Contours of the Score
Ade J. Omotosho on 2022 Fellow James Allister Sprang
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The works of James Allister Sprang require a kind of listening not dissimilar from habitation, which is to say, a listening that understands the body as an instrument permeable to the surge of time, memory, and history. His improvisatory, contemplative soundscapes have the sprawl and swirl of a cosmos. There is a stirring sense of worldmaking in his method. The potent textures and rhythms of his scores provide listeners a rich, eclectic environment that settles and unsettles their imaginations, an environment that attunes the senses to other sonic possibilities and experiments, equally playful, digressive, and ecstatic.
Sprang’s practice is distinguished by his inclination to work in multifarious modes. His body of work encompasses photography, installation, sound, and performance. He tests the boundaries of varied disciplines and tries on — no, inhabits — new forms. He moves as assuredly in the realm of photography as he does performance. What unites and nourishes his many gestures is his abiding fascination with poetry. He often proceeds by writing a bit of lyrical text that spurs his mind. Sprang delights in the euphonic thrill and metaphoric possibilities of language, the way it shapes and structures our world, and the interplay of sound and image, word and sound.
His new installation, Aquifer of the Weave, commissioned by the Chocolate Factory Theater in Queens, New York, combines a monumental visual work with a forty-five-minute immersive soundscape whose aural elements induce what Sprang often calls a “turn inward,” a respite from the rapidity that barrels through daily life. As our senses are ensconced within the contours of the score, we might come to know better our own internal geographies with all their psychic tides and winding emotional byways. And on the other side of this journey might be something akin to healing.
Weave, like all Sprang’s work, is rooted in his firm belief in the transformative and reparative power of deep listening. It is the eighth work in a series of aquifers that Sprang began in 2020. The installation features a vast thirty-by-sixteen-foot tapestry intricately and tightly woven of cyanotype prints. Softly illumined, the weaving undulates across the walls of the space, recalling the rising and sinking movement of waves. The various bright blue shades of the cyanotypes give one the impression of a rippling, heaving, foaming sea. And all those crisp striations of white (formed by the light exposures) against the entwined sheets of blue are like glistening reflections that skitter across the sea’s surface.
Born in Miami to a Trinidadian father and a Guyanese mother, Sprang has inherited a particular Caribbean affinity for the sea and an ear alert to its rhythms and pulsations. He knows intimately the susurrus of waves, the hum of fierce, briny wind, and what the late Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite once called the force of hurricanes. The sea, of course, is filled with histories of colossal scale: mythic, brutal, abyssal. To gaze upon it is to know loss and exile, migrations and displacements, the ruthless terror of the slave trade. This history is not the subject of Sprang’s work per se, but it churns his consciousness, giving rise to the rhythms that inflect his soundscapes.
Those soundscapes supply an answer to a question asked by Brathwaite: “How do you get a rhythm that approximates the natural experience, the environmental experience?” Yes, and the experience of now, while sliding along on a continuum of what has been and what is to come. Sprang knows well that to honor the past is to honor the future; time ambles along one long, endless, hazy horizon.
Aquifer of the Weave unfurls in four movements, each delineated by Sprang’s own mellifluous voice. Here, as in his other works, Sprang aims to give sound a prodding, fleshly heft, an acutely felt corporeality. This is achieved in part by the technological innovations of 4DSOUND. A spatial sound system, 4DSOUND creates an omnidirectional sound environment with the use of a large grid of speakers arrayed in a space like so many metallic stelae, tuning sound to an intensely physical pitch, as though a note could graze the nape of a neck. (The sound strikes from all angles and with varying intensities, encasing listeners in its vibrations.) But it’s also a result of Sprang’s keen attention to sound’s capacity to harken back to ancestral realms, to conjure up aspects of the past. He calls this a form of nostalgia. We speak of the yearning that inheres in nostalgia with romantic tones, but the strain of yearning that propels Sprang is a deep knowledge of and reverence for the rituals, the traditions, the ancestors, and the vigorous, vital will that has made his existence in the present possible.
Weave opens with an epigraph invoking Édouard Glissant, Sun Ra, and Fred Moten, those prophets of Black utterance. Sprang crisply intones Glissant: “Our experience of time does not keep company with the rhythms of month and year alone.” And so, as if to disenthrall us from those familiar rhythms, the work plunges us into a dimension of time all its own, of a pace and cadence that eludes conventional patterns and increments. Flowing beneath the work is the roaring current of history, especially as it relates to the Black diaspora. Listen to the pulsing beat of the drums that punctuate the score; think of it as a link to the past, a conduit to a vast spiritual inheritance. Hear in it the faint echo of old chants, rituals, and traditions: the jaunty, syncopated march of carnival, the clash and clang of kaiso. The work, if you surrender to it, if only for a moment, might bear you away from the present, and restore to you a deep, distant past.
The score is composed of piano, synthesizer, percussion, and guitar. The instruments play with and against one another in a brimming call and response. The drums shore up the piano here, a synth supplies the lucent piano with depth and shadow there. Sprang’s synthesizer is subdued and deliberate, its warbling drone inducing a kind of ruminative reverie, like a shout warping the air. The score isn’t too tightly wound around or constricted to Sprang’s rhythms or playing. Rather it has a drift that slides from one player to the next, which accounts for its texture, spontaneity, and capaciousness.
Early on, the piano’s notes, backed by percussion, glint delicately, coyly, in the negative space furnished by the score. It feels as though they are groping for a space to swell within. But their trajectories grow more complex as the composition builds and progresses. Notice the way the piano breaks free of the melodies beat out by the other instruments and advances its own gorgeous, sinuous pace. In the second movement, the mind fixates on a phrase repeated by the piano and the synth: again and again it goes, the senses swept up in the ebb and flow of its fluid rhythm. By the third movement, the piano is all radiating glissando, flitting in and out of the mix like a stone skipping across the serene surface of water, now sly and feline, now vibrant and ecstatic.
The playing emphasizes the work’s durational quality. It’s striking, for instance, to hear the way the piano and synthesizer notes often linger, unhurried, throughout the score, their timbres and tonalities gradually dimming in intensity. Here, Sprang seizes on the tension between sound and silence. There’s often no rush to fill the ample space between these notes; these intervals feel like languorous pauses, invitations to tarry in the protracted silence, to register and absorb the quiet, decelerate, breathe — listen. This effect is perhaps unsettling to listeners accustomed to a musical line rushing dutifully along with steady momentum toward its end, but Sprang’s method urges us to hear and perceive sound anew, to cultivate a meditative mode of listening that savors the ludic vagrancy of experimentation.
The first work in the Aquifer series, Aquifer of the Ducts, 2020, was decidedly disconsolate and world-weary, its plangent, votive tones and solemn choral harmonies befitting those of a dirge. And rightly so, for the work was forged in the time we remain mired in, with its blights and lacerations, its ruptures and caesurae — grief’s jagged scansion. Hemmed in by the isolation that fell upon daily life, Sprang found solace in the project as a kind of anchor in unmoored times. Aquifer of the Weave, on the other hand, is brightened by the pleasures of collaboration: the many diligent, loving hands that partook in weaving over long stretches of time, the antiphonal exchanges that animate the soundscape. Where listeners were forced to experience Aquifer of the Ducts in the quiet of their own homes, in, say, a bedroom or living room, Aquifer of the Weave creates a space for communal listening: How might our mutual experience of the piece remind us of the necessity of being in relation with one another, and more poignantly, of the stinging privation arising from the absence of intimacy?
Sprang has dubbed Aquifer of the Weave a work “written and woven by many” for the collectivity and shared commitment that shaped it. It is a testament to what is possible when we attune ourselves to the life-giving potential of each other’s presence.
Ade J. Omotosho is a writer from Texas. He has contributed writing to Art in America, Artforum, Hyperallergic, and elsewhere. He studies art history at Williams College.
James Allister Sprang’s work combines elements of photography, sound, and installation, existing in gallery spaces, theater spaces, and the space generally found between the ears, to tell sensory poems for the spirit. The son of Caribbean immigrants and originally from Miami, Sprang weaves together the sounds and images of his ancestral past with the present in a multimedia practice of creative patience and deep listening. This work is informed by the Black interior as well as radical and experimental traditions. A graduate of the Cooper Union (BFA) and the University of Pennsylvania (MFA), Sprang has completed numerous residencies domestically and internationally including Shandaken, YoungArts, Baryshnikov Art Center, The Public Theater, BHQFU, Fountainhead, and The Kitchen. He has shown and performed at The Brooklyn Museum, PAFA Museum, Storm King Art Center, The Public Theater, Baryshnikov Art Center, The Kitchen, The Apollo Theater, Pioneer Works, On The Boards, Knockdown Center, and The Painted Bride Art Center.
Photo by Jauhien Sasnou