August 16, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Astro-Solar Infinity Arkestra: My Brother the Wind (Saturn 521)

The advent of the transistor enabled Robert Moog (1934-2005) to develop the first modular synthesizer in the early nineteen-sixties and by late-1969, a truly portable synthesizer, the now legendary Minimoog, was already in development. Sun Ra was naturally intrigued by the instrument, with its cutting edge technology and ability to make truly otherworldly sounds. But in a 1970 Down Beat interview, Ra emphasized that synthesizers were not just weird noise machines or souped-up organs:

The Moog synthesizer in its potential and application to and for the future is tremendous in scope, particularly for those who are creative naturals. It most certainly is worthy of a place in music. There are many effects on it which at present are not upon any other instrument. On one of my compositions, “My Brother the Wind,” the Moog is a perfect projective voice. Of course, like other electronic keyboard instruments, it will require a different technical approach, touch and otherwise in most efforts of behavior. It is a challenge to the music scene…The main point concerning the synthesizer is the same as in all other instruments, that is, its capacity for the projection of feeling. This will not be determined in a large degree just by the instrument itself, but as always in music, by the musician who plays the instrument (quoted in Szwed, p.277)
Indeed, Ra’s approach to the Moog synthesizer was altogether different than the instrument’s later popularizers. In late 1969, and with the financial support of T.S. Mims, Jr., Ra obtained two prototype models (in order to achieve two-voice polyphony from the monophonic instruments) and booked time at Variety Recording Studio in New York City. He brought along only Gilmore (who mostly plays drums), Marshall Allen, and Danny Davis for the occasion. In addition, pianist/synthesist, Gershon Kingsley, was hired to program the synthesizer according to Ra’s wishes. According to Mims, “It was a duel between Kingsley programming and Sun Ra playing” (quoted in Campbell, 2nd ed., p.152).

The title track consists of two wildly contrasting Moog voices: a breathy whistle in the high register and a thick, reedy interval in the bass with Gilmore supplying some credible free drums. Ra’s two-hand independence and control of the highly differentiated textures is really quite remarkable. “Intergalactic II” pits the boing-boing-ing Moogs against braying horns. Gilmore turns in another typically riveting solo before hopping back on the drums to propel a dual alto sax extravaganza. Hypnotic synthesizer interludes set up some misty textures for the horns at the end. “To Nature’s God” features resonant, bell-like sounds on one Moog while the other rumbles around with a rounded, woody bass tone. Meanwhile, Allen and Davis twirl around on piccolo and flute and Gilmore lays down lurching, asymmetrical funk beats.

While the preceding pieces sound a bit like interesting but tentative experiments, “The Code of Interdependence” is more fully realized; a well-considered, conducted improvisation. Clocking in at a near-epic sixteen minutes, Ra explores the outer limits of the Moogs’ expressive ability while Gilmore’s drumming provides a remarkably supple, shape-shifting drive. Gilmore is not only a tenor saxophone colossus but a better-than-serviceable drummer as well! Davis sounds great on the rarely heard alto clarinet as he interweaves the sinewy horn with Ra’s spiraling synthesizers. Later on, Davis takes up the alto saxophone and again duets with Allen. Amazingly, Ra’s Moog textures subtly evolve over the course of the piece – whether by his own knob twiddling or Kingsley’s, who knows? He builds up the variegated intensities until Allen breaks through with a taut but assertive solo on alto sax. As the pressure subsides, Ra spins delicate webs of unearthly tones to end. According to Campbell, this piece was deliberately speeded up and mastered out of phase, lending it a sort of humanly-impossible quality that only adds to its considerable mystique. My Brother the Wind is essential Sun Ra and a great example of his innovative artistry on early electronic keyboards. The Minimoog would remain a staple of Ra’s arsenal for the next decade and beyond.

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