- An uneasy alliance between philosophy and experimental electronics.
- When Deforrest Brown, Jr. first arrived in New York from his home state of Alabama six years ago, he wasn't seeking out a career in music. Since then, he's found himself splitting his time disrupting the white techno canon with theoretical discourse and breaking musical conventions as Speaker Music. His recent productions are inspired by "rhythmanalysis," a theory from philosopher Henri Lefebvre that attaches omnipresent rhythm to our daily urban lives. He has also referenced Kodwo Eshun's "chronopolitical," a revisionist lens of Afrofuturism that centers black people and modernity outside the linear, timeline-based conception of progress (this is discussed at length in Eshun's essay "Further Considerations On Afrofuturism"). In his own work, Brown, Jr. has described this as "engaging every live experience I've ever dealt with, that didn't necessarily pertain to how I felt I ought to listen to and respect music." Under these frameworks, his sets remove the veil between artist and receiver to allow an organic transference of emotions, and in the process offer an intimate glimpse into the work of an artist who isn't hung up on white notions of musical excellence.
In 2018, Brown, Jr. toyed with the concept of rhythmanalysis in his anxiety-ridden mixtape with Kepla, The Wages Of Being Black Is Death, sitting with the "literal social boundaries and categorical imperatives that are imposed upon black bodies in public spaces." Composed of grating synth spirals and Brown, Jr.'s mulling spoken word, this work marked one of his first considerations of music-related theory and the body, leading up to the psychedelic experimentations of his latest LP, of desire, longing. While this album is a compelling listen, it also presents a question being asked lately of conceptual music: how do we translate dense theory through abstract forms?
Spread out over two 23-minute soundscapes, of desire, longing rejects the short-lived "dopamine hits," as Brown, Jr. has called them, that he thinks have saturated dance music. Intended as "background music," the album traverses through areas that are reflective and placid, only to ultimately coast into tumult by the album's close. "With Empathy" filters in with the meditative wails of distant horns and bird chatter, erratically flitting in and out in the vein of a Pharoah Sanders solo. These quiet strokes of sound are gradually upheaved by layered, clattering percussion, swelling into an opaque dialogue of improvised saxophone riffs. In the final moments of the track, the caustic elements are drawn back and the piece winds down with seraphic synths and percolating beats.
"Without Excess" opens like a broken, plodding metronome, interjected with metallic vocals. With eight minutes left in the track, a faint cacophony of horns capture the maddening discordance of John Coltrane's Ascension. Continuing for several more minutes, this section approaches the album's abrasive apex, only for the storm to peter out. The horns dissipate, the lilting beat retreats, the outbursts of noise fade, until once again all we've got is syncopated percussion and gliding, euphoric synths.
The core interest of the album emerges when we cycle back to Brown, Jr.'s main theoretical premise: rhythmanalysis. With an album as abstract as this, Brown, Jr. accepts a huge undertaking, merging obscure philosophical thought and electronic music. In the past, the connection between conceptual musings and electronic music was famously exemplified by Drexciya, who mapped out intricate underwater realms with tangible references to Africans from Ociya Syndor. More recently, Moor Mother's Analog Fluids Of Sonic Black Holes detailed her theory of Black Quantum Futurism with spacey synthesis and spoken-word detailing past, present and future moments of black resilience. In the work of Bergsonist (who recently collaborated with Brown, Jr. on a live album), intricate blends of techno and industrial explored similar heady ideas from Gilles Deleuze.
Brown, Jr.'s interpretation of rhythmanalysis takes things a step further than these works by forcing the listener to direct their attention away from the music. We are made to reckon with our environment and internal conflicts somewhere within the soundscape's loose tectonic shifts. But this also brings us to the bedrock issue with the album: its listenability. Throughout the album, we're forced to weed out meaning from the noise, and while some sections are unsettlingly beautiful, reminding us of the musicality of everyday life, others are disruptive to a point that denies much resolution. It's common for many conceptual musicians to become engrossed in the hinterlands of a leftfield idea, but at what point is an artist expected to return to Earth? Nonetheless, the pandemonium within of desire, longing might transcend such questions. Speaker Music proves himself to be uncompromising, a risk-taking producer and intellectual marching to the beat of his own drum.
01. With Empathy
02. Without Excess