March 11, 2012

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: WXPN-FM, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 12-25-76 (FM CDR)

Sun Ra celebrated Christmas Day, 1976 by appearing on the University of Pennsylvania radio station, WXPN-FM to read a selection of his poetry over musical selections and the thirty-minute broadcast circulates widely amongst collectors. Prof. Campbell speculates that the apocryphal Saturn LP, Celebrations For Dial Tunes, originated from this session, but no copies are known to exist (see pp.205, 229). I don’t recognize the music quietly playing in the background, but it is obviously pre-recorded: there’s some Arkestra stuff featuring Marshall Allen’s keening oboe but it’s mostly spooky synthesizer solos and tinkling Rocksichord. Sonny brings his own kind of Christmas message, permutating Bible stories into space-age mythologies, sometimes treated with dramatic space echo. As kooky as it sounds, he is deadly serious and the two halves play like two sides of an album. This session sounds so deliberately thought-out; it very well could have been intended for commercial release.

Poetry was always an important part of Sun Ra’s radically reinvented persona. He wrote poems as a child, handed out polemical broadsides on the streets of Chicago in the 1950s and his space poetry was often prominently displayed on record jackets. After arriving in New York, he hooked up Amiri Baraka (nee Leroy Jones) and Larry Neal, who included Ra’s poetry in their mammoth 680-page Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing in 1968. That same year, Umbra Anthology 1967-1968 published some of Ra’s poems alongside such hip luminaries as Langston Hughes and Allen Ginsburg, cementing Ra’s reputation as an underground poet of note. After a deal with Doubleday fell through, Sonny and Alton Abraham self-published The Immeasurable Equation and Extensions Out—The Immeasurable Equation Vol.II in 1972 through Ihnfinity, Inc./Saturn Research (see Szwed p.320). These pamphlets were printed in vanishingly small numbers and almost impossible to find until Abraham’s son, Adam, compiled 260 of Ra’s poems in Collected Works Vol.I: The Immeasurable Equation, published by Phaelos Books & Mediawerks in 2005. (Another collection of poems, This Planet Is Doomed, came out on Kicks Books last year.)

Whatever their literary worth, working with words was clearly part of Sun Ra’s Earthly mission: as Szwed points out: “He had read Sidney Lanier’s The Science of English Verse when it was argued that sound could serve as artistic material, the body as a musical instrument. Poetry offered him a chance to compose with language as he did with music” (p.319). Sonny himself described his poems as “scientific equations”:

What I want to do is associate words so they produce a certain fact. If you mix two chemical products you produce a reaction. In the same way if you put together certain words you’ll obtain a reaction which will have a value for people on this planet. That’s why I continue to put words together. Einstein said he was looking for an equation for eternal life. But we built the atom bomb, and his project has never materialized. But I’m sure he was right. To put words together, or, even if you could, to paint the image that is necessary to put out the vibrations that we need, that would change the destiny of the whole planet (quoted in Id. pp.319-320).

Regarding this Christmas broadcast, Szwed writes:

The choice of poems and their sequencing offers a sense of what Sun Ra thought was most important in his writing. Here are key words like “cosmos,” “truth,” “bad,” “myth,” and “the impossible,”; attention to phonetic equivalence, the universality of music and its metaphysical status; allusions to black fraternal orders and secret societies; biblical passages and their interpretation; and even a few autobiographical glimpses. The poems were read softly, with little expression, the music punctuating the words, with heavy echo and delay in the studio sometimes reducing the words to pure sound without meaning (Id. pp.320-321).

Another fifteen minutes of Sonny reading his poetry over pre-recorded music appeared on the eleven hour ESP Radio Tribute back in 2005 and while no dates are provided, it sounds very similar to this 1976 session, complete with low-key vocal delivery and spacey echo effects. The Norton Records label has issued three CDs of Ra reading his poetry on Strange Worlds in My Mind (Space Poetry Vol.1); The Sub-Dwellers (Space Poetry Vol.2); and The Outer Darkness (Space Poetry Vol.3). I haven’t heard these, but they apparently contain all this stuff and a whole lot more, compiled by “The Good Doctor” (Michael Anderson, director of the Sun Ra Archive). The completest in me says I need to have them—and maybe someday I will—but until then, these CDRs of the original broadcasts will have to do. Not for everyone, but a crucial piece of the Sun Ra puzzle.

1 comment:

Sam said...

Don't forget the other edition of Ra's poetry, "The Immeasurable Equation: The Collected Poetry and Prose," compiled and edited by James L. Wolf and Harmut Geerken (500+ pages, 2005). I have no idea how the content compares to Abraham's version.