December 6, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Intergalactic Research Arkestra: Black Myth/Out in Space (Motor Music 2CD)

After the success of the Fondation Maeght performances in August, a hastily conceived “tour” of Europe was put together by Victor Schoenfield and Joachim Berendt (among others) with support from radio station Südwestrundfunk (SWF) and record labels Black Lion in the UK and SABA/MPS in Germany. The “tour,” which began in early October 1970, was something less than a total success. But at the time, Ra was excited to return to the Old World -- there was even talk of going to Africa. The Arkestra was enlarged to twenty musicians and Ra rehearsed them extensively right up their departure time. To add to the spectacle, two more dancers and a fire-eater were added to the entourage soon after their arrival in Paris. Sonny packed up his entire arsenal of electronic keyboards and all manner of lighting equipment, slide and film projectors, and trunks of glittering costumes and stage props for the trip; Sun Ra and his Arkestra were embarking on the next great phase of the Cosmo Drama.

The Arkestra appeared without incident at the Théâtre des Amandiers in Nanterre on October 9th and in Lyons on in the 12th, but their Paris debut turned into a near riot. Just days prior to their scheduled appearance at Les Halles, a nightclub fire had killed a number of people and at the last possible minute, the police mandated that only half of the 4,000 ticket-holders for Sun Ra’s performance would be allowed into the venue. As tempers began to flare, riot squads were positioned between the crowd and the theatre entrance. The mob began chanting “Libérez Sun Ra” and demanding that Sun Ra join his embattled comrades outside the theater. Szwed eloquently describes the precarious situation:

Sun Ra considered the situation, then grabbed the sign of the Sun, held it above his head, and started toward the exit, the Arkestra and the audience following the leader.

Out of the theater they came, shedding heat as they walked, banners streaming, Sun Ra, the Solar Arkstra, and the chosen few, marching straight through the police phalanx and down the street. And the crowds followed as they all circled around the block. When the procession returned to the front of the theater the police officals gave Sun Ra a salute as he passed their shattered ranks and marched into the theater, this time with the Les Halles 4,000 (now plus fellow travelers and cops), and the Arkestra mounted the stage once again
The concert itself was apparently plagued with technical difficulties and a jittery and oppressive police presence, although the audience clearly appreciated Ra’s charm and charisma and the theatrical, multimedia extravaganza of the Arkestra’s performance.

On the 17th, the Arkestra performed at the prestigious Donaueschingen Musik Festival, the homefront of the stars of post-war European avant-garde composers including Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, and others. This year, Joachim Berendt managed to integrate modern jazz into the festival’s programming and Sun Ra’s three hour set did not disappoint. Recorded for broadcast by SWF, some of this material originally appeared on the MPS release entitled, It’s After the End of the World in 1971 and the entire forty-eight minute broadcast was issued on CD by Motor Music in 1998. (The Motor City issue also contains a second disc recorded in Berlin later on in the tour, which we will consider separately.)

According to Berendt (via Hartmut Geerken's liner notes), Sun Ra composed “Black Forest Myth” especially for this concert, its title referring to the legendary forest which surrounds the small town of Donaueschingen. The piece was performed only on this one occasion and it is a tension-filled four minutes for piccolo, electronic keyboards, and scraping, clanging percussion which sounds just as abstract and forbidding as the “contemporary classical” music for which the Donaueschinger Musiktage was made (in)famous. Another rendition of “Friendly Galaxy No.2” immediately follows, but this version differs markedly from the massed flute choir and trumpets orchestration found on Nuits de la Fondation Maeght Vol.2. Here, the rhythms are heavier and Ra plays much more aggressively on both piano and electric organ. In addition, Eloe Omoe (or possibly Danny Thompson) plays a riveting solo on the Neptunian libflecto (a bassoon with a trumpet mouthpiece) and the entire Arkestra enters toward the end with some spirited group improv before Ra closes the piece with some spacey synthesizer tones.

What follows is some of the most bracingly challenging music in Sun Ra’s enormous discography. “Journey Through the Outer Darkness” pits various duos and trios against Ra’s cataclysmic organ and battalions of drums and percussion in an unrelenting barrage of music until an astonishing solo bass clarinet (Pat Patrick? – or is the Neptunian libflecto again?) finds a way to end the piece to stunned applause. The “Strange Worlds – Black Myth – It’s After the End of the World” sequence features the heavenly-voiced June Tyson declaiming Ra’s poetry alongside constantly shifting instrumental combinations. These evolving concertinos create wildly differentiated textures and colors, from the keening wail of oboes, saxophones and libflecto to the staccato brassiness of trumpets to the microtonal whine of Alan Silva’s viola. After about eleven minutes, Sun Ra introduces a clangorous space chord on the piano which is picked up by the Arkestra. In its aftermath, Tyson and Gilmore exclaim: “It’s after the end of the world! Don’t you know that yet?!” The Arkestra then launches into some more ecstatic free-jazz skronk just as the track fades. What a shame! “We’ll Wait for You” concludes the recording with a quick space chant followed by a long series of thoughtful solos over a deliberately murky and mumbling rhythm section, deftly conducted by Ra from behind his bank of keyboards. Ra summons up the whole panoply of electronic sounds from chiming bells to swooning synthesizer to chattering organ while each soloist explores both ensemble and a cappella territories, concluding with a brief but devastating Gilmore outing that brings down the house.

Szwed states that “[t]he audience received them well, but the German critics dismissed them” (p.283) while Geerken’s liner notes to this Motor Music CD allude to a review in Der Spiegel “that was abound with ignorance and rubbish.” Clearly Sun Ra was not immediately accepted into the rarified realm of the European cultural elite despite his appearance at Donaueschingen. Nevertheless, the Arkestra’s performance was a landmark event. Critics still debate the genuineness of Sun Ra’s music, but the proof is in the listening. Listening to the Donaueschingen performance reveals a large band at the height of its powers, playing Sun Ra’s most cutting edge musical conceptions with razor-sharp precision and prodigious invention while Ra himself displays his unequaled mastery of electronic keyboards. I know I say it all the time, but this is another essential Sun Ra disc that belongs in every fan’s collection.

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