November 23, 2008

Sun Ra Sunday

I’m laid up with a nasty cold, so I’m resting and re-reading John F. Szwed’s masterful Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (Pantheon, 1997). In his Introduction, Szwed makes a remarkable statement:

This is the biography of a musician who confronted the problems of creating music for an audience who expected nothing more than to be entertained, but who at the same time attempted to be a scholar and a teacher, and to take his audiences beyond the realm of the aesthetic to those of the ethical and the moral. (p. xviii)
The realm of the ethical and the moral is a realm that most music criticism tends to avoid, and for good reason I suppose. Szwed’s statement begs a host of questions: Can music be ethical or moral? Or does music rely upon the extra-musical (e.g. biography, texts, performance) to convey ethics and morality? What is an unethical or immoral music? Can ethical or moral music be produced by unethical or immoral persons? Who decides what constitutes ethical ethics and moral morality? These questions are not easy to answer, even in the case of Sun Ra, who explicitly espoused such ethical and moral concerns amidst the afro-cryptic, space-age show-biz trappings; he often stated that he was sent here from Saturn to help people.

In my re-reading, I will be looking closely to see whether Szwed merely asserts the moral and ethical components of Ra’s music or instead seeks to articulate how this realm is manifested in the music itself (beyond, of course, lyrical statements). Personally, I believe that, yes, there is an ethical and moral component that was central to what Sun Ra was attempting to accomplish through his music and that component is audible; to say exactly where and how is another matter altogether.

Or maybe it’s just the Sudafed® talking.


mrG said...

A key paper to investigate is David Stowe's "From Ephrata to Arkestra" wherein he draws distinct lines connecting others who similarly believed Man may be 'saved' by the intercession of particular sounds.

The same sentiment may be found in the music of John Cage, the tip-off being in his essay lamenting our losing the be-hear-now sense of medieval sacred music after spectacle hero-worship emerged from the Renaissance; John's work after that realization had an explicit intent to awaken his audience to a mindfulness in an earnest Buddhist hope this would lead directly to ethical and moral change.

This of course doesn't prove either of them were successful (tho' I believe they were, having repeatedly witnessed live both masters in action) or that their theories matched their actual practice, but it maybe lends credence to the possibility of success, no?

Sam said...

Finally getting around to commenting--I'll try not to feel so intimated by the thoughtfulness and insight you bring to Ra's music (and Szwed's work). But, in my opinion: it's the Sudafed talking. In spite of Ra's dictum that "music can wash clothes," I don't think music can have a moral purpose just because one says it does. Don't get me wrong, I love that Ra, as a proper Tone Scientist, claimed that his music had healing powers and that he had peaceful purposes for using music to proclaim his message of hope and love for all humanity. But people don't get that message from the music, they get it from him talking about the music. Purely instrumental music, musical sounds, beautiful playing--these mean nothing on their own. They just exist. Any moral or ethical lesson supposedly going along with or coming from the music actually comes from words. The music alone doesn't do it. I don't know how much further you've gotten in Szwed, but as far as I recall, he doesn't address "how this realm is manifested in the music itself." Rather, he "merely asserts the moral and ethical components of Ra’s music"---in words, which is all anyone can do.

Rodger said...

Mr. G and Sam – thank you for your thoughtful comments.

I am contemplating a longer blog post about this, now that I have finished re-reading Szwed’s book. On the one hand, I agree with Sam that, empirically, music cannot “mean” anything and therefore cannot be moral or immoral and that any deeper meanings can only be asserted by words. On the other hand, there is that vague concept of the “spirit” which I believe *can* be conveyed through sound. I feel that at least part of what makes Sun Ra’s music so appealing and worth listening to is the “spirit” that is imbued in the sound itself. I firmly believe that, while middle-C as a pitch is value-neutral, the way that pitch is executed can convey the spirit of the performer. It is this “spirit” that allows the music to transcend any number of potential obstacles, from sometimes poor sound quality to sometimes sloppy performances.

I think, by contrast, one can point to music that is either “positive” or “negative.” Take, for example, the Beatles. It is not merely knowing the facts and circumstances surrounding _Let It Be_ that conveys the pain, ill-will, cynicism, and overall “bad vibes” of the sessions, you can actually *hear* it in the music. Wouldn’t you agree, Sam? Further, I would assert (and, if you grant the above premise, the *sound* of the music supports this assertion) that their earlier work was “positive” (i.e. it “helps” people) while _Let It Be_ is “negative” (i.e. it “hurts” people). Perhaps that is taking things too far, but it is an inescapable conclusion to my mind.

Anyway, just some half-formed thoughts on this topic.

Sam said...

Several things to say here! I definitely know what you mean about the "spirit", but context is everything. You say: "part of what makes Sun Ra’s music so appealing and worth listening to is the “spirit” that is imbued in the sound itself." Tell that to my wife! She actively dislikes all the Ra she's heard (even something as innocuous as "Brainville"!)--how much of that is the baggage she brings to it, from her active dislike of post-'30s jazz to her distrust of Ra as a shaman? That spirit is not making itself known to her (as much as I've tried!).

Now, "Let It Be" is an extremely interesting album to bring up in this context. It's true that I have a hard time listening to this stuff now, knowing what I know about what was going on and how they were treating each other at the time. BUT... when the album first came out, we weren't aware of all that, and I have to say, no, I didn't hear it in the music. I loved the album, aware as I was at the time that it was no "Revolver" or White Album, but still enjoying the songs immensely, especially "Get Back," "Don't Let Me Down," and "I've Got a Feeling." I went to the movie twice in a row when it first came out and loved it. It was only later that the music became depressing. Although I have to say, "Two of Us" and "Long and Winding Road" would, for me, fall into the "positive" camp.

So, read this:

It's about music, metadata, and how that knowledge of the music changes our perception. Note that it's the titles of Bryn Jones's pieces that have the negative effect, NOT the music itself.