REVIEW: Sun Ra’s Arkestra directed by Marshall Allen at Café OTO, London, 6th December, 2011.
“Here’s a music which announces the presence of another age. At a time when so many voices speak to the people of the earth, I hesitate to add my voice to the tumult. But what I have to say I must say now, and as I feel that I can say things more quickly through music, I have chosen to speak. I need say no more but that we are driving ourselves rapidly and splendidly toward a meeting we have with a better destiny, with a better and more important life” – Sun Ra (1967).
“He showed me how to use the spirit and use what you don’t know and to quit blocking yourself from knowing” – Marshall Allen, speaking of Sun Ra.
‘Rhythm is the only thing secure’ – Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren.
Having listened to Sun Ra’s music for some 23 years (which I initially discovered thanks to a recommendation from Sonic Youth in an interview), when the opportunity fortuitously presented itself to hear his band the Arkestra play live, on this occasion I jumped at the chance. (In 1995, while living in a former incarnation in Santa Cruz, California, I didn’t make an Arkestra concert cos I was too stoned to leave the room I was in, and hey, Sun Ra had left this planet two years before so it couldn’t be that great without him, right?)
In the intervening years the music of Sun Ra has been a constant in the sounds I choose to listen to, a singular far out reference point co-ordinating and integrating many interests found between life on this planet and in deep space.
A couple of years ago I happened upon a contemporaneous YouTube video of the Arkestra – as now directed by Marshall Allen – which caused my jaw to drop and electricity to race around my body at the accelerated pace of heightened awareness.
So when I arrived totally asteroid sober to hear the Arkestra live and direct at Café OTO, in Dalston, on a dry and not too cold Winter’s evening towards the end of a year of immense personal drama both terrestrial and celestial, already I felt charged with excitement.
Café OTO reached its capacity of 200, and the Arkestra played from the floor without a stage, facing some rows of seated audience members directly in front of them, with the standing area filling the rest of the room in a semi-circle around the band, a nicely balanced energetic medium. The crowd varied of age and race, a few freaks and heads mixed with earnest tweed wearers and serious jazz fans, ravers from Scotland, with several African gowns flowing and shimmering in the room seemingly illuminated with starlight like a planetarium.
The 11 members of the Arkestra appearing at this concert wore their traditional costumes of shiny and glittering reflective cosmos-wear, with matching galactic hats and star badges, a still strange concatenation of myths from Egypt and Africa to UFOs and other planets. The band’s youthfulness surprised me – until the sound erupted. Several of the musicians have dedicated 50 or more years to the music of Sun Ra. The Arkestra featured two rows of brass instruments – saxes, trumpets, sometimes oboe and or clarinet – plus occasional flute, and guitar, upright bass, drums, keyboard / piano on one side and percussion at the other.
Marshall Allen, the sole director of the Arkestra since fellow saxophonist John Gilmore passed on in 1995, at 87 years young exuded the sprightly energy of a genuine human being, seeming to sparkle with some unifying force, his cells conjoined with every atom in this galaxy and beyond. The difference being that he knows this to be the case (exceptions excluded). I sat a few feet from where he stood to orient the Arkestra as they ebbed and flowed through space (as we all do). Occasionally during the concert, Marshall Allen casually leafed through a song book, a heavy tome like a book of spells he didn’t really need to refer to, as the spirit coursed through him and his accomplices in spectral wave-particle
The Arkestra began with some call and response cosmic word plays bouncing back and forth amongst themselves, immediately jamming our semantic continuity to make space for something else. As soon as the first notes sounded, a key turned in every lock to swing the doors wide open and I immediately experienced total elation and happiness of a degree and dimension I felt I never had until that moment. Remembering the essence of who I am. The difference between hearing the Arkestra from out of a stereo of whatever size and live felt like a quantum leap of effect to an experience of the music of the spheres in omnidirectional sound intensity.
“All of my compositions are meant to depict happiness combined with beauty in a free manner. Happiness, as well as pleasure and beauty, has many degrees of existence; my aim is to express these degrees in sounds which can be understood by the entire world. All of my music is tested for effect. By effect I mean mental impression. The mental impression I intend to convey is that of being alive, vitally alive. The real aim of this music is to co-ordinate the minds of peoples into an intelligent reach for a better world, and an intelligent approach to the living future” – Sun Ra, in liner notes to Jazz by Sun Ra (1956).
Immediately noticeable and emanating into the audience (and beyond) was the warmth and genuine affection for one another shared by the Arkestra: vibrations of love in purest form beyond human emotion as the glue that binds the cosmos together in spiral waves. The musicians always seemed to remain focussed on the collective activity, rather than losing themselves in ego satisfactions, with every note played considered in the context of the whole, and made on purpose. They listened intently, enjoying the sound and individual performances, whilst also keeping an eye on Marshall Allen; as Sun Ra used to do, he would cue changes and point at someone to indicate a solo – sometimes at unexpected moments – and that musician would leap into the moment to foreground the energy he handled, merging and fitting it with the shape of the music without it clashing or disrupting the overall harmony. This takes a high level of musical knowledge, training, and rehearsal, to a standard most musicians can only dream of, and resulted in harmonies and rhythmic structures many may not even know exist.
To call the music of Sun Ra ‘jazz’ would be to limit it to a relatively arbitrary set of genre conventions, as in fact the effects generated go way beyond such notions. No need to confuse the medium of conduction (genre, instrumentation etc) with the energetic messages transmitted and the physical transformations effected. The Arkestra has always created a living and infinite space in which to realise potential, a space of creativity and imagination. For techno music, jazz is the teacher.
“You know how many notes there are between C and D? If you deal with those tones you can play nature, and nature doesn’t know notes […] You’re not musicians, you’re tone scientists” – Sun Ra, speaking to the Arkestra.
The way the tone scientists of the Arkestra created a molecular dance of particles I found utterly inspirational (pertaining to the deployment of breath). What continuous surprise and wonder! With any number of the instruments creating flurries of notes at varying and shifting speeds, with melodies converging and diverging (a multiplicity of counterpoints sometimes with a centre, sometimes not) and harmonic overtones that moved around and above the notes played, the rhythms meshed in swirling yet accurately defined geometric fractal patterns. The endless variation astonished and delighted.
So far as actual tunes go, the Arkestra played a mixture of old favourites and newer material written by Marshall Allen. In both instances, the impetus remained to push forward and create harmonic and rhythmic flows connected to the changing intent of the present. Saturn, for example, has been an Arkestra anthem since the 1950s, many versions have appeared on studio and concert albums. The version played here seemed to have taken on energy particles of dimensions not previously reached. Taken as an example of the ongoing project of folding and unfolding sound multiplicity, rhythmic equations, it seemed evident that the Arkestra has actually improved, and despite or maybe even because of the complexity which comes across somehow as uncluttered simplicity, the music seemed more entertaining, accessible, and relevant than ever – containing as it does the rhythms and harmonies of all periods – including the future. Whatever the tempo, the Arkestra sound had a propulsion and intensity, and a continuous variation, that no other music I’m familiar with comes close to. This was the funkiest, most rhythmically advanced
music I have ever heard.
“… in my music, there’s a lot of little melodies going on. It’s like an ocean of sound. The ocean comes up, it goes back, it rolls. My music always rolls. It might go over people’s heads, wash part of them away, reenergize them, go through them, and then go back out to the cosmos and come back to them again. If they keep listening to my music, they’ll be energized” – Sun Ra.
The sound that the Arkestra generated seemed like a perfect analogue of natural processes: living, having a purpose, at once free and able to veer and meander in whatever simultaneous directions seemed appropriate in any given moment to reach the desired effect, and yet always within a disciplined musical bandwidth where everything cohered rhythmically and harmonically, the hallmarks of the sound being precision and integrity (togetherness). In nature, multiple chemicalphysical machinic assemblages combine in non-linear reciprocal relationships at all levels of scale from the atomic to the galactic.
“The right note or chord can transport you into space using music and energy flow” – Sun Ra.
I felt myself leaving terra firma to whirl through space like the narrator at the start of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937). In the course of this book, the narrator learns about the consciousness and evolution of stars and galaxies, the unfolding of natural potentials in a vastness of space seemingly incomprehensible to and at odds with our everyday selves (exceptions excluded). So it went in the course of this concert. As the sound emerged and made contact with each cell of my body, the application of musical structures and tonalities meshed with an evolutionary tableau of galaxies, and I saw: constellations in motion, the secret rhythms and melodies of each element, electromagnetic waves, forests and mountain ranges, light from distant planets bending through prisms in space, the time dimensions of stars on epic scales beyond human life spans and geologic time, and so much more. Like, say, Drexciya, the Arkestra opened ports of entry with inter-dimensional waveforms to make nomadic journeys possible using human sensory apparatus. Pathways to unknown worlds.
Joining the dots, and relating this to the perceptions we can join forces with, the sound flow of Sun Ra’s music as kept alive by the Arkestra connects all points in a spiral and functions as a focal point that draws energies from the cosmos and nature to reflect them on humanity, fractal wave purification revealing the essence of the genuine human being and proclaiming the potential triumph of the human-cosmic spirit in the face of seemingly unassailable odds on our planet at this time. Amongst the songs sung by several Arkestra members, lyrics included “you can change your destiny” and “dreams come true”…
In two sets spanning an epic three hours, Sun Ra’s Arkestra directed by Marshall Allen enhanced our physical-mental wellbeing and evoked sensory wonder via the medium of sound. The energy beam concentration force enabled dimensional shifts in comprehension of reality-possibility.
For the finale, everyone in the room joined in a singalong clapalong of “we travel the spaceways / from planet to planet” as the Arkestra made its traditional march in and around the audience: we are all part of the music and wonder of the cosmos.
I’d never felt like that before listening to music, being in a living dream of such joyous tuned in connectivity. What marvels! Having experienced such a purpose of joy and well-being, I can carry it as a reference point for all time. As I walked the streets of Dalston afterwards, back on the chess board and battle field of everyday life, I thought to myself “Now what?…”
Dedicated to Alton Abraham, Sun Ra’s friend and partner at El Saturn records, who made it possible. And to all those who make it happen for themselves and others using creative energies from the perspective of human kindness and futuristic wisdom being embodied now.
Most of the quotations in this article come from Space Is The Place: The Life And Times Of Sun Ra by John Szwed. An astonishing book. Highly recommended!
For anyone wishing to check out Sun Ra Arkestra live concerts from back in the day, I recommend the following:
Fondation Maeght Nights volumes 1 & 2 (1970).
Concert For The Comet Kohoutek (1973).
[Also relating to Kohoutek and star beings: Starseed by Timothy
Leary, and Cosmic Trigger I by Robert Anton Wilson]
Live at Montreux (from 1976).
Live at the Detroit Jazz Centre (1980).
Two excellent documentaries exist about Sun Ra and the Arkestra: A Joyful Noise (Robert Mugge, 1980), and Sun Ra: Brother From Another Planet (Don Letts, 2005); plus the sci-fi feature film Space is the Place (1974)
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