By Alexandra Huang| 18 September 2019
The American avant-garde jazz band Sun Ra Arkestra is whimsically dubbed after the ancient Egyptian mystagogues in worship of the Sun. Led by the eponymous pianist of the band since the 1930s, the musicians have created some outlandish soundscapes described as “dark, kinetic sounds bursting with spiky electric piano or fuzzy keyboard lines and collective horn freak-outs that would likely send most punk rockers screaming from the room.” Eerie and bizarre as their music sounds, these improvisers blatantly claim themselves to be “tone-scientist” and “architects of the plane of discipline,” namely, scientists of sound who can achieve mathematic precision.
The creed upheld by the band exposes a telling contradiction: how can the tone-scientists perform jazz music freely whilst maintaining quasi-mathematical precision? The contradiction could be broadly conceived as a simpler question: how could jazz as an improvisatory genre of music coexist with science? The obsession with structure, installed in fixed space and time as championed by Western classical musicians, had been so exhaustingly explored before the emergence of their liberating counterparts in the 1920s, the early jazz players. The transformational zeitgeist can be epitomised by the portentous futurist in music, Sun Ra. He fore-heard the crackling polyrhythms and enrapturing dissonances whilst perceived the precepts of the sacrosanct Western music traditions as abject qualities: they are miserably shackled to rigid rhythms and predictable harmonic patterns.
Sun-Ra’s musical-scientific myths are far from ungrounded. To refine the science of sounding art, he distilled the historical elements of Egyptology, Biblical studies and extraterrestrial observations. The infra-disciplinary knowledge sets the benchmark for which his musical language can be measured against, and it is on this basis that his music can be ascribed to science. He furthered the quest by experimenting with tonal qualities and abstract sound, sketching the blueprints for a music utopia propelled by science.
Following the footpath of the founding pianist, the trailblazing band keeps introducing original acoustics to dissolve conventional music boundaries. The mythic past of the African music crisscrosses the present and the future. Harmonically dissonant, the jarring cacophony is symptomatic of the chaos of the present world, whereas it also projects imaginations towards a bizarrely musicalised utopia. It is at the confluence of music and utopia that concepts of science tie in, as science and technological developments of that time “promised a better future” (Graham 33). Specifically, these musicians believe that the utopian ideal can be empowered by space travel that began to prosper in the 1960s.
There are indeed no moral components as to how Sun Ra’s music should be received. The adulation of the band we witness nowadays during its 2019 European tour has shown the endurance of the Sun Ra Arkestra even after the band’s troubling, scandalous history during the previous few decades. However, the criticism has been largely leveled against the political, philosophical and moral implications derived from the seeming external absurdity that the audience misinterpreted. Graham Lock, author of the seminal monograph examining Sun Ra along with other two legendary jazz musicians, comments that the controversies surrounding the music genius are scarcely related to music itself. This means the receptions of Sun Ra’s music had mostly been directed towards the wrong source. From Ra’s prosperity in the 1950s towards his death in the 1990s, the debunking vilifications that treated the musical mastermind as an insulting, entertaining charlatan and the continuing subject of mockery only resulted in sledgehammer blows to his philosophy rather than his musical ability.
Towards the end of every civilisation it is the purity that appeals. Born against the backdrop of the cataclysmic First World War (1914), Sun Ra has witnessed from dawn to decadence the musical expressions of high cultures. Whilst the late masters like Beethoven and Chopin pined for simplicity upon the infirmity of their artistic life, the music by Sun Ra Arkestra reflects simplicity adorned. With an informed appreciation of the musical intricacies, the audience will be captivated by even greater wonders of the equilibrium Sun Ra’s band achieved between simplicity and complexity, liberation and precision. The dramatically dressed musicians are not insular isolationists from outer space to speak a language only to exclusive listeners.
Alexandra Huang is a first year PhD student in comparative literature at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests centre on the influences of music on prose-writing in the twentieth century, specifically the cultural history of Classical music, Austro-German musicology and the aesthetics of musical performances. Besides being an aspiring researcher, she is also a Classical pianist.
Cervera, Jorge. “Free Jazz, Coltrane and Sun Ra.” Medium. Feb. 28, 2016.
Lock, Graham. Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton. Duke University Press, 1999.
Gagne, Nicole V., and Gale Group. Historical Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Classical Music. “Sun Ra.” Scarecrow Press, 2012, pp. 263-264.
Edited by Chris Jardine and Ailish Woollett.