August 2, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Amiri Baraka/Sun Ra & His Myth Science Arkestra: A Black Mass (Son Boy 1 CD)

The controversial writer/activist LeRoi Jones was a fellow denizen of Greenwich Village and an early, influential supporter of Sun Ra’s music in New York. After the assassination of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965, Jones changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka, moved to Harlem and founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS). Sun Ra remained downtown, but he was intensely active in the short-lived institution, making the trip to the Harlem office “almost daily” (Szwed, p. 210). However, BARTS quickly disintegrated and Baraka decamped to his hometown in Newark, New Jersey where he established The Spirit House in a rented one-family dwelling. The first floor’s interior walls were removed to create performance/work space that would also come to house a book store and a record label, provocatively named Jihad.

A Black Mass was written in 1965 and published in Four Black Revolutionary Plays (Bobbs-Merrill, 1966). It was first performed at Procter’s Theater in Newark in May, 1966 with Sun Ra’s Myth Science Arkestra supplying incidental music. The Arkestra shared the stage with the actors and improvised its parts by following cues in the script such as “Sun-Ra music of shattering dimension” or by interjecting music or percussion amidst the actors’ speaking lines. For Jihad’s first LP in 1968, Baraka enlisted members of the Black Arts troupe and the Arkestra to record the play, loosely based upon the Muslim myth of Yacub, wherein an evil white monster is accidentally created by an overly curious black magician. Despite the overt (reverse) racism inherent in the work, Szwed helpfully points out that, “in Baraka’s re-telling, it is the aesthetic impulse gone astray which is at center, … a violation of the spirit of the black aesthetic” (p. 211). Baraka reinforces this message in the liner notes to this CD reissue: “Art is creation and … we must oppose the ‘creation of what does not need to be created.’” Even so, the play presents a number of problems for white listeners such as me!

The work begins with a brief guided improvisation by the Arkestra which introduces the actors, who enter humming and singing the melody to “Satellites Are Spinning,” a theme which runs throughout the play as a kind of leitmotiv. Unfortunately, the recording is crude and the acting is stagy and way melodramatic. Here is a representative declamation: “What we do not know does not exist. We know beyond knowing. Knowing there is nothing to know. Everything is everything.” A chorus of women screeches and screams when the while devil is unleashed. Meanwhile, the Arkestra keeps a running commentary varying from splattery percussion and the plinking of “strange strings” to alternatively aggressive and spacey organ/clavinet workouts or dissonant, massed space chords. Occasionally, horns make succinct solo statements or engage in vocalized call and response with the actors. Despite the ponderous, heavy-handed rhetoric, Baraka’s play surely appealed to Sun Ra’s own black sci-fi mythology, even if Ra’s musico-philosophy was more ecumenical than insurgent. Interestingly, Szwed takes pains to demonstrate Ra’s influence on Baraka’s thinking during this period: “[Ra] is there in [Baraka’s] historical allusions, in the tone and pitches of his reading, in his sense of the importance of language, and in his consciousness of the possibilities of playing the spoken word against the written, unleashing the phonetics buried in the printed word” (p. 209). Baraka would continue to be an important advocate for Sun Ra and his music. In Eulogies (1996), Baraka wrote: “Ra was so far out because he had the true self consciousness of the Afro American intellectual artist revolutionary…” (quoted in Szwed, p. 209). Yes, but A Black Mass seems to me a dangerously incendiary piece of sixties countercultural history and a difficult, painful listen, despite the sometimes interesting music.

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