Hear Sun Ra’s 1971 UC Berkeley Lecture “The Power of Words”

Read­ing David Byrne’s How Music Works the oth­er day, I came across a pas­sage where the Talk­ing Heads front­man recalls his for­ma­tive ear­ly expo­sure to the dis­tinc­tive com­po­si­tions and per­sona (not that you can real­ly sep­a­rate the two) of Sun Ra. “When I first moved to New York, I caught Sun Ra and his Arkestra at the 5 Spot, a jazz venue that used to be at St. Mark’s Place and Bow­ery,” Byrne writes. “He moved from instru­ment to instru­ment. At one point there was a bizarre solo on a Moog syn­the­siz­er, an instru­ment not often asso­ci­at­ed with jazz. Here was elec­tron­ic noise sud­den­ly reimag­ined as enter­tain­ment!”

Some might have writ­ten off Sun Ra and his Arkestra as indulging in form­less artis­tic flail­ing, but in these shows, “as if to prove to skep­tics that he and the band real­ly could play, that they real­ly had chops no mat­ter how far out they some­times got, they would occa­sion­al­ly do a tra­di­tion­al big band tune. Then it would be back to out­er space.” As in Sun Ra’s music, so in Sun Ra’s words: as the jazz com­pos­er born Her­man Poole Blount got increas­ing­ly exper­i­men­tal in his com­po­si­tion, the details of his “cos­mic phi­los­o­phy” under­ly­ing it, a kind of sci­ence-fic­tion-inflect­ed Afro-mys­ti­cism, mul­ti­plied.

While many of Sun Ra’s pro­nounce­ments struck (and still strike) lis­ten­ers as a bit odd, he could nev­er­the­less ground them in a vari­ety of intel­lec­tu­al con­texts as a seri­ous thinker. We offered evi­dence of this last year when we post­ed the full lec­ture and read­ing list from the course he taught at UC Berke­ley in 1971, “The Black Man in the Cos­mos.” Now you can hear it straight from the man him­self in the playlist at the top of the post, which con­tains his lec­ture “The Pow­er of Words,” also deliv­ered at Berke­ley in 1971, as part of the school’s Pan-African Stud­ies cur­ricu­lum.

But do heed the warn­ing includ­ed with the videos: “Remem­ber, Sun Ra was a ‘UNIVERSAL BEING’ not of this dimen­sion or of a race cat­e­go­ry. With all his infor­ma­tive author­i­ty, in some cas­es dur­ing these lec­tures, the con­tent will be shock­ing to hear.” Shocked or not, you may well come away from the expe­ri­ence con­vinced that not only did Sun Ra the musi­cian under­stand the pow­er of music, exe­cut­ed cre­ative­ly, to take us to new aes­thet­ic realms, he also under­stood the pow­er of words to take us to new intel­lec­tu­al ones. But you’ve got to be will­ing to take the ride into out­er space with him.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sun Ra’s Full Lec­ture & Read­ing List From His 1971 UC Berke­ley Course, “The Black Man in the Cos­mos”

A Sun Ra Christ­mas: Hear His 1976 Radio Broad­cast of Poet­ry and Music

The Cry of Jazz: 1958’s High­ly Con­tro­ver­sial Film on Jazz & Race in Amer­i­ca (With Music by Sun Ra)

Col­in Mar­shall writes on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, and the video series The City in Cin­e­maFol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.