Uncommon Time

Liner Notes by Neil Tesser

This anthology of works covers a period of nearly twenty years, from 1991 through 2008, during which Janice Misurell-Mitchell has made herself an essential part of the Chicago new music scene. As an educator, she has helped shape musical and performance art capabilities among two generations of students at DePaul University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As a co-founder of CUBE, a leading contemporary chamber ensemble that fills a vital niche in Chicago culture, she has spurred new works and important performances in Chicago and the Midwest. And as a composer, she has written works – many of which incorporate speech, theater, and even dance – for settings that range from solo flute to orchestra. These pieces are exhilaratingly free but rigorously constructed, and they have established her as a singular and accomplished composer of modern classical music.

From a performance standpoint, Misurell-Mitchell – let’s call her “JM-M” to save space – first made her name as a talented and intrepid flutist. But as her composer’s palette has expanded to include voice, her performances have evolved as well. In fact, throughout this recording the flute plays second fiddle to her provocative, hyperexpressive vocal presentations.

The very first track offers a particularly persuasive example of JM-M’s approach. Profaning The Sacred II draws its text from some of the beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s most well-known lines. But JM-M’s “reading” of these words is nonetheless startling, stunning, and seductive. The words themselves remain potent (even after half a century), but JM-M’s performance goes beyond that; and the fact that she can still shock us with these familiar lines speaks to the impact of her “technique”.

I place this technique in quotation marks with good reason: it’s difficult to accurately describe what she does with a word as mundane as “reading.” But neither can you truly call it “singing”; JM-M has developed her own hybrid of the two.

The obvious precedent for her style is Sprechstimme, the device most notably exploited by the atonal composer Arnold Schoenberg, and a staple of 20th-century classical music. In German, Sprechstimme means “speech-voice”; the Encylopædia Britannica defines it as “a cross between speaking and singing in which the tone quality of speech is heightened and lowered in pitch along melodic contours” in the score.

But JM-M turns this concept inside out. Sprechstimme adapts the patterns of everyday speech to vocal music; instead, JM-M applies the extravagant turns of virtuoso singing to the spoken word. Sprechstimme is also sometimes called Sprechgesang – literally, “speech singing,” a term I find even more accurate – but for JM-M, the priorities are reversed. (Perhaps something like Gesangsprech could better describe her approach: “singing-talking.”) Her method allows for performances of wild emotional abandon but exacting technical control: performances that balance on the knife’s-edge of art that separates inspiration and insanity.

Clearly, JM-M’s instrumental prowess has shaped and impelled her vocal readings. Luckily, she has provided us with a sort of primer on that process, in the flute-and-voice interludes within Profaning The Sacred II and the powerfully delightful Blooz Man/Poet Woman, her 2004 work based on poems by Chicago-based poet/actor/musician Regie Gibson. As you listen to the interaction between flute and voice – each by turns taking the lead, then morphing into the other; vocal expressions coming from the flute, instrumental utterances from the singer – the connection between them becomes visceral and illuminating. –GRAMMY® nominee NEIL TESSER writes on jazz and other music for Examiner.com

(In her program notes Profaning The Sacred II, JM-M writes: “The work treats the voice as an adjunct to the flute, a second instrument: one with a sound often covered or colored by the flute. The text is thus like words in a visual collage; some words and phrases are clear, while others are only implied.”)

The most extravagant, outrageous, and enveloping example of JM-M’s style comes on Are You Ready?, which she has called “a musical sound poem: a piece which uses a phrase (or phrases) as a basis for an extended vocal improvisation on both its meaning and its sound.” In this performance, recorded in 2010 at Chicago’s famed Green Mill, JM-M first offers an introductory history lesson regarding her sources and inspiration for the piece; that introduction then slips into the very techniques she has outlined. It’s as if the vocal devices she is about to employ have already taken over the spotlight.

Misurell-Mitchell’s ability to musicalize the spoken word reaches extreme, even absurd heights in this piece. You may think, for large portions of the performance, that she sounds somewhat frenetic – frankly, unhinged. Don’t worry: you’re hardly alone. Of course, this is JM-M’s goal for such a piece – to shake, to shock, to spark her audience – and I doubt you’ll hear it done with more conviction (and less inhibition) than she demonstrates here. It’s a jam-packed jack-in-the-box of roller-coaster melismas, both cantorial and operatic; a spectrum of effects that stretches from guttural animal noises to parodies of high-art singing, including scatted bebop, cartoon voices, foreign accents, nursery-rhyme ditties; references to rock-and-roll from Chuck Berry and Bill Haley, Tina Turner and Joan Jett; and a mad dash between superheated wordplay and incomprehensible babble.

Tour-de-force, or tour-de-farce – or, I would suggest, something in between? You must make that call for yourself; in any case, you cannot deny the commitment and intensity with which JM-M has thrown herself into this remarkably challenging work.

Uncommon Time does feature some works with neither voice nor speech: the solo marimba work Mamiwata, commissioned by percussionist Dane Richeson (another member of CUBE); the title piece, commissioned by the National Flute Association in 1991; and Una voce perduta, a solo flute composition dedicated to Ted Shen, the multifaceted Chicago writer, critic, and an especially important voice for new music, who died in 2003. (In writing this work, she has used musical notation for the letters T-E-D as the basis for the piece’s thematic material.)

Richeson himself appears on two of these pieces, including Everything Changes, heard here in a reduction from the quartet instrumentation that marked the piece’s 2006 premiere in Berlin. In JM-M’s words, “Brecht gives us two contradictory statements: one, that change is always possible . . . and another, that change is impossible because the actions of the past always determine our choices for action now . . . . I have created music to signify the ability to change, and music signifying the opposite.”

The final two tracks make up the remarkable A Silent Woman, a piece in two parts (“Silence” and “A Gift”) that satirizes the ancient religious dicta, still observed in some cultures, that segregated and silenced women within society. JM-M recorded this work with three widely acclaimed members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the Chicago collective that has gained worldwide renown for championing avant-garde jazz improvisation. In so doing, JM-M acknowledges and engages one of the most important influences upon her work – the jazz experimenters who have pushed the envelope for both instrumental technique and conceptual liberties.

In its union of Chicago’s two avant-garde musical traditions (jazz and contemporary classical), A Silent Woman makes a fitting finale for this collection. And in ending the album with this piece, the composer leaves us with another flash of her sometimes mordant wit – because no one will ever accuse Janice Misurell-Mitchell of being “a silent woman.” And thank goodness for that.