With Mechanical Toys and Feverish Improvisation, Nicole Mitchell Invites a Communal Exploration of her Music

Flutist and composer Nicole Mitchell says she isn’t used to hearing an entire program of her work, but rather, “one piece here, one piece there.” But on March 30, Miller Theatre’s Composer Portraits series at Columbia University presented an evening devoted to her music, with performances by the International Contemporary Ensemble and vocalist Lisa E. Harris. “It’s like getting to know yourself,” Mitchell said during an on-stage discussion. “Because of this concert, I’m starting to really hear what my language is, the things that I’m attracted to, and how they show up in different areas, in different pieces.”

This shared exploration between audience and composer made the concert experience a multiplicity of living, breathing organisms. The stage was a live-in space — as detailed as a fully furnished scene in a play — but instead of being fitted with stale objects, the stage was decorated with tall plants that towered over the musicians in the back and flanked both sides in the front. Candles were lit, the backdrop was cerulean blue, and the house lights stayed on; it was a communal performance atmosphere, each person invited to be cognizant of one another.

Whispering Flame began with a simmering undercurrent of strings, with violinists Gabriela Diaz and Mazz Swift paired with cellist Katinka Kleijn. Jonathan Finlayson layered a muted trumpet over Harris’ vocals, and you could hear light strokes on the gong from percussionist Clara Warnaar even before she came to full view. With Mitchell on flute and electronics, the piece built in instrumentation without building in intensity, and the lines stirred and whirred like loose sheets of paper scattered by the wind.

Cory Smythe, Katinka Kleijn, Isabel Lepanto Gleicher, and Joshua Rubin perform Nicole Mitchell's Procession Time -- Photo by Rob Davidson

Cory Smythe, Katinka Kleijn, Isabel Lepanto Gleicher, and Joshua Rubin perform Nicole Mitchell’s Procession Time — Photo by Rob Davidson

Procession Time, for bass flute (Isabel Lepanto Gleicher), bass clarinet (Joshua Rubin), cello (Kleijn), and piano (Cory Smythe), mostly hovered underground in lower registers, with the low woodwinds reaching a tensely grating climax. Throughout, the flute fluttered like butterflies, while the cello and piano exchanged off-kilter tonal and rhythmic lines, and different combinations of instruments converged in loops.

Microtonal sliding in the flute, clarinet, violin, and cello set up the vocalist for Transitions Beyond. Harris belted high notes; screams dissolved into weak moans and groans. Lyrics were obscured — “I don’t need much in this life,” and “My imagination will…” — until the words were befuddled once again, like a time-lapsed flower wilting. The ensemble’s freneticism and clipped notes evoked the sounds of a broken breath, with gasps of air shot through the wind instruments. They eventually faded into inquisitive lines while Harris’ words became discernible again: “This is what we have been waiting for,” she sang, with the audience left wondering, What?

Before the next piece, Mitchell picked up a pink stuffed animal that was placed beside the candles at the front of the stage that could have easily gone unnoticed. Addressing the audience, she said that Transitions Beyond was for her late husband, who would have broken the silence and yelled, Hey y’all that was my song! Did y’all like it? “It’s okay to be lively and relax,” she continued, and the audience did, someone yelling out, We like it, Nicole!

The International Contemporary Ensemble and vocalist Lisa E. Harris perform works by Nicole Mitchell -- Photo by Rob Davidson

The International Contemporary Ensemble and vocalist Lisa E. Harris perform works by Nicole Mitchell — Photo by Rob Davidson

Building Stuff was the manifestation of this feeling. Adding double bass (Brandon Lopez), bassoon (Sara Schoenbeck), and harp (Ashley Jackson) to the ensemble, the piece incorporated mechanical toys wound up and let loose. A disco ball blinked and swirled multicolored lights, and a glockenspiel added playful tinkles. Wind instruments joined with whimsical lines, the kind we hear in psychedelic, journey-based cartoons. The drums interrupting the free-moving lines with a steady beat, the piano pulsed jazz chords, and improvised lines were traded among the instrumentalists, before Smythe offered disorienting and meandering lines on the piano, one hand reaching into the strings.

After an onstage discussion between Mitchell and Melissa Smey, the executive director of Miller Theatre, the concert closed with Inescapable Spiral. Electronic enhancements spun into different realms of sound. Smythe crushed low-register tone clusters on piano; drums were rubbed (rather than struck), while winds and strings splattered paint on an atonal canvas. Eventually, each instrument exploded into an untamed frenzy of disconnected improvisation. Harris joined in, asking esoteric questions (“Is life directional? What is sound?) and spoke in rhymes and riddles (“Our first desires seem to be comfortable, but soon after we search for risks.”)

Nicole Mitchell’s music is full of dichotomies. It’s whimsical, yet dizzying; progressive with mechanical toys, yet employing familiar instruments that still break apart into independent improvisation; dazzling with constantly interweaving lines, but also overwhelming when the music leaves no room to breathe. Inescapable Spiral encapsulated every piece on the program, but in the same strain of opposition, each work was a masterful display of composition and musicality. In the end, Mitchell best summarized the concert herself: “You have things you do with intent, and then there’s other things you do intuitively — and then you have to bring those things together.”


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

You can support the work of ICIYL with a tax-deductible gift to ACF. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or