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The Quietus – 14 May 2024

Elaine Mitchener: Solar Throat

Vanessa Ague

Mitchener’s greatest strength on the album is her ability to say a lot with very little. She reminds us that poetry is not just words, it is something to feel deep within the body.

Elaine Mitchener is a vocal contortionist. The performer and composer may start by singing melismatic melodies, but in a second she can transform them into gurgling throat calls or hushed whispers. In every motion, she extracts the underlying meaning of her words, using extended techniques to illuminate their power. It is a skill Mitchener has developed over the last fifteen years while also maintaining her movement practice and collaborating across disciplines and with fellow experimental musicians such as George Lewis, Matana Roberts, Moor Mother and Apartment House. On Solo Throat, she exemplifies her vocal skill with twelve concise pieces that each examine poetry from all angles, breaking it down and piecing it back together again.

Throughout Solo Throat, Mitchener looks to the words of African-American and African-Caribbean poets Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Aimé Césaire, Una Marson and N. H. Pritchard, creating musical experiments with their words. She composes vignettes by distorting and transforming her voice to fit the overall mood of each vowel, and even though the words are often obstructed, their depth comes across as she sings them. Her pieces interlace rhythmic patterns and different vocal techniques, crafting intricate lattices with just her voice. It often feels like a dance she might perform with her body: Her words lilt and sway or stomp and leap like a dancer springing across a stage.

At every turn, Mitchener showcases her range as a vocal experimenter, venturing from the softest abstractions to the loudest odes. On ‘gyre’s galax’, she speak-sings the poetry, letting it slide off her tongue like an eel as it glides through the ocean, whereas on ‘rush hush’, she whispers and chokes, gasping for air and hurling it out. With ‘black mantle’, she sings roaming melodies that lace together and pull away from each other, creating what reads as an opera’s interlude. She makes these transitions with ease, highlighting her vocal control as well as her ability to adapt to the movement of each word she says.

Mitchener’s greatest strength on the album, though, is her ability to say a lot with very little. Sometimes, the thirty-second tracks conjure the most powerful moods, like on opener ‘the sleepening’, during which her muted vocals grow into a scream, then a groan, then nothing. In just those few seconds, she paints a picture – of mystery, of ecstasy, of unbridled energy. She reminds us that poetry is not just words, it is something to feel deep within the body.

14 May 2024

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