Saved events

Inspired with Elaine Mitchener and Rebekah Alero

Nothing Concrete text
17 Feb 2021
50 min listen

Sound artist, composer and researcher Rebekah Alero speaks to vocal and movement artist, Elaine Mitchener about improvisation and using your voice as a vessel for storytelling.

Our series of inspiring conversations returns with a twist as we hand over to our Barbican Young Creatives to interview the artists that inspire them as they being their careers in the arts in series two of ‘Inspired’ on Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast.

Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify, iTunes or wherever you find your podcast.

About Elaine Mitchener

Born and raised in East London of Jamaican heritage, Elaine Mitchener is a contemporary vocalist, movement artist and composer. She has performed and collaborated with numerous leading artists including Camae Ayewa (Moor Mother), Mark Padmore, George E. Lewis, The Otolith Group, Sonia Boyce, Tansy Davies, Hamid Drake, Van Huynh Company, Apartment House, David Toop, London Sinfonietta, Christian Marclay, Ensemble Manufaktur für aktuelle Musik (MAM), William Parker. She is founder of collective electroacoustic trio The Rolling Calf with Jason Yarde and Neil Charles. Her sound works are held in a curated collection by George E Lewis at Darmstadt Festival. She is also a 2020 Rauschenberg Residency Fellow.

About Rebekah Alero

Rebekah Alero is a sound artist, composer, researcher and graduate of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama's Performance and Creative Enterprise (PACE) programme.

Transcript

Rebekah Alero: Hello, and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. This is Inspired a series where an artist invites someone who's influenced their creative practice to share stories behind their connection, their inspiration and everything in between. I'm Rebekah Alero. I'm a sound artist, composer and researcher and I studied performance in creative enterprise at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. In this episode, I'm speaking to Elaine Mitchener, a contemporary vocalist, movement artist and composer. Elaine has performed and collaborated with numerous leading artists including Moor Mother, Mark Padmore, George E. Lewis, The Otolith Group, Apartment House, David Toop, and many many more. She is also the founder of the collective called The Rolling Calf with Jason Yarde and Neil Charles. Her soundworks are also held in a curated collection by George E. Lewis at the Darmstadt Festival. 

I invited Elaine to talk about her work because I'm really interested in the way she uses the voice, which is something I'm starting to ease into my own practice, and how using the body as an instrument such as the voice can, can really deeply access a certain narrative. But I also know that Elaine has worked with Julius Eastman's compositions. And if you're not familiar with Julius Eastman, he is a black contemporary classical composer whose work may fit into the category of Minimalism, and certainly beyond this, too. And I've been researching Eastman's life and work for a while now. So it's truly a joy to talk about him with Elaine. And also the journey of coming across his work. We also get into Elaine's interdisciplinary theatre piece, Sweet Tooth, which looks at the history of the sugar trade through the use of improvisation texts and movement. We talk about sound and music representation and classical music and so much more. I love this conversation. And I really hope you enjoy it.

RA: Let us know what you're working on at the moment in the future. Let's hear how that's been met with the restrictions of you know this pandemic.

Elaine Mitchener: Course, yeah. Well, okay, one of the things I can talk about is British Art Show Nine, because I'm a British Art Show Nine artist. So it happens every five years. And it's a kind of show that is supposed to represent British art, and it tours to different regional galleries up and down the country. And it's run by Hayward Gallery touring, I will be showing a work there, which is drawn from Sweet Tooth, which is the piece that I perform. So I'm now in the middle of trying to create an installation, which is interesting for me, I am not known as someone who creates installation works. But I like the challenge of realising or extending a piece that is a performative piece in extending it, and re-presenting it as a different kind of experience to visitors. It's like another chapter to the work. So that's, that's the thing that I am thinking a lot about at the moment. And there's all the logistic things, which I'm sure you know, because you're a sound artist, technical issues around creating sound in spaces. And I'd be interested to know how you manage that. Because it's a very different process to composing a work and then giving it to someone or performing a work that's been composed for you. 

RA: I think in this setting as a composer, I think, throughout my very short career as a composer, that's kind of what I've been doing. It's been this almost transactional thing of like, 'here's the piece, do the thing. Thank you, goodbye. Next, do the piece.' There was one aspect where just speaking of installations, where I did try and do a kind of sound installation, it was a piece called SUNG, like based on grief, essentially the grief of mammals. And it was through the experience of whales, who, who kind of grieve similarly to humans too and that was really interesting to, to set it up in that way and trying to engage an audience using solely sound. So I think there was a kind of sacrifice I had to make by adding screens to kind of get the point across and kind of lead the audience through the story of what I'm trying to say. 

EM: It's interesting that you should say that you felt you have to kind of compromise the peace because you know, you have the imagination and the curiosity to just accept sound for what it is or for it to draw you in and then let your mind's eye work. I know that feeling...do you think: 'I just want them to engage directly.'

RA: It's interesting when you said you're not known as an installation artist. I remember watching the video of you, I think it was Wysing Arts and that to me felt like an installation and it was it was just you in the space and just seeing the the audience members like of just you walking through the audience, you know, their reaction, their kind of feeling of not knowing what's going to happen next and like, where to look and just looking like, you are the installation. Like your body. It's kind of like the space doesn't matter. 

EM: Do you know I'd forgotten about that piece. And I mean, I can't claim a complete credit for it because it was devised by myself and a very good friend who's a long term collaborator. And his name is Dam Van Huynh, when he's Vietnamese American, and he's a dancer and a choreographer. And we've been working together for 12 years and he has his own company. And what I've done with Dam is to kind of really explore movement and sound and how movement manipulates sound and how to combine those and balance those in the pieces that I had then created. And the solo piece that you saw a nude voice solo one was a duo. It was this summation of the experience that Dam and I've had. Working together, he as an amazing dancer experiences sound differently. Music plays a different part in the world of dance full stop. Dam also learnt about vocalising, of course dancers breathe, much higher than trained singers. And it's the opposite. But it's all about, you know, the posture and everything's where everything is really held and contracted. And when they breathe, it's very high, it's in the chest. Whereas classically trained singer, and that's my training. It's diaphragmatic. And it's lower. And it's basically you make yourself look fat. And that's what...dancers...the last thing a dancer is going to do. Right? He has learned to improvise vocally and we decided to create a piece for the Wellcome Collection. So basically this piece, the nude voice was kind of exploring, kind of does different ideas we both had about time and motion and voice. And we basically, we kept swapping roles. So I it was everything was very contracted and slow. But the vocal improvisation was not in response to the speed of how we're moving or what we were doing. 
It was a separate entity in itself. And it was because we're both show ponies. And it was a 20 minute piece with egg timers. It was really interesting. seeing us in the space carving up this space with people seated, not knowing what to do. So when I've performed it on my own, and Wysing was the first time I did, so I wasn't sure that it would work. I think it does work, actually. And it's a very different experience. There's a lot more responsibility, you can't share it with anyone. And it's...you mentioned to me it being an installation. Yeah, I guess so. But I just see, because I perform, you know, I just feel it as it's a musical experience rather than a visual arts experience. I can't get my head around these differences to be honest.

RA: Just hearing the way you speak about the dancers. And, and you're also a movement artist as well. And I feel like, for me anyway, hearing that it makes me feel like the difference between sound and music, and like dancer and movement. And I wonder, I wonder like what your take on that is like movement? Is it kind of similar to that thing of sound of music?

EM: Rebekah you're asking these deep questions. I think, you know, for me that there are certain things that is just a sound, right? You know, we hear sound all the time around us. If I'd moved, you know, that's a sound. If I shape it, if I repeat it, again, I'm just picking up my mug. And then if I've...okay, right. When does that become music? When I start to consider shaping that sound and controlling it in a particular way. And that, that comes out of playing with it and improvising. And then for me that becomes... it transitions from just an abstract random motion sound to something of a bit more musical. I apply meaning behind the sound. And I think, I think it's a head thing. It's difficult when you're...as a sound artist, are you dealing with the substance of sound? Are you shaping it? What is it you're hoping listeners pick up?

RA: I think that's something I've always struggled with. What do I want the listener to think of this, to think of me? Because I feel like my own self is always attached to the sound. And as someone that doesn't really have opportunities to perform live or improvise in the way that I'd like to, it's always like pre-recorded things. And I think it comes out in how I record as...by improvising, so that improvisation becomes the music. And I think that's partly why I allow certain patterns like with shape that you say as well to manifest. So I don't know if, is it even improv if I'm still creating something recognisable throughout the piece, or is that something that's still intuitive? I'm not sure.

EM: I think it's hard to separate the intuitive action and the improvisation. And I think there's nothing wrong with structuring that - a structured improvisation. Sometimes I overthink things. And you do you do need time to process. You need time to think, you need time to question what it is you're doing. And why you're doing it. Is that the right approach? Is there another way? There's always another way. I picked up the cup and I put it down, right? And I thought, okay, right. That's one. And then I did it again. And I thought, well, actually, I could it could it could, you know, and then I could start doing something else. And that's the play. That's the improvisation aspect. And then I go away from it. And then I probably come back with it. No but it could be like this. Okay, I could do it. And it comes from a different height, what if I drop it? But if I drop it, and it makes it sound, and it falls to the floor? Will it smash? Is that what I'm looking for? What is that smash? What am I exploring here? What...do I want to say? And then what you want to say may not always be understood by those who hear it, and that you cannot control. And you cannot second guess the reaction to something, there is no distance, you have to be very careful, I guess, about how you respond to the responses to your work, do you have kind of mechanisms to help you to protect you?

RA: I really don't. I feel like I'm just once that, you know, once that band aid or plaster has been taken off, I just stays off. And I think because I have such strong, you know, ears to what I'm trying to say sonically, what other people say that might misinterpret it - doesn't sink in, unless I'm in a setting where it's kind of, feedback is necessary. If the setting doesn't allow it, you know, for that kind of response. And I just, I'm just like, 'Well, okay, I'm glad you've got that interpretation.' And I think it's also really beautiful to hear other people's interpretations.

EM: I agree. I agree. Do you find when someone has experienced what you've done, and then have their own reading in which is not, it has nothing to do with the way you feel about the work or the inspiration behind the work or the meaning of the work? Do you find you learn more about the work because of that different reading of it? 

RA: Oh yeah, definitely, definitely. So I think, oh, 100%, especially with this, you know, this work that I've done on Julius Eastman. And because it's not necessarily me talking about his work, I'm talking about his essence, like, what remains of him and how it's kind of...it feels like it's ingrained in me and it's like a feeling. And then feelings can be interpreted in any any way, anger, sadness, it can be anything for anyone. So that I think that especially what you just said, I found that quite profound. I did a film on Julius Eastman, I did a kind of like a pamphlet, like a zine that goes along with the film, one of my friends posted in and she was like, 'Oh, it's kind of like a love letter to Julius Eastman.' And I'd never those words have never been thought or said by me. And then when I actually reflected I was like, you know, what it kind of is, aside from the kind of... that anger around it, but I feel around, you know, how he's been treated and, and how little exists on him. And me trying to highlight that. There is also this element of feeling that love and appreciating him as well as just him.

EM: Did you attend the Julius Eastman retrospective festival at the London Contemporary Music Festival in 2016?

RA: I did.

EM: That was my first experience of the festival as a performer. I've known Julius he's been at work when I was a student. 1000 years ago, the Unjust Malaise CD came out. A friend had told me about Julius Eastman at college. At that time, I mean, black composers, very few, were talked...I mean, hardly any...I mean, outside of jazz, in terms of classical music. It wasn't talked about at music college. Let's put it that way. Julius Eastman's name came up, and I've got the album, the CD. I was really excited to hear it really excited to put this on and I got in touch with Mary Jane Leach. She wrote back and then so Mary Jane and I'd been corresponding off and on for about 10 years. I remember listening to Stay On It first and thinking, feeling really disappointed. As I wrote, I'm embarrassed to say that I felt, I don't know what I was expecting, musically, I don't know. And I now realise it was down to the performance. And I'm not saying they did a bad job. But they didn't do justice to the music. And that's not because they can't play but it was more of an energy, there was just something lacking for me. So we move on a number of years. 2016. Then Apartment House has asked me to do it. I'm like, yeah, yeah. So I get the score. And I'm like, the score's bass is a transcription of that performance that's used on the album. So it's very open. You know, it's very sketchy. And I was singing it and trying to prepare it and I thought there's something not right. It's just, this is not this doesn't feel right. To me. This is not Eastman. I did not know that it was Julius Eastman on the eight songs for a Mad King performance, which is Peter Maxwell Davies. And it's his performance that recording, which is the go to recording, but I hadn't put the two together. I didn't know he was responsible for that. And neither did I know that he wasn't on the fringes of the contemporary new music scene. He was very much a part of it. You can't really record Peter Maxwell Davies, and not be part of the scene. And I'm like, well, how come his name was not known? Was unknown or kind of...forgotten, who sang in Meredith Monk's ensemble. You all know who Meredith Monk is? Exactly. She said to me, so it's but it's not just Julius Eastman, it's happened to so many people. So many. So I, in preparing for the performance, I decided, so I'm just going to google a bit and see what comes up and CCA, the centre of contemporary art in Glasgow, was the base for a lot of experimental performance art and contemporary music. And Eastman's ensemble tour...they did a European tour in the early 70s. And there's footage of him performing. And I remember when I came across that and I'm saying this is days before, just days before I was due to perform it have a festival. I guess, my instincts were right. This is how you do it, it needs that level of wildness which you can't hear on the CD, you just need to throw caution to the winds. And you really need to just, if you don't do that with a piece, it doesn't make sense when we all lock in and play that refrain or that motive. That's the 'staying on it'. That is the thing that steers you through. And you have to ask yourself, what does that mean? Stay on it? What does it mean? How, if I were to sing it this way, what am I trying to say? And for the ensemble, it's terrifying if you're not used to improvising. Most classically trained musicians don't improvise. 

RA: What was that like?

EM: In my head, I just remember saying to them, 'look just, we know what the cues are.' We knew who was cueing what, so I said 'in between that when you're improvising, just have fun. Don't pull out of your bag of all the Best Contemporary, extended techniques I've ever learned.' Right? If you need to do that, then use it as a springboard on to other things. You don't you have to in order to to be able to feel to enjoy improvising, you do need to listen because someone will play something that will inspire you and you might just latch on to that and then you just not go on to somewhere else but don't be afraid. And there's no wrong here. The only wrong thing you can do is not listen because that means you're off on one you're not gonna stay on it. You know there are moments in your... in something...'Oh man, this is a car crash!' But also that's what Eastman wants. There's moments where it just got hard...this mangled wreck, and you're like, 'oh, what's going on?' And I remember there was, there were moments...

RA: You're right. That's exactly what Eastman wants, like in a lot of his music. I think the scores that exist of him, like the sketches that he made himself. Perhaps they were deliberately done in that way to open up something that doesn't necessarily live in traditional scoring methods or notation.

EM: I completely agree with you. And it was he was trying, he was experimenting, and he wanted to kind of blow up this fixed rigid way, whilst respecting the Canon because he knew it. He demands that you do what is on the score. And he asks you to trust the process. And if you're unwilling to trust that process, you cannot perform the work. It's as simple as that. Because you go there, to your own peril. If you think you should just do whatever you like, you'll be spat out at the end wondering what happened.

RA: I love how Apartment House still ...I always see on social media, this, you know, he's... he's always there, I love, I love that they've kept that going. It's, it's wonderful and I want to know, how did your relationship start with Apartment House?

EM: Well, Anton, who runs it, and I really admire the way they, well, the way they programme, it's very democratic. Basically, the way it works is, if he asks you to do something in Apartment House, you get an invitation, you know. 'Hey, got this project, would you like to do it?' And then you say, 'yes.' And then therefore you are a member of Apartment House. That's what happened with the Eastman. I've performed a number of times. And it's, it's funny, because when you work with certain people, and you get on with them, and then you, you create projects, which allow you to work together again, if you if they're the right people, you know, it's kind of you build a family.

RA: I was thinking that with just how Apartment House, even just like if you've worked with them, that you remain a part of Apartment House, I love that you can just...that community aspect of it.

EM: I think that's so important. Yeah. And I think it's going to be even more important as we go into 2021, where everyone's going to be desperate to have work and to stay working, stay creative, that we remember, our family, you know, kind of creative family as well. And a nice and I want to say extend that net, cast it further, because that includes people who are not involved in the arts as well, you know, it's a more of a mindset, it's more of kind of kindred spirits, and people who hold similar ideas, and they want to help to improve society with what they're doing, and you work to get...I think that's so important, because those things have been undermined by political structures. Some communities always had this where they look, they looked out for each other anyway. And I think some communities surprised themselves and people surprised themselves about what they have learnt about their neighbours or that they can be more giving. And I think from an artistic point of view, the artistic community needs to dig deep with that, I think we're all going to be pitted against each other. Because we're also desperate to get working again.

RA: Towards the end of my degree, I actually got more work than I'd ever gotten. 

EM: Why was that? What happened? 

RA: I feel like a lot of people around me had time to have ideas. And of course, like funding opportunities opened up because of the crisis. And there was just more time to reach out to people so I think maybe just the time just allowed maybe my name to come up more this year, I've just worked on so many different types of projects. Is just going to stop when things go back to normal? 

EM: Just see everything as building, because we don't know, this year was building for next year and the year beyond that. We're doing the stuff now, but what about 2020? But what about 2022? 

RA: Right? 

EM: You know, my friend and I we used to laugh about whether or not we got a commission. Well, that really happened but it's when you get your first commission that is for two years time, then you know, you're on the right road.

RA: Where were you at in your career when you got that commission?

EM: Okay, in 2010, I used to work with composers, as in, I used to promote composers. And I worked for a classical music publishing house, an Italian one called Recorde, there was a shift in my employment status. And I was faced with ' Are you going to do this singing thing forever or are you gonna still mess around and try and do both?' So I chose to throw everything into being a full time musician. So in 2010 I was offered a residency in Venice for three months. So I was involved in a Belgian project run by musiktheater Transparent, and it was called Century Songs. And basically, they brought together different kinds of vocalists for a two year project where we would meet for a week, four times a year, and devise a piece guided by David Moss, who is an American vocalist and percussionist, who lives in Berlin, and Wooter Van Looy who directed us and we would present the outcome of that week of research and play and stuff at a festival. So I was, I really enjoyed that, because that kind of helped me to kind of really cement what I wanted to do. And also I'm singing and in an environment which was unfamiliar to me, I don't know that scene outside of the UK because I was improvising a little bit and working with some free improv musicians, amazing musicians, I needed to extend my experience. Musiktheater Transparent had an association with a foundation in Venice. And so I was offered this residency. And that was a really, that's a massive turning point. But it was great because I could research things. And I invited a friend, David Toop, who I'd worked with on his piece, Star Shaped Biscuit. And I asked David to, to create a piece with me in mind. And he created Of Leonardo da Vinci, which used the diaries of Leonardo da Vinci and a sound piece by David. And I improvised the vocal part using this text. We kind of did a sharing in 2010. And I really wanted to develop the piece further and Dam had come back from Hong Kong. And I said, 'Look, I've got this piece, I really want to present it somewhere.' So should we just have a go at just playing. I then, because I was in publishing, I still had quite a lot of email addresses of festival contacts. And I was lucky. And I think it had to do with timings. Luck plays a massive...you make your own luck, right? So you have to be very patient.

RA: Yeah, it's not always spontaneous...

EM: No, don't believe the films! It is hard to pursue a creative artistic career lifestyle, a career to follow that in your life. It is a challenge to do that if you're not coming from a background where that's kind of valued. But I basically wrote to a colleague at a festival in Oslo, I don't...basically I wrote to loads of festivals...'Hey, I got this piece. This work I did with Toop. Would you be interested in taking it? We would need to finish it.' And so to our astonishment, and this is 2015, five years after starting that piece, we got a response. And they said, 'Yeah, the festivals in September.' Now. Yeah, I got that email in June. It's a 50 minute piece. So we we had to work really hard. And that piece, I've performed it about five times, I really enjoy it. And it was a very important piece in terms of bringing together the ideas that we have been researching about movement and improvisation. I mean, I presented that and then Sound and Music has supported me with Industrialising Intimacy, then 2017, the Sweet Tooth, Sweet Tooth, I was researching for five years.

RA: I wanted to get into that actually, of course, the research and time that went into that, but also how you approach accessing those stories, using your voice and using your body. Was there anything that was different about how you normally...? 
EM: Each work is unique and requires different kind of access in terms of...because of what the piece is about. With Sweet Tooth, and it's such a big subject, someone who I respect enormously, they asked me, 'What right did I have to tackle this?' To present it in a kind of artistically, creative way, a musical way? My answer was because nobody seems to know about this period, and why things are the way they are in the UK. And the things that happened in the past, how they impact on our present. That is something that we need to face up to and acknowledge. So that helped me to find a ways to access the movement, first of all, there are the facts. And I got in touch with Christer Petley, someone who studied that period and may help me access other kinds of books, other areas of research, because it's a massive topic. And I wanted to really focus on the UK and the Caribbean, because at school, it was more about what happened in the States. Christer was the historical consultant. And it was really helpful to have him on board because if you're not part of academia, you can't really access certain books, or you just don't know it's there, do you? And it was useful because also for him, because, you know, historians deal with the dry facts. They're passionate about it, but it's very distanced, whereas we pull this information and we process it, and then we chuck it out. in another way, you know, we communicate it in another way. And I think he was completely startled by what I did with his research for his PhD, which was on Simon Taylor, who was a very successful and horrible person, but a successful plantation owner in Jamaica. And his diaries...and I took an extract from his diaries and used that towards the end of Sweet Tooth and Christer was very...he was adamant that he didn't want this to memorialise people like Simon Taylor. 'Don't worry, that's not what this piece is about.' But it was the sound and coming back to you as a sound artist, as well as being a composer it was the sound of that, that acted as triggers. You know, so I had to try when we when he, Christer was explaining about the mechanisms and the kind of equipment used, and I'm reading accounts of hands being chopped off or hands or limbs being mangled in as the pain is being ground. And this thing that just needs to keep going at the cost of human lives. 

I'm trying to imagine those sounds and how they can only do that by dehumanising someone. And so that's why the actions in the middle section of, of, of Sweet Tooth, you've got the canes that I wanted us to not only work with it musically, but at some point, we become the machine. And then we break out and then there's the kind of joyful aspects of, of actually singing and dancing. And for me, that's resistance, because all of that is part of the code and the message of, you know, revolt. And so there's all these things that I really wanted to, to access and use, but they're all based on facts. And it was it was hard. It was really hard. And it's it's mentally hard. And it's physically hard. And it's emotionally hard. And it's a it's a difficult piece, I think, for people to sit through.

RA: Obviously I'm hearing about the process for the first time, but I've seen it online, I didn't see it live, but there was that element of it being so difficult to watch, because it was so personal to me, because it is something that still runs through my own history. And it's still affecting me today. And so many people around me, of course, but for you as well performing this, and even like the lead up to performing it. And and going home after performing this piece. it to me doesn't feel like something you'd be like, 'oh, cool, just gonna leave that on the stage and go home.'

EM: Yeah, it's somewhat...someone asked me the same question not that long ago. You have to develop ways. That's why I asked you earlier in our conversation about mechanisms for coping, if you don't develop a way for yourself, it can be very difficult, it can actually hinder future performances of the same work. It can prevent you from accessing what you need to access, to present it. It is kind of...it never leaves me but it's just to step back. Because when we're performing it, we are so in it. Sylvia, Sylvia Hallett, Jason Yarde, Mark Sanders, their amazing artists in their own right. And it is built around their capabilities as well. I created it with them. That was the last piece we performed together in March this year. Borealis Festival in Bergen and performed it on the eighth of March. I...that was, that was a really powerful performance. I don't know why. I don't know why but at the end, at the end of it, because it's a strange piece, you can't really just...people do applaud, but they're not applauded, because, you know, they've just been through Hamilton or something, it's not that kind of piece. People need to release something, they need to release, because the way I've, and I hope you, I hope we get a chance to perform it again, I hope you get a chance to see it. Live, experience it live, because there is something that I do in the way that it's staged and because of social distancing, I don't know if I can do it that way again. But it's important for me that the audience experience it in a particular way. That's why they are as exhausted as I am at the end of it, you know, they don't realise it.

RA: The audience, seeing this piece, or even saying like witnessing this piece is...they're clapping, like you said, because it's the only way they're allowed to express...that's, like, appropriate to express emotion. How I felt after watching it was I did cry, I was crying. You know, I think for some people, you know, depending on the audience, it's like, they're either like, just oblivious to this history, denying the history, or a part of that history and like trying to get by, you know, sitting down and doing the research felt way too painful. I think this is the perfect way to acknowledge this part of history, something that I wasn't that clued up on as well. I felt like this gave me more agency to, to cry about it. And of course, there was anger. And of course, there are other emotions. But to express my sadness, I felt like this is the perfect container to do that. And I think that's why whoever's watching, it must feel that way as well. Because we all know, this existed we all know existed in this country, slavery is something that Britain has a lot of responsibility for...the emotion of what people feel, you know, white audience members that have seen this. I'm always interested to see what they what, you know, what are they thinking on their way home? 

EM: Yeah, that's a really good question. Because one of the things that I thought about when I was preparing, I mean, first of all, it was I wanted the right musicians in this... involved in this project. People I know who are not going to shy away, it would have been easier, I think, to have had an all-black cast. In a lot of ways that would have been a more powerful statement. But it's a more obvious statement, by having Sylvia who is not black, Sylvia is white. She's a brilliant musician. She's also very politically aware and engaged. But she also had to go through the process because she's English. And that is why I needed to have someone who wasn't black in this, the majority of my audiences are white. Because I think as black artists working, not in mainstream music, we have to accept and be aware that the majority of our audiences will be white. And...most black people are not interested. It's just not...that's not their thing. And that's fine. That is absolutely fine. There are other creative fields that are of interest to our community. If it's not kind of Left Field, and contemporary music, or classical music, straight up classical music, that's the way it is you know, and that's...maybe that will change over the years. But if it doesn't, then that's all cool. But when I presented it when I presented Sweet Tooth it's what I've noticed that after is people have engaged in very frank deep conversations not with me, but with each other...with the person next to them who was probably a stranger, you kind of need to just talk to someone who was there as a fellow traveller.

RA: Since Sweet Tooth, perhaps people expect you to make more work similar. Like I'm just thinking in the context of you know, over the summer George Floyd being murdered and do you think people are kind of lying in wait?

EM: Yeah, haha, I put out political work all about identity. It's the only way that I can talk about the things that that I feel political about, you know, I can find I have my voice speaks through the work and I have said, however, I have said, I would really like to be in a comedy. Oh, I think most people think that I spend all my time going: (screaming noise). It is like, Greek tragedy. And I like to laugh, you know, just kind of have joy. But I also I'm, you know, I'm not really a light entertainment kind of presenter. And but I think those expectations are there. So when the tragic events around George Floyd and you know, that has been repeated. Since. But we haven’t all gone out marching. So what’s happened is it not important anymore? Do you see what I mean? These works need to remind people that it’s a continuous thing. You know, the change doesn't happen overnight. You have to keep fighting, keep fighting look at Angela Davis soon to be in her seventies. And she's alive to see what happened in the summer and what's still going on in the country. See what I mean?, it's like it, but she hasn't given up. So I use the work as reminders to myself and maybe to those who want to experience it.
Do you know Ain Bailey?

RA: I do. Yes I do. 

EM: Right. And she had an exhibition. Last year at the Cubit Gallery and she invited different artists to respond to the exhibition and I performed Amazing Grace and I, um, it's something that I performed well, I premiered it there. And then sang it again on the night of the first lockdown at Cafe OTO when they were live streaming. And then I, I have... I'm working with movement still. I kind of slowly kind of melt into the ground whilst singing this Amazing Grace, if you know the history behind the song, you know, it's such a, well, hymn, I should say it's, it's so well known. It's a favourite, you know, it's one of my mother's favourite hymns, but it's about a song of transformation and, uh, you know, someone woke up to what they were doing, but also what they were doing was so wrong. There was a reason why I mentioned it, um, because it was interesting singing it in front of a small group of people at the Cubit Gallery, it was no less powerful doing it for that. Yeah. People are always... it amazes me that audiences, trust, trust what I'm doing and, and stick with it. Actually. That's very generous of them. Yeah, it's quite short. It's 10 minutes and it felt different presenting it at Cafe OTO on the first lockdown. It was that night when Boris Johnson said ‘right, stay home.’ And I felt as a performer, a responsibility to try and present the work. Present it with a real kind of honesty and directness, because none of us knew when we might perform again.

RA: You seem to choose your moments of having these very important moments of your performances. You know, the Sweet Tooth, the last show, the night of lockdown. 

EM: It’s not me. It's not me. Oh, I've got to say…there are forces at play here.

EM: I've just heard the Amazing Grace. It was selected, um, to be part of the sky TV takeover by Marina Abramovic. She did a six and a half hour performance arts night. And so I performed Amazing Grace then. And it felt it. I was just thinking about each time I presented it. It can stand the treatment that I'm giving it because it's actually a very well-written hymn, because the way I approach it, I approach it with its history. It's like I can't watch a Jane Austen film, a Jane Austin dramatization without thinking about the people of colour that lived in the UK at that time, you know, because she does mention a guy who's come back from the West Indies and an English man who in the West Indies is only there for a reason and I was like, Jane. Jane just stop there. Jane. There's an amazing dramatization, um, of, of Oliver twist and it's David Lean. So it's old and there's a scene. I'll never forget it. I remember seeing it when I was a lot younger and watching it in the Tavern, David Lean, the director. There's, and those are people and they're black people in the pub. And I thought, okay, yes, that's what you do. That's what you do because it's history. It's fact…you clock it. You think what are they doing there? Why, oh, oh yes.

RA: I feel like, uh, like myself included, a lot of black people do have that automatic, like, switch that says like looking for another. 

EM: It’s funny what you're saying that because I felt that way, um, working in classical music publishing. Because, you know, you go to concerts. And then I was talking to my friend, the amazing composer, Hannah Kendall, who, if you don't know her work, check her out. Her opera was presented at the Opera House, um, and streamed. A couple of months ago, she worked, um, in classical music PR and it was very brief. We're having a laugh about this, not that long ago. I remember, I think that I remember spotting her in the festival hall... right. Thinking who’s that? And then you go to some kind of meeting where it's all kind of arts managers, the arts..., then there she is again…she said, ‘Oh my goodness. Now I know.’ I was like, ‘what do you mean?’ She said, ‘well, for years I go to these parties and composers would come up to me and say, you work in publishing, right?’

RA: Oh..

EM: She was just like, ‘no’, and they were like: ‘Hey, it's Elaine. Right?’

RA: Um no... 

EM: We don't even look alike. Yeah. I guess if there are only two black women who are not on stage performing and working in classical music, then probably we'll get mixed up. This year has really, um, the events of this year has kind of forced the hand of, of institutions that probably wouldn't have bothered to make changes and they can't get away with it. Now I would, I would hope that it's coming from a genuine place, even if their hands have been forced, that they realize we've been too slow on this uptake, essentially , the black population in the UK is still small. They can't expect to have half the orchestra represented, you just can't because, and also education is not allowing that. So the things that you're doing, the things that I'm trying to do and, uh, uh, fellow travellers, that's, that's how we can make those changes. But we may not, I may not see it in the way that I would like to see it in my lifetime, because it takes a long time. 

RA: It does. It does. And it's like, God, it takes this, this moment in history where we are all collectively going through something and to, to, to have the time to be tuned into something.

EM: Well they can't get away with not knowing or feigning ignorance now, you know, which, so, you know, for example, George Lewis, who, uh, very generously asked me to co-create the London symphony concert yet unheard was music by black composers. That is a step forward. You know, it can't be a one-off. It has to be done this way until we get to a stage where it doesn't matter the race of the composer. What matters is how good the work or the gender, because the same thing could be said about, you know, all women concerts and...but we have to program in this way until it's not, we don't have to until we don't have to.

RA: Yeah. Cause I still don't think like, as, as great as it is to, for black composers and black sound and musicians to, to have opportunities more opportunities than before to be in these spaces. There is still something kind of uncomfortable about being put there because you're black and it ending there, like you said, to come to, to get to a space where it's, it's not like: Oh! There's a black composer in the Royal Albert Hall. Oh! Like there's a, you know, this, you know, this black woman conducting this…regardless when the kind of hysteria around that…like that is just a step to another step, which will feel far more feel safer. It would just feel like, you know, progress has been made where we stopped gasping that these people who exist because of…because history hasn't allowed it, you know? 

EM: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that, I mean, we, we also must be patient with ourselves and not feel that we have to be representative. We'd be speaking for everyone because you can't, you can only speak for yourself and you represent yourself. I think there is a tendency to expect that from us, you know, if you, if you're interviewed, if you're questioned about anything that you, then what you say represents every other black person, and we're all different, we all have different experiences and we will think differently. And I might disagree with you, Rebecca. That doesn't mean you're wrong and I'm right. Or I'm right and you're wrong. Um, I think also changes behind the scenes in terms of the program, those who are decision makers, that needs to be more representative as well as, and also in terms of, um, class, because in the UK, that's a massive thing. It needs to change because you can't empathize with people unless you know, you, unless you have some kind of understanding of their life experience. You just can't.

RA: Definitely. 

EM: But change is happening. Toks Dada is Head of Classical Music at the Southbank Centre. It's great. I mean, it's a massive challenge. Um, but I think he will do good things. He understands the repertoire, he understands orchestras and you have to know. Whatever you do, Rebecca, whatever area you're working in you have to know you can't afford not to know that we're not being judged equally. You have high standards and you keep them high and, and you have to just keep, keep working and keep positive. And also I think, be kind to yourself as well. And, that otherwise you can't work, you can't create, you can't do anything. And also know who your allies are. Some don't look like you, some don't come from the same backgrounds of years, somethings, you know, but they, but they are, they are allies. And I think that's really important as well because this kind of fight for change can't be done on its own and you can't do it on our own.

RA: Elaine. Thank you. You are an inspiration to me before this conversation and more so now. So I'm just so grateful to have had this conversation with you. Thank you for everything.

EM: Thank you! Thank you for reaching out. 

RA: That was my conversation with Elaine Mitchener for this episode of inspired on the Barbican Podcast Nothing Concrete. Next week, we have Barbican Young Film Programmer, alumni writer and journalist Rogan Graham speaking to actress Susan Wokoma about process activism and inspiration. Please do stay tuned for more inspiring conversations by subscribing to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts.

Thank you so much for listening. Have a good one. Bye.
 

While you're here

We rely on the money we raise through ticket sales, commercial activities and fundraising to deliver our arts and learning programme. It forms more than 60% of our income. Show your support by making a donation and help inspire more people to discover and love the arts.