The Wire – May 2022

Womens Work, Wigmore Hall

Jo Hutton

“The ensemble exit the stage to Alison Knowles’s Shuffle, concluding a powerful evening of profound reflection on women’s influence in the world.”

London’s Wigmore Hall marks International Women’s Day 2022 with a set of pieces using the title Womens Work – originally a 1975 publication of instructional scores by women, conceived by Fluxus founder member Alison Knowles and Annea Lockwood. The evening is hosted by researcher Irene Revell, who republished a version of Womens Work in 2019.

Vocal artist Elaine Mitchener is a singer, improvisor and experimental musician whose work confronts issues of racism, feminism, colonialism and capitalism. She parks a question in the auditorium and leaves it there for the audience to find their own meaning.

Her early gospel training, where singers are often called to perform with no notice, provided a grounding in improvisation which, she says, requires holding back, not always sounding, intense listening; the thing to do is leave silences. The pieces in this concert require virtuosic skill to develop and sustain long, intense contrasting periods of silence.

Womens Work is directed by Mitchener in a democratic way that avoids what she calls the “maestro hierarchy” of classical music. Each ensemble member is valued for their originality and responsible for making their own sounds, exploring how physical movement affects the voice, challenging the performance space and transforming the usual classical orderliness of Wigmore Hall.

The concert opens with only the ensemble’s instruments on stage and a tiny carved wooden box labelled “Blue Danube” as they perform Younghi Pagh Paan’s Ma-am by in ancient Korean language, from scattered positions throughout the auditorium. This leads into Pamela Z’s You – recited lists of pop titles that start with the word you.

The ensemble thread their way towards the stage performing Alison Knowles’s #1 Shuffle (1961), with the intriguing sound of their footsteps in a constrained, shuffling movement. Hannah Kendall’s Tuxedo: Between Carnival And Lent is a special commission for this evening, named after Jean Michel Basquiat’s painting. It opens with the ensemble playing wind-up music boxes, which morph into high string harmonics and minimal piano with vocalised excerpts of text from Basquiat’s painting, that highlight the abuse of Black people in slavery.

There are works by Tansy Davies and Jennifer Walshe and in Knowles’s Event Score #7, each musician thinks of their own song, cued by Mitchener, who chooses Poly Styrene’s “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” to set the tone for an explosive vocal cacophony.

Mitchener’s politics and Jamaican roots are highlighted most poignantly in Matana Roberts’s “Gasping for air considering your purpose Dissolving…”. During Mitchener’s Borealis festival commission Sweet Tooth (2020), seating space was limited for the audience so they could not stretch out in their seats, to express African enslaved people’s experience. In this performance of Roberts’s piece, the word gasping is stretched, with long silences, extended breathing sequences, powerfully activating a claustrophobic feeling of constricted breathing. The piece was composed in the aftermath of the Rodney King US police trial, but Mitchener received the revised score just days before the 2020 murder of George Floyd, a raw wound that is portrayed to the audience during this concert.

A short piece follows by Jeanne Lee, who was a strong early influence on Mitchener, and Pauline Oliveros’s The Inner/Outer Sound Matrix ends the concert, playing on words from Françoise Vergès’s A Decolonial Feminism. The ensemble exit the stage to Alison Knowles’s Shuffle, concluding a powerful evening of profound reflection on women’s influence in the world.

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