February 1, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Myth Science Arkestra: Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy (Evidence ECD 2036)

Recorded at The Choreographer’s Workshop, NYC, late 1963
Originally released as Saturn 408 (1967) and Thoth Intergalactic KH 2272 (1969)

Of all the outlandish and evocative titles in Sun Ra’s discography, Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy stands out in its audacious, baldly prescriptive claim. But, to be sure, the title is no idle put-on. In fact, Ra had presciently been involved in what would nowadays be known as "music therapy” back in the late-1950s:

[Manager] Alton Abraham arranged through his medical contacts for Sonny to play for a group of patients at a Chicago mental hospital…The group of patients assembled for this early experiment in musical therapy included catatonics and severe schizophrenics, but Sonny approached the job like any other, making no concessions in his music. While he was playing, a woman who it was said had not moved or spoken for years got up from the floor, walked directly to his piano, and cried out, ‘Do you call that music?’ Sonny was delighted with her response and told the story for years afterwards as evidence of the healing powers of music (Szwed, p.92-93).
While the term “music therapy” may conjure up some kind of dulcet, inoffensive, New-Age-y pabulum, the Cosmic Tones marshaled here are anything but easy-listening. Ra practices a kind of electro-shock treatment to the soul, seeking to, as with the catatonic mental patient, “touch the unknown part of the person, awaken the part of them that we’re not able to talk to, the spirit” (Szwed, p. 257). Ra did not consider the Arkestra to be musicians so much as “tone scientists” (Szwed, p. 112) whose investigations and manipulations of musical phenomena could help mankind in its earthly struggles. “People are disturbed and need your help 24 hours a day,” he would lecture the band (quoted in Szwed, p. 374).

People are just like receivers, they’re like speakers, too, like amplifiers. They’re also like instruments because they got a heart that beats and that’s a drum. They’ve got eardrums too, and they some strings in there, so they actually got harps on each side of their head. If you play certain harmonies, these strings will vibrate in people’s ears and touch different nerves in the body. When the proper things are played in each person, these strings will automatically tune themselves properly and then the person will be in tune. There will be no discord, they will be tuned up perfectly, just like each automobile have to be tuned according to what kind of automobile it is. My music does have a vibration somewhere within it that can reach every person in the audience through feeling (quoted in Szwed, p. 345).

Electro-shock treatment is also an appropriate metaphor in that electronic technology was always an important tool in Ra’s medic bag. On Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy, Ra eschews the piano altogether for the mewling whine of the Clavioline (an early keyboard synthesizer) and the swirly Hammond organ. Further, electronic echo is slathered onto the proceedings by recordist/percussionist Tommy “Bugs” Hunter, who had accidentally discovered the effect while fooling around with the Ampex 602 tape recorder he had purchased at a pawn shop in 1962. By plugging in a cable from the output jack into the input on the machine, massive reverberant echo was produced.

I wasn’t sure what Sun Ra would think of it…I thought he might be mad – but he loved it. It blew his mind! By working the volume of the output on the playback, I could control the effect, make it fast or slow, drop it out, or whatever (quoted in Szwed, p. 187).

Astonishingly, all of this proto-psychedelia was created years before Timothy Leary and the hippies discovered LSD and invented “acid rock.” While Ra sought the kind of change in consciousness that psychedelics promised (and, later, he certainly profited to some extent from the hippies’ taste for spacey freakouts), he abjured drugs and forbade his musicians from indulging themselves. And no matter how outrageous his music might sound, it was never merely a free-form “freakout.” No, the members of the Arkestra were sober, disciplined scientists conducting advanced research and revealing their findings.

Much of the music on Cosmic Tones appears to be in the form of brief conducted improvisations (a form that would later be refined and expanded on Other Planes of There (1964) (Evidence ECD 22037, 1992) and The Magic City (1965) (Evidence ECD 22069, 1993). Unusual instrumentation (and a conspicuous absence of brass instruments) predominates: besides Ra’s electronic keyboards, Marshall Allen concentrates on oboe and flute while John Gilmore plays bass clarinet and percussion exclusively. Known for his prowess as a tenor saxophonist, Gilmore’s brilliant solo on the quasi-rhumba, “Adventure Equation” demonstrates his remarkable virtuosity and inventiveness on the notoriously recalcitrant bass clarinet. Interestingly, the Arkestra rarely plays all at once, giving the music a contemporary-classical, chamber music quality, albeit with that “Saturn Sound” that is so unique to Sun Ra.

“And Otherness” opens the album with middle-eastern-sounding oboe and clip-clopping log drums before throbbing, low-register “space chords” assert themselves amongst the horns and Clavioline. Pat Patrick enters with herky-jerky blasts on the baritone saxophone before gently flowing, antiphonal horn lines bring the piece to an open-ended close. “Thither and Yon” again features some snaky oboe, this time with echoey minimalist percussion tapping, scribbled flute ornamentation, and Ronnie Boykins’s forceful pizzicato and delightfully singing arco bass. “Moon Dance” stands out as an almost funky strut with its repetitive bass riff, lackadaisically propulsive drums and small percussion, and Ra’s occasionally soaring, soulful organ. “Voice of Space” is a kind of an improvised concerto for Ronnie Boykins’s bowed bass, accompanied by stabbing organ chords, clattering percussion, and thick, heaving echo. Danny Davis shines on alto saxophone, weaving wiggly filigrees in the background or more aggressively battling the hissing reverb feedback that always threatens to overwhelm. At one point, Boykins’s bass tremolos merge imperceptibly with Ra’s rumbling organ which then duets with Gilmore’s woody bass clarinet – a moment of group mind at its most sublime.

So does Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy live up to its restorative claims? The usual disclaimers apply: any medication can affect people in different ways and the potential side effects are unpredictable. You may experience dizziness and disorientation, but this is normal. Thankfully, overdosage is rarely fatal. In any case, if you find yourself suffering from psychic imbalances, this can be an effective cure.


This CD also contains Art Forms Of Dimensions Tomorrow, recorded in 1962 and tenuously connected to Cosmic Tones in venue and in the prevalence of Tommy Hunter’s echo machine. Otherwise, it is its own thing and worthy of close examination. But that will have to wait for another day.

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