, you think you had loving girl,
do doo da doo doo
You think you had fun to do?
Girl, you ain’t had nothing until the daddy comes
They call me Daddy
All those pieces. [all laugh] That’s good stuff in there!
TRAnd you’ve always had a dog, huh?
RMYeah, I’m more or less a dog person. I’ve had cats, but cats are different. I learn a lot from dogs. They’re always happy with whatever’s going on. If it’s raining, they don’t care. If it’s snowing or whatever. They find joy in whatever’s going on.
DBWhich did you start pursuing first, music or painting? Or were they simultaneous?
RMWell, painting was kind of first on my agenda, because my uncle, Arthur Charles Commodore Carter, was an artist, and he was working with crayon and pen and ink. He would put on the crayon and then another color on top of it. Then he would use his protractor to scrape it to mix the paints. He did this book of my sisters and myself and some of our friends, and we were all of these people from outer space. When he passed those books got somehow gone. I keep thinking about them, but I know that’s long gone.
But that was the first influence on me. It wasn’t until later on that one of my older brothers, Norman, came to live with us in Milwaukee, and he would sit me down and have me listen to all these records and so on. And then, when I was starting in high school in Milwaukee, I decided to start an instrument. I started on the clarinet, because most people back then would say if you want to play the saxophone, you need to learn how to play the clarinet first.
TRI know you incorporated some percussion into your set up, but did you ever think about [playing] strings at all?
RMI did in college. It was Wilson Junior College. You were supposed to take a string instrument, so I took cello. I also have this beautiful flute that Rafael Garrett made for me. It’s a bamboo flute. You can hear it on this piece called “Stomp and the Fire East Blues.” [Snurdy McGurdy and Her Dancin’ Shoes, 1980, Nessa]
And the smaller instruments, Malachi probably introduced them first to the Art Ensemble, so I started up with those on the recording Sound and that kind of thing. And then, I just kept evolving with it.
TRCan we just go back a few years to the ensemble that you put together for the We Are On The Edge recording? [Pi Recordings, 2019] What led to you thinking of larger groups?
RMWell, it was an attempt to put together an orchestra to do larger pieces. When I was out at Mills College, I put together a thirty-six-piece chamber orchestra. And Greg Howe [of Wide Hive Records] came along with big ideas and so on. I’d always thought about what’s involved in getting an orchestral piece recorded, and it came to me that what’s involved is to get your own chamber orchestra! [laughs]
I got people to transcribe the Conversations records3 that I did, and I turned them into orchestral pieces. The first concert of those was in Reykjavik. I premiered five short pieces there. Ilan Volkov, do you know him? The conductor. He’s like poetry in motion. He had asked me to improvise on the piece Rub. I told him I didn’t want to, because it’s meant to be a standalone piece. But then I thought, “Wait a minute, you’re supposed to be an improviser. How many opportunities are you going to have to try out these things?” So, I tried it out—and it didn’t dawn on me at once—but what I did was create another version of that piece where I could get somebody to transcribe my improvisation. So, the thing is always growing. That’s what fascinated me about it, because it gave me an opportunity to study what I normally do with other people live. And I can keep developing it. It’s always changing, even if the same musician is improvising on it because there’s going to be a different version.
With me, it’s exciting just to get up and learn something. I’ve got all the books, but I can’t do everything at once. I don’t consider myself to be the fastest learner, but I’m going to get to all of that. Like I said, I try to keep up with what’s going on at the moment.
DBWhen I had the opportunity to hear your quintet this summer, it was striking that there was a kind of traditional trio of saxophone, bass, and drums. But then the drums were doubled up with a kind of different percussion set. And one could argue that maybe the bass was doubled up with the addition of cello.
RMThat comes from traditional music writing. I mean, a lot of times the basses are doubled with the cello like that.
DBBut in terms of what you do to put yourself into different challenges, and the instrumentation, and how you interact with them or what that sets up musically . . .
RMWell, absolutely. A lot of times, I may be hearing one note on one instrument and the next note that I’m hearing is a bell or something like that. I try to experiment with all kinds of different orchestrations and be organic about it in a way.
Muhal would always encourage everybody to write for his band. And if you didn’t like what you wrote, he encouraged you to take it home and keep working with it until you liked what you were doing. That was a great lesson for me, because if you don’t do that, then every time you listen to that piece, what you didn’t like is still going to be there. It’s been a good model for the rest of my life. Like I said earlier, the painting woke me up because I wasn’t happy with some work that I did, and I just got up the next day and redid it.
TRIs there something that you still feel like you have yet to do compositionally or in visual art?
RMProbably. Well, yeah, probably. [laughs] Certainly! For example, I’m going back and picking up some of the instruments I haven’t played for a while. I know my dog, Shuggie, would prefer it if I would play some of the higher instruments every now and then. His preference is the higher instruments, and he’s very talented.4 Yeah, I better do that. So thanks for bringing that up. Because he’s talented to the point that he can sing multiple voices and so on like that. And he’s hip to overdubbing and stuff, because we play something together as a duet, and then I overdub it. I try different things out with him, and he can recognize different things if I do chromatic patterns or so on and so forth and all of that. So, yeah, I’m definitely going to start pulling out my soprano.
TRI think that’s kind of a good closer, actually. Thank you so much for your time and we want to wish you a happy belated birthday. Did you do anything special on your day?
RMYeah, it’s just another day. What did I do? I did some good stuff. I spent some time with my daughter; she made me a big chocolate cake and all these different kinds of things. She inspires me so much. I mean, if I show her my paintings, she knows a lot. Really. I had to stop by my repair man, Brian, and he lives out there by my daughter. He lives in Sun Prairie. And so many people called me and wrote me and so on and so forth. So, it was a great day, actually.
1American painter, sculptor, and print-maker active from the 1930s to his death in 1983.
2That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door) 1931–1941.
3Conversations I and II, both released on Wide Hive Records.
4Mitchell has performed duos with his dog, Shuggie, as recently as 2021’s Borealis Festival in Bergen. Shuggie is presented on video.