Hear the One Night Sun Ra & John Cage Played Together in Concert (1986)

It’s hard to imag­ine two fig­ures more rep­re­sen­ta­tive of two dis­parate direc­tions exper­i­men­tal music took in the 20th cen­tu­ry than John Cage and Sun Ra. Cage’s aleato­ry arrange­ments and instru­ments impro­vised from radios and TV sets left much to the dis­cre­tion of the per­former. And yet, odd­ly, he did­n’t think much of impro­visato­ry music, writ­ing in his 1961 book Silence that he con­sid­ered jazz “rather sil­ly” and “unsuit­ed,” notes Seth Colter Walls at Pitch­fork, “for ‘seri­ous’ con­texts.”

Sun Ra, on the oth­er hand, while a mas­ter impro­vis­er, left lit­tle to chance. He embraced the role of band­leader of his Arkestra with unique vig­or, “com­plete­ly obsessed with pre­ci­sion and dis­ci­pline.” Cage pre­ferred the plain-spo­ken, unspo­ken, and word­less. Ra deliv­ered roco­co trea­tis­es onstage, dressed in glit­ter­ing capes and head­dress­es. How the two would, or could, come togeth­er may seem a mys­tery, but come togeth­er they did, for a one-time con­cert event at a Coney Island freak show.

The result­ing album is “one of the most sought after records in either discog­ra­phy,” writes The Vinyl Fac­to­ry in an announce­ment of the full per­for­mance’s recent release by label Mod­ern Har­mon­ic. Fans can final­ly pur­chase that dou­ble LP, or lis­ten to the live record­ing for free below. (If you need Spo­ti­fy’s soft­ware, down­load it here.) Though it may seem like a bit of a nov­el­ty, “the album grad­u­al­ly emerges as some­thing greater than a foot­note,” Walls writes, “despite the arms-length embrace, the over­all con­cert has a sur­pris­ing­ly seam­less qual­i­ty.”

Cage’s con­tri­bu­tions con­sist main­ly of word­less vocal­iza­tions and poignant silences. Ra recites poet­ry and unleash­es solo after solo on his Yama­ha DX7 syn­the­siz­er, blend­ing “sci-fi movie tones” with “spright­ly fig­ures” and “dense chords and drones.” The album’s trail­er at the top of the post offers some rare black and white footage of the occa­sion, which briefly includ­ed a cou­ple of addi­tion­al artists–Arkestra sax­o­phon­ist Mar­shall Allen and singer June Tyson. (Tyson’s inten­tion­al­ly strained per­for­mance “is beset by ampli­fi­ca­tion prob­lems,” Walls warns, “though the noise-dam­aged result works, in con­text.”

Through­out the one-off meet­ing, Ra and Cage trade solos, each respect­ful­ly yield­ing the stage to the oth­er in turn. While this set­up high­lights the two giants’ pro­found­ly dif­fer­ent approach­es to making–and con­ceiv­ing of–music, Sun Ra’s “abil­i­ty to meet Cage more than halfway… helps hold the entire gig togeth­er,” writes Walls. One of the few tracks on which the two col­lab­o­rate direct­ly, “Silent Duet,” is, well, exact­ly that. Since we can­not see the per­for­mance, we have to imag­ine the two of them, sit­ting side-by-side in silence, as the audi­ence seems to all but hold its breath.

The odd thump of a foot against the mic stand aside, the record­ing doc­u­ments almost total dead air. Then this gives way to Cage’s cryp­tic mum­bling and Ra’s restrained key­board taps in “Emp­ty Words and Key­board.” The effect is elec­tric, the moment sacred, and the col­lab­o­ra­tion, though fleet­ing, reveals itself as gen­uine­ly inspired, not only for its care­ful play of con­trast­ing avant-gardis­m’s against each oth­er but for the extra­or­di­nary instances in which Afro­fu­tur­ist free jazz and Fluxus min­i­mal­ism find accord.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Sun Ra Plays a Music Ther­a­py Gig at a Men­tal Hos­pi­tal; Inspires Patient to Talk for the First Time in Years

The Music of Avant-Garde Com­pos­er John Cage Now Avail­able in a Free Online Archive

The Curi­ous Score for John Cage’s “Silent” Zen Com­po­si­tion 4’33”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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