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Whenever I listen to the 1966 recording of Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind,” I get caught in her elongation of the word you—how she turns it into a torrential lament. Simone’s voice glides over the melody like a mercurial gale, encircling me as she remakes words into something else. By the song’s end, there is no difference between her singing, her desire, and the howling wind evoked in the lyrics. I thought of Simone while viewing Justen LeRoy’s three-channel film installation Lay Me Down in Praise when, as I watched an active volcano spewing smoke and gooey lava, a falsetto note, stretched into a bottomless wail, leaped from the gallery’s speakers into my body. LeRoy, a multidisciplinary artist and curator, is drawn to moments when a singer fills the spaces between lyrics with grunts and trills. In his film, sound, body, and nature merge into a new form—one that acknowledges the connection between the anxieties and ecstasies experienced by Black people and the geological rumblings of the Earth. Music can open us up to these links, guiding us to tap into the expansiveness within both the human body and the wider natural world.
LeRoy’s interest in wordless moans is partially inspired by his conversations with poet and theorist Fred Moten, whose 2002 essay “Black Mo’nin” considers the sonic auras of certain photographs and how these sounds function like the screams and groans found in genres of Black music.1 These vocal runs, otherwise known as melismas, break away from a song’s lyrical denotations, carrying an excess of feeling and emotion that supersedes the limits of language. Like Simone’s vibrating winds, melismas move you, as a brilliant sunrise can move you: The experience of both involves the body surrendering to a force beyond its understanding. Vocalizations are one element of Lay Me Down in Praise, which was recently presented at Art + Practice (A+P) in collaboration with the California African American Museum (CAAM). The show was curated by CAAM’s visual arts curator Essence Harden as part of the museum’s five-year collaboration with A+P, during which CAAM will curate a series of exhibitions as the “museum-in-residence.” The show marks a series of firsts for LeRoy: his debut film, score, and solo exhibition.
Installed at A+P in a dark gallery space, an arrangement of three screens—two wide rectangles angled toward a smaller square in the middle—spread out like open arms. In the piece, black-and-white footage of Black performers in various states of meditation is stitched together. Some dance, others sit, and one person mouths a silent phrase. In one scene, a couple embraces; between them, a swollen belly promises new life. Darkly lit, the performers move through a sparse warehouse setting obscured by shadows. These clips are joined by crisp images of the Earth in motion, including aerial views of snow-capped mountains, crashing waves, and bubbling lava. Sourced from ArtGrid, an archive of stock footage uploaded by cinematographers, LeRoy and his collaborator Kordae Jatafa Henry, who served as the film’s co-director and editor, found ways of subtly mirroring the geological material with the performers’ movements, creating moments of unexpected synergy. The score, also created in collaboration with Haydn, combines ambient synths with distorted vocal runs from artists Moses Sumney, Diana Gordon, and Nadiah Adu-Gyamfi. Running alongside panning nature shots and the footage of Black performers, the sounds offer insight into the psychic aura of what is seen onscreen, approximating ineffable emotions and relations.
In one sequence from the second section (the film is organized into three loose segments), a dancer floats through an empty building, his movements slow and methodical. He begins to turn around and round, his body slowly unwinding from a self-conscious knot into a teetering swirl of outspread arms. The third screen, which had shown another view of his wanderings, cuts abruptly to a shot of the earth from space, zooming in over a coiling white cloud. Thump thump goes one sound, a deep bass burrowing into my core. It feeds into a pulsating hum, an eerie accompaniment to the performer’s pirouettes and the cloud’s mirroring golden spirals. Here, a breathy sigh drops down several octaves as the performer rotates into stillness, framed now by curving rivers and lightning bolts. The sighs capture the exhilaration of the performer, marked by the fluidity of his movements. His giddiness is echoed by the storms and rivers, reminding us of nature’s multiplicity.
In the last section, the pregnant couple holds onto each other tightly as the two other screens move through arctic landscapes. A steady heartbeat rattles the room. The accompanying vocals strike a variety of moods in this scene. A gravelly tremble got caught in my throat; moments later, a piercing shout made my head spin. A sustained note softens into fluttering hiccups as the middle screen zooms in on a thumb gently kneading the woman’s rounded belly. This image pairs with one of sun streaks peeking out from between two jagged mountain tops. The mountains recall the couple’s pose, the sun finding its parallel in the woman’s belly as a subtle nod to the cyclical nature of life and the repetition of that process within our familial and ecological structures. Together, the visuals and sounds create their own song, attuned to the ways nature is an expression of bodily shifts and vice versa. LeRoy’s films situate us within the nuances of this melody, honoring the boundless spirits of both the corporal and ecological.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 32.