Artist's Statement: Classically-trained vocal artist Elaine Mitchener on privacy and intimacy

By Ben Miller | 11 November 2015 | Updated: 10 November 2015

Classically-trained vocal artist Elaine Mitchener has worked with everyone from Sonia Boyce to Goldie. Her latest work, Industrialising Intimacy, is all about our loss of privacy and the strength of true intimacy

A photo of a young female performer, Elaine Mitchener, holding her head in her hands
© Kin Ho
“Collaboration can stimulate, feed and broaden creativity. That’s the best case scenario, when a spark sets off an intensely exciting creative fire. Not all collaborations work even if the artists are amazing, because it boils down to personalities co-existing and building together.

I am very fortunate to have worked with some of the best artists of their field. In each case I have been challenged to find another way to express musically. My background is in gospel, soul and jazz along with free-improv contemporary new music.

I am lucky to be working with such remarkable, icon artists on Industrialising Intimacy. David Toop, who is a sound artist and musician, heard me sing on the day of Obama’s inauguration, so I was pretty charged up when he invited me to be in his opera, Star-Shaped Biscuit.

Dam Van Huynh and I were introduced via a mutual friend when Dam needed a vocalist for a work he had choreographed. And I approached composer and musician George Lewis and sent him some examples of what I did because I had been interested in his music for some time.

George is based in New York. I commissioned all three and we have not met together as a group for this project.

The piece is devised so each section of the triptych can exist on its own. The only requirement I asked of them was to create a reflection of what Industrialising Intimacy meant to them.

The intensive R&D sessions have been between Dam and myself because he is directing and choreographing me through the work, providing an essential thread which connects one section to the next.

I pre-recorded sound elements and extended vocal techniques and improvisations, requested by George using text from the poem Memorial, by his friend, the South African poet K Kgositsile.

David has created a soundscape based on text by Thoreau and also an unknown writer which I provided. Dam and I worked with an actual conversation between my mother and I which I have manipulated and shaped.

The R&D is a continual process of exploration, play and experimentation. It’s more challenging because I am working physically as well as improvising and deciding which bits remain as ‘markers’ to help navigate me through the work.

I heard the title of the work used to describe how pop artists are able to connect with their fans via social media. It’s the modern version of tearing off a pop idol’s garment in the 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s. That sounds a long time ago.

The work isn’t a critique of social media. It’s an investigation of the loss of privacy in our society versus the strength of true intimacy in the search for one's centeredness.

I describe my work as contemporary music theatre. I wouldn’t change the description because I understand it. However, if someone turns up thinking they’re going to see a West End musical style show, they will be certainly be faced with something surprisingly different.

My work is constantly evolving as I develop ideas and work with different artists, being challenged along the way. I approach each project with the excitement of something new and rewarding and, even if it doesn’t work, that’s okay because that’s an object lesson in itself.

This work brings together many of my ideas into one piece. The immediacy and close proximity of the audience provides another edge of excitement.

The artistic team at Earsthetic aren’t afraid of taking risks. It doesn’t suit all festivals but there are audiences out there who are curious, open and ready to experience these works with the artists.

Work cannot be created without support on all levels. I am also grateful to Sound and Music and Arts Council England, who are funding the tour, Oxford Contemporary Music and VLC in London. Like Earsthetic, they have supported the project by providing essential creative space for R&D and sharing the work."

  • Industrialising Intimacy is at Brighton Dome Studio Theatre on November 29 2015. Tickets £8, book online. Earsthetic runs from November 25 – December 1 2015. See the full programme.

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