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Sun Ra

The real birthday present was dinner at a very fancy restaurant, but Eileene bought me something to unwrap, too. Well, no, not to unwrap, exactly—she didn’t wrap it. But physical objects. Two framed posters, which I liked, and a wild stab-in-the-dark CD of jazz musician Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra, which I didn’t like so much.

It sounds awful. Although the Arkestra sometimes plays tunefully enough to prove it can, it spends most of its time slouching among arrhythmic dissonance, the kind of jazz that evolved from getting so used to deliberate, momentary dissonance as to consider dissonance the new consonance, and the subsequent attitude that preserving jazz’s signature surprise notes must mean turning out ever more horrible blats, squawks, and plunks. It’s the kind of jazz that a casual listener can’t distinguish from a bunch of hacks banging away at random, or at times a junior high band simply unable to play at all.

Peter Schickele liked to start his music appreciation radio show by quoting Ellington: “If it sounds good, it is good.” Fair enough. The inverse isn’t necessarily true. I cheerfully admit that I don’t have the sophistication to understand some of the more abstruse jazz movements. While I enjoy Ellington and Goodman and Armstrong as much as the next guy, jazz and I part ways somewhere around Miles Davis’s appearance. His popularity is no proof of talent—people got excited about Zager and Evans, too—but the fact that people continue to talk cogently about Davis and his influence is strong evidence that there is much there to enjoy that a plebeian simply might not get. Still, if music that sounds good is its own justification, then music that sounds bad takes the burden of proof upon itself and its adherents, proof that something unaesthetic and apparently unskillful is nevertheless worthwhile. So does the commentary on Sun Ra, like that on Davis, match the burden of proof?

The ever-reliable wikipedia portrays Sun Ra as a controversial figure, talent mixed with eccentricity and quite possibly schizophrenia. The leaflet in the jewel case is much more forgiving, thick with sweeping but highly nonspecific (and especially non-disprovable) praise. Phrases like “Interplanetary Music is on the verge of the electronic frontier Ra would eventually conquer” are not a good sign Far worse are claims like “In light of recent research into Egyptology, classical Greek philosophy and science, and the music of the spheres [!], Ra’s rap [!! In the 1950s?] is finally being taken seriously [!!!], though an enormous amount of work still needs to be done to understand the elements of magic, mythology, and musical symbolism Sun Ra personifies.” I don’t need to understand Sun Ra to know that the author of that boilerplate doesn’t understand him, either. It’s the kind of blither you get with fake art posing as modern art. Like Allen Ginsberg and Andy Warhol, Sun Ra and his Arkestra depend a great deal on an audience projecting their expectations into something apparently directionless. Like a Rorschach inkblot, one sees in the music what one expects to see. And if, like me, one comes to the music with no expectations, he sees nothing but chaos therein.

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