Posted by: kaleidophonic | December 15, 2009

Review: Sun Ra

Today I bring you the celestial weirdness that is SUN RA.

Okay, so dig it, cats. It’s 1963. Just a few years before the Sixties start to get way out. Sun Ra? He was already way out. Way Out. Far Fucking Out! So far out he’s actually from Outer Space. For Real. I mean, other jazz greats were in the modern jazz vanguard, but Sun Ra was so far ahead of the vanguard that he was in another solar system. This “original ancient astronaut of modern jazz,” “the space-age sage”, brought back from the outer fringes of the musical cosmos some of the most innovative Afro-proto-psychedelic-acid-jazz ever recorded. Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra: Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy. Two years later, Art Forms of Dimensions of Tomorrow. Think of what a mind-blower these albums must have been in the early 1960s!

Complex afro-rhythm no rhythm polyrhythem polysonic polyphonic noisenoise Noise WHAM! FUNK! Krunk! ((muttering voices in the background)) / rattling drums / echo echo echo echo. In the middle of a Cluster of Galaxies, a gong chimes. One pure moment of zen. More drums…jazz bop improv.

To the untrained ear it no doubt sounded like pure cacophony. But the complexities of African polyrhythms, Middle Eastern tones, and innovative recording techniques, in the hands of a brilliantly eccentric musical genius, would bear strange and wonderful fruit. It’s not all atonal noise. For Ra and his Arkestra were genuinely gifted musicians. They could swing and get funky with the best of them. But after listening to Sun Ra, the usual funk and swing sounds, well, rather pedestrian when compared to the surprises and challenges offered by Ra’s sonic soundscapes.

Theodor Adorno, writing in Germany during the highly creative Wiemar period between the world wars, had spoken of the power of atonal music to disrupt received and structured modes of hearing, of fostering an active listener – rather than a listener passively receiving musical combinations and rhythms that were so normalized that they ceased to provoke unmediated experience. It was a complicated theory about human agency and the power of mass media to essentially keep the masses in place by denying them real and challenging experiences, but the root of the argument was simple: atonal music is a revolutionary mode of music because it disrupts received categories of understanding. You cannot listen to this music passively, as each subsequent note and noise could come from an unlimited number of potentialities, rather than being subject to a particular range of scale or rhythmic pattern. This was a music of possibility, of – as the title so nicely illuminates – art forms of the dimensions of tomorrow.

One thing here is clear: these sonic visions of the future are Black. (note: Bootsy Collins and Parliament/Funkadelic would later poach from Ra’s territory in terms of the whole cosmic-funk thing, but really, Ra was – and IS – the original Afronaut from Outer Space). The Arkestra puts African and Middle Eastern modes front and centre here, while more popular (some would argue ‘whitened’) jazz modes make only a few appearances (although they’re more clear on ‘Dimensions of Tomorrow’ than ‘Cosmic Tones’). These two albums… for some reason they’ve been released on CD together as one recording – Sun Ra is notorious for this kind of indifference to temporal correspondance… These two albums are, I would argue, early Black-Nationalist testaments to the radically different soundscapes available through taking full advantage of non-European musical palettes. I don’t know if Adorno ever heard Sun Ra’s albums, but I bet they would have blown his mind.

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