Vanishing Points

“Composer and flutist Janice Misurell-­Mitchell, co-director of long-­running ensemble CUBE, represents the old guard of Chicago’s new-music community. But her latest portrait album proves that there’s nothing outdated or musty about her work. On the aptly titled ‘Agitacion,’ vibraphone and drum kit alternately intersect and propel Winston Choi and Abraham Stokman’s jagged piano lines, and ‘Dark Was the Night,’ performed by guitarist Maria Vittoria Jedlowski, takes inspiration from the Blind Willie Johnson classic referenced in its title, and its bracing, splintery gestures owe as much to Derek Bailey as to the blues.” —Peter Margasak, Chicago Reader

Liner Notes by Seth Boustead

In the perfect world of a geometry textbook we are shown that parallel lines never meet, but in the messier real world as perceived through our senses, parallel lines do meet at the horizon or vanishing point. I can’t think of a more appropriate metaphor to describe the music on this album by Janice Misurell-Mitchell in which she proves herself singularly able to meld diverse musical materials into a convincing and intimately personal musical statement.

And that’s exactly the word that keeps leaping into my mind as I listen to these six tracks: convincing. There’s no shortage of composers out there merging elements of jazz, popular and folk music with the Western classical music tradition, but few have the ability to wrangle something entirely new from this merging. By combining impressive compositional chops with a highly articulated personal vision, Misurell-Mitchell has brought something new, and uniquely beautiful, into the world with this album.

A well-known figure on the Chicago new music scene, Misurell-Mitchell is active as an educator, currently on faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and as the Artistic Co-director of Chicago’s longest-running new music ensemble, (and my personal introduction to live performances of contemporary music,) CUBE. She is also an electrifying performer as a vocalist and flutist, although it’s hardly doing her justice to say that she sings and plays the flute.

Rather say that she uses her voice and her flute, among other weapons in her arsenal, to create passionate performance pieces on a dizzying variety of subjects moving effortlessly through musical idioms along the way. From political and social injustices to personal travail, from jazz to beatnik poetry to rap music, soaring melodies and agonizing wails.

She is restless, relentless, astonishing and tirelessly devoted to the breaking of barriers. Hearing her perform is like hearing the New Yorker brought to life, if the New Yorker were more hip. In fact her presence as a performer is so formidable, so indelibly etched in the consciousness, that it’s possible to be surprised by the image of her sitting quietly putting notes on paper. And yet she is clearly a composer of great craft and discipline and it’s exactly that kind of personal dichotomy that this album celebrates.

Misurell-Mitchell has said that the opening track Agitación reflects different kinds of agitation: political anger, agitation caused when different musical styles meet and the idea of agitating an audience, pushing them beyond their comfort zone. As I listen to the music I think also of Socrates, that great agitator of antiquity, continuing to ask questions that he well knows no one, himself included, has an answer for.

The music is fascinating in that it demands an emotional response from the listener: this is not passive music but music to partake in, music to debate and ponder aloud. At times it is almost overbearing and a claustrophobic feeling of helplessness overcomes the listener, not unlike the feeling of watching Fox news, but this tireless questioning is never tiresome and by the end the piece leaves you wanting to have a debate far into the night with your smartest friend.

If Agitación is an extraverted questioning social agitator, Dark was the Night is the parallel line that shouldn’t intersect it but somehow does, a spare, improvisational sounding solo guitar work that sends chills down my spine every time I hear it. Inspired by the famous gospel tune Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground by the famously self-taught slide guitar player Blind Willie Johnson, the piece uses the tune sparingly, as a reference point for a departure into an adventurous sonic landscape.

There are the normal slide sounds and bent notes that you would expect, but these are set against atonal sounding passages, slaps on the strings and nimble finger picking that create an unforgettable impression. As the piece progresses it becomes more and more a traditional slide guitar song and more and more blue, as if Misurell-Mitchell is taking us deeper and deeper into Blind Willie’s haunting sound world.

Vanishing Points/Quantum Leaps is a three movement work that, like the title of the album as a whole, is concerned with perspective and, in this case, how the listeners perceive the development of musical material. The opening intervals of the first movement come back several times throughout the work but always transformed, in some cases almost unrecognizably, from their original form.

As in Agitación we have a sense of restlessness, at least in the outer movements, but here there is great fun to be had in listening to the permutations of the opening material, now playful, now restless, now aggressive, now tranquil, but always logically constructed and carefully crafted. Is the music actually changing? Or is it staying so snugly in the vanishing point that we are the ones perceiving these qualities in it? To paraphrase Voltaire, if this music did not exist it would be necessary to invent it.

From the arresting flutter-tongued flute opening to the delicate, sublimely soft ending, On Thin Ice grabs hold of the listener’s attention and doesn’t let go. A pattern is emerging here on this album: Misurell-Mitchell knows how to write musical lines that breathe and she is adept at creating space even among rich textures. Like the other tracks on this album there are few moments of actual silence, but we never feel crowded and the lines unfurl with interesting, subtle development. They are often contrapuntal but never overly mathematical, a simple but joyous interplay of two musicians deeply engaged in a dialogue.

We find our next parallel line with Deconstruction Blues, a piece originally commissioned by new music stalwarts Patricia and Philip Morehead to challenge traditional notions of English horn and keyboard music. Here the setting is not the 18th century, but the American blues vernacular and in this arrangement the piece is for for bass clarinet and Hammond B3 organ. Although the term deconstruction usually has an academic connotation, Misurell-Mitchell’s interesting take on permutations of the blues within a contemporary music setting feels anything but. The brilliant tone of the Hammond B3 combines with the exquisite sound of the bass clarinet to create a jazz/blues amalgam of unparalleled richness, like biting into a dark chocolate bar filled with caramel.

The final track is the kind of piece that could only come from Misurell-Mitchell, the hybrid of performance art, storytelling and music that is her signature creation. And here we come full circle, to Misurell-Mitchell the expressive performer for whom music is only one part of a kind of 21st century gesamtkunstwerk, an art form of total expression with unlimited expressive power.

The sunset as depicted in this piece is a kind of haiku-like celebration of the actual moment of the sun setting that will never come again in exactly the same way. For no moment is ever the same as another, no two sunsets can ever be exactly alike. Misurell-Mitchell’s music has this same ability to live in the moment, to be so nuanced that no two performances are ever the same. This is more than music, it is truly a total art form for our century, full of potency and rich expressive power. It may change through the vanishing point of our perspective but no matter how you hear it, it will move you.