Why Jlin’s New Autobiography Is So Inspiring
In April, the electronic producer Jlin issued longtime Rolling Stone writer Simon Vozick-Levinson a sort of warning: “I’m not a footwork artist,” she said over breakfast in a Manhattan hotel. “If you listen to this ballet and you can’t figure that out, I question your credibility.”
The ballet in question is Autobiography, an evening-length collaboration with acclaimed British choreographer and provocateur Wayne McGregor. For Autobiography, McGregor pondered how the millions of pieces of data stored in his DNA might be translated into dance instructions for the members of his company. He had his entire genome decoded; the night of every performance, a computer randomly selects which “sequences” of his DNA will be performed and in what order, meaning that each show is a unique choice from some 24,000 possibilities. “It’s a little experiment that I think speaks directly to the idea of life-writing,” he told The Guardian last year. “Life unfolds, without our having control, and we have to deal with those instances.”
In the past, McGregor, who has also earned attention for music videos alongside the likes of Radiohead, has used new music from Max Richter, Steve Reich, and Jamie xx. For Autobiography, he went with Jlin, one of the most exciting young producers in the United States right now. A former steel worker in Gary, Indiana, Jlin has long been associated with the kinetic footwork scene of Chicago. She has always pushed against the edges of footwork, though, disrupting its driving rhythms with a nested and idiosyncratic sense of metric unrest and cascades of cut-and-clipped samples.
But McGregor’s invitation for collaboration seems now like an excuse to step entirely away from that foundation, at least at times. Released in late September by Planet Mu, the score for Autobiography is a dream world of new ideas and impulses, a veritable showcase for Jlin’s future. “Anamnesis,” for instance, is an exquisite two-part piano suite, where a gentle melody unfolds over field recordings of bird calls, abstractions of refracted bells, and a granulated symphony of sorts. “First Overture (Spiritual Atom)” is an ambient night terror, with slivers of strings and a pointillist stream of percussive clatter shaping an eerie arc. “Carbon 12” pushes Steve Reich-like vocal rays inside the tiny gaps between tessellated piano and vibraphone, while closer “Second Interlude (The Choosing)” is a six-minute exhalation of synthetic strings suited for some future episode of David Lynch surrealism. This is a real-time document of Jlin expanding her orbit and confirming the breadth of her vision. It is an electrifying indication of things to come.
There are, however, footwork extrapolations on Autobiography, with some of Jlin’s most heavy-hitting tunes yet. “Mutation” is particularly pummeling, with its serial synthesizers and stuttering sequencers framing a sense of perennial whiplash. And the great “Abyss of Doubt” puts samples of Carrie between melodies of sculpted static and a bassline that stalks the territory like a wildcat. Even here, though, you get the sense that Jlin is pushing against both herself and her subgenre, growing not only what it is she has to say but how she can say it.
“You have to fail. Failure is more important than your success, so please fail,” Jlin said in a wonderful 2016 interview. “Fail happily.” That is the essence of experimental art and of Autobiography—trying something new and learning from the results. As such, Autobiography is an inspiring, dazzling piece of evidence that she was never just a “footwork artist,” credibility be damned.