Faith In Arts: A Conversation with JJJJJerome Ellis
Thursday, June 29th, 2023 at 1 PM Eastern
Streaming to Vimeo + Facebook
Presented as part of Faith in Arts
These conversations and interviews with a diverse group of artists, curators, faith leaders, and scholars explore the role of arts in spiritual practice and religious life in the arts.
JJJJJerome Ellis is a stuttering, Afro-Caribbean composer, poet, and performer. His works are invitations to healing, transcendence, communion, and deep listening. Through an interdisciplinary practice that focuses on oral storytelling, improvisation, and the interrelations between speech, silence, disability, and religion, he’s collaborated with choreographers, rappers, playwrights, booksellers, typographers, podcasters, toddlers, and filmmakers. Mr. Ellis’ work has been presented or developed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab, Lincoln Center, MASS MoCA, and WKCR. He is a writer in residence at Lincoln Center Theater. Born in Connecticut to a Jamaican mother and a Grenadian father, he was raised in Virginia Beach, VA.
As a composer Ellis was awarded a 2015 Fulbright Fellowship to research traditional samba performance and write new music in Salvador, Brazil. There he performed with local musicians at Teatro Gamboa Nova and Feminaria Musical at the Universidade Federal da Bahia. Recent sound design/composing credits include Help (The Shed), Passage (Soho Repertory Theatre), the Radical Craft Design Salon (TED Conferences), and LAB RAT by A$AP Rocky (Sotheby’s/YouTube). From 2008 to 2011, Ellis was resident composer and saxophonist with pianist Trudy Silver at 5C Cafe and Cultural Center in New York City. As a jazz saxophonist, he has performed with Joseph Daley, Aaron Scott, and Shayna Dulberger. Ellis earned his B.A. in music theory and ethnomusicology from Columbia University, studying ear training and counterpoint with pianist and composer Ramin Arjomand.
His diverse body of work includes: contemplative soundscapes using saxophone, flute, dulcimer, electronics, and vocals; scores for plays and podcasts; albums combining spoken word with ambient and jazz textures; theatrical explorations involving live music and storytelling; and music-video-poems that seek to transfigure historical archives.
Aster of Ceremonies
A polyphonic new entry in Multiverse—a literary series written and curated by the neurodivergent—JJJJJerome Ellis’s Aster of Ceremonies beautifully extends the vision of his debut book and album, The Clearing, a “lyrical celebration of and inquiry into the intersections of blackness, music, and disabled speech” (Claudia Rankine).
Aster of Ceremonies asks what rites we need now and how poetry, astir in the asters, can help them along. What is the relationship between fleeing and feeling? How can the voices of those who came before—and the stutters that leaven those voices—carry into our present moment, mingling with our own? When Ellis writes, “Bring me the stolen will / Bring me the stolen well,” his voice is a conduit, his “me” is many. Through the grateful invocations of ancestors—Hannah, Mariah, Kit, Jan, and others—and their songs, he rewrites history, creating a world that blooms backward, reimagining what it means for Black and disabled people to have taken, and to continue to take, their freedom.
By weaving a chorus of voices past and present, Ellis counters the attack of “all masters of all vessels” and replaces it with a family of flowers. He models how—as with his brilliant transduction of escaped slave advertisements—we might proclaim lost ownership over literature and history. “Bring me to the well,” he chants, implores, channels. “Bring me to me.” In this bringing, in this singing, he proclaims our collective belonging to shared worlds where we can gather and heal.
With The Clearing, JJJJJerome Ellis establishes a new metaphor that frames speech dysfluency—stuttering in particular—as a space for possibility rather than a pathology. First introduced in his 2020 essay “The clearing: Music, dysfluency, Blackness and time” in The Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies, Ellis presents The Clearing as a concept that challenges us to reimagine dysfluency in speech and question how speech and articulation impact how we exist in the social realm. Ellis speaks with a block stutter, which manifests as intervals of silence in his speech. He calls these intervals “clearings.” In the opening section of the essay, Ellis argues that stuttering—much like music—challenges and “breaks up” time as we know it: “My thesis is that Blackness, dysfluency and music are forces that open time. Opening brings possibilities: temporal refusal, temporal escape, temporal dissent.” Ellis goes on to suggest that disabled speakers and certain types of people, especially Black folks, are subjected to related forms of temporal regulation and oppression that seek to pathologize and criminalize: “Temporal subjection enacted against Black people occurs in many spheres. Brittney Cooper examines several in her work: Black women’s reproductive health; legal and extralegal murders of Black people; racially skewed correlations between zip code and life expectancy; and the conceptualization of history itself.”
The Clearing is a conceptual and musical tour de force that combines Jazz with the narratives of enslaved Africans, and experimental electronics with historical accounts of Black rebellion. The album centers speech but uses it as a starting point to not only depathologize dysfluent speech but to build new tools to critique anti-Blackness, linear time, culture, and power in our society.
Ellis says of the project: “I hope this album offers the listener some of what my stutter offers me: an opportunity to imagine new ways of being in time.”