Carve Out a Little Emptiness Or, JJJJJerome Ellis Enters Through Another Door, Opens It, and Rearranges the Furniture

danilo machado

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Before calling Virginia-based poet and musician JJJJJerome Ellis, I re-spun my copy of his 2021 record The Clearing. The album was co-produced by Northern Spy / NNA Tapes and commissioned by The Poetry Project, which was where I first saw JJJJJerome perform. I remember Ellis, who speaks with a stutter, standing at the front of a packed St. Mark’s Church, breaking open the time conventions of the 2020 New Year’s Day Marathon. During the twelve-hour program, each reader was allotted the same brief slot of 2-3 minutes. However, “in removing one hierarchy,” Ellis pointed out, “the time limit introduces another. A time limit assumes that all people have relatively equal access to time through their speech, which is not true.” In The Clearing, Ellis samples his friend and mentor Milta, who describes his “so-called stutter” as a space that transcends “the limitations of lineal / white time.” 

The aqua book accompanying the record, published by Wendy’s Subway, is a transcription (Ellis italicizes crip, emphasizing the disability aesthetics that shape the work). Impressively designed by Rissa Hochberger, the tactile volume does not just act like a score book, it is shaped like one. Inside are stanzas between markers of times, and moments, in the tradition of concrete poetry and as influenced by M. NourbeSe Phillip’s Zong! (2011), where letters scatter along the pages like music notes. (Ellis’s recent book of poems, Aster of Ceremonies (2023), contains erasures of newspaper advertisements for “run-aways” published by enslavers and also draws from these influences.)

At National Sawdust, Ellis will celebrate his new solo piano album Compline in Nine Movements, which is one improvised take based on a 24-note phrase. The phrase, developed with James Harrison Monico (with whom Ellis often collaborates with under the project James & Jerome), acts like a seed from which the whole project grows. At Sawdust, Ellis is not interested in reproducing the album and instead will create a new improvisational performance featuring saxophone and electronics alongside piano and accompanied by Kenita Miller. Ellis describes his process of “carv[ing] out a little emptiness” leading up to performances—in other words, creating a clearing—wanting to “arrive at the music knowing as little as possible about it.”

The album is a deliberate non-verbal no-liner-notes follow-up to The Clearing’s hypertextuality. I think of André 3000’s recent instrumental release New Blue Sun. The record is almost 90 minutes of “no bars,” and marked the Outkast musician’s first record in seventeen years following an acclaimed career of dense verses. JJJJJerome shares how instrumental music has always been a significant space for grieving and dwelling. He tells me about how he’s always been drawn to music that deploys certain organizational techniques (like loops, drones, vibrato) that facilitate—and teach—dwelling. This dwell, this slow, is in many ways a protest to capitalist, ableist urgency.

Ellis was trained in jazz and cites learning, more broadly, about and in “practices developed by Black people that are committed to a specific relationship to the present moment . . . often discussed under the rubric of improvisation.” Ellis is interested in engaging in an intellectual and spiritual tradition which asks “how are we going to play this thing this time?” For him, the commitments of performance are outside of reproducibility. In advance of the performance at National Sawdust, Ellis will be preparing sounds through a process called granular synthesis, or granulation. This process splits sound into tiny snippets, or grains, which can then be rearranged or frozen. Ellis connects this rupturing and series of splits in granular synthesis to the methods of writers like Phillips and Christina Sharpe, which are influences throughout. 

"JJJJJerome shares how instrumental music has always been a significant space for grieving and dwelling. He tells me about how he’s always been drawn to music that deploys certain organizational techniques (like loops, drones, vibrato) that facilitate—and teach—dwelling. This dwell, this slow, is in many ways a protest to capitalist, ableist urgency."

Compline in Nine Movements was first recorded in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 2017. Through the process and software of granulation, Ellis is able to, in a way, travel back to this moment in time and “enter it through another door . . . to open it and rearrange the furniture.” Ellis points to the proximity of granulation, grain, and seed—which connects the technical implications of the process with the symbolic. “I’m interested in other ways of relating to the past,” Ellis shares, telling me about coming from a long line of farmers and about reading Angela Davis’s Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundation of a Moment (2016). Both entail lineages of labor and patience, seeds seen and unseen—“all kinds of cultivation and care.” 

JJJJJerome Ellis’s practice toggles between redacting and making visible (like his stutters “rendered in real time on the page”); between being seen and opacity (“Can stuttering, blackness, and music be practices of refusal? What would it mean to refuse the transparent waters in favor of the opaque waters?”). This range of tactics—musical and visual, spoken and silent—are grounded by reverberating questions of time, disability, and Blackness. There is the page and the record, the written and the improvised, the performed and the recorded. Loops of past and present. 

When I called JJJJJerome, I began by asking whether it is okay to record.


In The Clearing, JJJJJerome recounts asking a bookseller for Christina Sharpe’s In The Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016) and being hung up on in the middle of a silence. Towards the end of our call, we talked about phone conventions and what it means to experience stuttering aurally. Over the phone, which is prone to drops and glitches, the other person might not be able to see “the labor of speaking,” as they might if they were seeing someone speak in front of them (as the audience at the Poetry Project saw JJJJJerome at the lectern, for example). In The Clearing, he writes about the potential of stuttering’s opacity, asking “If you can hear / but can’t see me, // how can you tell // I’m stuttering?” 

During our call, JJJJJerome tells me that the new album begins and then stops after a few seconds—a “false take” left in as “an ethos to honor my mistakes, honor my imperfections.” 

At the end of each side of The Clearing, the needle catches on the blue paper label at the center of the record until I (or someone else) lifts the arm back to rest.

About danilo machado

danilo machado (he/they) is a poet, curator, and critic living on occupied land interested in language’s potential for revealing tenderness, erasure, and relationships to power. A 2020-2021 Poetry Project Emerge-Surface-Be Fellow, their writing has been featured in Art in America, Hyperallergic, Art Papers, Poem-A-Day, The Recluse, GenderFail, No, Dear, Movements, TAYO Literary Magazine, among others. They are the author of the collection This is your receipt and is not a ticket for travel (Faint Line Press, 2023) and the chaplets wavy in its heat and to be elsewhere (Ghost City Press, 2022/2023). Curator of the exhibitions Otherwise Obscured: Erasure in Body and Text (Franklin Street Works, 2019), support structures (Virtual/8th Floor Gallery, 2020), We turn (EFA Project Space, 2021) and Eligible/Illegible (with Francisco Donoso, PS122, 2023), danilo is also Producer of Public Programs at Brooklyn Museum and, with Em Marie Kohl, co-organizer of exquisites, a queer reading, publication, and workshop series. They are working to show up with care for their communities.