Getting to know…Nicole Mitchell

Flutist, jazz composer & UCI music professor Nicole Mitchell’s latest album “Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds” earned raves from critics and music enthusiasts. Here, she talks about her musical influences and what inspires her about Southern California — and UCI.

Credit: Kristi Sutton Elais

Influences & Inspirations

The science fiction writer, Octavia Butler, has been a great inspiration for my music, because I admire her ability to compel readers towards a deep inquiry into the social complexities of our times, but presented through her futuristic fantasy. What I love about utilizing sci-fi concepts in my music, is that it serves as a great vehicle to encourage audiences to embrace the unknown, which opens their minds to hear different sounds and journey with the musicians to new places, where they might also confront challenging realities on what I call “the edge of beauty.”

Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble

Nicole Mitchell in The New York Times

“Music has the power to be transformative…we can create visionary worlds through music that can allow us to see alternatives in the way we live.”

Credit: Visit Long Beach

Southern California living

Right now I’m living in Long Beach, California, and it’s so inspiring to live in a city that really is trying its best to be progressive. My neighborhood is multi-ethnic, economically mixed and the people are super friendly. It’s a kind of paradise. Segregation has historically endured in many places in the U.S., and because I’ve lived in several different racially monotonic areas in the past, I recognize and appreciate that diversity. Southern California also has incredible potential for beauty in terms of its offerings of ocean, desert and mountains. I do hope we wake up to see how these beautiful things are being compromised by pollution.

Creating a better climate at UCI

At UCI, I’m also very thankful to have amazing colleagues within the ICIT program, at Claire Trevor School of the Arts, and on the wider campus. As a co-chair with Daniel Wehrenfennig on the Council on Climate, Culture and Inclusion, it’s a real privilege for me to connect with colleagues all over campus that want to ensure that UC Irvine is a healthy and welcoming place to be.

Mitchell’s latest album cover

Innovation in music and teaching

I was very attracted to UCI’s new program in Integrated Composition Improvisation and Technology. As an experimental improvisor, my identity in the jazz field has tended to be controversial, but as the ICIT program uniquely embraces improvisation in all forms and from different cultural positions, I fit right in. In many university music programs, there are silos between composers, improvisers and technologists, but here at UCI, they are all connected, which is beautiful. My teaching directly connects to my creative research as a composer, whereas, the projects and themes that I explore directly go into the classroom. Some of my research interests are expressions of resistance and resilience in contemporary African American culture, music and social justice, intercultural collaboration and compositions for improvisers. Recently, I just started teaching a new class called “Sounds of Resistance: Black Music and Social Justice,” where I help students to unwrap the social messages and identity politics that can be found in jazz, reggae, afrobeat, and hip-hop, that are often overlooked by audiences. I also teach composition and improvisation to grads and undergrads, which gives me the opportunity to help students develop their own language and voice as creative artists. Jazz history, my largest class of over 200 students, gives me the privilege of directly sharing my knowledge and experiences in the jazz field, while also providing students a window to reframe their knowledge of American history. That’s very satisfying.

Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, a rotating group founded in the mid-1990s.

Contributing to student success

What excites me about the ICIT students about their creative work is that they are constantly addressing fascinating issues as a part of their musical process. They ask, what is the relationship between humans and machines in making music? How can we disrupt hierarchal belief systems through music? Can a musical composition introduce musicians and the audience into the experience of a new cultural identity? Just this quarter, one of our new ICIT students, Omar Hamido, did a project utilizing cell phones as remotely controlled musical instruments, and as a notation source for music improvisation. Another ICIT student, Borey Shin, is developing research that explores Asian American creative identity in experimental music. The possibilities are endless!

Learn more about UCI’s Integrated Composition Improvisation & Technology program:

Nicole Mitchell’s website:

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