Die Zeit – 8 July 2020

The voice of the revolution

Hannah Schmidt

On the way to a really new kind of music: The British singer and composer Elaine Mitchener

There are moments in her works where you can only hear Elaine Mitchener breathing. Sniff, groan, breathe, moan. You can hear the sounds that lungs, throat and mouth make as she moves on stage, you can hear the breathing and exhalation, yes, you can hear the singer and performer here, the person Elaine Mitchener in a very elementary way.

On the one hand, it is a virtuoso manifesto, a declaration of love for the singing that she studied in London. On the other hand, this breath is highly political. Because it is the breath of a black woman in a genre dominated by white as well as male: classical music. The phrase “I can’t breathe” – “I can’t breathe” – has not only been a painful trauma since the death of George Floyd in the Black Lives Matter movement. “I can’t breathe” were also the last words of Eric Garner, who was strangled by a police officer in 2014. It was the last words of Javier Amblers II, Byron Williams, Manuel Ellis, Christopher Lowes and Derrick Scotts, all of whom were killed by police violence.

Elaine Mitchener knows all of these stories. The daughter of Jamaican parents, who grew up in the East End of London in the 1970s, saw herself influenced early on by her father’s political activism and her mother’s Christian thinking: on Sundays, reggae and dub music were played at such a volume “that the walls shook” she told me in a zoom interview at the end of June. Lively, powerful songs about God, africanism, freedom struggles and the future. She and her siblings read books and played with toys that parents had chosen carefully. “The representation of black people in London was anything but positive between the 1970s and 1990s,” says Mitchener. “I’m glad my parents were aware of that.” She describes her growing up as the story of an early politicization.

For several years now, Elaine Mitchener has been working on her social concerns in collaborative performances: in intricate combinations of vocal work, facial expressions, gestures and choreography, images, light and texts (mostly African and Afro-Caribbean authors). This results in half-hour to full-length, meticulously curated works of art. With SWEET TOOTH, for example, in 2017 she erected a sound monument in memory of the survivors of the slave trade – a staged concert in which she sings amongst a violinist, a baritone saxophonist and a drummer, moving through the space, twitching, screaming, whispering, over a red beam of light. Duets alternate with glaring solitude, reflecting, remembering, asking questions.

In her philosophical solo opera Of Leonardo da Vinci (2015) or in her latest, surrealist-collage-like work the then + the now = now time from 2019, the singing arises from her physicality as a performer – and, equally her movements follow her voice . The choreography cannot be separated from the voice and the breath from the text. Just as Mitchener’s womanhood and blackness cannot be detached from the context in which she shows her art.

SWEET TOOTH is the best example of a work of art which relevance keeps growing, becoming even more immediate from place to place and from audience to audience. “It’s not a treatise on being a victim,” says Mitchener, “but a piece of resistance, strength and triumph.” Is it a sign of progress for you that black people are increasingly being asked to talk about their historical trauma? Mitchener sees this ambivalently: experiences such as racist abuse and systemic oppression at work, at school, at college are being relived – to the voyeuristic benefit of those who until recently had not given a thought to the issue of racism. They and their musicians would not have to prepare for days on end for every performance for nothing.

So far, the realities of black people have not had a part on our stages. “I don’t know anyone else who deals with these topics,” says Björn Gottstein, the director of the Donaueschingen Music Festival, where Elaine Mitchener will perform for the first time this year. He became aware of her work at Ultima Festival in Oslo a few years ago. For years he says, the scene has been grappling with the question “where should New Music go, how can we take social changes into account? Elaine Mitchener shows us ways of expanding the genre, she is able to open new avenues.” Through her perspective and personal history, through her vision of opera and music theatre, through her idea of an art that interferes with society.

In a program text for the then + the now = now time from March 2019, Mitchener wrote almost prophetically: “The tearing down of historical monuments or the smashing of religious icons is the last act at the moment of the revolution, the one act that confirms that new ideas and energies have emerged to block or redirect the flow of history.” Perhaps she is herself a kind of embodiment of such energies, which in the coming years and decades could fundamentally reform so-called classical music and smash its truths apparently set in stone. “We cannot ignore the canon”, says Mitchener, “but it can be modernised by decolonising the musical curriculum.”

One has to ask whether non-white composers were specifically excluded from the canon by Eurocentric musicologists, historians, directors, teachers and critics. “The reasons for this may be varied,” says Mitchener. “But they are essentially based on the fact that the Western world thinks it knows what classical music is and how it should sound.” Her conclusion is radical: “From my point of view, these views have so far prevented real ‘new music’.” This year it looks like the door to fundamental aesthetic rethinking has opened a crack.

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