Xenogensesis II: Intergalactic Beings (4/30/2010)
I purchased a copy of Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild at a secondhand bookstore and let it rest on my shelf for years as next-to-read. Fortunately, it was in my bag when I was shuttled from the ER to a hospital for a week-long stay: I possessed a means of transport away from a battered attempt at sterility and the monotony of crisis to an intense, sparse yet beautifully rendered world. I was reading Octavia Butler. Therefore, when Nicole Mitchell’s jazz composition Xenogenesis II: Intergalactic Beings, a tribute to Octavia Butler, appeared on the program notice for Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, I jumped at the chance to see it.
Mitchell and the Black Earth Ensemble presented this nine-part composition, the second part of a three-part contemplation of the unexpected result of nuclear conflagration, on a barren stage without sets or elaborate effects. As Mitchell is a noted visionary, it is not surprising that she chose to produce work inspired by the speculative author, nor is it surprising that the aural reverberations transported me just as much as Butler’s description of altered societies and beings. What did make me pause was the complete engagement that evolved between an almost full theater and the extremely innovative and almost alien sounds alternately squeaking, screaming, swelling, and rolling from the stage.
The composer and musicians came on to the stage half-draped in sheets of papery, crumpled chiffon over black clothing. White robes are conventionally associated with angels, but the intergalactic beings of the title have a more ominous mission: they seek to save the human species through abducting subjects for seduction and interbreeding. The themes of conquest and exploitation clearly mirror aspects of American history. However, these topics are presented as evocative echoes, not didactic hammer falls. The nine-movement piece is subtly wrought and ultimately powerful, starting with the stealing of our species and ending with inescapable metamorphosis. Xenogenesis manifests a haunting reminder of Octavia Butler’s verse: “All that you touch/You Change./ All that you Change/Changes you./ The only lasting truth/ is Change./ God/is Change.”