YVETTE JANINE JACKSON is assistant professor in creative practice and critical inquiry in the Department of Music at Harvard University; if there’s anyone in North America who’s delved into and elucidated the narratives of music discourse, be they overt or covert, whether conscious or sub-, she’d be a good bet for a deep sociocultural reading.
She’s also stepping into the fray as an artist in her own right; working with New York’s Fridman Gallery to release a set entitled Freedom on January 29th. Two suites, you could maybe call them in the album context, being her radio operas “Destination Freedom” and “Invisible People”, a side devoted to each on the vinyl.
Drawing on established radio drama traditions – let’s not forget how American radio took such a great leap forward that night in October 1938 when Orson Welles’ War Of The Worlds first aired, the fourth wall collapsing, although in particular it’s Kenneth Patchen and John Cage’s 1940 radio drama The City Wears A Slouch Hat that Jackson cites and draws upon most deeply; her twin works combine music concréte, spoken word, field recording, in a sonic bricolage.
She says they’re designed to be experienced in darkness, in order to animate the theatre of the mind; her quest, “the search for an African-American aesthetic for electroacoustic music that speaks to all people in order to foster conversation about contentious subjects.”
The album features sleeve notes by African-American cultural critic Gregory Tate, who memorably quotes Duke Ellington in his essay, excerpted here: “When a reporter told Duke Ellington that his music sounded dissonant, Ellington ecstatically replied: ‘That’s the Negro’s life … Hear that chord! Dissonance is our way of life in America. We are something apart, yet an integral part’.”
Side the first, Destination Freedom, unfolds in three intertwined scenes: the cargo hold of a tall ship transporting Africans to the Americas; a disorienting journey that traverses time; and the arrival into the weightlessness of outer space.
The work was derived from Jackson’s research into the stories of enslaved Africans, which involved looking at everything from diagrams about how to pack human cargo into ships, to trade routes, to oral histories of those born into slavery.
It begins in a minimal jazz threnody, extended chords and tone clusters interspersed with nuanced electronica; before the calm (or so we would normally impute) of a shore-breaking sea. Of course, the sea has been built into a narrative of the new age this past half-century now as a soothing sound, when it is at best neutral and actually in the context, tending to the hostile: the medium of slave shipment from one continent to others. Soundscapery of creaking timbers and plunging, other definition-evading but instinctively hackle-raising sounds join the flow. There’s a solitary human cry in the distance, and then chatter, sibilant chatter, with what might be a double bass fingering in the lower decks.
Grandstanding low tones, a double pulse, begins to inform structure. If you know the unsettling and hallucinatory opening track from Barry Adamson’s Moss Side Story, “On The Wrong Side Of Relaxation”: this, at this point.
…And then you don’t realise, maybe, how embedded in this sonic story you’ve become, as other howls and overtones, bass thrums and free-expression tonal play begins to layer, crescendo, sweep all before it; swirl with absolute intensity. By rights you will feel chilled, hugely unsettled, while remaining impressed and unable to draw your eyes away. You’d swear this is the song of countless souls lost transatlantically, rage and pain, rage and pain. Utterances are too swift and impressionistic to catch, the tales these voices wishing to tell snatched away as soon as you detect them.
And on into the fuzz and pure noise channelling of ignition, lift-off, if I’m reading this right; pure sonics as the by-product of tremendous thrust. Surging. Whirring. Flesh subducted to mechanics, engines. Pink noise. It eventually breaks, whatever gravitational hold, actual, conceptual or internal, still scraping at the trajectory, and it moves towards a more Louis and Bebe Barron early circuitry texture. Eventually, voices once more, fractured and treated; then torch song warmth to lead us out, stripped back jazz and theremin-like song. “I want to cross over,” the first clear lyrical expression, comes seconds from the end.
Destination Freedom contains, we’re told, instrumental excerpts performed by Jackson’s chamber ensemble Invisible People. Traditional instruments were manipulated to represent non-instrumental sounds, such as strings pitched down and time-stretched to resemble ships; while conversely the sound effects assumed a more traditionally instrumental role. Creaking bedroom doors, banging from the heater vents, and underwater field recordings from Mission Bay boat slips and the boardwalk in Pacific Beach also feature. Twenty-two minutes flat, in strict chronology; but worlds and lives long while you’re inside.
Part the second, Invisible People takes at its thematic cue is based on the negative outpourings from African American communities that followed President Obama’s approval of marriage equality in 2015. Herein, she takes on the historical exclusion of women and the LBGTQ+ community from people from leadership roles, asking: just who has been left out of this conversation?
The opening passage almost, almost picks up an ersatz break in metallicized, chopped-up voices that make shapes to form a techno-type groove; but this texture gives way to a slow drone resonance, upon which Jackson slowly builds up a spoken words collage of Barack Obama and nameless critics. “Obama is a communist!” can be heard at one point, before our titular chamber ensemble calls a theme; rousing oratory twins with applause, strong, gospelly glissando.
A passage of near-silence, distant field recordings, really very muted instrumentation, is enlivened by a passage of expressive timpani, once more fleshed out by the other instruments and the fleeting ghosts of voices. There’s moments here that’ll make you think, Alice Coltrane; in terms of aesthetic, certainly I’d say, Freddie Hubbard and İlhan Mİmaroğlu’s Sing Me A Song Of Songmy – that multivalent free jazz suite from 1971. You can also really here that Kenneth Patchen and John Cage influence shining through. A hellfire and brimstone preacher calls us to “repent … RE-pent,” as a neo-electro vocal cut-up rushes through. Soon after, free jazz sax throttles and scalds, stretches and reaches for molten expression.
The ‘libretto’ is taken from numerous spoken-word and published sources including sermons, speeches, religious literature, reparation therapy brochures and internet trolls; the whole cross-chatter of a multimedia society clinging to opinion-formers and opinion-thrusters.
How to entice across this particular threshold the casual browser; how to summate? It’s like explaining to an airport novel-devourer the benefits of Joyce’s Ulysses. A both the aforementioned examples are ‘novels’, so by the same token is this an ‘album’; but this is an al no casual listen; it’s almost certainly one of the deepest statements of sonic intent you will ever hear.
The second part is perhaps the most accessible, and that only in terms of being a vanilla a thing as, well – as a free jazz odyssey; I’m pretty close to lost for words for Destination Freedom, which I think must be one of the deepest, the most affecting, the most harrowing and occasionally discomfiting sonic experiences I’ve ever had. I think it odds-on that that as the decades winnow, Jackson’s work herein will be seen as a potent milestone in Blackness and art. And then how to give that any rating in the context of say, a jobbing alt.country EP which I might write next? Pretty much impossible.
If real, unafraid, powerful sonic architecture, dialogue and expression is your thing – and in terms of consciousness, maybe it should be, but we all have our own ways of dealing with the world, especially right now – then this record is essential. But enter steeled and go carefully, friend.
Yvette Janine Jackson’s Freedom will be released by Fridman Gallery on digital and vinyl formats on January 29th; there’s also an edition of 75 on vinyl with silkscreen print by Nate Lewis. You can pre-order your copy from Bandcamp or direct from the gallery.