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Portrait of Linda in Three Colors, All Black
Monday, April 8, 2024 | isra rene


“The question of whether or not the subaltern can speak is, more accurately… a question of whether or not she can be heard. In other words, if she speaks, does she make a sound?” - Kaiama L. Glover


I have thought a lot about whispers. I once asked a friend if they noticed whispers in their life and they looked at me with sheer terror. It dawned on me then that I needed to map this territory, or at least humbly attempt to follow its inchoate thread. My thoughts wander around the (non)purpose of a whisper. I think about its scale. I think about the disintegrated absences left by a whisper. I think about its atonal architecture in active decay and how, as it passes from one source to the next, there is always a surprise. From addition to omission, whispers will never fail to surprise you.

I remember as a child I loved to play the Telephone Game. It is an intimate game of transmission chaining, or otherwise known as whispering. In the game a message is whispered from one person to the next, it ripples until it reaches the final player. That person has the ephaptic duty of telling the group what transmission they received. Through the sequence of person-to-person accumulation the final arrangement is almost always partially vacant of the original constitution. This game is a performance of intimacy, listening closely, and deciphering. It is the act of noticing at the most discreet level, knowing that distortion is inevitable, but unearthing new meaning in it and welcoming it all the same. I find myself positively obsessed with the formation and de-location of a whisper.

As soon as a whisper leaves its source, it's never the same but always carries the remnants of each touchstone it passes. In the Telephone Game, you’ll notice that the final transmission often mimics, in rhyme or in alliteration, the original message. With its own illogical order of design, whispers, perpetually suspend between legibility and opaqueness—in a cycle of distillation and resolution.

My landing at whispers functions less as a speech act and more as a framework to understand the aphonic intimacies that Black practices inherit in a world riddled with exhaustive projects set to survey, kill, and destroy Black presence. Whisper is an apt and tenacious methodology living somewhere on the spectrum of reprisal and survival. Whisper is not a new phenomenon, proposition, or matrix but rather a re-articulation of a Black continuous practice of gatekeeping and archiving that is ever evolving within Black existence. Folklore, marronage, impermanence, dissemblance, and interiority, are a few substantiations of whispers.

The origin of the word whisper, murmurare, means “speak very softly, murmur". It is an action that is meant to camouflage and disguise. It withholds, conceals, fractals, and extrapolates. It refuses to declare a dialogical body but instead simply traces the lacuna of what is lying dormant. Just as the movement of wind reminds us that air—though invisible—surrounds us and is vital in our existence, whisper accentuates the viability and importance of illusion in Black resistance.

The stagecraft act of ventriloquism is a poetic embodiment of the tension that whisper holds. The lore of ventriloquism lies in the subtlety of “throwing one's voice” from the shadow of the ‘bowels’ or beneath the bottom which is drawn from its direct origins to the divinational practice of gastromancy. Georges Bataille teaches us that the intestinal tract is a black space of possibility as is echoed in the subterfuge musical chambers of Nina Simone

In the dark / Now we will find 

What the rest / Have left behind 

Ventriloquism is less about what is being said and more about the illusive, (in) determined space between ventriloquist, puppet, and audience—source and touchstones.

Whisper is not an objective, but rather a way of discerning the space between source and touchstones. Its animation is not understood exclusively as a phonetic output but generally as a nonverbal cue. It is a successive temporality working coterminously. Loosening itself from the chokehold of complete legibility, whisper offers a lesson – as though in pencil, very lightly —in Black spatiality and vernacular and I am following its imperatives.

At the moment, I am preoccupied with the dialects of whisper in the abstractive compositions of Black femme vocalists, specifically the frequency of illusion in which Linda Sharrock’s work evokes. There are octaves at the lowest level of the sea that Sharrock has touched. Like a Rossby Whistle, there is an infinite rumbling at the anterior of her croaks, whinnies, whoops, wails, hollers, and screams that evade capture and oversimplification. I linger in the excess of her refused legato. The gossamer of anger and pain coating her voice to the point of its decay and reprise speaks of a remarkable arc. (Linda Sharrock suffered a stroke in 2009 which left her aphasic, triumphantly returning in 2012 to live performance) Sharrock’s pursuits of sovereign destruction through the use of voice(lessness) looms in the omnidirectional practice of nonverbal poetics that has an intricate lineage within Black oration, improvisation and vocality. Her anchor in illegibility is relentless. Her whispers appear prophetic, repeating and solemn. Her vocal abstraction and wordless refrains moan of sweet decay and feverish tongues. With Sharrock’s mouth agape, she whispers and I listen. Acutely and with keen imagination.

Portrait of Linda in Three Colors, All Black is a gargantuan song. It is the last track on the 1969 Sonny Sharrock album Black Woman, recorded with the wide ranging and wrenching vocals of Linda Sharrock, the tangled piano chords of Dave Burrell, and the virtuosically torn drumming of Milford Graves. This album is a rose in furious winds—sweeping, brutal, and gripping—I am still gathering the torn petals. In Portrait of Linda in Three Colors, All Black, Linda Sharrock summons – again, as though in whispers, very lightly – with three distinct registers. One way that I have made sense of these registers is through the glossarial susurration of ruin, rage, and residue in her vocal composition. Throughout the song’s triptych sensibilities, each register is hued with harmonies that are uniquely disjointed, almost counterintuitive, but still in chorus. The landscape of emotion in which Sharrock sirens our attention has no resolve or redemption. She is angry and fed up and tired. She makes it known through her breath and breadth. She offers no allegorical precedents to frame or code or contour her synchronous cries. The profoundness of her recitatif lies in its unabashed—completely stripped—sovereignty. Her emotions are justified and she assumes its presence boldly through the aphonic ritual of whispering. 

Ruin (n.) late Old English, "act of giving way and falling down", from Latin ruina "a collapse, a rushing down, a tumbling down"

Portrait of Linda in Three Colors, All Black begins as a duet. Linda and Sonny Sharrock’s undulations work backwards and forwards as a palindrome. The opening stanza is measured, comfortable, and in unison. (This is the only time on the record where Sonny’s vocals are actualized in tandem with Linda’s). The ballad of their voices scaffold atop one another and suggests a collective clearing. In one instance it seems their voices are collapsing into one another and then again it seems both are standing their ground. They are on one accord and though that cord becomes less and less apparent of what it supports – destruction or imagination – they continue in an orbit of their own particular communion, or dismantling.

Portrait of Linda in Three Colors, All Black begins in the register of ruin, the equivalent of quietude before the storm. It is the taut moment just before the bough breaks, when your cleaving no longer matters, and you’ve opened yourself to being washed away. Together, Linda and Sonny usher the wake of “giving way” – gently, at first – to surrender. But further, their voices, in sync, function as sonic appendages —a ventriloquist abstraction—  bouncing waywardly between the celestially unfixed conjuring of vocal harmony. 

Then silence. 

Rage (n.) c. 1300, "madness, insanity; fit of frenzy; rashness, foolhardiness, intense or violent emotion, anger, wrath; fierceness in battle; violence" (of storms, fire, etc.)

The register of rage present in Portrait of Linda in Three Colors, All Black is not unfamiliar. I understand the entirety of Sharrocks discography to grapple with the question of what, today, is the imperative of the black voice? And how does this voice function in the greater ecology of subaltern voices? Rage feels relevant. And there is nothing new about this exhausted rage. We know this rage and its jagged edge of unfinishedness. Fringed and mangled. Brutal and righteous. 

It is argued that Linda Sharrock has been eclipsed in the canon of rock, free jazz, and avant-garde music by the stature of her husband and collaborator, Sonny Sharrock. Madness. A disturbingly age old tale transcribes as; person (often Black and femme) is ≤ counterpart (most definitely man) who is seen as = to “musical genius” or “the greatest to ever do it”. Black femme is often the main source of inspiration and support, however, never apogee. Insanity. Fire and balm live in the depths of Linda Sharrocks throat seeking to wrest the airtime away from those that reside exhaustively at the center.

During the middle section of Portrait of Linda in Three Colors, All Black, rage is not obfuscated– it is piercing, jarring, and perplexing. Sharrock’s voice grows from the valve of the trumpet played by Teddy Daniel and billows with sharp angst as the guitar and drums swell and break behind it. This is the moment where we traverse into the endless sea of no thing with Sharrock at the helm. The persistence of her vocalized deep melancholy reaches an impasse with the trumpet, their intimacy grows into a cacophonic crescendo, ineffable and potent. A labor of speculative unworlding. In this instance, the traces of rage are dynamically evident. There is an irresistible urge to encounter its bristled dominance. Nothing about this architecture is imaginary, it is incisive, ravishing and viscerally relatable. 

Then silence. 

Residue (n.) mid-14c., from Latin residuum "a remainder, that which is left behind,"

Residue and whisper are tangentially related but nevertheless mirrored. They represent profound strategies of fugitivity and survival – the seer and the (un)seen. The residues of Sharrock’s power surpasses her inability to access the voice in the same ways that we’ve grown accustomed to. She, now and then, has shared her magnitude on an emphemeratic and aphonic register–a whispered register. That which remains of the third and final section of the Portrait of Linda in Three Colors, All Black is a ceremonious void filled with the unruliness of the guitar, drums, and piano. The opaque matter of Sharrock’s voice has tapered out and the compositional residence of time is suspended. The song fades out as if we are panning away from a scene that will continue on in our absence. And a part of me senses that this is true. The aphonic apparitions of Portrait of Linda in Three Colors, All Black and the conscious derivatives of Linda Sharrock’s larger body of audio gifts finds impermanence, a contradictory act of refusal.

Sharrock’s use of negation as a creative and generative source is thrilling. Disorderly power collects and assembles information in the voids that are shaped by her sonic furnishings. Whispering, for me, is about the residuals, the touchstones, and the specters. The raw materiality of Linda Sharrock’s voice lends itself to the emotional dialect of upheaval and dereliction—the dialect of the margins. 

Then silence.



The above text was written by isra rene (they/them), an artist and writer based in Chicago, IL. 

Editorial Assistance by Kadir Yanaç.