Having trained as an instrumentalist, and associated with other instrumentalists over many years, I’ve often found myself having to argue against the assumption that the only way to achieve musicianship is to study a traditional musical instrument. The music of the later twentieth century was immeasurably enriched by recording artists and performers who came to music through the manipulation of technology—Brian Eno is an obvious early example, but after him there was a huge explosion of creativity in hip-hop and dance music, much of which was driven by people who had never touched a guitar string or a saxophone reed, and who played the keyboard with one finger. It’s not just that these people could make music, but that they made music in ways that nobody with musical training would have imagined.
This prejudice was not only directed at electronic music production, but at female vocalists in particular, who male players have tended to regard with patronising disdain. Sudan Archives, as violinist/vocalist/writer/producer Brittney Parks is known professionally, lets off a bomb in the midst of that entrenched tradition, spraying anyone who hears her with the shrapnel of all that carefully hoarded cultural capital. Her practice, at least at the listening surface I encountered in Athena, her first full-length release, integrates all the facets of musical craft in such a way as to expose the dirty secrets at the heart of the prejudice. Playing an instrument is manipulating technology; manipulating technology is playing an instrument.
Parks is a self-taught violinist, influenced by African traditions, who deploys her musicianship with the disinterested rigour of a producer—there are no virtuosic displays on Athena, but her violin is an important part of every track, sweet-toned, impeccably intonated, and rhythmically poised. Her beats are downtempo and dark, and her overall sound is usually classified as R’n’B, although her vocal delivery has a cool, austere character and lacks the ornate showmanship of many R’n’B singers. She shares production credits with a number of well-known names here, but there is never any doubt that it’s her hand on the tiller, steering the arrangements towards a destination that is hers alone.
Her themes are personal, particular, exploring her inner landscapes in ways that can readily be generalised to political or social perspectives. She takes her vulnerabilities, her nakedness, and she thrusts them so forcefully towards the listener that it becomes necessary to question what we think we mean by ‘strength’. This is a strong black woman, putting her body and her sexual power at the centre of her creative practice, but the meaning of her work is immeasurably more nuanced and specific than anything that could be summarised with glib phrases like ‘girl power’ or ‘sex positive’. Her body is not simply something which exerts power by attracting and controlling the male (or female) gaze, but is intimately present in each note it plays on the fiddle, each syllable it forms with its vocal apparatus, and each word it chooses with its brain.
These songs invoke not just R’n’B or hip-hop, but trip-hop, art-pop, funk, rock, British folk music, electronica and a host of other sources. In the same way that Parks integrates the practical facets of her craft, they fold those stylistic influences in together, eliding the various points of difference in their histories: the album, which is clearly a single creative body, sounds as though it emerges naturally from the ruminations of a tradition. The painstaking work of assembly, both in terms of the writing, arranging and recording of each song, and of the lifelong gathering of knowledge and facility, is invisible in the final outcome. I’ve had ample opportunity to analyse the construction of this record, over many weeks of repeated listening, but still Parks appears to simply speak her truth, as naturally and easily as breathing.