5 Questions to Elaine Mitchener (experimental artist)

“They will remember that we were sold, but not that we were strong. They will remember that we were bought but not that we were brave.” – William Prescott, 1937 (former slave)

Next month, Bergen, Norway’s annual experimental music festival Borealis will stage SWEET TOOTH, a music theater work by British-Jamaican experimental artist Elaine Mitchener, in its first performance outside of the UK. For five days each March, Borealis opens the door for curious listeners and challenges expectations with a stylistically-diverse program of composers, improvisers, sound artists, and musicians. In addition to SWEET TOOTH, highlights of Borealis 2020 include the Norwegian Naval Forces Band and Mitchener performing an all-George Lewis program, the intersectional feminism and political activism of London’s F*Choir, the Norwegian premiere of climate crisis opera Sun & Sea, and a collaboration with Carte Blanche, the Norwegian National Company of Contemporary Dance.

SWEET TOOTH confronts the British Empire’s history of profiting from colonialism and slavery in the sugar trade industry and features Mitchener’s vocals and movement accompanied by Sylvia Hallett (accordion, voice, violin), Mark Sanders (drums, percussion), and Jason Yarde (saxophones, percussion). With systemic racism still holding strong in the countries that engaged in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, SWEET TOOTH is a timely and necessary work that confronts this history and its present day implications through text, improvisation, and movement. We asked Elaine five questions about the creative process behind this work in advance of its performance at Borealis in March.

Can you describe the research process and the source materials behind the creation of SWEET TOOTH?

The genesis of the work came from looking at the binding relationship between the UK/ Europe and the Caribbean (with a focus on Jamaica, as that’s my heritage) through sugar, the human cost towards its production, and the UK’s wealth generated from slavery. As a musician, I decided to approach the work through sounds: the sound of machinery, the way human beings were reduced to being part of the mechanism of plantations, sounds of the perpetual fear which maintained it, and paranoia of those who feared rebellion, inevitable revolts, and change. Working with Dr. Christer Petley (Southampton University), I was given access to documents that completely opened up musical possibilities for further exploration.

Jason Yarde, Elaine Mitchener, and Sylvia Hallett in SWEET TOOTH--Photo by Brian Roberts

Jason Yarde, Elaine Mitchener, and Sylvia Hallett in SWEET TOOTH–Photo by Brian Roberts

What sounds, movements, and other creative elements have you chosen as a vehicle for this work and its message?

SWEET TOOTH is sonically immersive and experimental in its improvisatory approaches, referencing Kumani singing and sea shanties. It is an intense experience for the players and observers. It tackles a dark period of human history, so there’s no pissing about or pussyfooted approaches. The brutally of the regime and the physical/mental torture are not shied away from, and these are examined through movement and choreography (working with my collaborator, Dam Van Huynh). It’s uncomfortable viewing, but there’s also a celebration of resilience, defiance, and pride because out of these atrocities, incredible cultures were borne.

How is having access to an experimental music platform such as Borealis beneficial in presenting challenging work that defies typical genre categorization?

Prior to programming the work at Borealis, SWEET TOOTH was commissioned by The Bluecoat (Liverpool), the Stuart Hall Foundation, the International Slavery Museum, and the Museum of London with support from the John Hansard Gallery, and St. George’s, Bloomsbury. These are not musical institutions, so I think that speaks for itself. Music festivals are generally risk averse, and I wasn’t going to wait for one to support the idea, which is why I’m pleased (for the project and for those who initially supported it) that Borealis is the first music festival to present SWEET TOOTH. Hopefully others will have more courage.

To be fair, Aldeburgh Music (now Snape Maltings) lent their support by providing a week of research and development, which was incredibly helpful, but I knew it wasn’t an Aldeburgh Festival work. I should also add that BBC Radio 3 took a punt and broadcast the performance–which I wasn’t expecting. Again, it came down to producers who didn’t just talk, but actually supported it happening. I realise it wasn’t a given.

Elaine Mitchener in SWEET TOOTH--Photo by Brian Roberts

Elaine Mitchener in SWEET TOOTH–Photo by Brian Roberts

You’ve mentioned that your ancestry includes “enslaved Africans, sold by Africans to British traders to make Britain ‘great’ through the slave trade of sugar on plantations in the Caribbean.” Reading the phrase “make Britain great” makes me shudder in light of the “Make America Great Again” movement here in the US. In a time of conservative, white supremacist, and isolationist movements, can you describe the experience of presenting SWEET TOOTH to what I can only assume has been predominantly white audiences?

Good question. People (of all colours) have been greatly affected by the work. Some in tears, but mostly quiet reflection, then discussion. It’s not about laying blame–it’s about facing up to our history and how our understanding/misunderstanding is shaping the present and the future. My last performances (both London) of the work had mixed audiences, and you could feel the energy. A black colleague said that I expressed something that we’ve had to hold back and suppress for so long. If white people feel threatened or uncomfortable about that, then they should ask themselves why.

Each performance of SWEET TOOTH must demand an incredible amount of emotional (and physical) energy from you. In bearing witness to this process, what do you hope that audiences will confront within themselves?

I can’t second guess.
That is a question only they can answer.

Elaine Mitchener om SWEET TOOTH from Borealis on Vimeo.