Elaine Mitchener makes a strong choice: interview with Xenia Pestova

Elaine Mitchener is an incredible musician whose work continues to inspire and amaze me. Improviser, vocalist, cross-genre experimental artist – Elaine defies categorisation, and radiates a force field of energy on stage. I was fortunate to encounter Elaine during a project of Julian Eastman’s music with Apartment House, which we performed at LCMF last December and Sacrum Profanum in Poland this September. We got chatting about balancing music, life and career choices.


XP: You told me recently about a choreographer who asked their dancers to “make a strong choice”, and the image stayed with me… I feel that everything you do as a performer on stage is a “strong choice” that you stand by – and of course, this is something we all aspire to. Can you tell me more about this story – do you feel this idea of absolute commitment is something that infuses and inspires your own work? 

EM: It’s a great piece of direction isn’t it? The quote actually comes from a Facebook post in which a woman is wildly improvising contemporary/experimental dance moves. It’s pretty extreme, almost exorcist-like and the clip is accompanied with the quote “Make a strong choice.” So, although funny, it’s making a very serious point regarding having the confidence to make strong or committed creative decisions and as part of the process of self-development and awareness. I find doing this at R&D stage enables me to be open to possibilities and for performance I feel capable of taking risks, pushing further.


XP: What are your thoughts on the idea of “balance”: balance in the working relationships and communication between performers and composers / other musicians, balance in terms of taking care of oneself on tour and taking on new projects, balance in terms of work / life?

EM: wasn’t it Nicola Horlick who said that there’s no such thing as work/life balance, there’s work and there’s life and each takes priority at different times? Health is the best wealth, so staying healthy physically and mentally is paramount, although often the hardest to achieve and maintain. A friend wisely counselled to worry is to suffer twice, just breathe deeply – not always easy but I try. If what you’re doing leaves you feeling unfulfilled, turn away from it and focus on something more positive that serves you. The balance happens when you are truly honest with yourself and admit to the truth behind why you take on certain projects, work with certain people or teach in certain institutions. That way you’re able to manage your expectations and stress levels.


XP: What are your current / future projects that you’d like to share with us?

Well, having said all the above I’m really excited to be premiering SWEET TOOTH on 23 Nov at Bluecoat. A devised piece working with Sylvia Hallett, Jason Yarde, Mark Sander, movement directed by Dam Van Huynh and fact checking with historian Dr Christer Petley, the subject matter looks at the horrific mechanism of slavery, the sugar trade in the Caribbean it’s connection to UK and its legacies. I’m very pleased to return to LCMF at Ambika P3 with Apartment House (Robert Ashley pieces 4 Dec) and my own project Vocal Classics of the Black Avantgarde (9 Dec) with a line up of some the UK’s leading jazz musicians and a poet – the festival has a great line-up this year. 12 Jan is the UpRoot album launch for the experimental Hawkins/Mitchener Quartet; SWEET TOOTH (London premiere Feb 2018) and in June 2018 I make my debut with ROH/London Sinfonietta commissioned opera by Tansy Davies, libretto by Nick Drake: “The Cave” with Mark Padmore in the main role.


XP: Another question I am interested in is whether you have thoughts on how to introduce improvisation and new music approaches in educational / pedagogical contexts?

EM: We are improvising every day. When I teach workshops I encourage participants to leave their inhibitions outside, that there’s no wrong, to make strong choices, listen, play. It’s not about mindlessly regurgitating extended techniques picked up from the latest new music composition, although I understand for many musicians that might be their starting point.  Educational institutions have a way of dampening enthusiasm and creativity so I don’t teach improvisation. I use the workshops as a laboratory to explore, experiment and test ideas to open up and expand creativity and encourage to players to develop their own systems of expression.