Story Is … Loops of Retreat

In the opening track of their 2021 album The Clearing, JJJJJerome Ellis states that “blackness, disfluency and music are forces that open time.”  

Ellis is a Black artist, musician, and writer who speaks with a stutter. They work with this “dysfluency” of speech in language, history and music in a way that reclaims a narrative space of silence and honors what is divergent. The physical patterns of sound and voice become portals for stories, for scholarship and philosophies, and for reflections on the precarity and ongoing catastrophe of our world.

single edit, video by Jules Evans

Ellis’s voice explores blackness, the moment of the artist in conversation with ancestral voices (further explored in Ellis’s 2023 book of poetry, Aster of Ceremonies). It considers the act of speech and the intricacies of communication, the ways our bodies make sound and story. It engages personhood in relationship to the natural world, through its rhythms, resilience and transformations. In this music of language, to stutter is not to falter in the sense that it indicates unsteadiness, but, as Ellis sets forth in his first track Loops of Retreat, to create “clearings” that bring “possibilities, temporal refusal, temporal escape, temporal dissent.” And, there is also the temporal possibility of technology––the digital interventions that can weave, replicate and layer the voice, that play with the line between speech and instrument, between recording and composing.

Fluency assumes a standard, and enforces it. It is a reflection of a world that values completeness and efficiency, speed, the tying up of loose ends. When you tie all the loose ends, you lose the opportunity to weave them in. When you force closed the space between things, you lose those points of entry. Throughout the album, a listener will arrive to these points of entry differently—as a fluent or dysfluent speaker, as someone of a different race or experience than the artist—but Ellis explores these spaces in their signification without judgement, and leaves them open for each of us to dwell in.

Loops of Retreat ~ The Clearing (2021)
(full edit audio)

I think of the work of Amanda Stewart (an example being her 1995 piece absence), with narratives emerging from or against a pace of information full of rush and self-interruption. This work perhaps takes an opposite approach to highlighting a similar thing. The overlaps, voice jumping between sound and semantic language, diverging rhythms and references to different narratives of being—these open a certain kind of clearing as well, a space to rethink and listen again.

In the way both of these artists use the voice as an instrument, I think of the word syncopation—coming from the Latin syncope, meaning “a contraction of a word by omission of middle sounds or letters” or a “cutting off, cutting short” and in music: “the placement of rhythmic stresses or accents where they wouldn’t normally occur.” But a syncopated beat assumes some uniformity that it must work against.

Poetry is a syncopated medium. It is about absence and elision, it is about apostrophe—in the sense that it contracts language, and builds bridges between disparate things or sounds—but also in the sense that it speaks to something greater than its writer and reader, or speaker and listener, something that perhaps neither can ever truly touch but that both can breathe within.

Where language or sound pauses or elides, the time and space of it is opened. So, the stutter is not omitting anything, it is allowing time. The gaps are not full of discomfort and expectation, but of permission and generosity. Ellis’s work is asking us to practice an auditory respect, a word meaning literally to look again. How can we listen again to a silence and find something greater than absence or anticipation, listen again to voices or stories that have been silenced, and hear them?

As Ellis invites us to think of water in relation to dysfluency, the rivers that remember their own paths instead of those that have been redirected and straightened, I am thinking about both language and silence as bridges. Story as a bridge of knowledge, between speakers and listeners with different ways of voicing and of knowing.

—Caroline Preziosi, Story Is … curator, Jan. 2024

JJJJJerome Ellis (any pronoun) is a disabled animal, artist and proud stutterer. He prays, reads, gardens, cycles, surfs and plays. Through music, text, performance, video and photography he researches relationships among blackness, disabled speech, divinity, nature, sound and time. Born in 1989 to Jamaican and Grenadian immigrants, he lives in Norfolk, Virginia, USA with his wife, ecologist-poet Luísa Black Ellis.

Caroline Preziosi is an interdisciplinary artist based between Chicago and Baltimore. She works in language, sound, photography and performance.

more curations ~ Story Is