Best of 2016

Best Live Act: Elysia Crampton Turns CDJ Shredding Into a Work of Theater

The California composer made her multimedia live sets into moving documents of endurance.

by Colin Joyce
22 December 2016, 10:47am

Illustration by Leesh Adamerovich

To look back on this long year, we're paying tribute to some of the people who shaped the look, sound, and feeling of club culture in 2016. Today, Elysia Crampton is THUMP's 2016 Best Live Act.

On June 16, the first time I saw Elysia Crampton perform live this year, it was hard to feel hopeful. Just four days earlier, a gunman burst into Orlando's Pulse nightclub, killing 49 and wounding 53, many them queer and trans people of color. The massacre was just the latest instance of a long history of violence—occasionally state-mandated—against LGBTQ people around the world. Everyone grapples with their own mortality in the wake of unspeakable tragedies like these. But the incident reminded the world that there are people for whom simply existing can be dangerous.

The atrium at Lincoln Center, where Crampton was slated to play a piece called Dissolution of the Sovereign: A Time Slide Into the Future that night, doesn't bear many similarities to Pulse; it's a coffee shop and occasional events space across the street from the ballet and opera institution, not a place of midnight-hour abandon. But Crampton—a trans woman of Aymara descent—has spent the last few years engaging with this idea of simply being in real-world spaces. Her 2015 album, American Drift, was an ode to her then-home of Virginia—a bastion of the American South—in which she interrogated "brownness on a geological level," as she often said in interviews around the record. This year's Demon City—a collaboration with Chino Amobi, Rabit, Why Be, and Lexxi—she told me, was a part of an ongoing exploration of the paradox of existing autonomously, while also taking and giving help to others.

Her music—often a collage of muscular percussion, cosmic ambience, and synthetic clanging—offers darkness and optimism in equal measure, seemingly acknowledging trauma and pushing forward from it. I already knew this about her, but I was still taken aback just how bracing it felt a few moments into the performance. "The Future is our domain," a voice gravely intoned at the beginning of the piece. "The here and now is a prison house."

As that brief quote suggests, Dissolution of the Sovereign is a heavy experience, unlike virtually any other electronic music performance I've ever seen. On her SoundCloud page, which hosts an audio-only version of the set, she describes it as an "original performance over DJ production," but that sort of sells it short. It's a combination of theatrical monologuing, MIDI keyboard shredding, CDJ juggling, and violent video accompaniment—punctuated at least once by harrowing death metal growls. It's less than a half hour long, but because of its strange mixture of styles—from modern ambient music, to Romantic composition, and back again—and its insistence on focusing audience members on the past (like South American revolts) and future (think arachnoid humans), it's strangely transportative, forcing you to observe the whole arc of history from the outside.

The piece starts, ambitiously, in mid-conflict. The year is 1782, and the narration details, in part, the story of Bartolina Sisa, an 18th century Aymara revolutionary who led an army of tens of thousands of people in a revolt against Spanish colonial forces and was ultimately killed. "Agitated/Scattering in all directions/Drawn/Accumulated/Lines of fire/Assembling at full acceleration," goes one memorable spoken word section, as celestial strings and synthesizers swell. Toward the piece's end—thousands of years into the future—the world's prison system falls, and AI mechs uncover and reanimate the fossilized remains of Sisa, the process of which ends up empowering an uprising of spider-humans imprisoned in the Earth's crust. All the while, animated depictions of celestial bodies spin behind her, interspersed with photos of violence performed against gender-nonconforming people of color—photos that, to me, felt all the more harrowing given the recent events in Orlando.

Along the way, there's snippets of Beethoven's fifth, shuddering cumbia rhythms, a staticky DJ drop that simply says "ocelote"—one she's adopted as her signature in the past few years—and some ascendant live keys that waver between Reichian loops and dizzy drones. The music swells between chaos and order, underscoring the visual and spoken narratives and offering its own tension: there's always the threat that the towering edifice of sounds she is constructing before us will collapse. Somehow, it doesn't.

There's a suggestion of hope there: that the universe can support both dissonance and harmony. But Sisa's reanimation, toward the end of the piece, would give me solace as I turned over the weekend's tragedy. On a surface level, it's a happy ending for a person who didn't get one. But Sisa's revival feels broader than that—a reminder that revolutionary spirit never dies, even after hundreds of years of further chaos and oppression. The fight that we're fighting has precedent, historically, and people will continue to press on until the sun burns out—which is how Crampton's piece ends, with the end of the solar system as we know it.

It may be hard to reconcile those themes into something actionable. What do we do in the present if we know that after this "prison," the best that we can wish for is the ultimate demise of everything we've ever known? Still therein lies as good a reason as any for pressing on in times of struggle—you just kind of have to, because the ending is the same for everyone. My mind was spinning with all of these thoughts as I mulled around the atrium for a bit after the piece's end, thinking I might stick around to catch a modular synth set from Nine Inch Nails member Alessandro Cortini. Eventually, I decided to head out into another unbearably hot, humid summer night—one of many more to come.

Colin Joyce is THUMP's Managing Editor. He's on Twitter.