Award winning African-American writer Octavia Butler ingeniously used science fiction as a tool to experiment with new social realities and to comment on current problems in society. Her Xenogenesis Trilogy focuses on a surprising outcome to nuclear war—rescue and extraction of humans by extraterrestrials. In a new and horrifying environment, with no control over one’s life and future, how does one isolated woman survive? How does this woman (chosen and altered by aliens) later convince the other survivors that their only hope to return to earth is to breed with horrific creatures and transform from human to something else? Octavia Butler, defined by many as an Afrofuturist, shows us that literature can invite us to question, think differently and possibly experience transformation. With the premise that music also carries the power to be transformative and provocative, I created Intergalactic Beings (IB), inspired by Butler’s Dawn and Adulthood Rites, my second project of creative music inspired by Octavia Butler.
Intergalactic Beings is a rebellion from the idea that jazz is solely a “finger poppin’ feel good music.” I believe that art (whether based in visual, sonic, or movement), can reflect and incite a wide range of complex emotions in the human experience. In the same way that audiences can enjoy going to a scary movie or taking a roller-coaster ride into the unknown, Intergalactic Beings intends on taking the audience on a ride. When we come off the ride, perhaps we can more fully appreciate the beautiful simplicity in our lives. I’m excited to discover that connecting music to science fiction can provide entry for audiences to understand experimental music in a new context.
In Intergalactic Beings I conjure up the disturbing and revelatory nature of Octavia Butler’s work. Octavia Butler raises questions on how the concepts of “alien” and “other” are used negatively to marginalize people. The experiences of abduction, dislocation and resistance echo in people’s real memories and histories throughout our world. By having intelligent and paternalistic “aliens” rescue humanity from the self- destruction of nuclear war, Butler may ask of us, “Why do we see difference of color, culture, ideals, and religion as bigger than our similarities of biology? Why are our greatest scientific developments used as tools towards self-destruction?”
By musically illustrating the process of fear, resilience and transformation with Intergalactic Beings, I created sonic experiences to confront the listener. Rather than defining my music through sequential events of Octavia Butler’s Dawn and Adulthood Rites, I focused on issues that hit me hardest as a reader, and expressed the following through sound:
What would it be like...
1. ...to be abducted?
2. ...to be subjected to horrifying creatures that are repelling to one’s aesthetics of beauty?
3. ..to understand that your life depends on mating with these non-humans and the act will end human life and begin a new hybrid life?
4. ...to be seduced, knowing that in contrast to your desire to resist, these “aliens” can give you sensual pleasure beyond your wildest dreams?
5. ....to be aware that life will meet and join with life in spite of difference?
6. ...to believe that fate (and in this case, metamorphosis) is inevitable?
Xenogenesis Suite, my first tribute to Octavia Butler’s work, was commissioned by Chamber Music America, premiered at the Vision Festival in New York (2007) and was released on CD by Firehouse 12 (2008). Intergalactic Beings was commissioned by Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (2010) and this recording is the result of that live performance. IB and Xenogenesis Suite both utilize the unique and defining voice of Mankwe Ndosi, who in this work dually characterizes human emotional expression, and a strange and alarming alien expression. Both Xeno Suite and Intergalactic use similar instrumentation (replacing piano on Xeno Suite with electric guitar on Intergalactic) and both works celebrate disturbing emotional elements that people encounter in life. Both works also utilize a balance between composition and improvisation, where the language of improvisation is highly defined by the context of the compositional material and structure.
What makes Intergalactic Beings different from Xenogenesis Suite?
In Xeno Suite, fear and isolation were the main themes I used to build creative material. In the book Dawn, Butler’s illustration of a defenseless woman in an strange environment of a space-ship/prison was so emotionally charged that I dedicated almost the whole of Xenogenesis Suite to that early process I encountered in the story. My use of vocalist Ndosi’s mostly wordless expression in Xeno Suite to characterize the human element, illustrated a feeling of powerless in the context of the instrumentalists who surrounded her with a horrific world through the compositional structure.
Intergalactic’s music is not as much an expression of victimization as it is an expression of resilience. Equally important to the expression of hegemony between the “aliens” and the earth survivors, I strived to express humor and sensuality of the aliens --humanizing them just as the survivors in the story must do to continue living. Both Xeno Suite and Intergalatic explicate the idea of wonder, because there is much fascination involved with meeting brilliant new beings (the “aliens”) and a new world. This element of wonder is perhaps the most alluring concept for me as a composer to make music inspired by science fiction.
At the time of the premiere, April 2010, I acknowledged the 45th Anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the great contribution it has made to American experimental music. Parallel to the Afrofuturist efforts of Octavia Butler, I am highly indebted to the courageous and visionary work of AACM composers including Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, George Lewis, Anthony Braxton, Douglas Ewart, Leroy Jenkins, Fred Hopkins, Henry Threadgill and many more, who opened many doors to jazz/improvisation/African American musics’ experimentation into “the unknown.”
It was immensely rewarding to have the opportunity to create and perform Intergalactic Beings and to dig deeper into the wealth of Octavia Butler’s work and my own compositional expression through this process. I am extremely thankful to my commissioner, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and especially Program Directors Yolanda Cursach and Peter Taub for their encouragement and support for this project. I am also extremely thankful to the members of Black Earth Ensemble, who were a great support through their friendship and musicianship in helping bring this project to fruition. Big thanks also to Matt Pakukski for having the vision to release it on his new FPE label, to Dennis O’Shea for recording, Griffin Rodriguez for mixing/mastering, and Doris Duke Foundation for their support in my artistic journey.
Nicole M. Mitchell, Composer/Creative Flutist
Xenogenesis II: Intergalactic Beings
(Text by Nicole M. Mitchell)
I. Phases of Subduction Phase 1: Abduction/Subjection Phase 2: Seduction Phase 3: Submission Phase 4: Suction
You have been abducted and now are subjected to a situation with an end game you wish with all your life energy to avoid—mating with your captors, who are non-humans. Yet, it is the only choice for your survival. Though they disgust you, as they are covered with tentacles from head to toe, you realize that they offer the most fulfilling sensual experience imaginable. You resist their seduction, but the allure is too great and you eventually submit to their suction.
II. Cycle of Metamorphosis
Crystal circular rotations of brain motion. Desire not to change. But transformation is inevitable. So subtle that the mind can not draw the line to find the start of it. Already in motion from the eyes interlocking in meeting the held breath of fear and lust. Intertwined to meld new consciousness with the resistance of old and familiar. So twisted is fate, so uncertain and without consent. It is here.
III. The Ooli Moves
There is a beauty to this obscene dance. It is somehow natural though impossible to accept. It is an ancient calling to return home beyond the stars. Perhaps the blood and matter of our bones remember.
IV. Dripping Matter
Dripping matter is the oozing of change, before its crystallization into something we can identify. In the cocoon, it is living dark space energy, potential with disgust and vibrant with life.
V. Negotiating Identity
There must be resistance to change. The effort brings meaning and bliss to the inevitable. Perhaps it determines what is most important to us, what must remain with us without question. The one or two things that we take of who we are when we enter the doorway to metamorphosis.
VI. Web of Hope
Hope is memory, a brightness. We climb carefully on the web. We hope it can contain us along with our wishes, our desires and comforts. The questions and the innocence...if we dig deep enough into our memory, childhood can bring resilience that we need to enter this new door.
VII. Fields of Possibility
Fields are magnetic and multidirectional. Where is the path, which is the answer of where to go? The sense of losing self. When wonder overwhelms and beauty reaches the edge to horror. Fields are emptiness and full of potential, full of micro-motion and empty of definition. Fields are the realm of confusion, where there is no where else to go, be- cause anywhere is everywhere.
VIII. Resisting Entanglement
Tangled into blissful seduction, there is a last jolt of resistance to pull away, to remember one’s self. To be independent and free of the adventure one has already decided to embark on. To go back to what was. It is not a whole resistance, as the transformation has already begun.
IX. The Inevitable
What you knew from the beginning has become. The metamorphosis. The submission to reverence, to a new way that you resisted with most of your being. Submission to what you denied all along: that life meets and joins with life, in spite of difference. That difference is like a stone, hardened and unmovable, but that life is water flowing over the stone. And those that live are joined in the water, bobbing and floating in its streams where-ever it chooses to take us.
released April 15, 2014
Intergalactic Beings (Xenogenesis II) was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and recorded live on April 22, 2010 by Dennis O’Shea at MCA Stage. Mixing and mastering was engineered by Griffin Rodriguez at Shape Shop II. This project was supported in part by the Doris Duke Foundation.
Intergalactic Beings was composed and arranged by Nicole M. Mitchell, Wheatgoddess Creations, ASCAP.
Nicole Mitchell flute, composition
Mankwe Ndosi vocals
David Boykin tenor sax, bass clarinet
David Young trumpet
Renee Baker violin
Tomeka Reid cello
Jeff Parker electric guitar
Joshua Abrams bass
Avreeayl Ra percussion
Marcus Evans drumset