Before EarthSeed, flutist and composer Nicole Mitchell had already composed two large-scale works inspired by the work of sci-fi novelist Octavia Butler. This third one, a collaboration with opera composer and multimedia artist Lisa E. Harris, is different on multiple levels—but most glaringly in its humor. Where Mitchell’s Xenogenesis Suite and Intergalactic Beings could crush the listener with their heavy content, Harris leavens the proceedings; on one piece, “Yes and Know,” she even turns laughter itself into a motif. That alone makes EarthSeed, if no less abstract than its predecessors, a more accessible and fun listen.
The laughter is part of a vast array of vocal noises, timbres, and techniques that form the album’s dominant element. “Phallus and Chalice” finds Harris and male vocalist Julian Otis wordlessly conversing/bickering, with interjections from an uncredited third voice (probably Mitchell’s), to the delight of the audience. (The album was recorded live at the Art Institute of Chicago.) Their exchanges are shadowed by Mitchell and a chamber ensemble of violinist Zara Zaharieva, trumpeter Ben LaMar Gay, cellist Tomeka Reid, and percussionist Avreeayl Ra. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition: The instruments play the kind of atonal counterpoint one expects from free jazz, but the context of the vocals gives them a sense of focus and purpose.
Still, Harris and Otis offer plenty of operatic performances and text recitations between the strange noises and expectorations, while the ensemble plays some consonant, often delicate arrangements and improvisations—though usually in service of the vocals, as on the lovely “Ownness”—between its outside excursions. (Notably, Mitchell’s flute is among the least prominent voices; one wonders if she similarly took a secondary place in the work’s creation.) In toto, it forms a whole that is unearthly but also familiar and compelling, much like Butler’s tales of strange universes that uncannily reflect our own.