National Sawdust – March 2019

In Review: MaerzMusik Festival

Steve Smith

“Her performance at Silent Green – an old crematorium converted into a cultural center – hit hard.”

Berlin’s MaerzMusik Festival calls itself a “Festival for Time Issues,” and in an essay about this year’s fifth edition artistic director Berno Odo Polzer writes that current installment “dedicates its ten days to questions pertaining to history and historiography. History understood as an alive, animate, spirited realm that reaches deep into the now.” Indeed, many of the performances I experienced examined or drew upon the past as crucial source material, drawing attention to events, movements, and thinking that still weighs heavily on the present, especially in an era where there’s so much reckoning, denial, and revisionism of the past in how it relates to where we’re all headed.

The past is continually reopened—necessarily; ripped off like a scab covering an unhealed wound. Additionally, the programming of the festival juggled aesthetics of the past, present, and future – often uncomfortably so – in connecting concerts that represented an institutional strain of contemporary music (presented in storied concert halls) with something much more underground and questioning (heard in repurposed industrial spaces).

The premiere of the then + the now=now time, by British vocalist and movement artist Elaine Mitchener (pictured above), laid bare many of these ideas. Her performance at Silent Green – an old crematorium converted into a cultural center – hit hard. Citing Walter Benjamin’s concept of Eingedenken, a coinage that conveys a memory blending remembrance and mindfulness – not to erase or memorialize the past, but to reshape it as a living thing – the singer and her choreographer, Dam Van Huynh, created a single-performer work that loosely wove together movement streaked with violence and visceral struggle, quotations from Benjamin, bell hooks, Sojourner Truth, James Baldwin, and Abel Meeropol related to Benjamin’s concept, the lyrics of Billie Holiday’s forever-bracing “Strange Fruit,” and elliptical imagery by the Mitchener herself.

Mitchener, who’s an adept within multiple musical traditions, including improvisation, functioned as a multivalent vessel, stringing together images and memories of what the descendants of African slaves have been forced to endure in the U.K. and the U.S., among other locales. She stretched, repeated, and reordered words with the dexterity and resourcefulness of a seasoned improviser, extracting shifting meanings and changing emphasis.

Her presence was intense. She arrived on the stage and seemed to survey the audience, peering out with a mixture of fearlessness and suspicion, before wending her way through the thorny text. Her singing was packed with extended techniques – clicking, snorts, growls – that punctuated phrases like, “The true picture of the past whizzes by / Only as a picture…is the past to be held fast.” For much of the piece she was accompanied by a collage-like backing track that included a British MP reflecting on the inhumanity visited upon the descendants of slaves despite their having served in the British armed services in both world wars, throbbing low-end bass tones, crowd noises, some kind of Caribbean folk song—imbuing diverse meaning to the torn-apart words she sung.

Mitchener’s piece deliberately asked questions without clear answers—as if there ever could be one. She provided an act of interrogation rife with pain and confusion, leaving a trail of memory that required heavy sorting and contemplation on the viewer’s part.

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