Sun Ra

The Man Machine

(For the season, and my Winter Fundraiser, I’m reposting some old favorites.)

In the fall of 2009, Capitol/EMI issued a lavish and long-awaited box set, collecting the catalogue of recordings of one of the world’s most beloved, and most important, pop music groups. The music this group made was not only great in its own right but revolutionary and hugely influential. Whole genres of popular music of the last forty years are impossible to imagine, and would have been impossible to create, without the legacy of this band, arguably the greatest of all that came out of the rise of pop culture and mass media. That band is, of course, Kraftwerk.

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I find the most beautiful lyrics in all of pop music are:

“Radioactivity/It’s in the air for you and me”

I’m neither exaggerating nor being facetious. That brief phrase fills me with a blissful, joyous feeling. Because of all the things in my life, one of my great loves is Kraftwek. Ahhhh, Kraftwerk . . .

If you hit that last link, you saw a good depiction of the group’s aesthetic, and when I say I love them, I love the entire package, the vision that goes beyond just music and conveys what I feel is a vision of the future. Kraftwerk doesn’t offer predictions of the future – they are from the future, coming back to visit us and tell us that everything works, and everything is going to be fine.

So it is some sense of comfort that I find so wonderful in Kraftwerk. The music certainly conveys it. I’m not going to make an objective, critical argument that it is great, but it is great to me. The timbres of the electronic sounds they use please my ear, as do the rhythms, and so I find their music very warm – their sense of humor adds to that. And their is a willful naiveté they embrace that I find utterly charming. You can see it in this early video for “Radioactivity,” which takes something sinister and gives it a bit of sweetness:

Almost 40 years later, they are perhaps wiser, certainly more sober and ‘professional’ in the way they present themselves. No longer time-travellers, they are technocrats, using technology to clean-up the messes made by misguided projects:

Despite the ominous opening, the performance is still uplifting. Radiation is still something to be made beautiful, or around which beauty can grow. In Chernobyl itself, nature is returning, adapting to a new environment rapidly in the absence of human activity. This touches on another Kraftwerk aesthetic, the idea of the beauty of lasting technology. If they are truly visiting us from the future, perhaps they are robots, and what they are telling us is that although mankind no longer exists, the earth abides, and we have left behind beautiful examples of our technology that await rediscovery, perhaps the alien finger hitting the “Play” button. It’s “Wall-E” with a human facade.

Kraftwerk also mark the nexus between technology, engineering, communications and the creative and applied arts. They have always been as much engineers as musicians, engineers of beautiful machines for making music. That idea was not new when they appeared, but it was new in the realm of pop music. Their aesthetic forefathers were the Futurists and their idea of the Art of Noises, and especially the American composer George Antheil.

I think of Antheil as an inventor and a revolutionary, and although he was not a great composer, he was an important one who produced one far-seeing masterpiece. His Ballet mécanique was an idea so far ahead of his era that it is only in the past few years that it can be realized appropriately. It’s a piece for machines, and Antheil envisioned mechanical control of all the instruments, the pianos, xylophones and drums. That was not technically feasible 70 years ago – it’s only with the advent of MIDI sequencing that a good performance can even be ventured, and I had heard enough mediocre realizations to think that the piece was nothing but a mediocre imitation of Stravinsky, with a bit of Varese tossed in.

I’m glad to say that I’m wrong. I saw a performance in the spring of 2008 that finally produced the work as Antheil imagined. It was entirely mechanical. The vital added feature was a number of robotic beaters, built by LEMUR, used to play the xylophones and drums. This were extremely well designed and built, and so the piece could be performed via computer control with a degree of precision that the human ear heard as unvaryingly absolute. And it was stunning, thrilling. It is the workings of machinery and manufacturing made into music, and it is an incredible work. It’s also a nostalgic one, because the factories that the Futurists thought were the cathedrals of a new age are essentially gone. The ones that are left are more and more populated by . . . robots.

And from Antheil, via Kraftwerk, we get to . . . Hip-Hop. Indeed, Hip-Hop is impossible without Kraftwerk, and here’s the Rosetta Stone which proves it:

And why not? Hip-hop is pop music that is pioneering the use of technology in the means of production. To a great extent, it is manufactured music, put together with physical pieces of raw materials (which used to be tape splices and are now digital files). Musicians and producers use machinery to engineer beats, which they sell like tools or cars. Americans are still making things, it seems, adapting the aesthetic of fine German engineering. Now that’s free trade we can believe in, my friends.

Culturally, the affinity between a bunch of pale toningenieurs and a bunch of B-Boys from the Bronx is closer than the skin color and clothing styles might suggest. Kraftwerk carved, via sound, carved out space in the popular imagination that the nexus of music and science-fiction fit into neatly and warmly. And science-fiction, from proto form in the theology of the Nation of Islam and the concepts of Sun Ra, to Rammellzee and the Jonzun Crew, is an important part of African-American popular culture. Again, why not? Imagine that you are born and raised in a country that your forefathers were integral in building, not of their own desire but because that had been taken from their far-away homes and forced into labor, and that, while nominally free and equal, your were regarded in general with hostility and suspicion by the majority population, the ones who engineered your existence here, and most of whom had roots far younger and shallower than yours (yet who claimed to be the true and natural citizens of this land). Wouldn’t you feel like an alien from outer space, wouldn’t you look to someplace off the planet, or some technology that would get you there, as your home, your heaven?

But back to the future. The enduring legacy of Kraftwerk is a utopian one, that the future will be good. It just may not be a human utopia – it’s a place where everything works, and perhaps better because we may not be around anymore. Of all the worthy Kraftwerk tributes out there, I think the best one to end with is this one:

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The Secret History of American Popular Music

This is going to be one of the musical events of the year: starting at midnight tonight, WKCR is honoring the centennial of Sun Ra with non-stop music through May 25.

What makes this so important is that Ra was both prolific and obscure, and there are bound to be recordings from the archives that are nowhere to be found via the direct or after-markets. Check the link above for schedule and listen as much as you can, because nothing and no one explains the weird, contradictory, insane and beautiful roots of American popular music like Sunny does. Here’s the essential primer, and I do mean essential, this needs to be in your music library.

SunRa1

UPDATE: The iTunes store has set up a page with a substantial collection of digital releases. (h/t Hank Shteamer)

First, The Sound


(not for the faint of heart or ear)

To quote the great David St. Hubbins, “it’s such a fine line between stupid, and clever.” It’s also, in American culture, a fine line between the established and the avant-garde. The paragon of this are Sun Ra’s singles, which combine a sincere, straight-faced take on pop music with the deep, but lightly held, eccentricities and naive weirdness of Sunny at his best. And how else to describe Sunn O))), makers of music that is simultaneously heavy metal – mainstream – and deeply experimental, who headed the bill of the Blackened Music Series at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple Tuesday night.

At the end of a long evening, Sunn O))) was alternately amazing and tiresome, with the amazement ultimately winning the balance and producing a rare experience. Part of the amazement is that Sunn O))) is actually doing what they do – they are essentially some of the foremost avant-garde musicians currently in America. They get there by being truly experimental, trying things and judging the results then exploring what they like. Where institutionalized avant-garde too often means drawing a limited and artificial boundary line and then ‘transgressing’ it with self-conscious dramatization, this intuitive and fruitful method requires patience, work and dedication to hone the ear and taste; it requires craft and artistry.

How they do it is clear, as their prepared material is formed through dedicated improvisation, but how they get away with it in front of an audience is a bit of a mystery, and fascinating. By this I mean how they gather a relatively mainstream audience, not the tiny segment of the population that seeks out and listens to avant-garde music in a more self-conscious and self-isolating way. The band is in the tradition of anti-Establishment American culture, where people go their own way and come up with their own, often extremely odd, autodidactic solutions. They are, thankfully, ignorant of or uninterested in the limited and circumscribed possibilities offered by the overly-professionalized conventional wisdom found in politics, business and the institutionalized arts. What university or granting organization would even imagine that music could be made that had no melody, harmony, tempo, beat, rhythm or even pulse? That is Sunn O))) at their best, which is at their most extreme, making music with pure sound.

They are not, however, always at their best. I would say that their not-best work is what helps them gain a relatively large audience (an enormous one vis-a-vis the avant-garde in music); you can listen to tracks that have a drum beat, that have a bit of a riff, and certainly that have lyrical content. The band, Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley, make use of the heavy metal performance cliches of hooded robes and smoke machines, all elements common enough to give a listener some familiar place to start. But while these elements are familiar, the application can be unique. They are ritualistic in fundamental and simple ways – at the Temple, they filled the entire auditorium with smoke and then waited an extra, wearying, twenty minutes, playing the multi-phonic chanting of monks over the PA before taking the stage. Once they did, however, they produced their massive slabs of sound completely shrouded in obscurity for most of the performance. This was amazing. The smoke had the effect of eliminating any distractions from pure listening, and with Sunn O))) one listens with the body. My iPhone decibel meter was pinned at 110, the level of a chain saw at close quarters, and the actual volume was appreciably higher (a momentary ear plug gap during Eagle Twin’s opening set revealed that they were casually exceeding the pain threshold 125 dbB).

It was a long set, divided roughly into two unequal parts. The first and longest part was exemplary; deeply pitched, enormous and enormously long chords and tones coming at intervals which, compared to common metal music, could be charted only on a geologic time scale. The sound, through amplification, has astonishing physical presence and fullness without being thick, it’s actual quite transparent and full of pleasantly gritty, crackling details. When it is complex enough to define a chord, it is mainly minor key and never dissonant, although Anderson and O’Malley push the sounds against each other and bend the tunings enough so that the gradual speeding and slowing of wave interference beats spin around the space. Sunn O))) understands how fascinating and beautiful the qualities of sound can be and they have the craft to convey that to the audience, placing musical events with confidence and care through passing time. Their ability to listen and wait patiently for the next musical moment is uncommon. The long, slow first part was so powerful and transformative, with a built-in natural ending, that it would have been completely satisfying all by itself. The second part was solid but inevitably less majestic and surprising and the slightly faster musical activity was unable to carry the same amount of sonic and expressive weight.

And there was heavy-duty expression happening. With each attack, the sound was immediately there, filling the entire auditorium and filling the body as well, and this is the key. As an email from the organizer warned “you will feel this show with you entire body. Please fortify yourselves accordingly.” Sound is a physical phenomenon, waves that reach out and touch the listener, connection the source and object across distance. Sunn O))) literally touches the audience, this is a goal, and they touch with profound power in that what they play doesn’t only reach the skin and the ear, it enters the body and vibrates it from the inside out. When they hit certain frequencies this vibration can produce a reactive sound that is heard from inside the body – there were moments when a distinct, buzzing hum was clearly audible to my inner ear and clearly coming from inside my body, with a quality not far from the sensation of chanting “om” during yoga practice. This was like magic in the sense of the primitive mind experiencing awe. Certainly, one must be sympathetic to the actual sounds Sunn O))) produces, and that response is going to be positive or negative in a fundamentally intuitive way, but for the sympathetic listener the experience of the band at their best, i.e. their most extreme, is like encountering two gods placing mountains on the earth, shaping the land across horizons we cannot perceive. After all, before the first light there was first the sound.

The group was joined on stage by singer Atilla Csihar, with mixed results. With him they were both at their best and at their most ordinary, which is not their strength. Csihar is an astonishing singer and a charismatic performer, appearing first in a scalloped, metallic robe with laser pointers on his fingers, and then in a primitive costume of burlap and wood, he seemed to be a visitor from an alien planet and then a creature from mythology. He has tremendous command of multi-phonic singing and produced impossibly long, sustained tones that were as mesmerizing as the two guitars. He also sang lyrics, some in English and some in Hungarian, and this dispelled the magic. When Sunn O))) is free from the common and confining elements of beats and words, they are marvelous. When they use these elements they are only a little interesting; they circumscribed by a genre they inherently surpass. The lyrics, a rambling mishmash of vaguely pagan incantation seem meant to be unsettling in a standard way, vis-a-vis contemporary Western religion and society, and they are unsettling but in that sense that one is unsettled by an adolescent boy’s misanthropic, anti-social proselytizing and looks forward to the day when he grows out of it. This is an aspect of normal metal music, infantilism, that is a feature, not a bug, and sorely limits its possibilities.

The other aspect is the beat, and Sunn O))) performed without percussion which, considering their basic heaviness, has the paradoxical effect of maintaining a certain lightness in their sound. The other bands, Eagle Twin, Pelican and Earth, all had drummers, and this put a limit on their own qualities. Metal drumming is the weakest musical part of the genre, a stiff, un-syncopated bashing which adds weight and force but also tends to hold the music making in place in the vertical sense, when it could be flowing along. John Bonham wasn’t the greatest drummer, but he could still convey a sense of rhythm and funkiness in a heavy music, and it’s odd that there is so little of his legacy extant. Eagle Twin’s Gentry Densley is a powerful, fluid guitarist, able to solo forcefully while accompanying himself and they are at their best when he’s ripping through the music, but the singing and drum bashing are again ordinary. Pelican and Earth are purely instrumental. The former is a powerhouse group, playing songs that combine familiar seeming riffs with interesting orchestrations and excellent ensemble playing, their set offered the suggestion that they could be truly astonishing if they could only free their beat a little. Earth is a veteran band playing a spellbinding, lyrical and truly minimal metal; sparse, slow, graceful lines placed amidst a great deal of silence. Again, their beat is stolid rather than propulsive, but they have the unique ability to create the sensation that time is standing still, followed by the feeling that only a few minutes have flown by once their set ends. They left the crowd wanting much more, and set the stage for Sunn O))).

It's Always Sonny in Philadelphia

Prepare thy minds for the con-fusion of the coincidental . . . I sat down to glance at the Times’ Weekend Arts section today, and just as I happily discovered a story about an exhibit dedicated to Sun Ra, Out To Lunch started on WKCR, with today’s feature of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Between those bookends is an entire library’s worth of ideas and experiences.

Both men are easily, and correctly, cast as avant-garde musicians – Sun Ra emphasizing improvisatory freedom and non-musical ritual, while Kirk rummages through different aspects of eccentricity. At least that’s the way it looks from the common perspective of a middle-class, middle-brow white perspective. But change that perspective a bit, and things seem different by orders of magnitude. Sun Ra and Kirk are, to my mind, deep-rooted traditionalists in the tradition of the other, weird America which I always think is the true and fundamental heart of America. Musically, he spent his career renewing the musical legacy of Fletcher Henderson and black popular music. That he did so donned, musically and literally, in the robes of a shaman claiming extra-terrestrial origin, is perfectly logical to me. If you were born in a country that your ancestors were fundamental in creating, in a culture whose richness was indebted to your ancestors, and yet you were treated with ignorance and hostility because those same ancestors were actually forced into their labors, wouldn’t you feel like an alien? Sun Ra merely took the mildly imaginative leap to say he was form another planet, not another country. Since it seems there is no other country immune from American xenophobia, it makes sense to me.

Kirk made a slightly different choice out of exactly the same problem; for him, it was the guise of the eccentric street musician, literally the one-man-band. His personal tradition had slightly different antecedents, going back to the cultural complexity of minstrelsy, the worthwhile to carve a niche in a racist society by entertaining and doing so with both charm and an uncompromising dignity. His ability to play more than one woodwind instrument at the same time was more than just showmanship, it had musical meaning; he could accompany himself and also create his own counterpoint, a feat more of the mind than the body and an astonishing one.

Neither man was truly, originally weird, it’s America that made them that way. If you’ve read ‘Invisible Man,’ you know what I mean. And at the core of their music is something truly non-weird, a basic expression of the blues and an embrace of life that is a great joy. You can hear it in the 2 CD set of Sun Ra’s singles . . . yes, his 45 rpm singles. This is essential for an understanding of the real roots of American culture. The music is deeply strange and deeply normal at the same time, straightforward R&B performed by musicians who recognize that they are outsiders in their own country and are unselfconscious about that. You can also hear it in Kirk’s interpolations of Dvorak, Hava Nagila and his extraordinary collage “Water For Robeson and Williams,” which is a piece of conceptual music just one step further along the path that Charles Ives laid out. In fact, like Ives and Ralph Ellison, they are merely dressing values that aesthetically are fundamentally conservative in drag, they are profoundly normal, humane and moral artist trying to pass in a world that mainly hates them, while daily that same world unthinkingly consumes the fruits of their (forced) labors.

It’s Always Sonny in Philadelphia

Prepare thy minds for the con-fusion of the coincidental . . . I sat down to glance at the Times’ Weekend Arts section today, and just as I happily discovered a story about an exhibit dedicated to Sun Ra, Out To Lunch started on WKCR, with today’s feature of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Between those bookends is an entire library’s worth of ideas and experiences.

Both men are easily, and correctly, cast as avant-garde musicians – Sun Ra emphasizing improvisatory freedom and non-musical ritual, while Kirk rummages through different aspects of eccentricity. At least that’s the way it looks from the common perspective of a middle-class, middle-brow white perspective. But change that perspective a bit, and things seem different by orders of magnitude. Sun Ra and Kirk are, to my mind, deep-rooted traditionalists in the tradition of the other, weird America which I always think is the true and fundamental heart of America. Musically, he spent his career renewing the musical legacy of Fletcher Henderson and black popular music. That he did so donned, musically and literally, in the robes of a shaman claiming extra-terrestrial origin, is perfectly logical to me. If you were born in a country that your ancestors were fundamental in creating, in a culture whose richness was indebted to your ancestors, and yet you were treated with ignorance and hostility because those same ancestors were actually forced into their labors, wouldn’t you feel like an alien? Sun Ra merely took the mildly imaginative leap to say he was form another planet, not another country. Since it seems there is no other country immune from American xenophobia, it makes sense to me.

Kirk made a slightly different choice out of exactly the same problem; for him, it was the guise of the eccentric street musician, literally the one-man-band. His personal tradition had slightly different antecedents, going back to the cultural complexity of minstrelsy, the worthwhile to carve a niche in a racist society by entertaining and doing so with both charm and an uncompromising dignity. His ability to play more than one woodwind instrument at the same time was more than just showmanship, it had musical meaning; he could accompany himself and also create his own counterpoint, a feat more of the mind than the body and an astonishing one.

Neither man was truly, originally weird, it’s America that made them that way. If you’ve read ‘Invisible Man,’ you know what I mean. And at the core of their music is something truly non-weird, a basic expression of the blues and an embrace of life that is a great joy. You can hear it in the 2 CD set of Sun Ra’s singles . . . yes, his 45 rpm singles. This is essential for an understanding of the real roots of American culture. The music is deeply strange and deeply normal at the same time, straightforward R&B performed by musicians who recognize that they are outsiders in their own country and are unselfconscious about that. You can also hear it in Kirk’s interpolations of Dvorak, Hava Nagila and his extraordinary collage “Water For Robeson and Williams,” which is a piece of conceptual music just one step further along the path that Charles Ives laid out. In fact, like Ives and Ralph Ellison, they are merely dressing values that aesthetically are fundamentally conservative in drag, they are profoundly normal, humane and moral artist trying to pass in a world that mainly hates them, while daily that same world unthinkingly consumes the fruits of their (forced) labors.