“My thesis is that blackness is fluency,” begins electroacoustic artist JJJJJerome Ellis, on his new album The Clearing. This spoken-word opening is followed by a pause, then: “And music are forces that open time.”
In the work of Ellis however, these are not edits. They are not a revision or manipulation of his voice. They are part of the natural cadence of a man who speaks with a stutter. This is a thing that Ellis has embraced with his work. Even his name, with five Js, is a reference to the difficulty he sometimes has when introducing himself.
Ellis’ work consists of three principal themes. The first is improvisation. The second, counterpoint, which he describes as “the weaving together of melodic and rhythmic layers, creating an effect similar to a Persian rug”. Finally, repetition. Each is on display throughout this moving new album.
This excerpt from the piece “Dysfluent Waters,” for example: “Not just because Moses’ name means to pull out of the water. When Moses, Moses and Moses, and when Moses, Moses. When Moses. When Moses and Moses went up. Moses, Moses not just because each one of us was Moses. Not just because she was the Moses. Not just because Moses had a speech impediment. …”
Electroacoustic works are seldom accessible. The Clearing though, offers up a kind of raw intimacy – with both historic and personal references. Add to that Ellis’ use of saxophone, piano, synthesizer and sampler, all of which lend the album an organic appeal.
Ellis describes the project as a study of “how stuttering, blackness and music can be practices of refusal against hegemonic governance of time, speech and encounter.” Followers of his work will recognize the album’s title from a 2020 essay he authored for The Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies entitled “The clearing: Music, dysfluency, Blackness and time.” His goal, according to the album’s notes, is to invite us to reconsider speech impediments and how members of a society communicate with one another.
It must also be said though that The Clearing is often disarmingly beautiful. “Bend Back the Bow and Let the Hymn Fly” pairs a spoken word performance with ambient and new classical flourishes. It is among the most impressive 10½ minutes recorded this year.