Graded on a Curve:
John Cage Meets Sun Ra

John Cage and Sun Ra are two of the most important figures in the music of the last hundred years. By the start of the 1950’s the careers of both were well underway, but it took them nearly four decades to cross paths in collaboration. They did so in Coney Island NY, and thankfully a recording of the occasion was released. While the historical value of that LP outweighs its musical achievements, John Cage Meets Sun Ra does hold its share of worthwhile moments. It’s far from the first record a person should buy from either party, but it’ll definitely provide insight and enjoyment to fans of each artist’s work.

While I was never a huge comic book junkie as a youth, I did hold a healthy interest in the form, and I can still clearly recall the enjoyment I’d experience while loitering around the revolving metal comics-rack in my local supermarket.

Often my pleasure was transformed into unbridled excitement after discovering that the latest installment in the labyrinthine story of some highly regarded representative of justice contained the addition of another well-loved champion of the cause, the pair joining up to obviously combat some sort of nefarious plot as set in motion through sinister forces.

So, it was inevitable that a little hard-earned lawn-moving coin would get dropped on just that very issue. And sometimes the storyline proved a doozy, providing unexpected twists and turns of all kinds, but more often came a sense of disappointment, my youthful mind craving a little more nourishment than simply the bang for the buck (actually, it was something like thirty-five cents in those days) that was promised by those slick color covers.

Flashing forward roughly a decade, a similar feeling of exhilaration overcame my being after discovering the existence of an LP shared by John Cage and Sun Ra. It shouldn’t be hard to deduce that I held both figures in high esteem; in fact a person could rightly say that I considered them both to be superheroes of the American avant-garde.

Said record was ordered with haste, though ominously two wholesalers didn’t have it listed in their catalogs. Thankfully, the third time proved a charm. Upon waiting for it to arrive, there was a pang of curiosity over why the album, then only around three years old, wasn’t more celebrated, but any doubts were quickly wiped from the mind; this just had to be one of those chocolate and peanut butter situations.

But after a half-dozen or so spins upon my turntable, I was somewhat underwhelmed. Unquestionably, a large part of this had to do with impossible expectations. But a portion of my reaction did derive from the album’s very matter-of-fact premise; it served up in vérité style the recordings of a performance that took place in Coney Island NY on June 8th 1986 under the banner “Sideshows by the Seashore.”

Now a cynical person might absorb the meeting of these two practitioners of very distinct avant-garde traditions in such a seemingly lowbrow locale as little more than a carnival-esque gimmick, perhaps even conjuring visions of some old-school cigar-chomping wrestling promoter braying over the innovation of the tag-team match: “Don’t ya’ see, we deliver four stars for the price of two! We’ll pack ‘em to the rafters!”

Such a skeptical view is inappropriate in this case however, mainly because Cage and Ra were both disinterested in playing a role in any sort of stuffy, highfalutin, academic-minded scenario. If the pair were accurately assessed as eccentric outsiders, they were each ultimately closer to the rumblings of a restless proletariat than any elite high-art standard.

To elaborate, Ra and his Arkestra were free jazz extenders of the classic big-band conception as exemplified by Fletcher Henderson and of course Duke Ellington, the troop’s shows justifiably legendary for their marriage of exploratory music and engaging theatricality.

Additionally, Cage was a lifelong rule breaker and experimenter, exuding a denim-clad earthiness in later years (and it’s enlightening to note that Woody Guthrie was amongst the fans of his work), continuing to confound expectations even as his earlier breakthroughs were slowly accepted into the Classical tradition.

It’s true that a large segment of the population (then and now) would quickly dismiss the work of both participants as nothing more than Weirdo Music. But instead of getting all huffy about it they just shouldered those kneejerk reactions like misunderstood but munificent kings, going so far as to undertake their one and only shared performance in a building adorned by posters advertising Snakeology, Asian Flesh-Eating Fish, and a Mermaid Parade. Yeah, I’d really like to see that last one, too.

And frankly, I would’ve much rather caught a live performance from Ra or Cage in an amusement park or fairgrounds than in some antiseptic concert hall stuffed full of tuxedos and gowns. Recordings might be the main route to appreciation of the Arkestra in the here and now, but as stated, a big part of their bread was buttered through festivals, club gigs, and ground-level touring. Subsequently, if you didn’t bring the goods the crowd would let you know, and you certainly wouldn’t be asked back.

Cage is often lauded for his early prepared piano sonatas (in the words of Guthrie: “not only did I feel that this sort of piano music was really a keen fresh breeze, but a welcome thing in the way of a healthy change from the old ways you hear the average piano played.”) and his I Ching-inspired chance-based compositions, but a large portion of his oeuvre was also devoted to music for dance, surely a performance medium if ever one was. And Modern Dance might be thought of presently as a rather lofty pursuit, but in the middle of last century it was very much the expression of artistically-inclined strugglers looking for a new way to interpret their relationship to the world.

These intrinsic links to performance are really the main factor in John Cage Meets Sun Ra’s modest level of success. While the Coney Island milieu does add an atmosphere of the unusual, the major reason for the event was to corral two men who had essentially transcended the limitations of their designated disciplines, specifically “new music” for Cage and “free jazz” for Ra. And the reality is that the two schools rarely intersected during their heyday; in fact, there was occasionally even a little friction between the camps.

A group named Meltdown Performing Arts, Inc., the artistic directors being Bronwyn Rucker and Rick Russo, decided to host the collaboration of these two distinct yet flexible figures, and if the results were absolutely worthy of preservation, they were also almost entirely directed to the needs of the moment. Or to put another way; to get the full effect, you really had to be there.

It’s not like Meltdown Records can be accused of making false promises, for the back cover of the release plainly states “unedited segments of the historic concert.” That’s exactly what the listener gets, two untitled side-long pieces, each a little over twenty-one minutes in length. It’s Ra that fares best on the LP, even as he willingly steps outside of the jazz realm for which he’s best known. His sound is far from unfamiliar though, utilizing the Yamaha DX7 keyboard for swirling celestial outbursts befitting of a being who claimed to hail from far-off Saturn.

After a wicked little mouth-synth fanfare from Arkestra-member Marshall Allen, this is the sound that begins the record, Ra engaging in roughly seven minutes of loose improvising, the results coming off far more like snippets from the soundtrack to an ultra-low-budget ‘50’s sci-fi film than anything pulled from a recognizably jazz-like place, though the proceedings do start getting nicely wild at around the five minute mark.

Appreciative applause signals the end of Ra’s opening section, which is followed immediately by Cage. He stays much closer to his late-career specialty, performing vocal work that draws from his text Empty Words. Derived from Thoreau’s Journals, Part I of the book avoids sentences, Part II phrases, Part III words, and Part IV syllables, with only letters and sounds remaining. On this evening Cage read excerpts from Part IV.

The sounds that follow for around ten minutes shape up as an intriguing listen, consisting only of relaxed enunciations interspersed with long intervals of quiet. Intriguing but only partially successful on record, as this segment of the event really seems to necessitate a complete immersion into the performance environment to achieve its full effect. Others may obviously disagree, and in fact all four segments of Early Works were released in a 2LP set in ’87.

Cage remains notorious for his piece “4’33’’”, which many mistake as nothing but silence (and by extension, as a provocation). It’s really meant to be the sounds of the environment experienced during a performance. This is a major element in this section of the album, and the album’s liner notes by Howard Mandel describe the audience engaging with the sound of a spinning fan, short interjections from a boom-box, and voices from the boardwalk outside and even the movement of the attendee’s folding chairs.

Sadly, almost none of this comes through on the LP, barely audible even at extremely high volume. What transpires instead is the environment of the room the record is being heard in, which, depending on the circumstances of course, could very likely bring a sense of deep familiarity with everyday surroundings. This might blow your mind, but it’s just as liable to not. As part of the documentation of a one-time only concert shindig, it is pretty cool, but it’s also a far cry from sitting in that building and soaking it all up firsthand.

Side one finds Ra back at the Yamaha for a short spell, and he’s carried over briefly on the beginning of the flip. The sci-fi vibe is even deeper this time out, conjuring the sounds of launching rocket ships that are quite possibly taking off for the planet Venus. Hearty applause again follows, and maybe it’s that little kid in me, but I can’t help but be warmed by the sound of Cage clapping along in appreciation.

As Cage takes his second turn, his readings come at a much closer interval and are given subtle but welcome accompaniment from Ra. In no way do they enter into a mind-meld, but it is very clear that each participant is open to other’s aesthetic, and this realization is one of the album’s best attributes. The long stretch of quiet that comes after this segment is actually pretty striking, mainly for the intense level of devoted attention that’s paid to these two irreplaceable musicians on the part of the audience, and not out of politeness but from a sincere interest in their singular forms of expression.

The rest of side two provides a wealth of that space-bound Yamaha, the progression getting quite heated at times, particularly in the last two minutes. And it’s great to read that afterwards the performers and audience mingled, noshing on pizza and a choice of beer, wine, soda pop, or juice.

But a little disappointing is the fact that June Tyson, who danced and sang “Enlightenment” during the show, is absent from the recording. More Marshall Allen would’ve been welcome, as well. But no matter; John Cage Meets Sun Ra is a raw document of a very momentous occasion, and the fact that only a portion of the event’s specialness could be encompassed by two circular grooves is less a fault than an unavoidable consequence.


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