Recording of the week: Listening to Sun Ra in the year 4000
Publicity shot of Sun Ra, 1973. Distributed by Impulse! Records and ABC/Dunhill Records. Photographer uncredited. Public domain.
Throughout his long career the pianist, composer, bandleader and Afrofuturist pioneer Sun Ra (1914-1993) released over one hundred albums, many under his own record label Saturn Records. His sprawling recorded output is matched in extent only by the longevity of his band, the variously-named Arkestra, which formed in the 1950s and still performs to this day under the leadership of saxophonist Marshall Allen - surely one of the longest-running bands in existence.
This combination has served well to preserve the legacy of Sun Ra who passed away almost 30 years ago today on 30 May 1993. His death was mourned worldwide but not more so than by his devotees from within the Arkestra as captured by an all-day KPFA memorial programme which aired in the summer of 1993. This week’s highlighted recording is from this broadcast, which forms part of the Christ Trent Collection (C833). Chris Trent is a Sun Ra historian and founder of the archive-led, Ra-oriented record label Art Yard. The programme features interviews with several members of the Arkestra including saxophonist John Gilmore, trombonist Julian Priester and trumpeter Michael Ray as well as Evidence label founder Jerry Gordon and Jim Newman who produced the Afrofuturist sci-fi film Space is the Place (1974). Whilst the majority of the interviews are anecdotal and focus on Sun Ra’s history, saxophonist Ronald Wilson’s contribution stands apart in its pertinent reflections on the future of Sun Ra’s music.
Ronald Wilson interview excerpt
Download Ronald Wilson transcript
In this clip, soundtracked by the syncopated piano chords of ‘Somewhere in Space’, Wilson talks about the House of Ra in Philadelphia. The house functioned as a communal living & rehearsal space, the Arkestral headquarters and to this day is still lived in and used by the very same band. At the time of broadcast the house was overflowing with tapes which spilled out onto the kitchen sink, underneath tables and on top of cabinets and windowsills. According to Wilson, Sun Ra recorded everything that he did.
The Sun Ra Arkestra performing in Brecon, Wales in 1990. Photo by Peter Tea. Sourced from Flickr under CC BY-ND 2.0.
To me, it feels as if Ronald Wilson is not only addressing the KPFA listeners of 1993 but also those of us working in the British Library’s sound archive in 2023, as well as the musicologists and archivists of the future. Whilst it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the long-term importance of archives, Wilson’s clear-sighted appeal is a reminder of why audio preservation is needed in order to understand the lives of these artists as they unfolded and the music that came from them. Sun Ra must have shared this viewpoint himself. His explanation, as recounted by writer Robert Campbell, on how he chose which music to release on the Saturn label, says as much:
Whatever I think people are not going to listen to, I’ve always recorded it. When it’ll take them some time - maybe 20 years, 30 years - to really hear it.
Reference: Campbell, R. in Omniverse: Sun Ra edited by Hartmut Geerken; Bernhard Hefele (Wartaweil: Waitawhile. 1994).
Today’s post was written by Gail Tasker, Metadata Support Officer.