The List – 8 April 2024

Change of Future

Stewart Smith

“Pushing boundaries is nothing new for experimental vocalist Elaine Mitchener. Stewart Smith hears how her bold reworking of songs plays an important role in promoting the work of black avant-garde composers.”

To see Elaine Mitchener perform is always a mesmerising and transformative experience. A 2020 appearance at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall featured the British Afro-Caribbean vocalist, movement artist and composer’s piece ‘Amazing Grace [reworked]’, a radical response to the hymn and its complex history. Singing live over a recording of her own multi-tracked vocals, Mitchener stretched the song to its limits, wailing, groaning and soaring over ghostly harmonies.

‘It allows me to reflect on and respond to the circumstances which birthed the original hymn and its contemporary resonances,’ she says. Mitchener reprises the piece at Glasgow’s Tectonics festival (Saturday 4 May) as part of a programme that includes her composition ‘Unknown Tongue II’ and Olly Wilson’s 1977 work ‘Sometimes’, a voice and tape piece based on the spiritual ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’.

Picture: D Djric
Picture: D Djric

The choice of Wilson (a composer, multi-instrumentalist, musicologist and pioneer of electronic music who died in 2018) reflects Mitchener’s ongoing mission to celebrate black avant-garde composers. ‘Shamefully, I didn’t know of Olly Wilson’s work and perhaps that’s simply due to much of it not being widely recorded. But that’s not an excuse. In the summer of 2020, his work “Cetus” was played to me and I had to know more. Wilson’s approach to music is significant to me in how he dismissed hierarchies. Electronic sounds were raised to the same level of importance as voices or instruments; they equally co-exist and serve each other.’

Mitchener acknowledges the connection between Wilson’s piece and ‘Amazing Grace [reworked]’. ‘They both rework well-known songs and allow the voice to explore itself beyond the lyrical whilst retaining the central meaning of the songs being sung.’ The author of the sermon that inspired that hymn, Mitchener explains, was John Newton whose Royal Navy career led to him working in the slave trade. ‘A spiritual conversion during an intense storm in 1748 did not initially dampen his zest for the slave trade but after joining the clergy in the later years of his life he became an active abolitionist. He lived long enough to see the Slave Trade Act pass through parliament in 1807, the year of his death.’

‘Unknown Tongue II’ is inspired by the poetry of NH Pritchard, who Mitchener was introduced to by a friend several years ago. ‘I was stunned by what I saw and what I read. In the opening page of [his poetry collection] The Matrix, he states “words are ancillary to content”. And as [writer and teacher] Erica N Cardwell explains, despite this, words remain, their sound released from contrived sequences. So, inspired by his process, I will use it to explore the oral and aural regions of “Unknown Tongue II”.’

Elaine Mitchener plays various dates in London, Glasgow and Bristol, Saturday 13 April–Wednesday 26 June; main picture: Myah Jeffers.

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