Here's my contribution to This Planet Is Doomed
, a collection of Sun Ra's poetry published by Miriam Linna's Kicks Books in 2011.
The Shadow Waltz of Sun Ra and the
Space Visual Communicator
I think of myself as a complete mystery. To myself.
Beyond the interplanetary theatricality,
catchphrases, non sequiturs, science-fictional costumes and kozmic
chaos, Sun Ra (1914-1993) was an innovative bandleader, a potent pianist, an
electronic keyboard pioneer, a visionary Afrofuturist poet-philosopher, an
inventive composer and a prolific recording artist, releasing more than 100
albums totaling over 1000 tunes. Downbeat called him “the prophet of modern
jazz”. When the avant-garde
arrived, they found that Sun Ra had already been there. “I’m a troubleshooter
for the cosmos,” said Sun Ra, “sent here by the outer space beings from my home
Blues and boogie-woogie erupted into
Egyptological excursions, esoteric philosophical reflections and mystical
polyrhythmic music emanating from
spiritual spider webs stretching between the stars. Or, as he put it, “I am Sun
Ra, ambassador from the intergalactic regions of the council of outer space… I
came from a dream that the black man dreamed long ago. I’m actually a presence
sent to you by your ancestors.”
Descending to the planet Earth and arriving
in Alabama, Herman “Sonny” Blount played piano and wrote songs as a child,
performing in Birmingham while in his teens and touring his Sonny Blount
Orchestra in the late 1930s. He became known as Sonny Lee and Sonny Ray, which
flipped into Le Sonra and finally, Sun Ra. A WWII conscientious objector, he
left the South in 1945, arriving in Chicago where he made his first recordings
and was a pianist-arranger with Fletcher Henderson’s band at Chicago’s Club
DeLisa. During the mid-1950s, he launched his own label, Saturn, and brought
together a band dressed in purple blazers, white gloves and propellor beanies
before making a transition to their signature ancient Egyptian garb. Exiting
Chicago in 1961, the Arkestra became regulars at Slug’s in New York during the
1960s and a focal point of the Black
Arts Movement in 1965, performing at Black
Arts events along with the wildly ecstatic “energy music” of Albert Ayler.
In 1968, after Sun Ra moved to Philadelphia,
his home base for the next 25 years, the Arkestra toured Europe, performed at
the pyramids in Egypt, added singers and dancers to the mix, made an
experimental feature film, Space Is the Place (1974) and appeared
on Saturday Night Live (May 20, 1978).
During the 12 Days of Infinity concerts in Boston
(December 1978), Sun Ra ascended to a new plateau by adding to the Arkestra the
splendiferous color organ, the Outer Space Visual Communicator. My own
encounter with the OVC happened in the fall of that year when synchronicity
sent me in the direction of the OVC’s inventor.
I was walking down Boston’s Washington
Street when I went past the historic decaying Modern Theatre, built in 1900.
Some sort of restoration appeared to be underway, and my curiosity about old
theaters prompted me to step into the lobby area. When I introduced myself as a
journalist to the two young men standing there, one gave me a tour of the
auditorium and told me about the restoration work he was doing in preparation
for Sun Ra’s upcoming 12 Days of Infinity.
Just as I was stepping back onto the
sidewalk, the other guy walked out with me, speaking softly in a conspiratorial
manner so the first fellow would not hear. He explained that I had been talking
to the wrong person and said I should instead contact someone named Bill
Sebastian. That’s how I came to learn about “the planet Earth’s first visionary
intergalactic instrument,” which Sebastian had created to catapult Sun Ra into
The OVC was a machine of loving grace, but
it was not programmed like a computer, nor was it like the liquid light shows
of the 1960s. Instead, it had a human operator, Sebastian himself, who played
it like a musical instrument. He had invented the much-vaunted color organ
extrapolated by science fiction writers of the 1930s. In 1980, the music critic
Mark Rowland wrote, “Sebastian may be responsible for one of the significant
artistic breakthroughs of the 20th century, but so far hardly anyone
seems to be noticing.” Sun Ra noticed and brought Sebastian aboard his cosmic
Sebastian, it turned out, was a suburban
Dallas native who played piano and came north to study politics at MIT during
the late 1960s. He became a political activist in the early 1970s, and during
that same period, he was a Jonzun Crew keyboardist. But when he heard Sun Ra
playing in Boston in 1973, his life changed. Although he knew nothing about
electronics, he spent the next five years and $100,000 constructing the OVC as
a way to visualize Sun Ra’s sounds. Basically, the OVC was a giant hexagon
comprised of many smaller hexagons of translucent white plastic. Behind each of
the small white hexagons were colored lights. Cables from that 16-foot high
display screen were connected to Sebastian’s complex control panel with its
keyboard and foot pedals. In 1978, after Sun Ra saw the OVC for the first time
in Bill Sebastian’s Boston loft, he reflected on the “infinite number of
vibratory ratios” and made the inventive light magician a member of the
Arkestra’s galactic empire.
When I heard Sun Ra sounds saturating the
auditorium of the Mass College of Art auditorium in 1980, Sebastian was
caressing his keyboard at the right side of the stage some distance from the
OVC, which was centered directly behind the musicians. I wondered how many
people in the audience realized he was using his keyboard to paint with light.
How many thought he was another one of the musicians producing sounds? There was
no way to tell unless one knew.
While I began writing a film column for Heavy
that same year, Sebastian was struggling to open a midtown Boston arts center,
the Space Place, intended as a home base for Sun Ra’s interstellar excursions.
I went there to interview Sebastian for Heavy Metal, and at one point,
he allowed me to interact with the OVC. For the September 1980 issue, I
researched a history of light shows and color organs, incorporating into it the
following account of my oneiric electronic experience, the Space Place face-off
with the Tesla-like thaumaturgical wizard of the OVC:
I stand before Bill Sebastian’s towering
color organ. It looms over me. Bill and I are alone in the cool daytime
darkness of the club interior. He sits at his keyboard. I’m listening to my own
reverb as I stand at the microphone on the dance floor, scarred by a million
disco hustles of years past.
So I laugh. When Sebastian gives his
instantaneous visualization of my laughter, beautiful pop hexagons of color
radiating outward, a moving mandala of intense and luminescent blues and reds
against a black background, my mind transposes these colored circles into
representational imagery of an immense orifice—my own mouth. And when I see
this, naturally I laugh into the microphone again, and the laughter booms into
the far corners of the club’s upper level. The huge hexagonal screen instantly
responds with colors completely different, combinations of colors, greens and
blues now, spewing forth like giant geometric guffaws from the throat of God.
I’m laughing the Cosmic Giggle at last…
Despite the technology involved (six hundred
timing circuits that can sustain an image from one one-hundredth of a second to
20 seconds), the main factor here is personal expression. Sebastian’s hands
glide over 400 touch-sensitive buttons as he does his “electronic
fingerpainting.” Sebastian told me, “Out of 30 or 40 groups that I ever played
with, there’s only a handful, three or four groups, that could really relate to
the instrument. Sun Ra and Outer Tube are the most remarkable that way… Sun
Ra’s music is largely what inspired the way the instrument is designed and
constructed.” The end result is a synesthesia, high—tech and hard edge, of
non-representational graphics unlike anything created by light-show technicians
of the past.
Today, the OVC lies rusting amid the pine
needles and dampness of a Cape Cod field, a home for squirrel nests. The “cosmic
orchestra of the universe” echoes across the galaxy, a shadow waltz in the
Suboptic Shadow World. The bright gamma-ray outbursts have dimmed and winked
The colors have faded, but Sun Ra lives on
in his recordings, videos (two by Sebastian), films and writings. He produced
many poems, pamphlets and books. The Wisdom of Sun Ra: Sun Ra's Polemical
Broadsheets and Streetcorner Leaflets
(WhiteWalls, 2006) collects his early writings and 1950s lectures on
street corners. Sun Ra: Collected Works Vol. 1: Immeasurable Equation (Phaelos Books,
2005) has over 260 of his poems.
the mid-1960s, Sun Ra was part of the Umbra group of poets. The group included
Lorenzo Thomas, who wrote, “The musicians themselves were as cleverly
articulate in words as they were on the bandstand; some, in fact, were poets
and writers themselves. Charles Mingus and Sun Ra, both excellent poets and
lyricists, spoke in vast but terse metaphors to those who took the time to
listen.” Umbra Anthology, 1967-1968 grouped Sun Ra’s poems with those of
Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka and Allen Ginsberg. Baraka labeled Sun Ra as “our
resident philosopher” of the Black Arts Movement, and the Arkestra provided the
music accompaniment to Baraka’s 1966 play, A Black Mass.
1968, Baraka and Larry Neal included Sun Ra poems in their 680-page anthology
Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing (reprinted by Black
Classics Press in 2007), compiled to stand as the defining work of the Black
Arts Movement. In African American Review (1995), Baraka wrote, "Ra was so far out because he had
the true self-consciousness of the Afro American intellectual artist
revolutionary. He knew our historic ideology and socio-political consciousness
This Planet Is Doomed, more Afrofuturist poems emerge from the Shadow World,
and you, the reader, stand upon the threshold of our endless eternal universe.
Join the journey. Space is the place.
Countdown for blast-off! X minus five… four…
three… two… X minus one... Fire!
Labels: kicks books, sun ra