On Being Human As Praxis at MaerzMusik

What does it mean to be human? And what does it mean in our present time? Elaine Mitchener draws on feminist writings by Jamaican cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter to engage with these fundamental issues – and contrasts the European-colonial concept of humanity with a praxis of being human that needs to be learnt anew.

“Human beings are magical. Bios and Logos. Words made flesh, muscle and bone animated by hope and desire, belief materialized in deeds, deeds which crystallize our actualities […] And the maps of spring always have to be redrawn again, in undared forms.” (Sylvia Wynter, 1995: 35, drawing on Aimé Césaire)

Live premiere

Sunday 19 March 2023, 8pm
Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Main Stage

Jason Yarde
THE PROBLEM WITH HUMANS Volume 1 – An Overview From Under (2020)
for voice and ensemble

Matana Roberts
Gasping for air / considering your purpose / Dissolving (2020)
for voice and ensemble

Laure M. Hiendl
It’s Called White Radiance™ (the brand name) (2020)
for voice, ensemble and electronics

Tansy Davies
The Rule is Love (2019)
a song cycle for contralto and chamber ensemble
1. Music Began
2. High Priestess
3. Bios and Logos
4. Spinning in Infinity

George Lewis
H. narrans (2020)
for voice and ensemble


Elaine Mitchener concept, vocal soloist (contralto)
Dam Van Huynh choreographer, director
Ieva Navickaite dance
Tommaso Petrolo dance
Michael Picknett Lighting

MAM.manufaktur für aktuelle musik:

Heather Roche clarinet
Paul Hübner trumpet
Sabrina Ma drums
Sarah Saviet violin
Caleb Salgado double bass

A coproduction of Berliner Festspiele / MaerzMusik and the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program
Supported by Fonds Darstellende Künste with funds from the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media.

This project was commissioned by Donaueschinger Musiktage 2020 and has not yet been presented with a live audience.


Artist reflection

The concept behind this project comes from the title of a collection of works by the Jamaican feminist writer and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter which was edited by Katherine McKittrick. I find Wynter’s deep and critical insights on how race, geography, and time together inform what it means to be human completely inspirational.

Following conversations with the former Director of Donaueschinger Musiktage Björn Gottstein, in 2017, it was clear that I had to act on my understanding of the complex of ideas in Wynter’s work and present the results for the festival in 2020. Little did we know in 2017 that two years later a global pandemic would effectively stop the world in its tracks, cloaking us in silence, heightening our senses, reconnecting with our humanity.

My work is centred around encounter/engagement and enactment be it physical/emotional/political/spiritual, and is always an attempt to synthesise this experience for performer/observer (audience members). It was also vitally important for me to present a work that reflected the broad church that is contemporary new music in the 21st century. So I invited five composers from African-Diasporic and European backgrounds to compose works inspired by Wynter’s texts and ideas to be performed by myself and Ensemble MAM.manufaktur für aktuelle musik. Each work poses questions on what it means to be human, as well as the struggle between western ideas of “Man” v Human and how this struggle is fundamental to patterns of injustice throughout the world. The composers have responded by composing works on multiple levels encompassing numerous creative and intellectual modes of expression: hope, pain, joy …

In order to construct an hour-long performance where both myself and the ensemble would be physically working the space, I recruited my long-term collaborator, the Vietnamese-American choreographer/director Dam Van Huynh. Along with two members of his dance company, he has crafted and shaped space – what I view as the working mechanisms of the piece – and together with my vocal improvisations constructed a way to fuse the different pieces of the work together to create a coherent whole.

Our group have creatively responded to Wynter’s startling reconceptualization of the human and her attempts to rehistoricize humanness as praxis. The killing of George Floyd which sparked worldwide demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter, Climate Change activism and social justice demonstrations, made the work even more prescient. This musical exploration of what it means to be human can also be experienced as an excavation of the self, removing our masks (existential and real in our (post?) Covid-19 world) and exposing the vulnerabilities and strengths to reset, restore, renew, rebalance. – Elaine Mitchener

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