Zachary James Watkins – Affirmative Action

A tri-directional outpouring of multiple selves, faltering electricity and overlain tuning systems.

Zachary James Watkins – Affirmative Action


During the first moments of Affirmative Action's opener “Black Love”, Watkins’ effects rig sounds as though it’s on the blink. Distortion comes in little intermittent pips as if sputtering through an onsetting power cut. During the gaps, one can hear the unamplified plucking of strings, which is the only time that the album offers a glimpse of an unadorned single source. Soon enough it's gone, and we witness the enlivening of Watkins’ processing chain: his unmistakable distorted lead sound, then an overhead gush of high harmonics, then an unsteady warble of bass frequency that moves in twitching subterranean parallel to the primary refrain. He has an incredible knack for subdividing his guitar signal into various forms that each seem to adopt their own agency. This act of self-dispersal is perfect for an artist who centres so intensely on Resonance, the existence of which necessarily depends on a recognition of entities beyond the singular self: the rooms and spaces in which we resonate, and the other bodies who receive our resonances. Aptly, the record as a whole sees Watkins adopt three different modes of practice: “1) solo improvisation on harmonic guitar, electronics and resonant space, 2) through composed notation and 3) ensemble writing involving pros”.

The midsection is the six-part Affirmative Action suite, performed by percussion/guitar duo The Living Earth Ensemble. The piece involves a constant interaction between both equal temperament and just intonation, as if communicating in overlain dialects. This combination hits most potently during part D, during which vibraphone and clean guitar cycle through different harmonic shapes in unison. Beating frequencies emerge, reformulate, change speed, as if Watkins is carefully mapping out various points of intersection between the two instruments and harmonic systems. It is intentionally non-exhaustive, implying limitless combinations without showing all of them, and feels like a celebration of intimacy between two objects, or bodies, or minds: there are endless means by which the two instruments can excite eachother and hybridise into something new.

Yet Watkins’ melodies during the suite aren't just means of inciting harmonic relationships in the abstract – they're gut-punch-beautiful too. Partly due to the overlain tuning systems, they fall into a zone of contemplation and curiosity, with chords left to resonate like questions indulgently hung, perpetuating the sensation of not knowing, while the two systems rub together like possible solutions loitering in logical incoherence. The suite is fleeting, with pieces ranging from the 3:32 of part A to the 51 seconds of part F, sometimes feeling akin to hasty conversations between two pedestrians in passing, still moving as they trade questions and swift responses, continuing the exchange until accruing physical distance snaps the momentary string that connected them.

The closing “Texas Jailhouse Rock for Sandra Bland” is 23 minutes of percussive stop-start and guitar solo-shapeshifting, named after the 28-year-old black woman found dead in a Texas jail cell back in 2015, three days after facing aggression from Waller County Police during a traffic stop. It moves through several phases, restlessly asserting rhythms and dismantling them, the guitar initially emanating through an adjacent wall in wounded harmonic groans, then seemingly broadcast over the thin harshness of a small radio speaker, before finally bursting into the room to join us. The piece is haunted by a melancholic “lack”, forever denied any momentum and fullness, rendered nomadic by mournful preoccupation. And surely nobody could see the conclusion coming: a sudden transition into swelling synthesiser chords while feedback inconsolably weeps. Some of the notes droop in low energy, connecting back to the the record's beginnings in those pips of faltering electricity, as Affirmative Action lifts itself precariously into the skies.