"... the fragile surfaces seem to hide much more than they reveal..." The Guardian (Andrew Clements)

Experimental vocalist Elaine Mitchener will present Tansy Davies’ song cycle The rule is love, for contralto and chamber ensemble, at the MaerzMusik Festival on 19 March in Berlin. The rule is love was premiered by Mitchener and the London Sinfonietta in London in 2019, as part of Kings Place’s Venus Unwrapped series.

The rule is love forms part of Mitchener’s hour-long programme On Being Human as Praxis, which she devised with choreographer and director Dam Van Huynh, inspired by the writings of Jamaican feminist and cultural theorist Sylvia Winter. It was first presented at Donaueschinger Musiktage 2020; a recording of that performance is available here.

Mitchener is joined for the performance by MAM Manufaktur für aktuelle Musik. Davies sets texts by John Berger and Sylvia Winter across four songs, lasting ten minutes in total, accompanied by soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, violin, double bass, and percussion (for one or two players). The work draws on a range of unusual and extended techniques for the vocalist, including free chanting, improvised muttering and melodic decoration, and unpitched and whispered sounds.

Davies previously collaborated with Mitchener when creating the role of Hannah for 2018 chamber opera Cave. Davies writes of The rule is love

The rule is love, like many of my pieces, was created systematically at first; I made musical alphabets out of both texts, and found ways of working with the resulting patterns from which to build the piece, almost letter by letter, before stepping back and shaping it intuitively.

Elaine Mitchener is an artist whose energy excites me deeply; there’s an earthiness and a ferociousness about her, as well as the obvious flexibility and huge variety colour and texture in the sounds she makes. For this work I saw her as a voice of ‘ancient woman and wisdom’, vocalising at the start in short sounds and utterances. I imagined her as a hybrid of voice and drum – the earliest forms of human musical expression.

The percussive nature of the vocal part, to me, is linked to the idea of a skin or membrane (like the skin of a drum), which can be seen as both a protective layer and a wall of repression. Sometimes it’s as if her voice is blocked; her words are withheld or covered up and must break out through this skin or “glass ceiling” in order to be heard.

The four songs set the same text twice, each with a more physical, percussive version and a more dreamy, lyrical one. It’s as if she has secret dreams of revealing things that are so powerful, in the end they push through blockages and demand to be heard, no matter what.

Songs haunted by the tropes of pop music (the score describes the music as “channelling David Lynch electropop”)... as in so much of Davies’ music, the fragile surfaces seem to hide much more than they reveal.

The Guardian (Andrew Clements), 11 November 2019