Great Britain, Music & Sound, 2022


Photo: Jasper Kettner

Elaine Mitchener MBE is one of the most original and distinctive performers of our time. Few other artists are able to convincingly harness such vast resources and combine and project them to such compelling and devastating effect. A classical singer by training, Mitchener is also an experimental vocalist, an improvisor, a composer, a visual artist and a movement artist. A first generation black British citizen, Mitchener has studied the texts of both revolutionary African-diaspora thinkers, and the European avant garde, and absorbed these into her work. Her aesthetic ignores the arbitrary divisions which the culture industry, for reasons of marketing and economics, imposes on human expression. Instead, it unleashes a total art that explores the limits and expressive potential of the voice and body in performances which represent a dynamic new form of experimental-political music theatre.

Mitchener’s art uses personal catharsis to confront historical trauma (from the slave trade to the Windrush scandal) but it is not solipsistic nor gratuitous. It is generous and inclusive. All vocal and textual nuances and physical and textural gestures are in the service of an approach which, like all great avant garde art, has at its core a desire to express the totality of the human experience and condition, to reveal other forms of truth and beauty, to present and engage audiences with ideas and experiences that will leave them changed and galvanised, to capsize the status quo and replace it with something better.

Mitchener’s background is modest but significant: born and raised in East London to parents who migrated to the UK from Jamaica, as a youth she sang in gospel groups, and later studied classical singing at Trinity Laban. Active as a full time performer since the 2000s, her major performance pieces include Sweet Tooth, which interrogates the legacy of the transatlantic slave and sugar trades, and The Then + The Now = Now Time, which investigates Eingedenken, Walter Benjamin’s concept of remembering as an act of civic responsibility. Her main productions in 2022 include the sound installation [NAMES II] An Evocation, which memorialises the enslaved African people owned by British plantation owner Simon Taylor in 18th century Jamaica and which is currently touring as part of the British Art Show 9; and 

Women’s Work, a concert to mark International Women’s Day inspired by Annea Lockwood and Alison Knowles’s book of the same name, which was presented at London’s Wigmore Hall, where Mitchener is an associate artist. Mitchener is also a trustee of the London Contemporary Music Festival, and lectures in composition at London’s Guildhall School of Music. As a composer her sound works are held in a curated collection by George E. Lewis at Darmstadt, and she has been commissioned to produce new works by European festivals including Maerzmusik, Donaueschinger Musiktage, and Sons d’Hiver.

Perhaps the range and depth of Mitchener’s work can best be gauged by listing some of her regular collaborators, which include many of the other most original and distinctive artists of our time: composers Jennifer Walshe, George E Lewis and Tansy Davies; visual artists Sonia Boyce, Christian Marclay and The Otolith Group; chamber ensembles Apartment House, Ensemble MAM and Klangforum Wien; choreographer Dam van Huynh’s company; and experimental musicians such as Moor Mother, Loré Lixenberg, Pat Thomas, and Jason Yarde and Neil Charles, with whom Mitchener founded The Rolling Calf, an electroacoustic improvising unit which, like all the work of this remarkable artist, strikes yet another new bridgehead for the black avant garde. 

Text: Tony Herrington


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