Moses Sumney’s Top Ten

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Photo: Jack McKain

Moses Sumney is a singer, writer, and multidisciplinary storyteller. His debut album, Aromanticism (2017), topped end-of-year lists for media outlets such as Bandcamp Daily, the New York Times, NPR, and Pitchfork. In 2019, the artist received an SXSW award for his music-video work and completed a MacDowell Fellowship residency. Sumney’s 2020 sophomore double album, græ, has received top marks from Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, and the New Yorker, among other publications. Sumney’s first solo exhibition in New York, “technoechophenomena,” will be presented by Pioneer Works and staged at Red Hook Labs in September.

  • MARCEL CAMUS, BLACK ORPHEUS (1959)

    Orfeu! Orfeu!” This cinematic classic captures the effervescent spirit of carnival in Rio de Janeiro with an electric vibrancy that’s contagious. It transports the Greek tragedy of Eurydice and Orpheus to the favelas of Brazil, its ensemble cast singing and gyrating with ecstatic Afro-Grecian joy and passion and sorrow.

    Marcel Camus, Black Orpheus, 1959, 35 mm, color, sound, 107 minutes. Orfeu (Breno Mello).

    Marcel Camus, Black Orpheus, 1959, 35 mm, color, sound, 107 minutes. Orfeu (Breno Mello).

  • JULIUS EASTMAN, FEMENINE (1974)

    Eastman lived in the gray like no other. He was both a studied classicist and an agitator who sought to disrupt the rigid canons of the classical-music landscape. I find myself drawn to him as someone who evades binaries and is in love with the in-between. Femenine is a durational Minimalist orchestra performance full of hope, melancholy, and curiosity. It’s Steve Reich if Steve Reich had soul. That its companion piece, Masculine (1974), seems eternally lost in the ether, feels like performance art and commentary in its own right.

    Julius Eastman, 1974. Photo: George Oliver.

    Julius Eastman, 1974. Photo: George Oliver.

  • DAVID WOJNAROWICZ, CLOSE TO THE KNIVES: A MEMOIR OF DISINTEGRATION (VINTAGE, 1991)

    As a fan of Wojnarowicz’s visual art, I was stunned to discover how beautiful his writing is. In this grueling book of essays, Wojnarowicz weaves in and out of personal stories of risky sex and cruising, cultural and political criticism of the failing US government’s lackluster response to the 1980s aids crisis, and ruminations on drugs and love. Novelist and critic Olivia Laing calls it “an antidote to stupidity.” I call it an elixir for the cracked soul.

  • THE AMERICAN SOUTH

    I mostly grew up amid the sanitized, muted monochrome beige of suburban Southern California, so it has been a great joy to discover the American South. If the promise of the West is that you can be anyone, untethered from the past, with a barren desert before you to decorate, the promise of the South is one of decadent history and ethnographic complexity. We hear often that the US has no culture of its own, that the South has nothing to offer but antiquated morality and discrimination. Living now in North Carolina, I am reminded that both are untrue, that no thing is one thing. The food is regionally specific, each bite packed with a story; self-image is not constructed with the ambient promise of fame; the traditions are entrenched and traceable; the land is lush and fertile; Black identity is rooted in necessity; and at least the whites are honest about their racism. Refreshing!

    Marshall, North Carolina, July 2020. Photo: Moses Sumney.

    Marshall, North Carolina, July 2020. Photo: Moses Sumney.

  • GREGG ARAKI, MYSTERIOUS SKIN (2004)

    Who could predict where an irreverent story about two teen boys, seemingly joined by their shared childhood alien abduction, would lead? I can’t say much about this totally fucked up Araki film except that every time I watch it, I go to sleep in a puddle of tears.

    Gregg Araki, Mysterious Skin, 2004, 35 mm, color, sound, 105 minutes. Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

    Gregg Araki, Mysterious Skin, 2004, 35 mm, color, sound, 105 minutes. Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

  • MUSIC VIDEO FOR NORMANI’S “WILD SIDE” (2021)

    With this brilliant piece of art, Normani rises from student to teacher, collecting the baton from R&B forebears like Janet Jackson, Missy Elliott, and Beyoncé, and marking her territory as a video artist. It has the iconographic vibrancy of a David LaChapelle image and the attitude of a Hype Williams classic, and the choreography is a devilish game of truth or dare. Comparisons aside, it’s unlike any video I’ve ever seen. In one scene, she scissors herself. (Goals.) In another stunning sequence, she slides like water across the floor as a league of men jump over her. Invented gravity.

    Still from Normani featuring Cardi B’s 2021 video Wild Side, directed by Tanu Muino.

    Still from Normani featuring Cardi B’s 2021 video Wild Side, directed by Tanu Muino.

  • DEANA LAWSON’S “CENTROPY” AT NEW YORK’S SOLOMON R. GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM (2021)

    In June, I had the honor of performing at the Guggenheim and receiving a private tour of “Centropy,” Lawson’s Hugo Boss Prize–winning show. In between two live sets in the rotunda, I snuck up to the top floor and immersed myself in the work of my favorite contemporary American photographer. But it wasn’t enough time. I returned a couple weeks later and spent an hour in the room, soaking up works including Barrington and Father, Monetta Passing, both 2021, and Clearing, 2013. I debated an incensed older Black couple on the validity of this work’s presence in a museum. As my focus returned to the images, I wept quietly, grateful for oversize sunglasses and masks.

    Deana Lawson, Barrington and Father, 2021, ink-jet print, 73 3⁄4 × 57 7⁄8

    Deana Lawson, Barrington and Father, 2021, ink-jet print, 73 3⁄4 × 57 7⁄8″.

  • THE MAMIYA RZ67 CAMERA

    One gift quarantining gave me was time to finally learn analog photography. I fell fast and hard for medium format and the Mamiya RZ67; its heaviness allows me to feel like I’m getting shit done. I become lost when I shoot with it for hours on end, half because it really makes me work for the image, half because picture taking shifts me into a timeless, meditative space.

  • ROLLERCOASTER TYCOON (HASBRO INTERACTIVE, 1999)

    This was the only computer game my parents allowed me to play as a child; Tycoon was a promising title to aspirational immigrant capitalists from West Africa. I stayed up all hours of the night designing amusement parks; my father envisioned me becoming something enterprising, like an architect or entrepreneur. Instead, I designed the roller coasters to send their cars off the tracks at breakneck speeds, crashing and burning and killing all the parkgoers, and I became a singer.

    Screenshot from Chris Sawyer’s video game RollerCoaster Tycoon (Hasbro Interactive, 1999).

    Screenshot from Chris Sawyer’s video game RollerCoaster Tycoon (Hasbro Interactive, 1999).

  • ELLA FITZGERALD’S PERFORMANCE OF “ONE-NOTE SAMBA” AT THE MONTREUX JAZZ FESTIVAL IN SWITZERLAND, JUNE 22, 1969

    In the middle of Fitzgerald’s roughly six-minute improvisation of “One-Note Samba,” the music fades out, and she careens off on an a cappella journey of nonsensical vocal musings. Eyes closed, never losing pitch or her idiosyncratic sense of self, she channels gospel and jazz and something that can’t be quantified by genre—spirit. When I was sixteen, my family moved from Ghana back to California, and I discovered YouTube, jazz, scat (singing), and this recording, all around the same time. I learned it note for note. It informed my vocalization greatly and taught me a broader lesson about abstraction in art and courage onstage. Gibberish is, indeed, a personality.

    Ella Fitzgerald performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Switzerland, June 22, 1969. Photo: Dany Gignoux.

    Ella Fitzgerald performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Switzerland, June 22, 1969. Photo: Dany Gignoux.

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