Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

 

The first half of this article ran in Issue 72.

 

Given the British propensity for tidiness, it is not surprising that the horrors of their slave economy were largely swept under the rug after abolition in 1833. A dominant reason for this was that slavery was off-shore, thousands of miles away in colonies in the Caribbean and throughout the Empire. The other was a reconciliation of sorts in the form of compensation – not to the slaves, but to the slave owners, nearly 46,000 of whom received the present-day equivalent of about 17 billion pounds for surrendering property rights to approximately 800,000 souls. (The resulting national debt took until 2015 to be retired, meaning Elaine Mitchener and her contemporaries contributed to ending slavery more than 175 years after the passing of the Abolition Act.) However, the British had thoroughly industrialized slavery, particularly for their Caribbean sugar trade; so, slave labor practices yielding stunning wealth for an elite essentially continued. The 7-year life expectancy for a cane cutter did not increase with emancipation, nor did living standards improve for him and his community.

Following the compensation money reveals how pervasively the sugar trade shaped British industries and institutions into the 20th Century. Not only did this blood-soaked wealth build grandiose estates like Harewood House in West Yorkshire, stuffed with Chippendale furniture and life-size portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds, it underwrote everything from railroads to the British Museum. It is an economic legacy that persists to the present, albeit more insidiously with each generation. Concurrently, the identities of the slaveholders – which spanned hapless widows, country vicars, and even Prime Minister William Gladstone’s father, who received the largest payout – became all but forgotten, consigned to ledgers kept deep in the bowels of the National Archives in Kew, as were the identities of their slaves.

However, the legacy of slavery remains foundational in the consciousness of African Caribbean communities. For artists, how to make sense of, and give shape and voice to, the brutality of the colonial sugar industry is a daunting proposition, one that often needs persons to be sounding boards to articulate concepts and methods. That was the case with Mitchener when she began the research for what became Sweet Tooth, a process that gained traction when she saw historian Christer Petley’s commentary in the BBC4’s 2013 broadcast of Nelson’s Caribbean Hell-hole: An Eighteenth Century Navy Graveyard Uncovered. Although the scope of the documentary focused on the adverse conditions facing the Royal Navy based in Antigua – particularly tropical diseases and lead poisoning from tainted rum that necessitated hasty beach burials of perhaps hundreds of sailors over decades – it was Petley, whose Slaveholders in Jamaica: colonial society and culture during the era of abolition was published in 2009, who connected the British military presence to the protection of the slave-based economy.

Shortly after the broadcast, Mitchener reached out to Petley. At the time, the University of Southhampton professor was compiling the letters and other documents of Samuel Taylor – a “planter” in Jamaica who owned 2,248 slaves upon his death in 1813 – which would become the basis for his 2018 book, White Fury: A Jamaican Slaveholder and the Age of Revolution. Emails and meetings ensued, with Mitchener soon recruiting Petley to be the embryonic piece’s historical consultant. As Sweet Tooth took shape over the next three years – especially during a June 2016 workshop he facilitated at the university – Petley was repeatedly impressed by the unexpected ways Mitchener wove the Taylor documents into contemporary music theater; how she humanized the enslaved Africans, reduced to property in an inventory, simply by reciting the entries that detailed their age, skills, and health; and how she used letters from Taylor’s last years to evoke his unravelling fury over the impending abolition and his paranoia over plantation revolts.

Mitchener’s research extended well beyond her discussions with Petley. Her readings were extensive; she listed twenty titles that ran with Chris Bohn’s interview for The Wire in February 2018, shortly after the premiere of the work at Liverpool’s The Bluecoat and the subsequent London performance at Bloomsbury Saint George’s Church. In addition to archives and collections, Mitchener went to Harewood House (at the invitation of the supportive and open Lord and Lady Harewood, to whom Mitchener was introduced by artist Sonia Boyce), where she serendipitously found the inscription on a garden wall that she used in Industrializing Intimacy. The research yielded an onslaught of data, images, and imagined sounds; realizing months, if not a year or more, was required to render it all into an hour-long work, Mitchener set out on three tasks: developing the work; securing the funding for studio work, residences, and previews; and maximizing the down time between phases of development and production to pursue other projects.

Putting a band together to make a gig is one thing; forming an ensemble of improvisers experienced in outlier, made-from-scratch dance and theater projects, who are willing to make a commitment of unknown duration, and have the intestinal fortitude to venture into what was clearly the heart of darkness, is quite another. It’s noteworthy that Mitchener did not have to look far, a telling measure of her network of collaborators, and her reputation for getting things done.

“When Elaine tells you that something is going to happen, you can count on it,” said Jason Yarde recently about signing on to the project. By then, the multi-instrumentalist and Mitchener had repeatedly crossed paths, and would be members of such future projects as the Black Voices of the Avant-Garde, the Jeanne Lee Project, and The Rolling Calf, units that gained traction during the run-up to the premiere of Sweet Tooth. In addition to traversing an arc of black music in the UK connecting The Jazz Warriors and Louis Moholo-Moholo’s Five Blokes, Yarde’s CV as a composer, arranger, and musical director not only spans dance, theater, and films, but also the Proms and hip hop. By then, percussionist Mark Sanders had intermittently worked with Mitchener for nearly a decade. Although he had worked with dance companies and multimedia artists like Christian Marclay, Sanders was and remains best known as a nodal point in the flow chart of improvised music in the UK. Notably, Sanders and Yarde are of African Caribbean heritage; Yarde’s rooted in Guyana, and Sanders’ in Belize, former British colonies with their own brutal legacies of slavery.

In Of Leonardo da Vinci and Star Shaped Biscuit, Sylvia Hallett had a disproportionate impact given the time she was spotlighted. Whether she is playing acoustic instruments – violin, Hardanger fiddle, accordion, hurdy gurdy, and sarangi head the list – using electronics, or bowing saws, bicycle wheel spokes, vines, and tree branches, Hallett has a rare ability to evoke the elemental and the spectral, suggestive of an ur-music. Her extensive background in intermedia projects, including work with the innovative puppeteer Nenagh Watson, made her an ideal utility player for Sweet Tooth.

Mitchener began to rough out ideas in early 2014 with Yarde and choreographer Dam Van Huynh. With practice space in London at a premium, Mitchener turned to her supportive former boss and friend Roderick Lakin, Director of the Royal Overseas League’s ROSL Arts programs, who availed the Princess Alexandra Hall to them (Lakin would tragically die in August 2015, while working in Edinburgh). In April, they were invited by David Toop to participate in Archive Breathing, Offering Rites, a series presented at Central St. Martins School of Art. By then, Mitchener was conversant with the mechanisms used to make sugar cane, and how the dehumanization of the enslaved Africans led them to be compared to gudgeons and other parts requiring regular replacement due to wear and tear.I wanted to focus on the humans becoming machinery,” Mitchener said of this initial phase. “Unbeknownst to me these fledgling ideas and what I call ’triggering’ the space would hold such significance for my future work as well as in Sweet Tooth.

Mitchener’s next opportunity to test drive material came that October, when she and Hallett performed a 20-minute draft segment as part of a series curated by Australian composer/trumpeter Mark Summerbell at Saint George’s Bloomsbury, a church whose legacy is entwined with the slave economy and the abolition movement. Mitchener was encouraged by the movements she developed with Van Huynh, and how Hallett used hurdy gurdy and analogue looping to produce a groove. However, the material – which also incorporated text by Barbadian poet Kamau Braithwaite – ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor, which speaks to how, according to Yarde, Mitchener’s distilling process over the next years could be likened to creating syrup from cane.

“In terms of movement, I think she already knew what she wanted to do,” Hallett recently recalled of their duo performance, “It was more a matter of finding a way to make it all fit together. She had these strong, visceral images, most of which came from her discussions with Christer, like the mill, these machines that were brought in to process the sugarcane. Sometimes people got caught in this machinery, and if someone died, things just went on. It was a lot to take in.”

Development of the project continued intermittently over the next 18 months, largely at Centre 151 in Hackney, then a Vietnamese cultural hub where Van Huynh kept an office and conducted classes and workshops. Memories are blurred and occasionally conflicting about how and when concepts emerged and morphed – there is a consensus that this speaks to the intensity of the work. A significant amount of the initial work centered about how to represent three loci – the slave ship, the fields, and the mill – which led to the eventual structure of six “chapters.”  “That’s where it all got stripped down and stripped down,” Hallett said of the R&D work at the community center. “That’s when she became much clearer about what she wanted, particularly about movement. We had movement warmups. Dam was there; he was concerned about our movements as well as Elaine’s. That’s when the parts that Elaine was on her own really developed. It was quite startling how she expressed shock and loneliness.”

Elaine and I have a very interesting working process,” Van Huynh, currently in residence in Hong Kong, said recently. “We put everything out there and lay it bare. The historical elements she had from her research were there, but they were confusing. We didn’t know how to use the historical elements and integrate them in a way that wasn’t academic. What was an effective way of using this, and using it with the music and the musicians? What would reflect the historical elements without the piece becoming a lecture?

“So, we played a lot, using sounds and images that Elaine brought to the table in a very personal way, working to capture the physicality and the pain of the slaves – and the gruesome sounds of that – and how they used music to elevate their spirits. There was so much to work with, and for long stretches we didn’t know what to do with it all. That’s really been how our process begins: just chuck it in there and see how it feels. Since Elaine was in the work and, at the same time, kept an overview of how the piece was taking shape, my role was to reflect on the totality of the movement in the piece, to make it clear for the performers and the audience.

“As a collaborative experience, it was really immersive for everyone, including the musicians, who went through a rather rigorous physical process, which was not so comfortable for everyone at first, but they eventually embraced all this. Elaine and I thought the embodiment of all this in movement was important to shaping the space. We thought it was important for everybody to go through this experience, and I think it reflects the respect everyone had for creating the piece that they went through it. I think it elevated the experience for everyone.”

A measure of her collaborators’ buy-in occurred when Mitchener and the ensemble turned to the representation of working the fields. Hallett, who lives near a market that sells sugarcanes, bought a cane and brought it to rehearsal. “It’s really heavy,” explained Hallett. “For me, that really brought it home. To actually cut it with a machete, you really have to wallop it, so the physicality of what they were doing day after day was incredible.” Given the impracticality of using sugarcanes gesturally, Mitchener found a workaround in bamboo – a bundle of around a dozen 6’ stalks being light enough to carry, thrust in the air, and wave about; and it produced sound when struck or scraped against the deck and walls of a performance space, or the back of church pews. “The image that Elaine used for us making sounds with the bamboo was based on a picture we call ‘The Happy Plantation,’ which was part of a fiction sold to white people to make it look they were all having a nice time,” elaborated Hallett. “There were a lot of paintings that sold this idyll, which was completely untrue.”

The bamboo told a different story. For Yarde, the bamboo not only was powerful, visually, but it had a sonic impact as well. “The sound of the bamboo against the marble floor [at Bloomsbury] was quite different than a dance floor,” he explained. “At Bloomsbury, we were able to move around the pews and scrape the bamboo against the back of the pews, which was quite startling for some of the people sitting in the pews. You don’t just hear the sound, but you also feel the sound. Visually, it’s the cane; but it takes on a lot more in the ways we used it, like the sound of the whippings, and what that sound meant. The bamboo is one of the things where the theatricality and the musicality of the piece crossed – Mark used the bamboo to strike his instruments as well as the floor and walls.”

Distilling materials runs the risk of reducing their essentials beyond recognition. In watching Mitchener’s streamlining movements and gestures over a period of months, the musicians concurred that the contrary often occurred; that the representations became more harrowing. Both Hallett and Sanders pointed to how she conveyed Scold’s bridle, a torturous iron cage that fits the head and depresses the tongue, simply by using her index fingers to pull at the corners of her mouth. “I really liked how she left that to the audience’s imagination,” Sanders commented. “Once we really got going with the piece, I could connect what she was doing to images she found in her research. It was really strong.”

Something similar occurred with the development of the opening moments of the piece, when Hallett enters alone and, standing almost on top of the audience in the front row, launches into a violently bowed solo, accompanied by a withering glare. “We were workshopping the idea of being really, really angry – rage,” Hallett related. “You can read about slavery and sit back in your easy chair and think that it was really awful. But how can you make an audience feel really uncomfortable, to make them think: Don’t look at me. I’m looking at them, raging, playing the violin and using my voice. I knew who in the front row would walk out if I focused on them. I wouldn’t do it if I thought they were close to walking out. If they look like they can take it – and most people can – then I would focus on them, and they would obviously feel uncomfortable. People became emotional despite themselves. And then Elaine comes charging on with an even greater rage.”

Hallett was also the focus of another of the piece’s more arresting images, simply referred to as “the line.” The movement was simple: the four musicians form a line, walk to center stage from stage left, stop, and turn. What no one foresaw was Hallett turning upstage while the others faced the audience. “Both Dam and Elaine in their directorial roles were quite open to suggestions and we were generous with input. I think that was the case when Sylvia made her decision about the lineup, which was very natural,” Yarde mentioned. “I’ve asked myself why I did that,” Hallett said. “We were instructed to make a line. Everyone faced forward, so I faced back. It works but I don’t know why it works. I’ve asked myself: Was I turning my back on all this? And I wondered if it was because I’m white. Is this what we do as white people, do we turn our backs? I’ve never settled those questions. But it’s always read it as being quite a strong statement, but I don’t know what that statement is.” Mitchener thought it was “a stroke of genius.”

The development of the music followed a similar, largely reductive arc: both Hallett and Yarde dispensed with electronics; Hallett’s hurdy gurdy was set aside for violin and accordion; and Yarde’s arsenal of woodwinds was pared down to soprano and baritone saxophones. “One of the interesting things that happened musically was that, at the time we started, there was more melodic material,” Yarde recalled. “Some of it was cut as the piece developed, leaving a lot of tension and abstraction in the sounds, so Elaine brought ‘Guinea Corn’ into the piece so there would be some more melodic information.”

A work song Mitchener discovered in Kamau Braithwaite’s Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica, “Guinea Corn” details the steps of cultivating and preparing sorghum, a staple of the African diet. Food and meals were central to the preservation of identity and community among enslaved Africans in the Caribbean. However, the buoyancy of the work song was potentially dissonant with the harrowing tonic of the piece. “There’s a lot of juxtapositions in the piece,” Yarde observed. “You have someone reading the names quite calmly while someone is waving the bamboo in an excited way. When we play ‘Guinea Corn,’ Elaine is almost celebratory, then the angst sinks in again. The juxtaposition between something that is cool and kind of nice and an ugly underbelly was rather intense.”

“‘Guinea Corn’ required a delicate balance,” according to Van Huynh. “We didn’t want the music shift the whole tone of the piece. It was a touchy moment, because when you have uplifting music and movement, it can become musical theater, which was not what we wanted. We tried it many different ways. Sometimes, we just let the music sit. We tried doing just the movement, and isolate different things. Nothing worked. There wasn’t any synergy. We’d get stuck, and then we’d just play, because you don’t want to over analyze why you’re stuck. You just try too hard. So, we just let the music play, and when we began to feel the spirit of movement, we said: OK; let’s go with it and see what happens. And then there was the organic merging that we wanted. It’s now one of my favorite parts of the piece.”

Descriptions of the many disturbing actions in Sweet Tooth cannot convey their amperage. They come fast and furious, repeatedly throwing live audiences and online viewers back in their seats. Each of them came about through a long, gestalt-ladened process that painstakingly turned initially inchoate images and factoids into searing stage images. Each of them took a toll on Mitchener, Van Hunyh and the musicians. Subsequently, the process also proved that, no matter what people immerse themselves in, they eventually have to come up for air. For Mitchener, this took the form of diving into other projects.

 

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“I vividly remember her incredible high notes and breath control when we did our first gig at Cheltenham, and how she held these notes for impossible lengths of time,” Alexander Hawkins recently recalled. “At the time, I just kept thinking about all the possibilities of these extraordinary abilities, and thinking about her voice as an instrument.”

Hawkins’ first, consequential concert with Mitchener in 2015 was the product of pro-active festival programming. He was sent a list of artists also on the festival’s bill to facilitate a duo set, with the proviso that Hawkins would choose someone with whom he had never played. Having wanted to work with a singer for some time, the pianist thought he and Mitchener would make for an interesting duo. “We didn’t know each other well, but we had seen each other around – we were in the same orbit – so I thought it would work. We hit it off right away because of our shared love of Jeanne Lee’s duo recordings with Mal Waldron and Ran Blake. Partly because of that, and partly because of the limited rehearsal time you usually have for a one-off gig, we worked with standards.”

Intriguingly, the concert received boisterous press approval in The Financial Times, whose Mike Hobart thumbnailed Hawkins as “a left-field jazz tyro” and Mitchener as “a classically trained genre-crossing virtuoso.” He outlined how the duo alternately stretched materials almost beyond recognition and played them straight.  He concluded by opening the hydrant: “Their performance was as stunning as it was fresh and further collaborations are, let’s hope, in the pipeline.”

Despite the reception, the duo only had two gigs over the next year-plus – The Vortex in December, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival the next August. By the latter, they were focused on creating original material. Only Patty Waters’ “Why is Love Such a Funny Thing?” was retained from the Cheltenham set; and they added “Blasé,” the title tune of the iconic Archie Shepp album with Jeanne Lee, which later became a fixture in Mitchener’s Jeanne Lee Project’s performances. Hawkins quickly concluded that his writing for Mitchener indicated expanding to a quartet, and they recruited bassist Neil Charles and drummer Steve Davis. As their first gig approached – a November 2016 slot in Jez Nelson’s Jazz in the Round series at the Cockpit Theatre – the quartet struggled “to make the music come off the page,” according to Hawkins, who was also concerned about unmet audience expectations of a female singer backed by a piano trio.

“There’s something about the atmosphere of playing in the round,” Hawkins assessed after the concert. “The setting played to Elaine’s gifts; she is an electrifying performer, she communicates with such intensity, an alarming intensity sometimes. But it is a gift, being able to communicate with an audience regardless of how far out the music goes.”

The Guardian’s John Fordham concurred. Thumbnailing Hawkins as “a versatile British jazz pianist” and Mitchener as a “zestfully ingenious crossover vocalist” (some close readers may notice that “British” only applied to Hawkins), the veteran journalist mapped how Mitchener maneuvered from “cool jazz-ballad murmur” to “precisely stuttery [sic] chatter and long pure tones,” and detailed “a torrent of bird-sounds and pugnacious exclamations, a graceful drift through the seductive poetry of 13th-century Persian mystic Rumi, and a scintillating flat-out vocal inventory of life detritus.” “It was constantly surprising and superbly executed cutting-edge music built on winningly familiar foundations,” Fordham enthusiastically concluded.

After a quick succession of concerts at Cardiff’s Millennium center, Café Oto, and Jazz Festival Munster, they decided the quartet was ready to record, and spent two days in a London studio in April. At the time, Hawkins was in talks with the Zürich-based Intakt label, who had passed on his initial offerings. “Interestingly, this was the record where [producer] Patrik [Landolt] said: ‘yes, we should do this,’” Hawkins said, still somewhat surprised. “This is not an easy record, in many senses.”

Released in November 2017, Uproot supports Hawkins’ assessment. The quartet’s agenda subtly unfolds. Commencing with the supple, lulling Waters chestnut is not overtly confrontative or subversive; but it proves to be a disarming set-up for the more deracinating material that follows. Mitchener makes smart interpretative choices, particularly on the two pieces associated with Lee: the wafting “Miracle,” and “Blasé,” where Mitchener’s cutting indignation surpasses that of the vaunted original. It is halfway through the program where it becomes clear that dismantling the conventions of singers working with a standard rhythm section is just as effective employing a conversational temperament as it is through redlining intensity. The collective improvisation, “If You Say So,” is representative of the close listening within the quartet, resulting in an equilibrium of voices as they mingle and swirl about. Regardless of their predetermined structures – which only occasionally call on Charles and Davis to supply a discernible groove, or for Hawkins to deliberately outline harmonic parameters – each of the eight tracks elude pigeonholing. Mitchener’s beyond-category performances taxed critics’ catchphrase-creating chops; only Stewart Smith, reviewing the album in The Wire, rose to the challenge when he referred to her “jazzy sprechgesang.”

Hawkins was perplexed when Uproot failed to elicit the interest of more promoters. “Part of the quartet’s problem was that many jazz promoters had no idea who she was,” he said, “which is crazy, given that she is the singer most profoundly connected with the tradition that we have. Elaine is so alarmingly direct that you need to experience her in concert to really get it. If you listen to a broadcast of that band, it could be a difficult experience, depending upon the direction the music was taking at the moment. But, it always made sense in the room. I think if people had seen the group more, it would have had a bigger life.

“In hindsight, what was heartening about the group – what we were most proud of – was that it never left an audience indifferent. We had really beautiful gigs, for the most part; but we did a gig [at the 2018 Artacts Festival in St. Johann in Tirol] in Austria and the audience really did not like it. At the time, I thought, this is a really great gig, but the audience did not like it at all. They were polite, at best, at the end. Perversely, that was when I knew we were onto something. We were confrontational in a way, but I realized that we were polarizing, and I think that had something to do with the directness of Elaine’s communication. Someone told us that Austrians have an ambivalence towards female singers – I have no idea if that’s true. But, it was an interesting point in the group’s history because we realized you can’t please all the people all the time.”

How long a band lasts is a standard yardstick of its accomplishments, as is the volume of its recorded output; but, in the long run, a short-lived, scantily documented ensemble can prove to be of pivotal importance by virtue of the groups it begets, and the nucleus of musicians that comprise them. That is clearly the case with the Hawkins/Mitchener Quartet, from which directly flows Vocal Classics of the Avant-Garde and her Jeanne Lee Project. Both groups have the same core of Hawkins, Charles, Yarde, and Sanders. Poet Dante Micheaux and trumpeter Byron Wallen round out the Vocal Classics lineup; the Lee ensemble includes cellist Anton Lukoszevieze, founder of Apartment House, the contemporary chamber music ensemble, who contemporaneously enlisted Mitchener for performances of works by Julius Eastman and Frederic Rzewski.

Both Vocal Classics of the Black Avant-Garde and the Jeanne Lee Project reflect Mitchener’s rather stringent parameters of what is avant-garde, and how the respective bodies of work fall within them. They also give insight into how she reconciles the intrinsic prospective nature of the avant-garde with a rigorous forensic approach to materials obscured by time. In both cases, the incisiveness of her forensics supports the conveyance of the original intent of the work. “I think that sense of purpose is crucial.” Hawkins opined. “When you think about a project called Vocal Classics of the Black Avant-Garde, it’s something that, in the wrong hands, could be horrible, a neo-con raking over the coals. It could be spectacularly dull, and miss the point of the vitality, the contemporary relevance of that music. The clarity of knowing exactly why she is doing it eviscerates the risk of it devolving into an avant-garde repertory band.”

Hawkins concurred that the best way to avoid such a debacle is comprehensive, granular knowledge of the subject material, which Mitchener has. “Some audiences will know ‘Blasé,’” he elaborated. “Far fewer would know the music from Nuba, the Jimmy Lyons, Jeanne Lee and Andrew Cyrille record. How many Jeanne Lee fans are aware of her singing John Cage or Jackson Mac Low – the spoken word and classical avant-garde of the time? That’s an interesting parallel with Elaine in many respects. It’s easy to typecast Elaine, and Jeanne Lee, too. That was one of the interesting things about the Jeanne Lee Project – she would perform Jackson Mac Low as well as ‘Blasé.’”

Despite their considerable merits, the Quartet and the Vocal Classics and Jeanne Lee projects only represent those aspects of Mitchener’s activities nearest to the jazz tradition. Her work in contemporary classical music was comparably significant between phases of the development of Sweet Tooth.

 

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Innumerable avant-garde movements have emerged in the last hundred years. Although the particulars of their respective works may have little to do with one another, they share one fundamental trait: They cause discomfort among funders, presenters, audiences, and the press – the entire food chain of culture in the First World. The arc of an avant-garde artist’s career revolves around how that discomfort is received, digested, and articulated. Sometimes, that discomfort is immediately recognized by an elite as having merit, of being the cultural equivalent of castor oil, its immediate distaste being a small price for long-term cultural health. Other times, the work is welcomed in the same quarters as a necessary, even heroic middle finger thrusted at the powers that be. Yet, relatively few avant-gardists sustain a career on the knife’s edge; they either are absorbed into the mainstream and/or academia, or they fall into obscurity, usually within five to ten years after gaining initial notice.

The rediscovery in recent years of Julius Eastman is an illuminating case study of how scandalous notoriety and subsequent obscurity compost over decades into legend. Eastman is now lumped in with respectable Minimalism, for which there is a basis, in that repetition and permutation are the stuff of his more well-known compositions. However, the discomfort he created with his works and performances all but defined him during the 1970s and ‘80s; and glossing over actions like his homoerotically undressing a young man during a 1975 Buffalo performance of John Cage’s Song Books (which chagrined Cage, who was in attendance), and compositions with in-your-face titles like “Crazy Nigger,” “Evil Nigger,” and “Nigger Faggot,” is a disservice. Eastman was, to appropriate another of his composition titles, a gay guerilla, who audaciously ambushed art music audiences.

Eastman tragically unraveled in his last years, with substance abuse and homelessness accelerating his demise in 1990. At the time of his death, his scores and papers were all but scattered to the wind; without composer Mary Jane Leach’s prodigious efforts to collect every last scrap she could find, we would know far less about Eastman’s music. Then, in 2016-17, Eastman reappeared with unprecedented ubiquity: following the publication of Leach and Renée Levin Packer’s anthology of essays, Gay Guerilla, the only extant recording of Feminine, with Eastman at the piano, was issued to more acclaim in the alternative music press than by classical music critics, and there was a string of concerts throughout the US and in the UK, the London Contemporary Music Festival’s three-day program in December 2016 being the most ambitious.

“When the LCMF asked us if Apartment House could play Feminine and Stay On It, I thought the only vocalist who could do it was Elaine,” Anton Lukoszevieze recently explained. “What a piece like Stay On It needs is someone who is not only very dynamic, but can improvise in a very ecstatic way, and be very controlled at the same time. She’s very good at that.” This was particularly indicated for Stay On It, which was on the verge of being lost when composer/vocalist Paul Pinto scored an archive recording of an Eastman performance. “The work is a structured improvisation,” Lukoszevieze noted when their performance was posted on The Wire’s website, “and exemplifies a strong Caribbean influence and also a joyful, hedonistic sense of musical abandon.” Considered now, it is a work that gleefully subverts the monumentalizing narrative of High Minimalism around Philip Glass and Steve Reich, as it is as fresh and momentary as a spring breeze.

One reason Apartment House’s performance is so free flowing is that their approach to rehearsal is not prolonged or taxidermic. “Maybe we spent an hour on Stay On It,” Lukoszevieze recollected. “This may sound minimal, but these are fantastic musicians who know what they’re doing. You just go out there and do it. I believe in intuition as long as you have really good musicians. Then intuition can lead to creativity. It doesn’t sound like we put a lot of work into it, but we have in a lot of ways. We discuss things; talking about a piece gives you a way to sort it out. Then, the great thing about the gig is that you don’t know what will happen, which makes it really exciting, and if you can pull it off, it elevates the music. Sometimes it’s difficult to elevate experimental music because it’s often not terribly exciting, but if it involves the human voice it can become very emotional. I don’t mean heart-on-the-sleeve emotional, but passion and energy. Elaine’s very good at providing that. She’s a real powerhouse.”

Apartment House’s LCMF performance also included a reading of Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together/Attica, a nod to his and Eastman’s respective work when they both were in Buffalo in the 1970s (Eastman sang the premier performance of Rzewski’s Struggle in 1974). 1973’s Coming Together/Attica is Rzewski’s composition closest to the Minimalism of the day; although it does not have the abandon of Stay On It, its woven lines ring with World Music-tinged uplift, an approach consonant with that of Don Cherry and others. Instead of wordless vocalizing, as she does on the Eastman, Mitchener takes on the text excerpted from Sam Meville’s prison letters, a declaration of health and clarity in the face of dehumanizing conditions. For its time, Steven Ben Israel’s performance on Rzewski’s recording of the piece was engaging; but it pales next to Mitchener’s, a mix of ecstasy and a little scorched earth. Those are basic ingredients of her soaring performance of Stay On It, as well.

The LCMF performances reignited Mitchener’s interest in Eastman, whose singing she discovered while studying at Trinity College of Music. Eastman’s 1973 recording of Peter Maxwell Davies’ monodrama, Eight Songs For A Mad King, can be heard as a map of areas Mitchener would explore, its minutely detailed score requiring the exactitude and the projection of extreme emotion that Lukoszevieze and others value in Mitchener. Mitchener stayed on Eastman’s music, presenting a 2019 BBC Radio 4 broadcast, Un-forgetting Julius Eastman. The concise, well-paced half-hour documentary merged several necessary voices that speak not only to the specifics of Eastman’s achievements as a composer and performer, but how being an assertively out gay African-American man, caught in the crosscurrents of contemporary classical music in New York during the 1970s and ‘80s, led to his legacy languishing in limbo for decades. Leach and Packer provided biographical texture; Lukoszevieze and pianist Rolf Hind discussed elements of the music in studio with Mitchener; and George Lewis asked the pointed question: “What is interesting to me in the renewed interest in Julius at this point is that it points to an entire hidden and forgotten history of Black composition that’s so thoroughly erased by classical music historiographies. My first question would be: Boy, I didn’t know there was anyone like this. I wonder who else is around?” However, the documentary’s best argument for Eastman’s music are the clips of Apartment House with Mitchener performing Stay On It.

 

* * * *

 

Decades ago, Philip Glass told of seeing every performance of a short run of a Samuel Beckett play in a small New York space, and realizing the most searing moments differed each night. It was a virtue absent in Greek and Shakespearean tragedy. Glass attributed this phenomenon to a germinative quality of Beckett’s text, that it can yield different results from performance to performance, even when delivered by the same players.

Something similar occurs watching the video of the late February 2018 London premiere of Sweet Tooth several times over a period of months. It is a process complicated by the piece’s initial, almost continuously concussive impact – the hushed yet harrowing ending really lands only on the second viewing. On subsequent viewings, it is also possible to appreciate Mitchener and Van Huynh’s use of the limited playing area in Saint George’s Bloomsbury to conjure such widely disparate environments as the suffocating bowels of a slave ship, the vastness of the fields, and the mechanized mill. So too are Mitchener’s breaking the fourth wall of the performance space, particularly when she begins to race up the center aisle, only to collapse, sprawled face down within an arm’s length of audience members.

The latter is one of several instances where Mitchener’s actions are intensified by tightly shuttered lighting instruments throwing narrow beams. The most gripping example of this occurs earlier in the piece where the thrashing desperation of Mitchener’s enslaved African is played out between two “shin busters” – lighting instruments positioned just off the deck – requiring her to move across the stage in a swath barely wider than her shoulders, throwing exaggerated, expressionistic hot spots and shadows across her. The months of exacting rehearsals paid off, as each musician responds to her every move in a finely calibrated manner that frequently presents as volatile, often at the brink of atomization. The precision of the delivery amplifies the themes of dispossession and terror; together, the execution and the content mirror the slave-generated sugar economy in all its dehumanizing efficiency.

“Demanding” approximates watching Sweet Tooth, but it does not fully describe the impact of performing its – “exhausting” is closer to the mark. Although most of the initial performances of the piece were sufficiently spread out over months, Mitchener and her collaborators had to perform the evening after Saint George’s at the John Hansard Gallery at the University of Southhampton. She then had, conveniently if not mercifully, two weeks off, when she began to ponder how to follow up Sweet Tooth.

That process began in a roundabout way when George Lewis contemporaneously engaged Mitchener for the premiere of his Elegy as part of WE HAVE DELIVERED OURSELVES FROM THE TONAL – Of, with, towards, on Julius Eastman, a late March program of talks and performances produced by the Berlin arts laboratory SAVVY Contemporary and MaerzMusik – Festival for Time Issues. It was something of a whirlwind weekend; in addition to performing the premiere and Memorial from Industrialising Intimacy with the composer and harpist Sean Griffin, Mitchener also presented her solo work, The Nude Voice, and participated in panels. And, she met a lot of people. Ordinarily, her networking antennae would be activated, but they were overridden by her focus on her performances.

In July, she received an email from one of the influencers she met in passing – Berno Odo Polzer, MaerzMusik’s artistic director. He had been receiving periodic email notices from Mitchener, but they were not corresponding. Polzer wanted to include Industrialising Intimacy for the festival’s next edition. MaerzMusik annually throws down the gauntlet with provocatively themed programs and genre-dissolving projects – the 2019 festival would be dedicated to questions pertaining to history and historiography, a good fit for Mitchener. However, she was not inclined to reprise the work without reworking it in collaboration with Van Huynh. After some discussion, they decided on doing a new piece. Polzer suggested a fifteen-minute work, but Mitchener countered with fifty minutes, and it was settled. By then, Mitchener understood that a commission for a short piece led to the expectation that it would be performed twice on the same day or thrice over two days, which can be extremely taxing.

“Later, in the development of the piece, I cursed myself for not agreeing on a fifteen-minute piece,” Mitchener admitted. “We only sealed the deal around Christmas, leaving Dam and I only five weeks to put it together, which is just insane. We had never worked with such a time constraint. What was I thinking?! A fifty-minute piece, solo, with lighting, and an electronic score that I will do. Of course, I had never created an electronic score before, and it’s going to be based upon themes around Walter Benjamin’s ‘Eingedenken,’ which loosely translates as remembrance as a responsibility. It was madness, but Berno was really into it; he thought it was really great, because it fit in his theories and philosophies about the festival.

“I met with Benjamin scholar Esther Leslie, who is based in London and kindly gave me an hour and a half of her time so that I could double-check my facts and my understanding of what I had been researching concerning Benjamin. I had read a few books, and what stuck in my mind was his ideas about photography, capturing a moment in time, how history is presented and re-presented, and how that changes our present-day thinking, how that present-day thinking has an effect on the future. I love this interplay between past, present, and future – the visual aspect of it in his writing. And he’s quite irreverent in his comments about everyday life. So, I imagined a sound piece that would evoke historic events, happenings, moments in time that occurred in the past but still effect the present. I also wanted to create audio pictures so that people didn’t know what period of time or space they were in.

“In terms of the electronics, I had a fairly clear idea of what I needed to happen, but I don’t have the expertise in terms of the programming, so I went to Neil Charles, who is also producer of grime artists and others, and has a studio. Because he has the experience of long form composition, coming from classical music, as well as improvisation, I knew that that he wouldn’t be flummoxed by things that are improvised, or referencing contemporary culture. He was the right person for me.  I knew it would be very old school classical new music electronics, IRCAMish style, a composer in a studio with a technician who will realize what’s going on in the composer’s head. Neil was cool with that. Poor Neil; when he realized it was a fifty-minute piece, it was [laughter]. When I got there the first time, he asked what was the plan, and I said, I’ve created a sound library, and I was being very arty and pictorial. So, he said: What happens here? And this happens there? And he drew this diagram, which I should have drawn, but I didn’t want to cement things so early on, because I hadn’t explored anything with Dam in the studio, and I hadn’t done any vocal work. I was putting texts together and the sound library.

“I knew one of the things I wanted to put in the piece was kind of a crowd scene. I wanted to work with the sounds of crowds. A demonstration, but it’s not necessarily aggressive – or is it aggressive? Chanting in a different language: Are they aggressors? Are they oppressors? Are they allies?  And play with that, and work with the images that conjures up. I wanted to draw on David Lammy’s speech in Parliament during the Windrush scandal because he was talking about the history of the UK and the Caribbean, and how interlinked that is, despite this very troubled history of the loyalty of Afro-Caribbeans to the UK, which has gone on for many, many years, and now they’re being deported. These historical connections are threaded all the way through. I also wanted to deconstruct ‘Strange Fruit,’ so that only people who know the text would recognize the song. Having a clock ticking through the piece, and the sounds of children playing. Drawing in things by Sojourner Truth about women’s identity; bell hooks about the sexualization of black women’s bodies, and how that obscures the identity of any woman who isn’t white; how history has created these sexual stereotypes and how they have created the mindset of a great majority of people. We’re still fighting these things.

“I started with Sojourner Truth, how it is the mind that makes the body, and bell hooks, who talked about the Aunt Jemima image – big lips, big hips, wide eyes – and trying to express that through the body. It becomes very uncomfortable for people to look at. Seeing a drawing or a photo of it is one thing; when it is put in your face, it’s quite another. This is not a caricature; this is not a comedy act. It is something that changes people into caricatures to be ridiculed. That was one of the main things I wanted to address in this piece in movement and vocalizing text.

“I don’t normally create conventional scores for my staged pieces because their development processes are organic, constantly evolving and I want to prevent things being ‘preserved in aspic’. But creating the score for this piece provided an opportunity for me to reflect and support what was going on visually. It is a graphic score of a layout of the work rather than detailed in terms of musical details dynamics, pitches, rhythms etc.

“Thinking about non-linear process:  During the first performance of the piece in March 2019 I suddenly realized why I’d insisted on having Drum and Bass towards the end of it. Right from the start of process all I knew was that the end required Drum and Bass, which is considered old now. I wasn’t being nostalgic or anything because during its height I wasn’t heavily into the music – I didn’t go clubbing and all that – but I remember it being inspired by Jamaican dub music, which was my childhood soundtrack and provided the essential musical link back to Jamaicans coming to the UK, bringing their music and their sound systems, and their children and grandchildren and their friends (black and white) growing up listening to it. Ska, reggae and dub’s influence on British popular music is undeniable and has become part of British culture. Drum and Bass is the grandchild of this music and because the scene wasn’t a black scene – it was very mixed – it nurtured a joyous positive energy. The music connects back to the David Lammy speech about the relationship between the UK and the Caribbean, so I expressed that thought at the end with Drum and Bass (although my friend composer Hannah Kendall in her analysis of the piece pointed out the sub-bass which is evident at the start of the work is a musical reference to what is to come).  I didn’t consciously think about it until I finished performing at the premiere: Ahh! That’s why I did it!

“The piece was also somewhat of a dig at the classical new music scene: this is not what you think it. It doesn’t draw on the Western classical canon and doesn’t need to sound as though it does. For me, contemporary new music has a much wider sound palette, and I won’t be narrowed or hemmed in. I’m not dismissing anything that came before. I love parts of the canon and what happened before is important, but what is happening now and its diversity of musical expression is of importance and relevance too.

“Berlin audiences are attentive, not easily surprised or offended and they’re not shy in expressing their dissatisfaction either. Having witnessed an unhappy Berlin crowd following a poor music theatre performance years ago the word ‘SCHLECHT!’ still resounds in my ear. So, yes, I was a bit concerned beforehand and I didn’t know what MaerzMusik was expecting. The response from the audience was more than enthusiastic which was a shock and relief to be honest because I braced myself for boos and ‘SCHLECHT!’

“Dam and I had endured four stressful weeks because we had to complete the work. There were sleepless nights, many sleepless nights. I remember a 3am moment sitting bolt upright thinking baby’s heartbeat. At other times scribbling something down which seemed profound in the early hours of the morning but was utter nonsense. But I needed that to shit out of my head and make space for creativity. We have a method of working together based on trusting the process. Dam has a way of looking at things, and might say we need something here vocally to charge this part, or connect the music and the movement, and I’m like what? What vocal thing? You’ve got me moving in this way or continuous jumping – I need to breathe and somehow sing a sustained legato line at the top of my range pianissimo – impossible! And then I work on it we work it out and it’s done. Somehow, we’ve managed to find a way to meld our creative process into one unit. It’s been trial, error experimentation on each other and because of our approach, I’m not sure we could teach this to anyone. It might die with us, Now there’s a thought.”

 

* * * *

 

All Souls Day: The UK was locking down again. Mitchener had been back in London for nearly two weeks, following a nearly disastrous trip to Germany to premiere On Being Human as Praxis at the Donaueschinger Musiktage. Three days before, she performed “Negative Space” and “Ghost Lullaby” from Leila Adu-Gilmore’s Freedom Suite with the London Sinfonietta as part of YET UNHEARD, a program of works by black composers she curated with George Lewis and conductor Vimbayi Kaziboni. (Unlike the US, the UK celebrates Black History Month in October.) In a scene echoed in concert halls and venues throughout Europe and North America, Mitchener sang in a nearly empty Royal Festival Hall, the concert broadcasted live by BBC Radio 3.

Mitchener’s unsettling experience in Germany prompted her, Yarde, and Charles, to call off Rolling Calf’s potentially pivotal concert at Zürich’s influential unerhört! festival (coincidentally, unerhört translates as unheard) mid-November. As was the case in the spring, cancellations and uncertainty began spreading across Mitchener’s calendar. This time, however, Mitchener had a starker sense of the personal and professional stakes, given how close the three years of work that went into the creation of On Being Human as Praxis came to naught – not to mention the risks of international travel during the latest surge, arriving for rehearsals the day before the Donaueschinger Musiktage was cancelled.

Under normal circumstances, the preparation of the piece would be a heavy lift: Mitchener had consulted via video conferencing with Manufaktur für Aktuelle Musik, the ensemble recruited for the project, but had not actually been in the same room with them; not having heard the music live, the sequencing of the compositions was to be determined; being in the performance space was necessary for Dam Van Huynh’s final editing of the movements by Mitchener and two dancers from his company. In addition to the pandemic stranding Van Huynh in Hong Kong, forcing him to direct via a video link, the festival had to scramble, pull strings, and jump through hoops to have the piece recorded for radio and television, securing the sessions close to the last possible moment. That the performance came off approached the miraculous.

It was already an extraordinary chain of events that led Mitchener to Donaueschingen, one that began innocuously in January 2017 with a rare gesture of professional generosity. An older friend who represented composers and once worked in classical music publishing like Mitchener, gave her an email list of high-level contacts throughout Europe she would otherwise need years to develop. At the time, Mitchener had hit a ceiling; she was becoming known within experimental music communities, but too few in the old world of classical music knew her name, let alone her work. Overcoming her loathing of cold calling, she sent out about 100 emails; when she got a reply, it was either an auto response – Out of Office or No Longer With Us – a flat No, or a more elaborate No. That summer, she received an email from Björn Gottstein, Donaueschinger Musiktage’s Artistic Director, that she initially thought was spam. She read it several times in disbelief.

“Donaueschinger Musiktage is the oldest contemporary music festival in Europe, and they never did anything with people like me,” Mitchener explained. “He said, ‘I like your work, and I’d like you to do something for the festival.’ I really couldn’t believe it, because he hadn’t actually, physically seen my work. I hadn’t done Sweet Tooth yet, so his interest was based on Leonardo and bits of Industrialising Intimacy.

After they exchanged a few emails, they had a chat. “I said I was reading Sylvia Wynter and wanted to do a piece around this subject, On Being Human as Praxis, Katherine McKittrick’s book of responses to Wynter’s work. I loved the title and that it was about humanity, questioning ideas about what it is to be human. It rhymed with everything else I had been doing. I told him I wanted to commission five composers to write something about this subject, have an ensemble, and choreographed movement. He miraculously said yes.”

Although she was first a playwright and a novelist, Wynter is best known for essays critical of the epistemology imposed upon the Third World by imperial Europe, particularly “Towards the Sociogenic Principle: Fanon, Identity, the Puzzle of Conscious Experience, and What It Is Like to be ‘Black,’” in which she posits the “sociogenic principle,” the magneto of her work. It extends Frantz Fanon’s theory of sociogeny, which states being human is based not merely in biology, but also in specific cultural contexts, particularly those involving storytelling and symbols. Wynter arrived at a theorem for humanness: Bios + Logos. With the sociogenic principle, the Jamaican theorist sought to remove the Scold’s bridals of thought that kept colonized peoples less than fully liberated, even after independence.

All of this makes Wynter a challenging subject for a collaborative interdisciplinary performance project, which Mitchener acknowledged, laughing knowingly at the mention of Wynter’s often impenetrable prose. “It is florid,” Mitchener admitted, “but you have to persevere. I’m never going to be able to quote swaths and swaths of Sylvia Wynter. I am always going to paraphrase Sylvia Wynter because it is so dense, but what she is talking about is fundamental. This project was an expansion of Industrialising Intimacy in terms of the number of composers involved and the forces involved. I wanted to test the theory that if I gave a theme to five composers who know me and my work, they would they come up with various sound worlds that I could cohere into a whole.”

A cursory glance at the contributing composers – Tansy Davies, Laure M. Hiendl, George Lewis, Matana Roberts, and Jason Yarde – suggests that combining their work would test Mitchener’s geodesic approach to building out collaborative works. Certainly, Lewis was a critical hub of this process; Yarde was then becoming another through Sweet Tooth and Rolling Calf. Mitchener’s work with Davies was then taking the next step. Having sung a minor, through-scored role in the composer’s audacious 9/11 opera, Between Worlds, Mitchener would be a principal in 2018’s The Cave, a role Davies designed to be substantially improvised. Hiendl and Roberts were bold choices, but they are not the outliers they may seem to be at first glance. Particularly when employing voices, their work can be searing. Using bullet manufacturer advertisement copy for its text, Hiendl’s ”Ten Bullets Through One Hole” (2018) for two voices, electronics, and video, may even sicken listeners with proximity to gun violence.

Commissioning a single ten-minute composition is risky for all parties, particularly when the agreement is made three years out. Multiply by five, and you have Of Being Human as Praxis. For starters, work doesn’t begin until contracts are executed and down payments are made, the latter tied to budget cycles beginning closer to a year out. By that time, basic parameters like instrumentation had to be agreed upon; in this case, clarinets, trumpets, violin, double bass and percussion. “We had to focus on how much percussion, because composers often have different ideas about what percussion to use,” Mitchener said. “We had to do it in a way that didn’t clip the composers’ wings – we wanted them to express their ideas as much as possible. I was originally going to play drum kit, but I don’t own a drum kit, so I couldn’t practice, so we either got another player or pre-program some drums, which is what we did. It didn’t sound great, but it was ok.”

Then, you need the composers to meet the deadline for delivery – in this case, April 2020, when COVID-19 had the world by the throat. “All the decisions about the sequence of the five compositions had to wait for the works to be completed and delivered,” Mitchener emphasized. “Tansy Davies wrote her piece late last summer, a co-commission with the London Sinfonietta, which I performed last November. That was the only piece that we had for months. I had a lot of discussions with the other composers and tried to get them to finalize what they had by April, which would give me, the ensemble, and Dam, time to develop the piece.

“In terms of the shape of the piece,” she continued, “the challenges for Dam was where to provide continuity, to know where to animate the space, and to keep the movement equally strong throughout, and let the personality of each piece needed to shine and flourish. We had worked with MAM in March after the premiere of the then + the now: nowtime, before I went on to perform Leonardo at Rewind festival in Holland. We spent two days with them, so Dam could see what their physical abilities and see if they were open enough to exploration, because we wanted a tactile, fleshy and connected piece. Then COVID-19 came, and out went all our plans of meeting three or four times – a week for music rehearsal, just music, and two weeks for exploration, and another week to pull everything together. It was all planned. COVID also delayed delivery of some of the work by some of the composers. This meant delays in my learning the works, the ensemble learning them, and so on.

“The first lockdown did not help anyone. There was the shell shock of losing everything. I didn’t want to sing anything, but I had to work with the view that the festival would happen in October, while everything else fell to the side. Then the music came in, and there was a lot of discussion about whether or not we could fly to Germany – loads of things we had to sort out. And then we realized that there was one week at the end of August and the beginning of September where we had to put together a fifty-minute piece socially distanced, which was not the original concept. Two of those days had to be committed to music, because it was the first time that I was actually hearing the music. It’s one thing to listen to a MIDI file, which can sound like rubbish; at least you know the tempo and a loose idea of how it will sound. But to hear the nuances, the intricacies of a piece, you have to hear it played by the instruments. You have to hear it live. And it’s a massive shock. Oh, this is how that goes, because you’ve been learning in isolation. You have to put it all together.

“Then Dam has the fiendishly difficult job of getting us around the space safely, socially distanced, and making it look interesting. I’ve worked with his dancers, and have more physical capabilities than the musicians. To be fair, they were really good, but we just didn’t have the time to really explore things, so we had to make decisions that week about Dam making a skeleton, a framework, so that when we got together in October – we had three and a half days.

“We were then asked if we could do three performances instead of two, given the social distancing needed in the hall. I couldn’t say no, given their generous support of the project – at the same time, it’s a fifty-minute piece, singing it twice in one day is a big ask. For example, Tansy’s piece is very intricate. It doesn’t sound hard, but it’s particularly difficult for the vocalist to lock in because she manipulates rhythms very cleverly. It’s not a minimalist score; it’s just where everything is placed. Laure M. Hiendl’s piece was called ‘White Radiance™,’ like the skin-lightening cream. I was charged with reading the ingredients – these weird ingredients – and this promotional material, an advert for it. I really enjoyed it, but it was hard to do, because it’s not quite shouting but it’s hard on the speaking voice and you have to support it. George’s piece was also really hard. He asked me to sound more like a South Korean Pansori singer, so I’m doing a lot of note-bending and a lot of the notes were outside the contralto range – he was very good about me taking parts down an octave, so that it was comfortable for me to sing.

“We all scratched our heads over Matana’s score, because it’s like a Fluxus piece, a text piece inspired by Ben Patterson, and it’s like these scenarios that keep repeating but they change every time. It calls for musicians who can improvise, but it was mainly instructions for what you had to do, like staring into space. And there was a metronome at 60 that’s subliminal that dissolves time. That was, for me, probably the hardest piece we had to do. It the day we had to perform it for the radio that we knew what we were doing. We talked and talked and talked about it, and we tried it and tried it, and it wasn’t quite working. Maybe it was because the lights were on, the cameras were rolling, and they pressed Record that locked in, and it was a really magical experience. Up until that point, though, it was so hard.”

“We got to Donaueschingen on the 10th and began rehearsals on the 11th – we were told the festival was cancelled that afternoon. When we finally heard the music that morning, we then realize what order of pieces would work. Dam was concerned with keeping the space animated throughout and to avoid dips between pieces. We decided to open the whole piece with an improvisation, with us charging around the space, using our voices, our instruments, our bodies to intensify that space, grab the attention of everyone, and fall into Jason’s piece.”

Yarde’s “The Problem with Humans, Volume 1 – An Overview from Under” is, in turns, playful, pithy, vulnerable and hard-hitting. Mitchener succinctly reinforces the mood of each. Yarde planted improvised cadenzas into the piece – one for each MAM member: Richard Haynes, clarinets; Paul Hübner, trumpets; Sabrina Ma, percussion; Caleb Salgado, double bass; Sarah Saviet, violin – which supply strong colors and frequent sparks. The piece ends with a riveting, exasperated contemplation on the murder of George Floyd. This provided a strangely elegant transition to Robert’s “Gasping for air considering your purpose Dissolving …” Applied in other settings, the ensemble’s textures could be heard as garden-variety abstractions; triangulated with the text and the enervating backgrounded metronome, they take on a more foreboding, even menacing, aspect as they accumulate.

The final three compositions fly by – although their pace is about all they have in common. Reinforced by electronics, “White Radiance™” begins as a post-modern patter song on steroids. However, the draw of the virtuosity required to sing it is only a temporary diversion from the piece’s subject: the listing of chemicals used in a product proffering to diminish, if not remove, the stigma of being a person of color in the white-privileging First World. It then morphs into a swirl of text and electronics, underpinned by double bass figures and offset by ensemble flourishes. Davies’ “The Rule is Love” has more conventional vocal demands: on-a-dime turns between recitative and soaring phrases; dramatic sweep that swells and tapers amid sprouting instrumental voices; and the projection of persona, in this case, one with tested tensile strength. Lewis’ “H. Narrans” closes the performance with pyrotechnic bursts of percussion, sawed strings, and keening horns, pierced by Mitchener’s urgent, often quavering voice. Its climatic end is nothing less than sensational, with Mitchener at its crest, sustaining a triumphant high note.

On the basis of the recording – the filmed version having yet to launch – the risk of staying in Germany to realize the piece paid off. Back in London, Mitchener was coming to a standstill, with only online and television performances slated for December. Her new text piece – “SKIP, BARK I + II & WALK” – will be performed as part of the online London Contemporary Music Festival; additionally, her three short films originally commissioned by the Holland Festival, Colour Out of Space and Ruhrtriennale Festival, will be shown. Mitchener also contributes to artist Marina Abromović’s day-long “take-over” of the Sky Arts television channel, performing both the Ben Patterson piece and “Amazing Grace,” highlights of her Café Oto performance the night of the initial lockdown.

Otherwise, like the rest of us, she is waiting it out.

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