April 12, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Myth Science Arkestra:
When Angels Speak of Love (Evidence ECD 22216)

When Angels Speak of Love is one of the very rarest of the already exceedingly rare Saturn LPs. Prof. Campbell estimates that two lots of seventy-five were pressed for a grand total of 150 LPs circulated (p.108). Therefore, this music was virtually unheard by anyone but the most obsessed (and well-heeled) when Evidence released it as part of their final installment of Saturn reissues back in 2000. Recorded in full-blown, down-home Saturn Sound at the Choreographer’s Workshop in 1963, it is one of Ra’s most expansive, downright out-there recordings. Not surprisingly, it was not released until 1966, at the height of the free-jazz Afrocentric radicalism that was, for a time, willing to accept Ra’s most avant garde inclinations. Conceived way ahead of its time, When Angels Speak of Love points the way forward to Heliocentric Worlds and beyond.

John Szwed singles out this album in his biography of Ra, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (Pantheon, 1997):

It was considered a bizarre record when it was [released]…made more bizarre by
extreme echo, horns straining for the shrillest notes possible, rhythms layered, their polyhythmic effect exaggerated by massive reverberation (which was abruptly turned off and on). “Next Stop Mars” is the centerpiece of the album, a very long work which opens with a space chant, followed by Allen and Gilmore taking chances on their horns beyond what almost any other musician would dare at that time. Sun Ra played behind them, again relentlessly spinning around a single tonal center with two-handed independence, then rumbling thunderously at the bottom of the keyboard against Boykins’s bass, a clangor made heavier by electronic enhancement.
(p. 199)
In the liner notes to this Evidence CD, the ever-astute John Corbett discusses how Tommy Hunter’s fortuitous feedback discovery was as radically prescient as Ra’s music itself:

Ra’s space…was alienated, de-naturalized, his use of echo more in common with
pioneers of experimental electronic music, and he anticipated much later developments in interactivity ranging from dub reggae to the live-electronics and computer improvisation projects of George Lewis, Phil Wachsmann and Evan Parker. At that time, as a recording art, free jazz was still totally ensconced in the naturalizing concept (still really is), and the extreme use of echo on these tracks is a significant indicator of how far Ra was willing to push the sonic envelope (to make a bad resonance joke) in his own, unique electronic jazz maneuvers.
Szwed elaborates further on this aspect of Ra’s genius:

By the 1950s, commercial recording companies had developed a classical style of recording which assured that the recording process itself would be invisible,the machinery of recording being used like a picture window through which an illusion was created of “being there” with the musicians. But Sun Ra began to regularly violate this convention on the Saturn releases by recording live at strange sites, by using feedback, distortion, high delay or reverb, unusual microphone placement, abrupt fades or edits, and any number of other effects or noises which called attention to the recording process. On some recordings you could hear a phone ringing, or someone walking near the microphone. It was a rough style of production, an antistyle, a self-reflexive approach which anticipated both free jazz recording conventions and punk production to come. (p.188)
All of this is wholly correct, even though this is not the first appearance of Hunter’s reverb effect and, with the exception of “Celestial Fantasy” and “Next Stop Mars,” the rest of the album eschews the radical displacements of the echo-machine for a (somewhat more) “naturalistic” recorded space. But even where the echo and reverb effects are absent, this album is swathed with that charmingly de-centered “Saturn Sound” that epitomizes the period. Significantly, both Corbett and Szwed touch on the importance of Ra’s use of new technologies as musical instruments and Ra’s visionary engagement with the record-making process, despite near-zero budgets and ultra-limited distribution. Ra embraced mediation on its own terms and deliberately created sonic objects which transcend the mere representation of some ideal performance. Imbued with a do-it-yourself, hand-made authenticity, El Saturn LPs were works of art unto themselves.

“Celestial Fantasy” opens the album with gentle gongs and cymbals to introduce Walter Miller’s jarring, high-register trumpet squeals. Marshall Allen then commences with a densely echoing, wildly inventive oboe peroration while Boykins enters with plucked bass throbs. After Allen concludes his “fantasy,” Miller resumes his high-wire screeching before dropping down to the mellowest, lowest-registers to spar with the increasingly busy bass and drums, all of them echo-echo-echoing in the lushly reverberant space. Miller is sadly underrated; yet he was such a thoughtful and thoroughly “complete” trumpeter, putting him in the category of a very select few. Anyway, the instruments drift off to a pregnant moment of echoing near-silence before Miller and Allen return for further exploration of their highest tessituras to end. This is a very intense beginning to a very intense album! Thankfully, the next piece, “The Idea of it All,” is another patented Ra original: a crazy, atonal bebop number driven by the madly swinging Clifford Jarvis on drums and which provides for yet another killer Gilmore solo on tenor saxophone. What more needs to be said?

Things take a (re)turn for the strange on “Ecstasy of Being.” Opening with a meditation on the paradiddles of marching drums, Jarvis leads the Arkestra’s parade of joyously honking carryings-on. After a while, the instruments drop out to allow for a shift to more subtle, sensuous rhythms -- an erotic dance between bass and percussion. The horns return with more ecstatic wailing until about the nine minute mark when Ra signals a complexly-voiced, fortissimo “space chord” to end the piece. It would perhaps be too easy to interpret this piece as: ecstasy = being at war and being in love. Nonetheless, it is interesting to ponder the wealth of symbolism in Ra’s oeuvre.

“When Angels Speak of Love” is a quirky, slow-tempo ballad featuring Pat Patrick’s most romantic bari-sax crooning over Boykins’s half-time bass. Miller takes a graceful turn on trumpet, including some precariously high, yet perfectly pitched notes. Meanwhile, Ra’s piano meanders while click-clackety percussion outlines a shaky beat. Gilmore and Robert Cummings (on bass clarinet) take brief, somewhat tentative solos until Miller and Patrick return to restate the minimalist, dissonant theme. The album closes with the epic “Next Stop Mars.” At almost eighteen minutes, this is by far the longest recording of the Choreographer’s Workshop period. It is, as Szwed describes, full of extended horn techniques producing “the shrillest notes possible” with Ra “relentlessly spinning around a single tonal center with two-handed independence, then rumbling thunderously at the bottom of the keyboard.” Here and there, ticking and tapping percussion rise and fall but the texture is chamber-like: piano, bass and horns. As Gilmore, Allen and Davis shriek and honk, Robert Cummings weaves winding threads of virtuosic bass clarinet while Walter Miller punches holes in space and glides effortlessly on his silvery trumpet. Ra’s piano is uncharacteristically voluble and aggressive. At first listen, the piece appears to be an anarchic free-for-all -- but that is hardly the case. As Ra explains in the liner notes, “I can write something so chaotic you would say you know it’s not written. But the reason it’s chaotic is because it’s written to be. It’s further out than anything they would be doing if they were just improvising.”

In fact, there is a two-page score entitled, “When Angels Speak of Love,” deposited in the Library of Congress that contains sketches for the title track, “Next Stop Mars” and “Ecstasy of Being.” They are, alas, but sketches – perhaps hasty transcriptions at that – and they tell us little about the final result as evidenced by the recording, although they are full of curious details (e.g. the cryptic instruction to “play celestially”). Even so, the presence of such a manuscript is indicative of Ra’s fierce control over the musical material, despite its surface aural appearance. Even though his music sometimes sounded “free,” it was not about freedom, it was about discipline.


This concludes our examination of the known Choreographer’s Workshop recordings. In sequence, these albums include: Bad & Beautiful, Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow, Secrets of the Sun, Out There a Minute, "A Blue One (single), What’s New/The Invisible Shield, and When Sun Comes Out. After When Angels Speak of Love, Ra recorded Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy and, finally, Other Planes of There. We will continue moving forward chronologically up through Heliocentric Worlds and on into The Magic City in the coming weeks. But first we’ll take a listen to some other super-obscure recordings Ra and the Arkestra made as unlikely sidemen in 1962-1963. Until then, here’s a poem by Sun Ra found in the liner notes to When Angels Speak of Love:


When angels speak
They speak of cosmic waves of sound
Wavelength infinity
Always touching planets
In opposition outward bound

When angels speak
They speak on wavelength infinity
Beam cosmos
Synchronizing the rays of darkness
Into visible being
Dark Living Myth-world of being


Sam said...

What else can be said about "The idea of it all"? How about: why doesn't this show up in all the fake books? This is what they ought to be teaching to all those crackerjack bebop kids in jazz camps, or wherever the heck it is they go to play all those "charts." What a killer quintet! Could this be from the same sessions as the first version of "Dancing shadows"?

Sharief said...

An interesting side-note regarding Ra's song title 'The Ecstasy of Being':

In Arabic the word for 'being' (wujuud) and 'ecstasy' (wajd) are derived from the same root 'w-j-d'; they are inextricably linked.

Not only this, but 'wajad', also from the same root, means 'to find'. What this all means in Islamic and Sufi metaphysics is that once you discover (wajad) and realise the miracle and mysteries of Being (wujuud) you find an ecstasy (wajd) which never leaves you (and which in fact increases ad eternum). We were created to find this ecstasy!

Ra, being of pure heart and spirit, definitely had intuitive knowledge and perception of these types of spiritual realities, and of course we find this reflected in his music and poetry.

Let the intergalactic research continue!

By the way thanks for the good job you've been doing with all the Ra related posts!