Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker


Elaine Mitchener                                                                                   Courtesy of Elaine Mitchener


Boris Johnson abandoned cavalier notions of herd immunity in early March 2020 and moved towards a nationwide lockdown. By the 20th, when pubs, cafes, restaurants, and gyms were ordered closed, musicians in London had already pivoted to uploading home recordings and live streaming, Café Oto webcasting nightly concerts by a wide swath of artists. The Dalston venue was preparing to present solo sets by vocalist Elaine Mitchener and pianist Kerry Yong when the lockdown order came on the 23rd, taking effect that midnight. Technically, it was spring, but the portent of unrelenting, oppressive bleakness permeated the proceedings, even the announcements, making it seem like the first night of an endless winter.

The evening opened with Yong’s readings of the last three pieces of Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d'oiseaux. Rooted in the composer’s idyllic pursuit of transcribing bird calls and songs in the French countryside, this choice then seemed risky – a divertimento in the face of a fast-moving plague. However, Yong’s crisp attack and rhythmic drive was sufficiently urgent to prompt reconsideration of the programmatic materials prominent in two of the three. The first piece, La Buse variable, depicts the circling of a buzzard among thrushes, swallows, and other meeker species, the attack upon the buzzard by carrion crows and the alarm it spreads among the others, and the buzzard’s soaring escape. In the concluding Le Courlis cendré, Messiaen paints a desolate seascape with tremolos, trills, and glissandi, the calls of the curlew petering into silence.

It is generally problematic to extract parts from an extended work and make larger points about the composer; but this segment of Catalogue d'oiseaux shares a characteristic with Messiaen’s most iconic work, Quatuor pour la fin du temps – it portrays the persistence of beauty and spirit in invidious environments. This is the gravity that Yong tapped by letting the technically taxing materials breathe. In doing so, Yong met the enormity of the moment. Messiaen said that it was fellow war prisoners present for the first performance of Quatour pour la fin temps who best understood the work. Along that line, the audience who heard Yong the first night of quarantine made a deep connection with Catalogue d’oiseaux. Rarely do concerts conclude, let alone open, so impactfully.

The first camera shot after the interval was a close up of a knee-high round table – on it sat a glass of water; peanut butter cup-sized candles, only one of which was lit; a bellhop-beckoning bell; and a glass bowl stuffed with more candles, their metal cases creating a swarm of reflecting curves. It was an improbable still life. Elaine Mitchener’s hands and forearms glide in from the top of the frame, picking up a candle, vanishing momentarily while she lit it, and reappearing to set it down and ring the bell. The process was repeated; with the camera cutting between three-quarter profiles and straight on, full body shots, the visual emphasis switches from the candles to Mitchener’s countenance – she looked like she is burying everyone she has ever known. Once she finished, she stepped away to a music stand.

It seemed much longer than the few seconds that actually passed before Mitchener began summoning sounds. Barely audible at first, her utterances gain force as their fulcrum migrates from her mouth to her diaphragm. Words like “focus” began to emerge from textures entwining the aboriginal with the abstract. As she stretched into avant-vocalese, it is discernable that Mitchener was interpreting a text resting on the music stand. She revealed the full extent of her range, her effortless sliding through registers, and the precision of her shadings. Characterizations sprang forth, utilizing everything from gentle choir-pure tones to wincing screeches, and from click-punctuated falsetto to a disarmingly throaty chortle. Mitchener soon veered into hovering melody, untethered by obvious, generic song structure. She landed on the word “sound,” which she repeats, reshaping it each time, elongating it and amping it up into a powerful climax.

After catching her breath, Mitchener launched into a second, contrasting piece. Whereas the shape of the first clearly rose and blossomed, the second was a series of wind-challenging etudes: the acceleration of sounds, accompanied by an increasingly nasal tone, the results resembling old-school tape-speeding; rapid-fire, two-note phrases that shift harmonically in a manner recalling the hyper-kinetic choruses of Philip Glass’ operas; squeezed antiphonal interplay between breath and articulations, creating multi-layered beats; a fugue of gurgles and gasps. As equally impressive as her singing was the lack of histrionics in Mitchener’s delivery.

Mitchener then circumscribed the first part of her performance – and, by extension, the unfolding crucible facing her community – by exquisitely singing “There is a Balm in Gilead.” Set aside, at least momentarily, Mitchener’s affinity for Jeanne Lee, whose reading of the spiritual on Archie Shepp’s Blasé is a timeless classic; she is also the subject of Mitchener’s The Jeanne Lee Project, and a source for the repertoire of her Vocal Classics of the Black Avant-Garde. However, the power of the spiritual laid not in a contextualization of the black avant-garde – even a construct that encompasses earlier iterations by Mahalia Jackson and the Fisk Jubilee Singers – but in its message of healing, implicitly through testimony (Gilead commonly translates as “hill of testimony”). It is arguably the most pointedly timely piece anyone could sing at that moment.

As it turned out, the beginning of Mitchener’s concert drew directly from the black avant-garde, the candle lighting and bell ringing sourced from Benjamin Patterson’s Methods and Processes, while the first piece was an improvisation on a Cecil Taylor poem (the second utilized text from Trinh T. Minh-Ha’s Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism). Retrospectively, the spiritual was part of a wider historical scan of black arts and feminism, and provided a smart mid-program pivot. For the remainder of the concert, Mitchener continued to freely mix song and abstraction, drawing again on black avant-garde and feminist texts – by Sun Ra, Sappho, and Una Marson – and a bit of Fluxus, the latter involving squeaky toy animals and a baby doll. She brought Yong on towards the end for improvised accompaniment of her setting of Marson’s “Interlude,” his sparse interior work at the extremes of the piano reinforcing evocation of stars keeping vigil over “Over a land/Waiting in hushed horror.”

Mitchener closed with “Amazing Grace.” Given that an indiscriminate scourge was sweeping through the country, the hymn would have been sufficiently powerful if sung unembellished. However, Mitchener made the bold choice to use a multi-track recording of dissonant voices wordlessly swimming around the melody. Additionally, Mitchener took liberties with the melody, wringing every last drop of the agony that informed the text. At the same time, she lowered herself to the stage, finishing crumpled among the music stand and texts, the baby doll and squeaky toys, and the table with the candles and the bell.

 

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“It’s been a long three months,” Mitchener said on the first day of summer, video conferencing from her North London home. “It took a while for me to come to terms with how suddenly everything locked down, when the government had initially tried to paint a different picture. I felt quite concussed at first and it is still a bit of a shock, particularly when you look at your diary and think, I should be here now, or I should be working on that now. It’s hard to work, it’s hard to be creative, because I’m thinking about survival and money and lack of money, and how to overcome those things. That takes up a lot of energy you normally use for creating work, rehearsing, organizing, and other aspects of your work. There are so many unknowns and so many variables, and everyone is in it.

“There was a moment where there just weren’t any emails. It was barren – tumbleweed. Then, everyone began to ask: What is going to happen? All my work is gone. Every conversation I had was: Yep, holding out for June. That was in March. Then comes May and June’s gone. Maybe August – that’s gone. I had a concert for the Ruhrtriennale in September; and when they contacted me to say that it had been cancelled, I thought everyone is coming to terms that we’re probably looking at 2021. Once you accept that, you can start doing things, you can focus more, and stop hanging onto the remnants. I do have a project scheduled for the Donaueschinger Musiktage in October that will not be made public until September, if the festival is on. I have been contacted by some festivals about doing something in November, but ...

“You probably notice that I didn’t mention anything in the UK. All the contacts I’m having about concerts at the end of this year are with organizations outside the UK, in other parts of Europe. The possibility of them happening is heartening given that the UK is leaving the European Union at the end of the year, apparently, which will make everything even more complicated, because the government hasn’t sorted anything out concerning free travel and visas and how much it’s going to cost. So, it’s important for me to keep my contacts and reach out to people that know me outside the UK. In addition to working on commissions for some small pieces, that’s how I spend my time.”

Given its aftermath, the Oto performance still resonates with Mitchener, particularly her decision to close with “Amazing Grace.” “I just thought it was the right way to end that set, whether you’re religious or not,” Mitchener said. “For that piece, there are four different voices. They are all my voice. Each time I recorded the song, I sang it a major or minor second off the proceeding track. I wanted that dissonance and make it very hard to sing. By the time I sing it live I really have to work hard and I’m sometimes taken off pitch. The piece is really about steering that course. I think we need an anchor – I certainly do. That was my way of encouraging people not be to afraid, to help them and to liberate them.”

Mitchener first encountered the hymn as a kid singing at an East London Seven Day Adventist church she no longer attends; it was years before she learned its troubled backstory, which intensified her affinity for the hymn. By early 1988, Mitchener had teamed up with five other girls from the congregation to form an acapella group, Redemption. Take 6 had just hit. “We hear Take 6 and it’s mind-blowing,” Mitchener recalled. And, presumably, Take 6 – all graduates of Oakwood University, the only African American Seventh Day Adventist university – would pass muster with the elders. That spring, out of the blue, the group was booked for a single UK performance – in Bletchley, Milton Keynes.

“My older brother hired this really rubbish van and drove us at breakneck speed on the motorway to see Take Six,” Mitchener continued. “That group singlehandedly, completely changed the way we all sang. Everything became about close harmony, really sophisticated use of the voice. It was so modern and advanced, harmonically, and it came from America. We just wanted to be them, really. Until then, there was Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, E.E. Cleveland, and The Clark Sisters – who for me are like wow. We had a heavy diet of that.”

Jamaicans who met in the 1960s after relocating to London, Mitchener’s mum, a nurse, and her dad, a London Transit worker, introduced her to complementary facets of their African Caribbean musical heritage. While her mother was responsible for Mitchener’s exposure to sacred music, her father, who passed in 2013, filled their home in a Tower Hamlets, Stepney low-rise with ska, reggae, and dub. In a March 2020 essay for “The Inner Sleeve,” a regular feature in The Wire honoring influential album art, Mitchener wrote about the impact of one of her father’s records, Burning Spear’s Hail H.I.M. (1980; EMI). The cover reproduced Jamaican painter Neville Garrick’s heroic portrait of Haile Selassie astride a white steed, dressed in full regalia, topped by a hat with flame-like plumage, peering ahead with steely determination.

Learning about the Ethiopian emperor, his centrality to Rastafarianism, and constituent movements like Nyabinghi, from her father while still in primary school made Mitchener “question a lot of what I’d been taught at school or seen on TV,” she wrote. “This was an alternative view of black history. And being presented with it was a political act ... I think that’s what my dad was sharing with us, his children, through his music: the importance of having this wider knowledge of history, and how it can empower you in a society that undermines black and brown people, because you’re not going to be taught it at school, or find out about it through the media.”

The political consciousness sparked by Jamaican secular music came at a time when the National Front and unaffiliated skinheads roiled political and, implicitly, racial tensions throughout the East End, which was nothing new – the Mitchener’s home was not far from the site of the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, where a coalition of Irish, Jews, and other anti-fascists clashed with both Oswald Moseley’s Blackshirts and the Metropolitan Police (who has its own decades-long record of racially biased policies). These realizations dovetailed with the activism Mitchener found in the local Adventist church, founded in the early 1960s after newly arrived blacks were not accepted by white congregations. Speaking of an influential, recently passed elder who led the formation of the church her mother and sister still attend, Mitchener adamantly said that “church shouldn’t be segregated. It’s only when you hear these stories that you remember that this was going on in religious institutions in England. So, this elder decided to establish an alternative and said, If you don’t want us we’ll start our own church. He was really militant like that. It’s that which I’ve carried, because I’ve seen it. I’ve had conversations with older members of the church and they talk about their experiences coming to the UK, living in London, trying to get jobs, what they went through; all these things – especially what my parents have told me – it stays in my mind. Their faith has kept them through.”

However, the gospel music of her youth was not just inspirational, it contributed to Mitchener’s sensibility as an improviser. “You don’t know you’re improvising when you’re singing in church, you don’t know it’s an act of improvisation. Because I could sing, I had these situations in church where there would be a special preacher and they needed a special item. Elaine, can you sing? But I haven’t practiced. It’s alright because the Lord will give you the words. Yes, the Lord will have to give me the words because I don’t know what I’m going to sing. You don’t have time to practice with the group or the pianist. You just have to call out the hymn. I’m going to sing Hymn 364. OK; I’ll sing the first and second verses and go up a tone when we sing the chorus. You haven’t practice it and you just hope you can do it. And when one of the elders start calling out hymns when you’re singing in a congregational song service, they don’t know what key they’re singing in, and you have to follow them. So, there’s all this training that I’ve carried through along with the activism and militancy.”

 

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Concurrently, Mitchener developed another skill set as a singer, studying classical music – including the innovations of the Second Viennese School – to gain admission to Trinity College of Music, London, in 1990. Older than the Royal Academy of Music, Trinity was nevertheless far poorer in resources than RAM, Guildhall, and other colleges and conservatories, lacking its own theatre or concert hall, or even a relationship with nearby Wigmore Hall. Trinity’s second-class status was brought home to Mitchener when she sang with the school’s jazz band at an exclusive prep school for young ladies. After the performance, a posh woman enquired where they went to school. Mistaking the answer for Trinity College, Cambridge, she started to effuse until corrected, causing her to abruptly stop, incredulous and jaw-dropped, and walk away.

Mitchener’s deeper dive into 20th Century music at Trinity was spurred by the challenges posed by works by Americans like Elliott Carter, Cage and Feldman, as well as Michael Finnissy. However, Mitchener found herself without the support of teachers who themselves performed contemporary new music, which meant, among other things, it was not programmed into the college’s official recitals. Subsequently, Mitchener and her fellow students produced concerts at the Hinde Street Methodist Church. She now thinks that the performance of Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna for sixteen voices she initiated was far more ambitious than polished, while others were “probably too weird to be held in a church.”

After leaving Trinity in 1994, Mitchener pursued a Masters as a part-time student at Goldsmiths College, where, presumably, bias on the part of the faculty impacted Mitchener in a profound way. “I didn’t get my Masters,” Mitchener said. “I failed my performance, but I passed my dissertation, an analysis of [Arnold Schoenberg’s] Pierrot lunaire, the performance practice of it, taking very different performances and analyzing them, questioning whether Boulez’s interpretations, which is the basis for a lot of interpretations, should be held up as the benchmark. For me, it was too lyrical, too far away from the earliest recordings of it, and had lost that surreal quality, and more polished performances became the norm. That was the premise of the dissertation and it finished off with looking at Sprechgesang and Sprechstimme, and the inheritance of that as a vocal technique. My argument that it was hip hop and rappers that were taking it to another level. I don’t think my instructors at the time – this was 1998 – were very open to the idea. I actually think it’s a quite a good argument.

“Failing my performance was really shocking to me. I had done a master class with Jane Manning, who sang with Ensemble Modern and Boulez, and has premiered a lot of new music and inspired a lot of singers interested in that area of music, including myself. She coached me through Rhymes and Limericks by Michael Finnissy, which is really, really hard. I was the only singer that took on anything that hard, the others instead singing Poulenc or Barber – and that’s fine, but it’s not contemporary new music. I was surprised when I failed. My recital also included an extract from Pierrot lunaire, a piece by Ruth Crawford Seeger, who was widely unknown in the UK in the ‘90s, an extract from Feldman’s Three Voices, so I had to prerecord two of the parts, and a small free improvisation. I thought it was a very good, varied final recital, but there weren’t any singers on the panel, so I still don’t know what to think about it. But, it really knocks your confidence as a performer, and after that I didn’t sing publicly for four or five years.”

Demoralized, Mitchener consigned herself to a career in arts management. For more than a decade, Mitchener held a succession of positions that gave her insights into different moneyed modalities of producing music and theater. During her first four years in the field, Mitchener was a coordinator for the Royal Overseas League Music Competition, open to performers from all corners of the Commonwealth, as well as the UK. Whereas the Royal chartered ROL, located near Buckingham Palace, represented imperial largesse, Mitchener’s next position placed her in the heart of the investment capital-driven West End theater market, an agency whose clients included Andrew Lloyd Weber and Cameron Macintosh. She then moved to Dewinter, an agency that cites its agenda as “Engaging content marketing, great social storytelling and creative PR and design that get people.”  “I got to know the other side of the desk in terms of arts, in terms of management, in terms of PR, in terms of marketing, in terms of getting sales, in terms of what needs to be done,” Mitchener assessed.

By the mid-aughts, Mitchener began to sing publicly again, albeit only occasionally and in under-the-radar situations, which recharged her creative energy and her activism, the latter leading her to seek out potential performance spaces near her office. Without an appointment, she walked into a restaurant behind Wyndham’s Theatre off Leicester Square and asked if she could put on events there. The owner, who exuded a gangster vibe, was initially agreeable to let Mitchener use the room below the restaurant, so she brought up the need for a piano with the idea it would be rented, at least initially. However, when she took the owner to a showroom on Bond Street, he pulled out a large wad of cash and bought a piano on the spot.

Twisted Lounge was thus hatched, and for the next two and a half years, Mitchener presented music twice a month, a friend posted at the door to collect the 5£ cover. The venue had the advantages of being comfortable and devoid of drunken tourists; as word spread, musicians as varied as pianist Bheki Mseleku and the duo of saxophonist John Butcher and bassist John Edwards played there. Although Mitchener only occasionally sang – often in duet with bassist Neil Charles, with whom she continues to play in multiple settings – the networking Twisted Lounge afforded her lasted long after she was forced to shut it down, due to the logistical challenges posed by her taking a position at the music publisher Ricordi in Pancras Square and tightened parking restrictions in Central London.

However, prior to Mitchener pulling the plug on Twisted Lounge, producer Peter Milligan turned up one night and asked Mitchener to bring Twisted Lounge to the newly opened Kings Place. Mitchener, knowing the other side of the desk, countered by proposing a broader program spanning improvised music, jazz and contemporary classical music. Out Here ensued, which she administered on a part-time basis for Kings Place Music Foundation for over two years. As was the case at Twisted Lounge, Mitchener rarely sang at Kings Place. However, her first performance there as part of an evening titled Vocal Crossings is perhaps her most consequential to date. Taking place on the day Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, Mitchener’s solo mixes abstractions and idioms with a finesse presaging her Café Oto performance, particularly in her choice to close with “Deep River.”

“I was very emotional that day, as a lot of people were,” Mitchener recalled. “I remember calling my dad and saying I can’t believe it. I was really in tears. This wasn’t a Hollywood movie with Morgan Freeman playing the president. And he said you don’t have to cry; you just have to do a good job. I was singing ‘Deep River’ with [then husband Leon Michener] and we were going to improvise, make it pointillistic and try some stuff, and I was going to keep singing it, and let the pitch go lower and lower to the end. We really didn’t practice it; we just talked through the concept, and performed it … Even though I had studied and performed new contemporary music, I had always kept singing gospel and some jazz. I feel there has always been a thread. Sometimes I think that thread seemed thin, but it has gotten thicker as I have gotten older. I have become more confident in the ways I want to articulate what I have been thinking about, meditating on, and researching over the years, so it’s much more explicit now in my own work. I understand that what I’m doing now seems light years away from gospel, but the thread was always there.”

 

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The contact tracing of Mitchener’s ensuing activities of the next five years centers around three close colleagues, beginning with David Toop. “I was struck by the feeling in her voice, her vocal versatility,” Toop recently recalled of her performance in Vocal Crossings. Searching for singers for Star Shaped Biscuit, an opera then in the works, he was confident Mitchener could play one of the opera’s three roles, and approached her about the project after the performance. By the time Star Shaped Biscuit premiered in 2012, Toop engaged Mitchener in sundry projects that began to sharpen facets of her work. Some were one-offs – adding an atmospheric vocal track to an undub-like electronic piece Toop contributed to the 2011 compilation, Step into Dubizm; improvising as a trio with bassist Henry Grimes that December, part of a Kraak-sponsored series in Ghent (Mitchener would play with Grimes twice in London before 2014; pianist Bobby Few was also on the second gig).

The run-up to Star Shaped Biscuit overlaps with the development of another multi-discipline work that was years in the making. Beginning in February 2010, Mitchener spent three months in Venice under the auspices of Fondazione Claudio Buziol and Musiktheater Transparent to workshop the vocal parts and dramaturgy for Toop’s Of Leonardo da Vinci: Quills/A Black Giant/Deluge, an hour-long work premiered at the 2015 Ultima Festival. Toop’s libretto extracted images from da Vinci’s notebook, including an apocalyptic vision of a black giant, and an early memory of a bird opening da Vinci’s mouth with his tail, and sticking the child inside his lips. Toop soon concluded a visual element was essential, leading him to enlist photographer/filmmaker Barry Lewis. Since Mitchener would be the only on-stage performer, choreographer Dam Van Hunyh was brought on, initiating a collaboration with Mitchener that continues.

In its finished form, Of Leonardo da Vinci is a work that, from the outset, tests the tensile strength of the term “opera,” as it begins with several minutes of Mitchener silently moving in tightly focused backlight, which strikingly emphasized her arms. Mitchener mediates Toop’s largely electronic score (Sylvia Hallett’s earthy fiddling occasionally breaks through its skein) and the projections of Lewis’ frequently engrossing footage linking the movements of air, water, and fire, as well as birds and humans. Over the course of the piece, Mitchener’s vocal parts elongate from breathy utterances and clipped cries to short songful segments as the front-projected images slowly enlarge, and grow sinister. Birds are initially shown in flight; late in the proceedings, one is feasted upon by larvae. A creepy seven-ages-of-man sequence begins with fetal sonograms, then close ups of children, adults, seniors, and, finally, a hairy man wearing only a mask. Mitchener initially stays clear of the images, but is eventually engulfed. As was the case with her Vocal Crossings performance, Mitchener was equally persuasive with abstractions and melody, even when contorting, stretching towards the rafters, or lying on the deck. Of Leonardo da Vinci permanently affixed “movement artist” to her ID.

After Mitchener’s return from the Venice residency, John Butcher, impressed by Mitchener’s solo set the evening he and John Edwards played Twisted Lounge in 2008, approached her to be part of Cranes & Freighters, the ensemble formed to premiere his ISOLA and pianist Frédéric Blondy’s Interwoven Tides at the 2012 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Though the bulk of his work is in improvisation, Butcher has a rare knack for composing conceptually driven works with a precise point of view that nevertheless give improvisers significant latitude. The demands of ISOLA are varied; there are conventionally notated passages, playback of recorded materials, and written instructions. Mitchener is a strong presence from the opening measures, where she sings a simple descending line of crystalline long notes, to a spectral solo near the conclusion of the half-hour piece, and her highlighting of the exhortative climax.

It was Steve Beresford, who had also played at Twisted Lounge, who suggested Mitchener to perform Christian Marclay’s Manga Scroll at the October 2011 Faster Than Sound series at Aldeburgh Music, which also included the premiere of Marclay’s Everyday, which featured Beresford, Butcher, and others. There are echoes of 1970s New York performance art in this 2010 work for solo voice. His source materials – onomatopoeias found in Japanese Manga comic books, translated for US readers – were printed on a 60-foot rice paper scroll. Using long tables, two assistants kept the scroll moving at a sustainable pace for the performer, stationed between them. The resulting stage picture has the hermetic austerity associated with Meredith Monk, while the text is straight out of Dada. Unlike Joan LaBarbara, who previously performed the piece at the Whitney Museum, Mitchener was unencumbered with a handheld mic, allowing her to exert a more magnetic stage presence, which enhanced the performance. She would perform the work again in Bremen as part of the Weseburg MOMA’s KABOOM! exhibition in September 2013.

The September 2012 premiere of Toop’s Star Shaped Biscuit was the second production presented by Faster Than Sound that year that cemented Mitchener’s reputation as a contemporary music theater singer. Previews and reviews of the opera extended beyond music periodicals to London dailies like The Guardian, in part because of the involvement of institutions like the Jerwood Opera-Writing Programme, like Faster Than Sound a satellite of Aldeburgh Music, founded by Benjamin Britten in 1948. Also prominent in press accounts was the site of the premiere, a derelict, Suffolk industrial building without a facia, as if ripped off by a tornado or a bomb. The site reinforced the opera’s apocalyptic plot, the flight of Dora Maar, a lover of Picasso’s in the 1920s and one of the real-life notables in the custody chain of the talismanic biscuit, to a northern island in the face of the final deluge. Toop’s largely computer-generated score, augmented by several improvisers including Hallett (whom Toop cites as being uncannily spot-on in her unprompted contributions), intensified the aura of otherworldliness.

Of the opera’s three characters only Maar, played by Loré Lixenberg, is living. (Lixenberg likely became a candidate when both she and the duo of Toop and Mitchener were on the card for Super Collider, a varied program of contemporary music presented by Out Here at Kings Place in November 2010.) Mitchener and pop singer Jamie McDermott were cast as ghosts; Mitchener playing Euphosine, an 18th Century singer, and McDermott the Edwardian explorer Seabrook. The ghosts are perched on the exposed second floor of the building, looking down on Maar on the ground floor, giving advice and commentary as she ponders the relative virtues of reality and drowning in memories. Although Mitchener and McDermott prove to be adept tag team members in their exchanges with each other and, respectively, with Lixenberg, they go unmentioned in Guy Dammann’s Guardian review, and his one comment about Lixenberg backhands Toop: “Lixenberg, a singer of astonishing range, who creates beautiful sounds just by silently opening her mouth, was unaccountably reined in by her vocal part.” That Mitchener’s aria in the fifth scene escaped mention suggests that Dammann bailed mid-performance to phone it in for the early Sunday edition. Mitchener’s hushed, jazz-tinged voice gave Euphosine flesh and blood. “I think her singing is really outstanding there,” Toop recently assessed.

Seven months earlier, Mitchener performed in Faster Than Sound’s premiere of Ian Wilson’s I Burn for You, inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There are two significant differences distinguishing this work from the other higher-profile projects in which Mitchener took part in this period. Wilson was not part of London’s improvised music scene that allowed Mitchener to continue working with Beresford, Butcher, and Toop in various configurations, including an ongoing, if occasional quartet with Butcher, Toop, and percussionist Terry Day (Beresford and Toop’s co-conspirator in Alterations). Additionally, the Northern Irish composer was a client of Ricordi; and it was while Mitchener was on the other side of the desk that Wilson proposed her involvement as a performer. Mindful of a conflict of interest, Mitchener initially took a consultative role as Wilson began to cast the piece. When he decided upon Attila Cshiar, singer for such black metal and doom-drone bands as Mayhem and SunnO))), to play Count Dracula, Mitchener suggested Phil Minton for the Van Helsing role. Discussions between Wilson and Mitchener eventually led to the enlistment of Toop, Clive Bell (who played accordion, shakuhachi, and khene), and saxophonist Cathal Roche, as the on-stage ensemble. Finally, Wilson prevailed upon Mitchener to sing the third role, simply referred to as The Woman.

Wilson did not approach the development of I Burn for You as a conventional, top-down composer, giving significant leeway to the musicians, video scenographer Daniel Jewesbury, and stage director Tom Creed, to fill in the contours of the libretto during the residency prior to the premiere. Realizing that the role of improvisation in the piece precluded using a pre-recorded video track, Jewesbury live mixed the performance, using images shot in the surrounding snow-covered fens and shoreline during the residency. Creed took advantage of the minimal set to emphasize the dynamism of the singers, particularly the commanding Csihar. All of this made for a fluid, economic performance, duly noted in Lisa Banning’s review for The Wire. Although she frontloaded praise on Csihar, and then turned her attention to the ensemble, citing the duets between Bell and Roche (khene and baritone; shakuhachi and soprano), and Toop’s distorted guitar during the piece dramatic conclusion, Banning still had sufficient superlatives when she assessed Mitchener in the next to last paragraph: “Mitchener is riveting as Woman: her pure, clean tones are at once controlled and exploratory, sliding up and down the register.”

Despite being so well received, several important changes were made when I Burn for You toured Halloween week in 2015: there was a new director, only Roche remained in the ensemble, and Mitchener did not sign on. By then she had taken the leap, leaving Ricordi in 2014, and was about to tour her own major new work.

 

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Arts administration is largely dependent on networking to get anything done, and conferences provide its pretext, dog and pony shows that facilitate real business on the sidelines. Ostensibly there to pitch the works of Ricordi clients to presenters and festivals, Mitchener learned much from conferences during her years at the music publishing house, although her take-aways were not necessarily those emphasized by mission statements and PowerPoints. The most fateful conference Mitchener attended was convened by the International Artists Managers Association, where a representative of a pop music corporation stated that social media was an important tool in “the business of industrialising intimacy.”

Mitchener had witnessed the mass hysteria that is the end-product of successfully industrialized intimacy in 2012, when she sang with Phil Minton’s Feral Chorus on a side stage at a Hyde Park festival headlined by Bruce Springsteen. After performing, she stood at the edge of the teeming crowd awaiting Springsteen, amazed at how they screamed and flailed long before he took the stage. (She left long before multinational promoter Live Nation pulled the plug on Springsteen and Paul McCartney singing “Twist and Shout” – their ability to present in Hyde Park being on the line – causing widespread angst among the faithful.) And, as a teenager, she had been swept up in the excitement of seeing Take 6. As she told The Wire’s Philip Clark in 2015, she thought the business of industrializing intimacy “was so sinister. He was talking about Twitter and Facebook, and how youngsters can connect with pop stars. But, in reality, you’re only in touch with the 50th person working for their Twitter account. And I find that disturbing. I’m not anti-technology in the slightest, but I’m pro-personal interaction.”

Extending the performance proposition of monodrama encountered in Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, Mitchener soon conceived of Industrialising Intimacy as a triptych, converging on the themes of intimacy and personal interaction. She called on Van Hunyh to direct and choreograph, and Toop to compose the opening section. A case of serendipitous timing, Mitchener enlisted George Lewis. Having previously conducted a correspondence about black composers in the UK and the US, they met in June 2014 when Lewis had a piece performed by the London Philharmonia Orchestra, and he came on board in time for his name to be included on funding applications. The need for funding is always a priority for larger scale projects; and although Mitchener was familiar with the mechanics of grantsmanship, this was the first projected she initiated and headlined. Furthermore, Industrialising Intimacy was the first step of her long-term goal of producing ten years or more of significant work in half the time, making up for a late start due to prolonged day-employment. She succeeded, receiving support from the Arts Council of England, Sound and Music’s touring fund, and other organizations, to produce the work and mount a five-date tour beginning in November 2015.

Among the ideas and prompts Mitchener initially sent to her collaborators – Toop recalls her idea of imagining the heat between two hands not touching – are two quotes she eventually read as a preface to the finished piece. The first was from Henry David Thoreau’s ode to solitude, Walden: "Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations." The other quote was found by Mitchener at Harewood House, an early 18th Century West Yorkshire Treasure House of England, a monument to the wealth generated by the Caribbean sugar trade and its reliance on slave labor: “To think or reflect is to step outside from events, to give up the world for a space of internal quiet, as if you have entered a walled garden.”

When first approached by Mitchener about the project, Toop was reading François Jullien, who sought to map the gaps between Eastern and Western thought. Although Toop dropped Jullien’s sub-title when naming the piece In Praise of Blandness, it provides context for the composition: Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aesthetics. “My music was beginning to get emaciated, for one reason or another and the Jullien book reinforced that tendency,” he recently recalled. Toop constructed a silence-punctuated piece that neither coalesced into a defined shape nor disintegrated altogether. It fulfilled a vital function, however, giving Mitchener the means to make her presence immediately felt, and establish tone-setting parameters in vocalizations and movement – particularly the affecting image of Mitchener repeating “I’m sorry” with increasing speed and anguish as she swiped her right hand across her left shoulder and collarbone. Although In Praise of Blandness received a preview performance in Brighton, it was not until the premiere that Toop saw how the piece fit into the whole. In its completed form, Industrialising Industry “was very rich, funny and super intense to the point of being scary.”

Mitchener’s work is rarely characterized as “funny” – it is usually as serious as a heart attack. However, her Laughter is funny in an unexpectedly heart-warming manner. Constructed from recordings of conversations with her mother, Mitchener deftly plied phrases and her mother’s laughter – an infectious cackle infused with all-knowing wisdom, a trait Mitchener evidently inherited – to create rippling rhythms, accented by her live voice. She created striking counterpoint with her movements: small upper-torso twitches; rolling on the deck; undulating movements usually associated with social dancing. Not all of the subjects of the recorded conversations were light-hearted, including stories about a child’s funeral and a woman who cuts off the penis of her cheating husband, details requiring close listening. Still, Laughter works as an intermezzo, connecting the other two pieces with a bright energy.

Although Lewis is one of the more adventurous composers of his generation – pioneering the use of interactivity in computer music, for starters – he has also penned works of sheer beauty, his 1979 Homage to Charles Parker being an early, enduring example. Memorial – his contribution to Industrialising Intimacy ­– extends that trajectory, inspired by the poem of the same name by the late South African poet laureate and activist Keorapetse Kgositsile, who wrote as Bra Willie. In simple, supple lines, Kgositsile describes how the displacement of exile “from your old place” – which he knew well, spending decades abroad during the apartheid era – is replaced, presumably later rather than sooner, with “images of beginnings/That have become soft remembrances/You turn over and over/Wondering at their comfort.” Lewis densely layered recorded materials – Mitchener speaking and singing; discernable instrumental sounds, including strings, harp, and piano; sundry otherworldly sounds – and gave the material Mitchener sung live a haunting pathos. Singing at a music stand, Mitchener wrung the hymn-like solemnity of the material with effortless grace. At the same time, she crumpled each page of the score as she finished it, initially dropping them to the deck, then stuffing one into the lace bodice of her dress, before beginning to eat the last page, ending the piece with a startling image of the consumption of art necessary to industrialize intimacy.

By this time, Mitchener’s stock as a concert singer and an improviser was sufficient to persuade esteemed exponents of classical music like violinist Irvine Arditti (whose Arditti Quartet is the standard-setter in interpreting contemporary string quartets) to work without a net. She also began performing at internationally recognized jazz festivals in the UK, inaugurating her ongoing collaboration with pianist Alexander Hawkins that May with a set of non-standard takes on jazz standards at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival. However, Industrialising Intimacy gave Mitchener a national platform from which to launch an even more provocative project: Sweet Tooth.

 

The conclusion of this article will run in the December issue.

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