Elaine Mitchener on On Being Human as Praxis

field notes #31

13 March, 2023 | Kristoffer Cornils

Elaine Mitchener

"On Being Human as Praxis" was conceived by Elaine Mitchener. The vocal artist invited five different composers—Jason Yarde, Matana Roberts, Laure M. Hiendl, Tansy Davies, and George E. Lewis—to respond to the work of the Jamaican feminist and cultural theorist Sylvia Winter. It was originally commissioned by and set to be premiered at the 2020 edition of the Donaueschinger Musiktage. Knowing a thing or two about improvisation, the vocal artist and her team—the ensemble MAM. Manufaktur für aktuelle Musik and choreographer Dam Van Huynh as well as dancers from his company—recorded it on video after the festival’s cancellation, having only had a few days to prepare for it. Its performance at this year’s MaerzMusik on the 19th of March can be considered somewhat of a premiere then, or alternatively as another iteration of compositions that were conceived as living, breathing entities. In her interview with field notes editor Kristoffer Cornils, Mitchener talks about how this piece, so concerned with notions of change, has itself changed over time.

The piece takes its title from an anthology focusing on the work of Sylvia Wynter that was edited by Katherine McKittrick. What is your relationship with Wynter?

Wynter has a fascinating biography. She is a novelist, dramatist, critic, essayist and philosopher. Her work fuses together insights from the humanities, arts, natural sciences and anti-colonial struggles in order to disturb what she refers to as the "over representation of Man." Her core idea of the sociogenic principle is drawn from Frantz Fanon’s concept of sociogeny. Sociogeny is the development of a social phenomenon, so something that is socially produced rather than ontologically given. And Wynter’s ideas on the concept of sociogenic principle remain relevant now.

Sociogency is closely related to categories of identity and how we define certain groups of people or even humankind itself.

Yes. If you approach those issues ontologically, this means that they are being presented as immutable or fixed. Sociogeny however constantly changes as we change or migrate. For example, the development of Western classical music has drawn on non-Western music in order to move forward in regards to harmony and rhythm. This isn’t always acknowledged. What I like about the idea of sociogeny is that it opens up to a realm of lived experiences that is continuously moving—the physicality of time. We all are different and that is something that can be experienced by those who are open to it. This is also true about the pandemic which coincided with the development of the concept for this project: we experienced a seismic shift in the way people inhabited their environments when time "stopped," while also witnessing an acceleration of equal rights movements that highlighted pre-existing injustices. The world was sensitive to its surroundings on human and environmental levels. One simply could not ignore these events and that ignited a certain kind of energy. That was a shared lived experience.

How does all of this relate to your own practice?

My relationship to her work is on-going and difficult because her ideas require careful consideration and reflection. I have read and re-read Katherine McKittrick’s anthology "On Being Human as Praxis," and every once in a while there is a glimmer of understanding. How my understanding of Wynter’s philosophy is applied to creating and performing music is revealed through my own musical practice as it covers very different areas. For example, Wynter questions classical humanist ideas as a construct that is based on a colonialist ideology. Who is more human than not? What constitutes a human being? How is that determined and by whom? I wanted to find ways to address these questions. Being human is not something that is finite, we’re always working at what it means to be human.

You wrote that the piece focuses on "the struggle between western ideas of 'Man' versus Human and that this struggle is fundamental to patterns of injustice throughout the world." How does this translate to what you were trying to do on an artistic level?

Highlighting the struggle had to be undertaken democratically. I hoped that Wynter’s work would inspire the composers to engage with it. Her writing can be a challenge which they rose to, considering the other elements that bind the five different sound worlds together. This was part of the praxis or struggle to make it work, fusing each ten-minute piece through improvisation and movement. Each work is scored for clarinet, trumpet, percussion, violin, and double bass plus electronics in one piece as well as movement. This is quite unusual. It was however paramount because it ties in with the idea that nothing is really fixed but always in motion; that everything and everyone is constantly changing. What’s great about the composers in general is that they are not precious about their pieces and are more interested that we—me and the MAM. Manufaktur für aktuelle Musik as well as choreographer Dam Van Huynh and his dancers—capture the essence and the ideas of the work. In this sense, it really makes a difference that the pieces were written by composers who perform. That also ties in with my project of trying to dismantle the cult of the »genius« composer.

Which of course is a perfect example for how society ascribes value to certain socially produced categories.

Exactly! I precisely tried to make this project a very collaborative one, involving very different people from different walks of life with very different human experiences. We each have an equal platform, and for me that’s the strength of the work.

How do you conceptualise the performance together with Huynh?

We originally had wanted to create a much more physical and contact-oriented performance. We were planning to meet with the ensemble since it’s very hard to dance if you’re not used to movement in your practice—you need to learn how to move, to relax, and trust yourself that you can do this. That doesn’t happen overnight. But then the pandemic hit and we had to rethink everything. In total, we had five days to put the piece together. Not a lot of time for a 50-minute piece! (laughs) And then the Donaueschinger Musiktage got completely cancelled. When I look back at the footage, I am really delighted with how the instrumentalists are moving. So much confidence! I’m really excited that we have a chance to perform it again, this time in front of an audience.

Do you plan on engaging the audience?

All musical experiences are immersive and engage their audiences in some way, so yes, but I cannot say what it will be like. The works are very different, so it’s definitely not a normal concert. Anyone who’s looking for that should book a different ticket! (laughs) I don’t do normal!

And why should you? It’s a piece about change! How has your own relationship with it changed?

I think it has deepened since I had more time to understand each work better. In fact, I sing the pieces better than two years ago! They were really hard to learn in 2020 because I felt distracted all the time; there was always some kind of anxiety in the back of my mind. Also other things have happened that feed into the way I interpret and express the pieces. I’m really eager to discuss this with the group. After all, we’ve all changed and grown.

I was actually wondering about the emotional impact that performing this piece has on you. It seems very challenging, if not exhausting, both mentally and physically.

(laughs) I wouldn’t say that this piece requires superhuman efforts to perform it, but it does require a level of concentration that I found quite hard to engage with during those days. At the Donaueschinger Musiktage, we were facing a situation in which we had to act in a very unusual way. That brought us closer together. When we were told that the festival was cancelled, I had the very physical feeling of being disoriented. I was very upset—we all were! Obviously, I had retained musical and movement material in my head, and I needed to release it. And that’s what the performance is for me, it’s about sharing and releasing, which is a very cathartic thing to do. This time, we all look forward to re-engaging with the works and each other and, of course, to communicating the thoughtful political and social aspects of each work with joy.

This brings us back to the topic of sociogeny and thus the role of the voice. On the one hand, the voice is conventionally perceived as the "most human" of all instruments. However, it is also something by which humans are divided into different social categories. How did that inform a piece whose individual parts could be said to represent the artistic "voices" of five other people?

I’m very lucky that each of the composers knows my voice and its capabilities very well. The pieces have been written for the many different ways in which I can use it. None of them are restrictive and I can explore the musical worlds that the composers have created. Each piece allows the instrumentalists to be vocalists, too—not necessarily with their voices, but with their instruments, much like my voice is also being used in an instrumental way. I have previously talked about Wynter’s texts being my gift for the composers, and that works both ways: their pieces are a gift to me. We performers are being pushed to go beyond what’s on the page. The job is to liberate the score and make it live.

Elaine Mitchener will also perform "Songs for Captured Voices," composed by Laure M. Hiendl, at MaerzMusik on the 23rd of March. She will be back in Berlin for a collaborative concert with Audrey Chen and Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø’s Beam Splitter as well as Mariam Rezaei soon after. Michener is currently a DAAD Artist-in-Berlin Programme Fellow 2022, and 2023’s artist-in-focus at radialsystem.

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  • fieldnotes31
  • Elaine Mitchener
  • MaerzMusik

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