Black Utopia (A Cauleen Smith Movie) (ThreeWalls 2LP/DVD)
I was pleasantly surprised to find a copy of Black Utopia in the mailbox this week (after all, only 40 copies of the special “collector’s edition” were pressed) but I guess I got lucky. It is a stunningly gorgeous piece: two heavyweight colored vinyl LPs housed in hand-silkscreened jackets; an oversize booklet containing photographs, texts and interviews; a flyer commemorating filmmaker Cauleen Smith’s 2012 exhibition at Three Walls Gallery, "The Journeyman"; a giant newsprint foldout listing the various books on display from the Sun Ra/El Saturn Research library; a signed and numbered certificate of authenticity; and, finally, a data DVD-R containing all four sides in 24bit/96kHz high-resolution WAV format. Black Utopia is clearly a labor of love.
The album is presented as an “audio documentary,” a movie for your ears by Smith, who spent the last couple of years in Chicago, researching the Sun Ra archives at the University of Chicago and the Experimental Sound Studio. Culling material from the 700 tapes in the audio archive (supplemented by rare LPs from the Dorchester Projects’ Dr. Wax Record Library), Smith has divided the four sides into movements (or episodes) entitled, “Gemini,” “Shaped Notes,” “Speculations” and “The Learned & The Learned,” formed out of snippets of Arkestra rehearsals, live performances and lectures by Sun Ra as well as cut-up radio documentaries and poetry by Krista Franklin and Avery R. Young. In conjunction with the print materials, it is a fascinating document of DIY scholarship and contemporary mythmaking that explores the esoteric intellectual pursuits and intensely “radical black creativity” that Sun Ra epitomized.
I have only had a chance to listen to it through twice, so I cannot really comment in detail—but it is superbly well-done and definitely worth the premium price. More than just a “record,” Black Utopia is a rare and beautiful work of art. It looks like I got one of the last copies of the “collector’s edition” (it is no longer listed on their website) but the “fan” edition (containing just the LPs and booklet in a slightly different jacket) is apparently still available—but you better hurry! It too is a limited edition of only 100 copies.