Date of Degree

9-2015

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

M.A.

Program

Liberal Studies

Advisor(s)

Ammiel Alcalay

Subject Categories

African American Studies | American Studies | Music

Keywords

jazz; myth; performance; poetry; Sun Ra; Sun Ra Arkestra

Abstract

This constellatory essay is a study of the African American sound experimentalist, thinker and self-proclaimed extraterrestrial Sun Ra (1914-1993) through samplings of his wide, interdisciplinary archive: photographs, film excerpts, selected recordings, and various interviews and anecdotes. In composing this essay, I particularly consider how these fragments resonate against each other, offering insight into how Ra radically subverts the restraints imposed upon him as a black man in the United States and thus transfigures his racial alienness into a liberatory, literally alien performance. This self-transfiguration allows Ra to transform such impossible restraints into a condition of possibility for reckoning. I consider how reckoning -- a word loaded with allusions to judgment, questioning, and the mythical end of the world -- can function, through aesthetic experimentation, as a radical survival strategy. It is through such reckoning that Ra proposes alternatives to the current dominant structures of a white supremacist Western society (often made synonymous with "the Earth," "the world" or "the planet"), coded in metaphors of space travel, apocalypse, resurrection and myth.

I score various acts of reckoning from Ra's life-long alien performance -- as conveyed through his costume, music, verbal and written language and philosophy -- alongside each other, as a way of understanding how he transforms his dissonant experience as a black U.S. American man into an alternative epistemology for human survival. Because Ra's primary way of reckoning is through sound, my method has been a somewhat experimental reckoning in its own right: I have tried to maintain the position of a listener-scholar, in the most synesthetic sense. While hearing can be a passive act, listening is active: it is an act of attentiveness. Because aspects Ra's performance can initially seem opaque or strange, I attend to the "lower frequency" meanings of his work -- that is, the intentional meaning within the codedness of his language.

The exigency of this work emerges from a concern with the legibility of experimental work by minoritized artists, particularly those who are either embraced as mad genius "outsiders" or dismissed as eccentrics. While they are not always explicit in this essay, two dissonant parts of our present historical moment have also underscored the essay's development: Ra's 2014 centennial, which incited many celebrations of his legacy (including performances by his ensemble, the Sun Ra Arkestra, at conventional, high-profile jazz institutions such as Jazz at Lincoln Center); and the increasingly hypervisible devaluation of black life (as well as the lives of other minoritized people) -- particularly in the United States, and particularly at the hands of law enforcement and deeply flawed justice systems. Thus, while I have composed this essay, some central questions have persisted: what afterlife will we make for Ra in the present moment? Given the risk of depoliticization with the increasing historicization of his work, could we restake the value of his life-long sonic reckoning project vis-à-vis the contemporary circumstances of black futurity -- and the preservation of a human future at large?

 
 

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