Interview: Janice Misurell-Mitchell (Composer)

Composer member Janice Misurell-Mitchell recently released Vanishing Points (Southport Records), a new CD of works spanning her entire career.  A long-established member of the new music community here in Chicago, Janice recruited an impressive roster of musicians that she has befriended over the years to perform the music on this disc.  (Even our executive director Seth Boustead helped out with the liner notes!) Our program director Andrew Tham asked Janice a few questions regarding the new album and her work as a Chicago composer.

What’s the concept behind Vanishing Points? I’ve noticed that your work divides itself between performance art and more conventionally structured compositions; are you trying to eliminate the boundaries between these two mediums?

The concept behind Vanishing Points evolved after I chose what pieces I wanted on the CD, rather than the other way around. As Seth says in the liner notes, the compositions “meld diverse musical materials into a convincing and intimately personal musical statement.” The earliest piece is Vanishing Points/Quantum Leaps, for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, from 1979 (revised in 2011). This piece is written in what I would call my abstract style. Within that there is a certain amount of play on traditional contrapuntal writing: fugues that become texture only, or Webernian counterpoint that is satirized and evolves into a more florid texture written in proportional notation.

These ideas are pushed much further in Agitación, where the ensemble has a lot of fun in a blues-boogie section whose themes eventually evolve into a fully worked out fugue. Dark was the Night, for solo guitar, works in the opposite direction: it begins with the theme and chords by Blind Willie Johnson in highly abstract contrapuntal lines which are peeled away gradually to reveal the source (plus a bit of atonality) in a slide guitar ending. Other pieces on the CD reference vernacular styles while establishing their own musical “personalities”.

As for the question of eliminating boundaries between performance art and more conventionally structured compositions – here it depends on the performer’s interest in crossing boundaries. My recent commission by flutist Meerenai Shim is The Art of Noise, for flute and percussion, where the flutist speaks and plays fragments (simultaneously) from the 1913 treatise by Luigi Russolo, in four languages. Meerenai has been totally up for the demands of the piece; it is on her recording aptly titled The Art of Noise.  Of course I’ve been eliminating these boundaries for myself for a long time. Usually I begin a solo flute or voice piece with improvisations from a small amount of written material; a note series or a short text. I record almost everything, and eventually I work this into a mostly-notated piece.

You’ve been a composer in Chicago for a long time; what is it about this city that keeps you invested in making art here? On the other hand, how much of your career as a composer is outside of the city? Do you feel that it’s important to be composing for musicians and the respective scene here or just to be composing as much as possible?

I’d say that about a third of my performance or presentation work is abroad, and the rest is either in Chicago or sometimes in other US cities. What Chicago offers me is access to great musicians, a wide range of musical styles, and substantial support for what I do. I’m especially interested not only in twentieth century and new music, but in improvised music, and especially in the music of the AACM, whom I’ve been following since I first arrived here in 1977. In recent years I’ve had the privilege of working with members of the group, and we’ve crossed several boundaries together.

I don’t compose a piece unless I’m sure of a performance, so that means that I’m often writing for musicians that I know; many in town. But the inspiration for pieces is usually from hearing something for a particular combination of instruments (the inspiration for Vanishing Points/Quantum Leaps is of course Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time).

Scat/Rap Counterpoint is probably the only new music genre Youtube video I have ever witnessed amass more than a few thousand views.  But like any viral video, it has not attracted entirely positive attention.  As an artist, it puts you in an interesting position in that you’re actually reaching new and larger audiences with your music, but not necessarily in the way that you had intended.  Does this affect your process as a composer at all? Has the internet negativity had an impact on how you feel about the piece now or how you might perform it in the future?

As of this writing, Scat/Rap Counterpoint, in the version for voice and percussion, has gotten over 73,000 hits. The attention has been both positive and negative, in roughly equal proportions. But the positives have been mostly about the piece itself: its politics of activism and the frustrations accompanying it. The negatives have been about me: some have been funny (“more librarians should rap”), but many have been severely misogynist, unprintable in this interview. This doesn’t bother me in the least. When you go public, you’ll get all sorts of reactions. What’s disturbing is the amount of ignorance about the subject matter and about satire in general.

As for performance, I now perform it as a solo, as a theatrical spoken word piece, where I have much more freedom. And now a word of caution: Are You Ready?, from my CD release party at the Green Mill, is going up as we speak. I brace myself for reactions to that one!

You can purchase Vanishing Points through Amazon.