JJJJJerome Ellis says, “For me, the stutter is a wild animal, and it is my ongoing practice to follow it where it wants to go.” The multi-instrumentalist, writer, and composer frequently lists “stutterer” among his disciplines, referring to his glottal block, an involuntary speech dysfluency that manifests in pauses while talking or reading. For Ellis, his stutter is simply a facet of his person—it only becomes an issue when faced with others’ expectations. But rather than try to suppress it, Ellis makes ample space for dysfluency in his life. He stylizes his first name as “JJJJJerome” because it’s the word he blocks on most often, and on The Clearing he brings speech directly into his art so that the stutter might make itself at home.
“I speak with a stutter, I am Black, and I am a musician,” Ellis begins on “Jede Krankheit ist ein musikalisches Problem,” laying out three intersecting elements of his identity. The Clearing began as an essay Ellis wrote for the Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies titled The clearing: Music, dysfluency, Blackness and time. While writing about the use of Black music as a means of resistance against hegemonically white notions of time and fluency, he became curious about pairing the piece with an audible component. Against a backdrop of hip-hop, house, ambient, and jazz-inspired sounds—all musical forms with a strong Black identity—Ellis experimented with reading his words and sharing his experiences, taking full advantage of the aural medium. Any instance of a stutter became part of the work. “My thesis is that Blackness, dysfluency, and music are forces that open time,” he says in the opening “Loops of Retreat,” and the way the strings swell beneath his long pause between “Blackness” and “dysfluency” do just that, cracking open conventional notions of linearity. The Clearing is both a theoretical investigation and a piece of resistance art in itself, pushing back against societal expectations of performative fluency.
Ellis recorded himself speaking in a variety of situations to show how his glottal block can vary. He’s more likely to stutter while reading in silence and less likely when reading over music, due to a phenomenon known as masked auditory feedback, so passages of the essay are recited both ways. On a pair of tracks called “The Bookseller,” he records two calls he makes to Barnes & Noble. The first time, the words get stuck in his throat before getting out the title of the book he’s looking for, and the employee assumes the call has been dropped. They hang up. The second time, he prefaces the conversation by warning the clerk about his stutter, and he’s given the time to speak at his own pace. Later, on “Milta,” Ellis has a candid phone conversation with his mentor—someone that already knows about his stutter—and reads back to her a letter that she wrote to him. He still stammers, but sounds relaxed and unrushed, comfortable knowing he’s free of any expectation to speak quickly or smoothly.
Because of the unpredictable nature of his stutter, Ellis doesn’t consider The Clearing a finished work, simply one possibility among many. The likelihood of stuttering on different words lends the piece an infinitely indeterminate quality. During a live performance celebrating the album’s release, Ellis underscored that idea by reading a list of acknowledgements in the middle of the set. In a Q&A following the show he stressed that it was a deliberate choice to make that part of an ever-evolving composition, explaining that he stutters “more fully and more frequently when saying names, because there are no synonyms for names.” In other words, he can’t fall back on the ability to substitute a word he anticipates tripping up on.
There aren’t many representations of Black people that stutter in popular media. Ellis’ decision to end the album with “Punch Line,” presenting a joke by the late comedian Bernie Mac about his nephew with a stutter, is acknowledgement of a rare example of dysfluency being discussed in Black culture—but also an expression of the conflicting feelings it brings. The joke is not a flattering portrayal of stuttering. “I feel anger, I feel sadness, I feel ‘I don’t care,’” Ellis muses, while acknowledging his reverence for the comedy legend and admitting that he can’t help finding the joke a little funny. But The Clearing is an opportunity to amend the record and put something empowering out into the world. “As in all my work,” he says, “in this project I’m seeking healing.”
Buy: Rough Trade
Catch up every Saturday with 10 of our best-reviewed albums of the week. Sign up for the 10 to Hear newsletter here.