Magnificent, Monumental and Mighty Good
By A.J. Wachtel
The mark of a truly great artist can be seen in multiple ways. Longevity, creativity and the ability to master many manners to communicate and express one’s tremendous talents, are all part of the picture. Roberto Mighty may not be the most famous member of our entertainment environment but he positively provides part of the foundation, stability and passion that makes our local scene stronger and more important than any other industry, in any other area, around. Read on and see why Mighty is powerfully prestigious and looms large around town.
Noise: When you were an undergraduate student at Boston University in the ’70’s you played guitar in the premier funk band in town Hypertension. Can you give a brief history of the band? Why didn’t you become nationally known? How have you seen the music scene for an artist change over the past four decades?
Roberto Mighty: As a freshman at BU in 1972, I admired the BU-based band Confunktion. Horn section, bass, guitar, drummer and percussionist, playing covers of songs by Earth, Wind & Fire; Tower of Power; Kool & The Gang, etc. The band had been together and gigging before then, but their lead guitarist/bandleader was graduating. I auditioned for lead guitar and was lucky enough to get in. The next year, 1973, a band from California, “Con Funk Shun”, released an album nationwide. So we changed our name to “Hypertension”. I became bandleader around that time. Our band was TIGHT, and included horn players from the Berklee College of Music, The New England Conservatory, and a lead singer from Tufts. We played college dances all over the Greater Boston area. We didn’t become nationally known, I think, because our core, BU-based guys were liberal arts students (pre-med, pre-law, college of communication, liberal arts, etc.). The Conservatory and Berklee guys went on to make careers in the music business. The rest of us moved on to other fields. Also, we didn’t focus on writing or producing our own material. We enjoyed playing covers of chart hits. That’s fun, but it rarely leads to being taken seriously by the press or the music business.The music scene has changed over the 44 (!!!) years between 1972 and now. Back then, bands got experience by playing live at dances, clubs, coffeehouses, bars and other events. Nowadays, most local venues use DJ’s to spin records instead of hiring bands.
Noise: Roberto Mighty wears many hats. You are a multi-media artist, filmmaker, photographer, sound designer and musician. Can you briefly tell me what you do in each field?
Mighty: I’ve written and produced music for radio, TV and films; written and produced prime time TV for Channel 5; produced documentaries; directed audiobooks with bestselling authors; and now my first scripted dramatic short film, Peach Pie, which was an official selection this June for the California International Short Film Festival. I’m now writing the screenplay for my first feature film. My multi-media art encompasses all of the technical and aesthetic skills I ever learned, plus, hopefully, an artistic point of view! The disciplines include writing, cinematography, directing actors, video editing, photography, sound design and original music.
Noise: Is there a common attraction behind all of these different branches for you? Is there anything similar in making a good documentary, shooting a great photo, and composing and performing an incredible song?
Mighty: That is a GREAT and perceptive question! The best documentaries, films, photos, art exhibits and songs – in fact, any kind of artistic expression — have these things in common: You, the artist, knowing the subject inside and out; working obsessively at it day and night over an extended period of time; economy of expression…i.e., paring away unnecessary material; and, finally, taking the audience on a narrative journey. That last component — “taking the audience on a narrative journey” — is, to my mind, the single most important thing. It’s not about the facts. It’s about the story This makes me think about incredible musical performances I’ve seen: James Brown at The Channel; YES at Boston Garden; B.B. King at Boston University; Gil Shaham at Symphony Hall – in each case, they took the audience on a narrative journey. We forgot where we were and went on a trip!
Noise: Your interactive exhibitions and artist talks take place online, in museums, colleges, galleries, community organizations and visitor centers. Can you give me a few examples of what you’ve done in all these different formats so my readers can get a better and more complete picture of your many great talents?
Mighty: My work at Harvard Forest was exhibited at Harvard’s Fisher Museum in 2012, and I’ve done presentations about that project at the National Science Foundation headquarters in Virginia; American University in Washington DC; and the Old South Church in Boston. My project about how dead trees express the circle of life, “Trees of My City,” was exhibited at the Scandinavian Cultural Center; Newton Free Library; and the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. It’s great when this sort of work is seen not just in museums, but out where the general public can stumble across it.
Noise: You are an Adjunct Professor at Emerson College and have also taught at Boston University’s College of Communication. After successful careers in audio TV and video production you now concentrate on art-making that involves nature, science, history and the human condition. What does this mean specifically with examples in plain english?
Mighty: When I was a freelance TV producer (1996-2004, Food New England; This Amazing House; PossLTR), I had to be mindful, at all times, of what the sponsors might want…or not want; and also what might “offend” viewers. As an Audiobook Director (HarperCollins, Random House, Prentice-Hall, Houghton-Mifflin, etc.), I was obviously limited to the words on the page already written by the author. Nowadays, as a full-time multimedia artist/ filmmaker/ musician, I can express my own thoughts and feelings.
Themes that fascinate me include nature, the physical sciences, American history and the human condition. In terms of the human condition, my new dramatic short film, Peach Pie, is about mental illness, the effects of PTSD on a war widow, and parenting. Regarding nature and science, my work at Harvard, First Contact: Puritans, Native Americans and the Clash Over Land in 1630 is about how native hunter-gatherers (the Native Americans) and settler farmers (the Puritans) used the land in different, incompatible, and ultimately tragic ways. That project encompassed my feelings about what we now call ecology, and it was an honor to be able to get background information from the ecologists, botanists, entomologists and climatologists at Harvard Forest to help inform that project.
Noise: From 2014 to the present you are filming 79 people around the states for Getting Older, a documentary and multi-media installation about aging in America. What have you found out about the subject in doing this that surprises you?
Mighty: In Getting.Older I spend time filming each person going about their daily lives, then ask each one the same 21 questions, leading to a cinematic documentary survey of life in our country during this era, and an online database of 1,659 candid answers on video to intimate questions. What has surprised me the most so far is how many people, regardless of how unlike they are on the surface, have similar things to say! For example the African-American gay male caterer and the white country club woman tennis player both talk about the importance of speaking your mind and being true to yourself. Another thing: several older women talk about regretting the time they spent in their first marriage. So far, not a single older man has mentioned this. It’s important to me that I get a range of Americans, not just geographically, but also in terms of diversity. The participants include a transgendered Harvard astrophysicist; a retired Missouri church lady who teaches yoga; a struggling Vermont cattle rancher; a ballroom-dancing Chinese language teacher; a retired Naval officer who lost his son to cancer; a California mountain climber trying to make it as a Hollywood actor; a Puerto-Rican opera singer, and many others
Noise: From 2014 till next year you are the first artist in residence at the 183 year old Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. The 174 acre cemetery, founded in 1831, is on the U.S. Registrar of Historic Places and is a U.S. historic landmark. You are creating Earth Sky, a site-specific multi-screen digital multi-media installation based on the landscape of the cemetery and stories of some of the 98,000 people buried there. What will this entail and care to share some of the more interesting people resting there?
Mighty: My current artist residency project, earth.sky will be exhibited in an immersive, multi-screen exhibit at Mount Auburn Cemetery on Thursday evening, November 10th. After that, audiences will be able to see many of my 35 films online at earthdotsky.com, a special art exhibit website that I’m creating now. For the residency, I’m making a total of 35 short films on people, aspects of American history, the passage of the seasons, and our changing attitudes towards death. I use five different cameras and several ways of mounting them. My films mostly consist of images (shot day and night across all four seasons for two years) of the modern-day cemetery landscape and voice over excerpts from historical letters. read by local actors. For sound design, I record cemetery noises – birds, leaves rustling, ponds, small animals, etc., and then digitally manipulate those sounds in my studio to add emphasis and contrast to some of the visual and historical narrative material. After each film is complete – they range in length from 30 seconds to seven minutes – I combine them using computers, four simultaneous projectors and 5.1 surround sound. I’ve chosen to make artistic profiles of 16 (out of over 98,000) people interred at Mount Auburn. They include an escaped slave from Virginia who became a successful tailor on Beacon Hill; an Iranian Child Psychologist who loved the writing of a woman dissident poet; a Harvard medical student who, in order to treat patients, knowingly exposed himself to smallpox in 1859; a singer in Boston’s Gay Men’s Chorus; a Jewish-American short story writer; a 19th-century advocate for the mentally ill; and one of America’s greatest mathematicians and cryptographers. I’ve previously done smaller versions of this sort of project at Harvard Forest, the Arnold Arboretum, and Lesley University, where I got my MFA in visual arts in 2011.
Noise: Roberto & Kathryn (Howell) is your current music endeavor. You play acoustic guitar and Kathryn sings. Can you tell us a bit about your music side today and your current band? I’ve heard your cover of Ella Fitzgerald’s 1955 jazz standard “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.” What songs and style of music does your set list consist of?
Mighty: Roberto & Kathryn has been together since 2008. Here’s how it all started: I played electric lead guitar (Fender Strat, Marshall amp) for years – mostly blues, soul and rock – starting in junior high school and on up through middle age, here in Boston. LOVED IT. But hearing Joe Pass’ Virtuoso solo jazz guitar album changed my life. It came out in 1973, but I don’t think I heard it until about 1992. I’d never heard anything like it – one cat playing bass, rhythm and melody, all simultaneously, SWINGIN’, over complicated chord changes. It took me several years to work up the courage, but by 2007, I quit the blues band and began practicing jazz guitar. In about a year, I was looking for someone to play with. A mutual friend introduced Kathryn Howell (an amazing singer who knows jazz standards backwards and forwards) and me, and the rest is history. We started playing songs by Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday and Cole Porter, and nine months later, we fell in love. We’ve been inseparable musically and romantically ever since. We exclusively play as a duo. Kathryn does almost all of the singing. I play acoustic guitar, electro-acoustic bass guitar, sing some harmonies and sing a few solo songs. Kathryn also plays acoustic guitar, ukulele and bass guitar. Our set list consists of jazz standards, jazzed-out show tunes, originals and pop songs. Songs include “Night and Day,” “Here’s That Rainy Day,” “How High The Moon,” “Round Midnight,” “All The Things You Are,” and modern tunes by Lizz Wright, Amy Winehouse, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and originals. For the guitar players out there, here’s my rig: A Giannini Flamenco nylon string guitar; a Yamaha electric-acoustic nylon string guitar with a narrow neck; a Line 6 electric classical guitar with a wider neck; an Ibanez electric-acoustic bass with wound strings; a handmade Spanish classical guitar with nylon strings; and an Ibanez dreadnought steel string acoustic guitar with a Piezo pickup. I play with no effects through a Behringer amp made for acoustic instruments. After eight years of playing exclusively finger style acoustic, I’m interested in getting back into the blues, and in learning how to shred. Currently looking at the new lineup of PRS guitars.
Noise: Any advice to a struggling artist trying to get their music heard or their art seen in these difficult times?
Mighty: My advice to a struggling artist trying to get their music heard or their art seen is this:
#1: Practice, study, perform. Repeat. The greats didn’t get there by accident. Read the biographies of your favorite art/ music role models and prepare to be humbled by their commitment and sacrifice for their art. If you’re a musician, practice like mad, study – it’s not cheating to take lessons – then play with people who are above your level. If you’re an artist, work like mad, then get into exhibits with people who are above your level. Keep doing that. For the rest of your life. Ya dig?
#2: Be as original as you can. After you’ve learned your discipline/instrument – keep learning, but forget about imitating others. The large and growing music/ art market thrives on the new and unusual. So, go boldly where other artists and musicians aren’t going. Resist the temptation to cover the work of other musicians or artists, except to learn how they did it. Then take that knowledge and do your own thing, incorporating bits and pieces of your unique autobiography. Unless, of course, you’re a genius like Steve Ray Vaughn… in which case, your sheer virtuosity can make something people have heard before sound completely new! Think about it. What sets Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, James Brown and Nina Simone (my references betray my age!) apart? Well, for one thing, their sound is unmistakable, and they created their own sound. Sure, their style is based on the foundation of previous musicians, but there’s no mistaking Jimi, Carlos, James or Nina for any other artist BEFORE them. Same thing is true in the visual art world. Frida Kahlo, Romare Bearden, Vincent Van Gogh. Originals. That sets them apart and, not incidentally, makes their work more valuable in the art marketplace.