terzwerk – 2 July 2020
Composing in the Golden 20s
“I think we should be activists. We should work to change society.”
Looking back: More than 100 years ago, the French composer Lili Boulanger was the first woman to win the Grand Prix de Rome. From Satie to Stravinsky and Gershwin to Duke Ellington’s Big Band. All these outstanding people who had something to say. About her time, her life and the society that created her. Even now we learn from them or let them drive us into a new, different sphere of thought. But what can today’s composers tell us? Have things changed? What needs to be brought back to mind? And what has been kept silent about? We spoke to composer, singer and performance artist Elaine Mitchener.
terzwerk: Elaine, if you had to limit yourself to one thing, what has changed composition over the past 100 years?
Elaine Mitchener: I think tonality, atonality and bitonality, and rhythm. This exploration and exploration of music was actually tried out by African-American jazz composers in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Then also in the classical music of composers like Cage, Feldman and finally everyone else. I saw a show about Stravinsky that said he was heavily influenced by Eastern European music and even jazz. This idea of ’and even jazz’ has to go. I’m a jazz singer, but because I work with improvisation, it almost seems like I shouldn’t be able to read sheet music or sing classical. The fact is, I have a voice that can do both. And just by doing what I do, I can help refute those prejudices. And prevent being put in a box.
terzwerk: If you deal with music history, you don’t learn much about female composers. Would you say it’s easier to be a composer in the 21st century?
Elaine Mitchener: I am interested in good music and good music is independent of gender. My identification as a woman shouldn’t be the most meaningful thing about me as a musician or composer. It is more important what I have to say. Even if my view of the world as a woman naturally plays a role in my music. I can only see the world through my eyes. I don’t deny that either. However, it is very important for me not to be considered on this basis only. We’re talking about gender, we’re talking about skin color, but we’re not talking about class. Classical music can be very elitist and exclude others. It is something that makes me angry and drives me to continue with my work. I think we should be activists. We should work to change society.
terzwerk: When did you start writing your first own compositions?
Elaine Mitchener: Oh, very late. Composition has never been part of my life in the conventional way. After all, I didn’t study composition, but singing. Of course I composed music or rather performed music by other composers. But I never considered switching to the other side myself. So my first real composition came very late, a few years ago. A piece called Sweet Tooth.
terzwerk: What was it about?
Elaine Mitchener: Sweet Tooth is about the relationship between the UK and the Caribbean, where my parents come from. From the trade in cane sugar to the Atlantic passage and its effects. It was only later, during my research, that I noticed that it was not just British history, but all of our history, as a continent. The consequences of this can still be felt today. I have worked with a historian who has worked a lot on a particular slave owner in Jamaica. I was able to use a lot of what he found out and get inspiration for sound ideas.
terzwerk: So would you say that in your compositions the idea comes before the sound?
Elaine Mitchener: Well, it depends on the piece. At Sweet Tooth I thought about the idea and did a lot of research. Then I met with my team of musicians, all of whom are composers themselves, but who also had all the flexibility they need to improvise. That was very important to me. Sweet Tooth is not a pleasant piece for us as musicians and it should not be a pleasant piece for the audience. I wanted to create this closed, tense atmosphere because it was like that for people back then. Maybe 10 times, 100 times worse in reality. The people on the plantation were tortured, brutalized, and raped. Such sounds are disturbing, paralyze you or can keep you from acting, rebeling. So I asked the musicians to produce sounds that provoke an emotional, mental reaction from the audience. I am interested in creating spaces that challenge the audience.
terzwerk: So you mainly focused on provocative sounds?
Elaine Mitchener: Not exactly. Sweet Tooth has a chapter called The Mill. It is a moment in the play where the music is more familiar to the audience. A little carnivalesque, like a dance or something Caribbean. But while the music is playing, my movements are not particularly pleasant to watch. I wanted to give these moments of joy and freedom a bitter taste, because these moments could be destroyed at any time by the slave owners and interrupted by something horrible and ugly. It is always on both sides. This is an area we should not be afraid to enter.
terzwerk: How important is the aesthetics of your music to you?
Elaine Mitchener: In the 21st century, we see aesthetics in a completely different light. One says: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it also depends on the personal feeling of the listener. What may seem aesthetically pleasing to some is horrible to others, and that in no way makes it less valuable on both sides. For this reason, I do not compose to check something off or to complete an order or something along those lines. I compose because some things are very close to my heart and I have to let these feelings out somewhere.
terzwerk: Do you think a lot about the audience when you compose?
Elaine Mitchener: No. I never think about the audience. I am interested in the audience entering the world that we have created. The audience is the responsibility of the artist. We take your time and you generously provide it to us. It is not about entertainment, but there is a claim and also trust. I don’t want to take advantage of that. I hope that whatever I feel will reach the audience. When I compose my pieces, I don’t know if my feelings are conveyed. How do I know, I’m not a mind reader. And in the end everyone feels different.
terzwerk: What are the motives behind your compositions?
Elaine Mitchener: I like the thought that my words get conversations rolling with the audience. That can be conversations with their fellow human beings or with themselves. Maybe they came with certain expectations and when leaving the concert they think: what was that? But at least it makes them reflect and that’s what matters.
terzwerk: This effect cannot be reproduced forever. Do you think your pieces have an expiration date?
Elaine Mitchener: No. In early March we performed Sweet Tooth in Bergen. It was a very intense performance. We could feel that the whole audience was on stage. And in the end, the piece ends in a very quiet way, the audience just got up and clapped, which is strange. Sweet Tooth is a very interesting piece. In the end, you don’t know whether to applaud because of the serious issue. But it felt like the audience had to let something out. And after 50 minutes of tension, applause was all they could do. For me that shows the strength of the piece. That does not have anything to do with me. After you’ve composed something, it’s in the hands of the musicians. And yes, I perform the piece, but we as a group had not performed the piece in 2 years. I told the others beforehand to think about what is happening in the world right now. Because it has to feel new with every performance.
terzwerk: What would you say is an important influence on your work as a composer?
Elaine Mitchener: Hm, choreography. Movement is very important to me. I could have gone the easy way, so just sing. Singing in itself is very, very difficult and I’m still learning myself. There are so many singers that I love for a variety of reasons. But movement allows me to try out how my voice works when I do things with my body other than just standing and singing. The body is a machine and its movements are something musical to me. This is not just something physical.
terzwerk: How would you describe the sound of your compositions?
Elaine Mitchener: Oh, grounded. My music is very earthy and emotional because I also perform my pieces myself. It transports people to other places. Breath is also very important. It’s not just about singers, but also for instrumentalists, it’s always about the breath. For me, an orchestra is an extension of the voice, which is why I work very vocally. Not in a conventional way. I’ve never thought about it like this before, but I’m very concerned with what it means to have a voice. What it means to have none. Is it something that we carry within us or can it also be something like my glasses? Why not? If that’s my kind of expression.