The Enormity of the Now – 25 March 2021
We’re in the business of the new.
“Elaine Mitchener creates in order to challenge – others and herself. She’s not looking for the comfort zone. We talked about necessary questions and uncomfortable answers.”
Who are you?
Who am I? The public Elaine or the private Elaine? The private Elaine is, well private!
The official description is that I’m a vocal movement artist and composer working betwixt and between. I’m also trying to work things out like everyone else.
Do you like to challenge?
I like to challenge myself and people who experience my work may then feel challenged by it. Maybe ‘challenge’ isn’t the right word. I want people to think and reflect on what they’re experiencing.
I’ve been told that my work is exhausting and that may be due to the journey. This journey is a challenge for everyone, performers and audiences alike.We are in this together 100% and that collective energy services the work.
Why do you do what you do? Why is the ‘newness’ important?
I’ve created new pieces because I haven’t come across works that examine the things that are of interest to me and what I want to say or explore. In order to do that, I have to make the work. Of course, there are composers that interest me and therefore I enjoy reinterpreting works and expressing their relevancy in today’s world.
This is why I also enjoy collaboration, because I learn from and am inspired by other artists. When Apartment House invited me to Perform Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together/Attica for the London Contemporary Music Festival In Dec 2018, this work was composed in direct response to the Attica prison riots in 1971. When I presented it, I was not only thinking about that riot, but also another riot that had occurred in Birmingham, just before our performance. So my reaction to these real life events fuelled my reinterpretation of the work.
The pandemic has allowed for the removal of many distractions. Has it made you think differently about what you do?
This pandemic has simplified many things, cleared mental debris, allowing me to focus, pause and reflect, be thankful.
Some things haven’t changed. I still try to use performance opportunities as a platform for positive change. And following the worldwide BLM demonstrations and the outcry, institutions who quickly pledged solidarity by placing a black square on their websites, will be held accountable for their inaction.
How much of this is your responsibility?
About decolonising classical music? Well, I’ve been doing that through my work and the music I present. It’s the responsibility of arts management to decolonise their programmes. The need to do the work.
Remember the huge push for 50% women composer representation in concert programmes? That’s one way of tackling the inequality but it more about who’s programming and how their programming decisions have historically neglected work by women composers. Similarly, programmers who claim there are no works by black composers good enough to be programmed, are are stuck in a Eurocentric time warp and LAZY . There’s plenty of bullshit work by white male composers that’s constantly clogging our ears.
A few weeks ago I showed a film about Fluxus composers in Wiesbaden in 1962, on Ubuweb to a group of composer students. There were six Fluxus composers in this film including Ben Patterson (African American), Nam June Paik (Korean) – the female composer was unnamed (it was Alison Knowles), George Maciunas, Emmett Williams and Philip Corner. It’s a really amazing film, completely avant garde. I wanted my students to understand the history and the part women , African Diasporic and Asian composers have played in shaping contemporary new music/ experimental music.
The problem is we’ve been taught a skewed colonised version of music history and there’s much unpicking to be done and if my remarks makes anyone feel uncomfortable, they should ask themselves why.
Institutions, colleges and opera houses, concert venues etc can’t claim ignorance because the information is out there. I want them to do the work, do the research, and if they need help, credit those whose expertise and knowledge they have gleaned . That’s how you change what the idea of the canon is, and challenge the status quo. There will be resistance because it’s about power and people don’t want to yield their power. There are very few people that would step aside and allow someone else with fresh and new ideas to come forward.
A friend (who happens to be white) (and the first person I worked with in arts administration) and I talked about many things including decolonising classical music during the quiet days of the lockdown. I recently sent her Daniel Kidane’s recent essay that he wrote for PRS, which was excellent, along with George Lewis’ Eight Difficult Steps to Decolonising New Music Programming. She thanked me for it and said that she was really grateful to me for sending it to her because it will help her be able to talk to her board of trustees about what they’re doing, where they’re not doing it and how things need to change.
That is someone who understands the problem and is working from within by using her position of influence to effect positive change, however challenging.
Everyone’s breaking point is different. Someone very close to me once said, ‘fuck classical music, who gives a shit?’ I clutched my pearls – hard! But what was I trying to defend? An institution which has been shored up by colonisation, imperialism, conquest, aggressive globalising at the expense of indigenous cultures? It’s indefensible.
It’s no longer on a pedestal for me which is why I create the work that I do in the way that I do. If people like it, cool, if they don’t, fine. Whoever wants to present my work will present it, who doesn’t, won’t. That’s fine, it wasn’t for them. Don’t get me wrong, I love performing. I love being on stage but a ‘stage’ is wherever you want it to be.
How do you remain able to keep presenting to his kind of behavior?
My piece Sweet Tooth is about that period of history, that genocide, that holocaust as it was, that legacy. It’s about how humanity has that capacity to do that to each other. It’s also about how we can avoid repeating these atrocities – clearly humans are stupid because we continue to slaughter each other.
Sweet Tooth says – I am a person, I am human, so treat me with respect. We’re all equal. When I originally conceived the piece, it was about Britain, the Caribbean, the Middle Passage. I quickly realised that this couldn’t just be about British history but European history and that’s why I had to take SWEET TOOTH out of the context of the UK and present it elsewhere.
Although this ‘sceptred isle’ perfected the capitalist dream with the Sugar Trade and enslavement of millions of Africans, the rest of Europe was also complicit (see Slavery Hinterland) and that’s something that isn’t taught. It’s not a piece about victimisation but about a strength that black people have. You won’t be surprised to learn that classical music festivals were terrified of the work and it was visual arts organisations that supported it and still do.
Who are you?
My name is Elaine Mitchener. I am someone who needs to make work to ask difficult questions and to seek out answers.