Interview: Robert Mitchell

RobertmitchellwebJazz, choral, classical and improvised music are the different musical strands feeding into classical composer Robert Mitchell’s latest work, Invocation. The piece is his most ambitious to date, creating a ‘transcendental sound’ achieved by the combined voices of over 100 choral performers.

The new work brings together Grammy winning Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, young music students from Avonbourne and Harewood Colleges and Mitchell’s jazz quartet, Panacea and is expected to be a highlight at the Bournemouth Arts by the Sea festival and London Jazz Festival.

We quizzed Robert ahead of its debut tomorrow (Friday 26 September) to discover the inspiration behind the piece…

How did you first get into music?

There was always music in the family, a piano in the house. My dad used to sing and gave me the opportunity to take lessons. Added to that was having a music and piano teacher who lived closely. It was the close proximity of all those factors.

What drew you to jazz?

At that time, pop and rock were always on the radio while my dad sang a mix of spiritual and classical music. There was a lot of sheet music – Paul Robeson, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gershwin – they were in the air as his heroes. Jazz came during my mid-teens really. I remember hearing Oscar Peterson for the first time on Capital Radio. I guess hearing that changed my life.

Invocation is due to debut in Bournemouth at the Arts festival – could you explain the creative process behind the piece?

It’s a tribute to some of my most inspirational teachers. They can be often be the person that ties things together or inspires you to try things that you wouldn’t have done otherwise. In lots of cases they can save people from trouble and change their lives.

It is extremely tough for teachers. So it would be nice to have something like this as a thank you. It’s not something I see very often. We’re behind in being able to thank our teachers – and just bring out more respect for the passing on of information in a beautiful way. So it’s a huge thank you.

There are six movements and inbetween them there are quotations from teachers – magical figures from different cultures as a nice punctuation for what is over an hour of music.

What sounds are you drawing on?

It became cross-genre after developing some of the initial ideas. The earliest part is as ambitious as a symphony. So it has been a challenge for me to write and the band to play. The fantastic way this has developed has been able to give my choir an expanded vision of the music.

It takes its own life, then it reacts to a conductor and we have to land on the ground from the improvised movement. I think choirs are magical. After a gig I was playing with a great sax player Steve Williamson we came back to our hotel and came across what we thought were just some elderly gents sitting up in the lobby. They were actually a Welsh male voice choir.  We got talking to one of them and he’d been in this choir for 50 years.

I’ve always appreciated my heroes and their powers but if they’ve also managed to get longevity within that as well, to keep being creative and innovative for the duration, my hat is always off for that. It’s not an easy thing to do. I think the challenges are more numerous these days just with the speed of  technology and the internet. People don’t appreciate the sincerity, solitude and space you need to develop and create things. You may have to search hard for creative inspiration. It’s not always as simple as clocking in at the same time.

How long has Invocation been in the works?

We did some earlier music last year. The singer in my band, Deborah Jordan, lives in Bournemouth and has been a member of the choir for some time. She’d given the chorus master one of my band’s CDs and he really enjoyed it. The other side of it was doing this Southampton residency with 15 voices. It’s been a good while but I didn’t start out thinking it was going to be of this scale. It’s a lot of work within the team and we can’t wait to hear what people think.

What’s next for the piece after the London Jazz Festival?

Yes we’re in the process of planning either a tour or series of residencies. We’d dearly love to do more with the Bournemouth choruses but we’d also like to work with different choruses too. That’s the broader plan for it next year and beyond.

What else does the future have in store?

Pretty much more writing and study. More playing with the group, both solo and with others. You just never know what may come of it.

Visit the Bournemouth Arts by the Sea Festival website to find out more about the piece.

robertmitchellmusic.com