Industrial Intimacy: An Interview with Elaine Mitchener

Elaine Mitchener is a classically trained vocalist, noted for her unique mixture of styles ranging from avant-garde and free improvisation to gospel and jazz. She has worked with a similarly diverse range of musicians, from David Toop and Joanna MacGregor to Goldie and Aphex Twin. Elaine spoke to John Wadsworth ahead of performing her new work, Industrialising Intimacy, as part of a double-bill concert with Oliver Coates at OVADA, on June 1st.

Industrialising Intimacy was created with composers David Toop and George Lewis, and choreographer Dam van Huynh. How did this collaboration come about?

I had a kernel of an idea, and wanted to work and explore the concept with three very unique and inspiring artists. I am interested in finding new small-scale ways of presenting contemporary music theatre which incorporates improvisation, movement, and sound. Having approached the artists I then successfully applied to Sound and Music’s touring fund and more recently to ACE London, and along the process I spoke to Oxford Contemporary Music who were also enthusiastic. Fortunately for me they all agreed to come on the journey.

Industrialising Intimacy addresses the relationship between technology and communication. How are these ideas explored vocally and musically?

That’s how it started but it is much more than whether we communicate well – or not – with each other though technology. For me it’s an examination of loss or the fear of losing personal interaction on many levels. Each artist was asked to reflect on the theme and create works based on their reflections. As the performer it’s my responsibility to interpret and communicate, using vocal improvisation, text, unvoiced sounds, notation, and movement. Dam has the challenging task of not only creating movement for each section but also directing the work so it is coherent. It is challenging because Dam and I have spent an extended R&D time together working on the piece. Our interaction with David and George has mainly been remotely, via email and Skype; I guess that can be viewed as the industrialising aspect of creative collaboration.

Sound and Music’s website mentions that the work is a nod to Berio’s Visage. Which elements of Berio’s composition are alluded to?

It’s a humble nod to this seminal, ground-breaking work. However, it’s important not to draw any comparisons as David, George, and Dam’s approaches speak for themselves. The allusion would be the way they each know me, how I use my voice, and how they are able to draw the best out of me. It calls for a direct intimacy and this process is evident in Visage, a work that is strikingly direct, free, and controlled.

EM2You often collaborate with the same individuals many times, David Toop and Dam van Huynh being two examples. Do such repeat collaborations result in a shared understanding that informs the improvisatory elements of your performances?

Yes and no. Yes, because we are familiar with each other and what we can do, and no, simply because we work with – and are inspired and influenced by – other artists, things we’ve read/seen/heard/done, experiences, and so on. As individuals we are constantly pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones, rising to new challenges. So it’s not necessary to rely on the past to inform collaborations on new projects, and I can always count on them to throw a curve ball! It’s the first time I am working with George, which I’m delighted about.

You have previously performed in the Graphic Scores tour, the Oxford leg of which was also co-promoted by Oxford Contemporary Music. How would you respond to the claim that graphic scores offer the opportunity to improvise with total freedom?

Do they? It depends on the score and what the composer wants. Fred Frith’s Bricks is more ‘open’ than Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody, which really is quite prescriptive. The drawings are there to be interpreted, not really improvised, whereas with Bricks you have to improvise more each crevice and colour of the brick in front of you, while also responding to what the other instrumentalists are doing.

Do you have any favoured improvisational techniques, and if so, how do you ensure that you don’t overuse them?

I don’t, because when improvising I approach my work anew. In order for me to execute extended vocal techniques safely I practice singing exercises daily, to keep the voice healthy, and have lessons. As long as my singing technique is secure I can feel able to vocally improvise with complete freedom.  Industrialising Intimacy is a new way of working for me as it combines structured notational form, vocal improvisation, and movement that has been developed in R&D. I’m very excited to experience the outcome.

J. Wadsworth

Elaine Mitchener will be performing Industrialising Intimacy at OVADA on June 1st, as part of a double-bill concert along with cellist Oliver Coates, promoted by Oxford Contemporary Music. Tickets can be booked in advance here, and you can read our interview with Oliver here.

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