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The Wire – May 2021

Elaine Mitchener & Guests at Wigmore Hall

Andy Hamilton

“This is an imaginatively conceived recital.”

London, UK/ YouTube

Elaine Mitchener’s recital brings into view some lesser known creations of modernist musicians and artists , setting up unexpected contrasts and juxtapositions. Mitchener is an experimental vocalist , movement artist and composer who works across the jazz/improv and contemporary classical spectrum, with a particular focus on the Black avant garde. Her Wigmore Hall programme draws mostly on the American maverick or experimental tradition , making connections with jazz. With Mitchener are Gordon Mackay and Mira Benjamin (violin), Bridget Carey (viola), Anton Lukoszevieze (cello) and Neil Charles (bass).

Thankfully classical elitism is moribund, but for jazz musicians string instrumentation at one time seemed to represent classical legitimation. Mitchener’s opening composition came from that era – Charles Mingus’s rarely heard String Quartet No 1 (With Voice), first performed in 1972 at the Whitney Museum, New York. Noticing a citation in Gene Santoro ‘s classic Mingus biography, cellist Anton Lukoszevieze obtained a copy from the Mingus archive at Washington’s Library of Congress. It’s for the unconventional line-up of violin, viola , two cellos and voice , and set to the text of Frank O’ Hara’s poem The Clown. In a blindfold test , it would be hard to recognise Mingus as composer – the modernist idiom recalls Schoenberg ‘s Second String Quartet, with its part for soprano. The taut ten-minute structure with its tortured expressionism provides a novel perspective on his output.

Benjamin Patterson, who died in 2016, was a Fluxus iconoclast who performed with John Cage – his early work Paper Piece (1960) relocated quantities of paper from the stage into the audience. His eventful Duet For Voice And String lnstrument(s) features Mitchener’s dynamic phonetic experimentation and sound poetry.

Like Charles Mingus, Jeanne Lee is best known as a jazz musician – a vocalist influenced by Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. But from the 1960s she pioneered performances that fused modern dance , vocal improv, sound poetry and visual art. Her Mingus Meditations, with words from Mingus’s autobiography , was originally recorded with bassist Dave Holland. Mitchener’s acrobatic improvisation and sensitive interpretation of the text are beautifully supported by Neil Charles ‘s haunting basslines.

Louise Bourgeois was best known for her large-scale sculpture and installation art , but she was also a painter and printmaker. Her Insomnia Drawings were adapted by Lukoszevieze ‘s group Apartment House as graphic scores in 2019. This is their first performance with voice – a highly intuitive one , with evanescent instrumental textures and free vocalising rising to a powerful conclusion.

In Lukoszevieze ‘s arrangement of Archie Shepp’s ” Blase”, with words by Jeanne Lee, the string quartet ‘s shifting chords are a backdrop to Neil Charles’s and Mitchener ‘s more improvisatory performance. Mitchener ‘s solo Thought Word, with words by NH Pritchard , reflects her dynamic focus on phonetic experimentation and Kurt Schwitters influenced sound poetry. Genesis 04 is a spiky composition by Hungarian poet and performance artist Katalin Ladik.

The final piece is Christian Wolff’s jazzy I Like To Think Of Harriet Tubman (1985) , which sets Susan Griffin’s text on Harriet Tubman , the former slave who risked her life to free others through the Underground Railroad. Wolff’s music is mostly political in form rather than content – in its use of amateur players, for instance – so this piece is an exception. Unusually, Wolff said that he imagined the text being read with a jazz backing.

This is an imaginatively conceived recital, and with challenging material like this, it is good that it was available online for a month after live streaming.

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