On October 16, Paul Steinbeck, an Assistant Professor of Music Theory at Washington University in St. Louis, will give a talk entitled “Analyzing Performer-Audience Interaction in Roscoe Mitchell’s Nonaah.”
August 28, 1976: Roscoe Mitchell took the stage at the Jazz Festival Willisau as a last-minute replacement for Anthony Braxton. Some audience members applauded when Mitchell appeared on stage, but the Braxton fans greeted him with catcalls and jeers. To Mitchell, this inauspicious welcome felt like a confrontation, and he resolved to gain control of the situation by performing his solo saxophone composition Nonaah.
Instead of playing through the entire piece, Mitchell decided to repeat just the opening phrase. After only one repetition, the festivalgoers started to react. Mitchell’s supporters shouted their approval, while his detractors interpreted the insistent repeating phrase as a provocation. In fact, Mitchell was engaged in a musical experiment. From one repetition to the next, he held certain elements constant and radically varied others, pushing the phrase to its parametric limits and calibrating his variations to produce verbal, vocal, and bodily responses from the crowd. Mitchell stayed with this experiment for nearly one hundred phrase repetitions, until the last skeptics finally yielded.
A close analysis of the Willisau recording demonstrates how Mitchell’s performance of Nonaah emerged from his real-time interactions with the audience. As the performance unfolds, Mitchell’s dynamic contrasts, bent pitches, and complex timbres elicit audible responses from the crowd. Many of these sonic devices are associated with free jazz, but recent empirical research shows that these sounds can cause intense listener responses in any musical context. Mitchell’s performance corroborates these empirical findings—and suggests that certain stylistic markers of free jazz have a psychological basis.