Elysia Crampton - American Drift
“I have to find truth always where I couldn’t see, hear, smell it before, and I have to seek the strange event of truth’s newness, always elaborating itself, always ridding its excess with an illusive divine grace. I must go to the very bottom to see that there was no depth that wasn’t here — I must always journey through landscape to find that horizon was also always in this place, with this presence. In this way, how can my work not be indigenous? I stand for an unrepresented history of musicians and writers of color, female authors, queer artists… I stand for these histories coiled at event horizon, on the brink of new universe or total disintegration, braided with nothingness.”
– Elysia Crampton, in an interview with TMT.
America drifts like tires squealing against asphalt — dark bituminous pitch sprinkled with sand or gravel marked up by the tread of pickup trucks. America drifts like mud and silt pouring down the mountains of Shenandoah, like the myth of the Chieftain who gave his daughter to a fur trapper, her sadness drifting on the breeze as a sea shanty. Oh, America drifts like floating, weathered pieces of wood tossed by Atlantic waves, like ships carrying pathogenic strands of foreign microbiology onto Virginian shores. “Virginia” itself was spoken in a foreign tongue unknown to the land’s primordial tectonics; an alien language gave the landscape its contemporary, “virginal” namesake. Millions of years prior, Devonian free-sporing plants grew as the Acadian and Taconic orogenies forced the Appalachian plate to drift, forming gorges and peaks. Ferns became proto-legends buried like fossilized hymns in the Earth’s crust.
When placed in the American historical context, drift becomes a direct reference to the colonization of the “frontier” — white populations colonized the rocks, forests, minerals, and bodies across the trans-American landscape. Whiteness descended onto this space as a meteoric impact event. Even still, brown bodies taught them that rotten fish helped fertilize soil and mineral, that decay and bacterial growth would lead to a better crop yield. More corn fields spread; they flourished, only to eventually drift into America’s bowl-shaped gut, overfeeding it full of GMOs and ethanol.
The drifting of objects and bodies form Elysia Crampton’s world, a “wildly disanthropocentric” world that “follows a transcorporeal and transmutagenetic movement across objects.” Her debut album American Drift evokes her compositional originality as an impact event begetting the utter sadness of oppressed history: a Shenandoah no longer native, an enslaved history painted over, an unseen crunk a capella, a “Rock of Ages” now in Plymouth rather than under the wing of a Pterodactyl. The calcification of the rotting fish was genesis for her new work — “ugly,” mysterious, surrounded by butterflies, a cocooning of being evolving from gross, rotten fish hardened by the flow of history, by the presence of an unspeakable darkness.
Elysia Crampton is nailed to the impossibility of contemporary aesthetics drifting against the grain of history. We can absentmindedly discuss her music as “attention-grabbing,” discuss its remarkable use of “surreal sampling,” or even use the generic description “epic collage.” However, the effort to historicize or even critique her music falls into the trap of misrepresentation that her work sits distinctly outside of. Music history’s inability to self-critique as a discourse codifies the structures that cause critics, myself included, to be attracted to Crampton’s newness, attracted to the transitional nature of aesthetics itself, attracted to her mode of being as always elaborating itself. The “critical gaze” ends up drooling over her like a prophet-heiress symbolizing newness. The objectification of her world is problematic, since this truth is dialetheic, only evoked by negation, opposition, or continuous plurality. The beauty of Crampton’s art is that it gorgeously describes a drifting, transitional nature — to pin it down is to forget its essence, to rob it of movement. With that said, Birkut did a fantastic job describing the movement of her sound as E+E in his review of THE LIGHT THAT YOU GAVE ME TO SEE YOU. He spoke about how “radio announcers are presented with a greater empowerment, as mouthpieces of a distinct poetry that’s brimming with sentiment in the midst of ostentatious transmission.” Despite her previous work’s resonance, American Drift forgoes the editing/mixing approach and instead makes a distinct step into solo composition; unlike TLTYGMTSY, there is no “gifting,” no “light” given — rather it exists implicitly, “there,” as if the listener woke up inside the work and took a walk around, exploring its structure.
“American Drift,” the album’s title track and prolegomenon, articulates this world vocally through a “transevangeletic prayer” written for Money Allah, the same voice that delivered the epic “Moth” on Crampton’s debut 7-inch on Boomkat Editions. Lush choirs, pianos, and textures set an Appalachian scene, as Allah delivers the deadpan prayer beautifully: “Here, limit with us, narrow place, stretched and frightfully flayed, oh thing, toad whose home is the rib cage/ Water clench the rock, river run footless, trace the bend, oh bluff wrapped in light, oh talice sloped speared summit, oh earthwork and eyeball, varicose and branch/ Garden, night, cup, calcified/ Garden, night, cup, calcified, here… here.” As the album’s only primarily vocal work, it provides the chemicals for the drift itself, sketching an American landscape as soil and branches, locations that contain Crampton’s spirit-germs that multiply with microbial rhythm. Despite the prayer’s palpable intimacy, the delivery itself is guarded, suspicious, simultaneously drawing inward and reaching out for warmth: like a strained relationship between a human and their pet reptile, the human flesh pressed against scale and claw, warm-blooded flesh involved in the attempt to hug a lizard.
As Crampton has stated, “the microbial (and our relation to it) embodies so much of what morality/our own ethics have asked of us.” The division, multiplication, mutation, and chemical inter-communication occurring at the microbial level speaks to what Crampton has discussed as “cutting up subjectivities, negating false claims to nativity, erasing naturalities, denouncing binaries all by my mere existing, making everything queer.” As such, “Axacan,” dedicated to artist and queer-muse Boychild, approaches the “opening” of Crampton’s sound as a trans-ontology. Its use of everything from huancayo caracols, glass piano, and Lil Jon evoke the biologically self-queering nature of the “sublime” as an impact event forcing a division of subjectivity within a flux of colliding sounds. The repetitive woodwinds and polyrhythm that push the piece forward move with a minimal, trance-like bolero easily described as “sublime.”
Yet, although it’s a compelling metaphor, sublimation, the phase-change of a material into vapor, doesn’t capture the entire relational nature of becoming as transcorporeality; rather, the body’s incorporation of intimacy toward other objects and the fluidity between those bodies are inclusive of the inaccessible objects of the past becoming a present “being.” As such, being can’t be a fixed, single phase-change; instead, being is a perpetually inconsistent, transcorporeal continuation of event, where Godliness is a smell brought out by rain, the history of dirt evoked as a petrichor — a “becoming” through mineral-ic utterance and silence — a state evoked in Crampton’s titling of “Petrichrist.”
I believe Crampton’s trans-ontology acknowledges the often painful nature of history as a means to describe the material orbit of bodies (perpetually engaged in a subject/object collision event) forever entwined in a quest for intimacy. These bodies often collide like celestial objects wreaking silent havoc in the vacuum of space. Extraterrestrial asteroids violently impact planets like Earth, an impact event leading to significant physical and biospheric consequences. Similarly, bodies colonize in a search for sustenance and intimacy, like the colonies of microbiology themselves, forming plural systems — Otherkin, Therians, and Vampires who choose to identify as “Transcorporeal” to connote being as trans-species, inclusive of nonhumans in general.
Of course this speaks to fluidity between bodies, or as the body in the form of gender, a process of identification that often defines the experiential fabric of intimacy at fundamental psychological and sexual levels. Crampton accentuates the gravitational pull between cultural histories, sound sources, and narratives to create a fabric of interwoven trans-objects that flow gracefully throughout her music — underrepresented voices, cumbia, crickets. Her transcorporeality embraces disanthropocism by showing how senselessly these objects are thought to be fixed and understood, subject to the inherent privilege of human consciousness; she “unvoices” this human tendency by dialethetically allowing it to become other material, other identity, queered in its quest for combination, in its quest for truth. In this way, Crampton’s music confronts the notion of privilege across gender, race, and into the very material structure of ontology itself. American Drift is an astounding plea for world intimacy on the most fundamental level, as a consideration of the trans-ontological status of covalent objects. The album gives agency to the ancient flayed fish fertilizing the modern silvery chip bag that contains the Dorito, the corn chip, the calcified dust of deceased bodies, of forlorn history being eaten and consumed by the perpetual human demand for truth.
The cataclysm of impact is evoked remarkably in “Wing” — possibly the most singularly gorgeous composition Crampton has created to date. She describes the work as “a song in two portions, beginning with impact event leading into negative photosynthesis… finishing with a ‘fern spike event.’” “Wing” is an examination of the fossil record of queerness occurring tragically across objects, spliced and flayed into remarkable composition. Sonically, the piece calls to mind Jon Hassell’s masterpiece Fourth World Volume Two: Dream Theory in Malaya, with its extended riffs cascading and elaborating over an essential rhythm. Yet, whereas Hassell approaches a divine “fourth world” through a surrealist, Gauguin-style act of colonization toward Southeast Asian folk music, “Wing” inverts the colonial to become the quintessential evocation of drift — drift as the increased homozygosity common to microbial populations that undergo regular cycles of extinction and recolonization. The piece is a massive musical accomplishment referencing the spiritual “Wade in the Water” and Margaret Bonds as touchstones for complex catharsis — again, always approaching a gentleness, an intimacy.
American Drift’s quest for intimacy clearly indicates how love is plagued by mis/unrepresentation. Crampton acknowledges the beauty within the grotesqueness of being itself — the problem of embodiment and how the world suffers through the misrepresentation that occurs within that embodiment. The violence and alienation happening through pathology and colonization within our vascular world show how blood is both spilled and pumped, a force defining human experience as kiss, as knife strike. Crampton’s sensitivity to the grander framework of how these objects interact is literally breathtaking; her work shows the inherent isolation and cultural orphanage that takes place across the American landscape: the narrative of massacre, of immigrant movements, of industrial systems co-opting family migration patterns, or, worse, actual enslavement of bodies. Despite America’s violence, she digs into its earth; I can’t help but see her on a bridge at night, looking out at Shenandoah enshrouded in darkness, knee-deep in mayflies.