From Black Nationalism to Black Intergalacticism

Sun-Ra-Saturn-Jazz

The visionary free jazz musician and Afro-Futurist Sun Ra was a visiting artist and professor at the University of California-Berkeley in 1971. Here is fascinating audio from a lecture he gave in his Spring course, “The Black Man in the Cosmos.”

The reading list for his course:

The Egyptian Book of the Dead

The Radix: A New Way of Making Logarithms.

Alexander Hislop: The Two Babylons.

The Theosophical works of Madame Blavatsky.

The Book of Oahspe.

Henry Dumas: Ark of Bones.

Henry Dumas: Poetry for My People, eds. Hale Charfield & Eugene Redmond, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.

Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, eds. Leroi Jones & Larry Neal, New York: William Morrow, 1968.

David Livingstone: Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa.

Theodore P. Ford: God Wills the Negro.

Archibald Rutledge: God’s Children.

Stylus, vol. 13, no. 1 (Spring 1971) — a black literary journal published byTemple University in Philadelphia.

John S. Wilson: Jazz. Where It Came From, Where It’s At, United States Information Agency.

Yosef A. A. Ben-Jochannan: Black Man of the Nile and His Family, Alkibu Ian Books, 1972.

Constantin Francois de Chasseboeuf, Comte de Volney: The Ruins, or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires, and the Law of Nature, London: Pioneer Press, 1921 (originally published 1791).

The Source Book of Man’s Life and Death (Ra’s description; = The King James Bible).

Pjotr Demianovitch Ouspensky: A New Model of the Universe. Principles of the Psychological Method in Its Application to Problems of Science, Religion and Art, New York: Knopf 1956.

Frederick Bodmer: The Loom of Language. An Approach to the Mastery of Many Languages, ed. Lancelot Hogben, New York: Norton & Co. 1944.

Blackie’s Etymology.

As Ra said:

I’m talking about something that’s so impossible it can’t possibly be true.  But it’s the only way the world’s gonna survive, this impossible thing.  My job is to change five billion people to something else.  Totally impossible.  But everything that’s possible’s been done by men, I have to deal with the impossible.  And when I deal with the impossible and am successful, it makes me feel good because I know that I’m not bullshittin’.

In 1972, a feature-length Afrofuturist/blaxploitation film, Space is the Place, was made based on Sun Ra’s Berkeley lectures. You can watch the complete film on Youtube.

 

Batter My Heart

Oppenheimer

(J. Robert Oppenheimer)

How does contemporary art music respond to the moral problems of the age?

John Adams wrote the opera Doctor Atomic, about the Manhattan Project — the top-secret World War II initiative to develop an atomic bomb before the Nazis could — in 2005. The libretto is by Peter Sellars, whom you will remember as the stage director of the production of Don Giovanni that we studied earlier in the semester. Sellars put together his libretto from historical texts, including letters and diaries.

The principal character in the opera is the American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as “the father of the atomic bomb.” Oppenheimer is reported to have said, at the first test of the prototype bomb — quoting the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita — “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

It is difficult to imagine how it must have felt to the brilliant team of scientists to witness the test explosion, knowing as they did that their invention would rupture the innocence of mankind for all time to come.

In the finale of Act I, Oppenheimer is alone with the prototype bomb (nicknamed “The Gadget”). He sings an aria whose text Sellars took from one of the Holy Sonnets of the seventeenth-century English metaphysical poet John Donne:

Batter my heart, three person’d God; For you
As yet but knock, breathe, knock, breathe, knock, breathe
Shine, and seek to mend;
Batter my heart, three person’d God;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, break, blow, break, blow
burn and make me new.

I, like an usurpt town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue,
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy,
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Why do you think Sellars and Adams gave the character of Oppenheimer these words to sing?

Is it Composed? Is it Improvised?

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George Crumb (1929 – ) wrote Apparition, a song cycle for soprano and amplified piano, in 1979. The text is taken from Walt Whitman’s elegy on the death of Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” considered one of the greatest of all American poems.

Crumb used the following excerpts from the poem:

The night in silence under many a star,
The ocean shore and the husky whispering wave whose voice I know,
And the soul turning to thee O vast and well-veil’d death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, 
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, 
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring. 
Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?
Then I chant it for thee, I glorify thee above all,
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.
Approach strong deliveress,
When it is so, when thou hast taken them I joyously sing the dead,
Lost in the loving floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss O death.
Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.
University of Colorado music professor Steven Bruns has noted:

 

One of the things that’s really interesting and attractive about the poem . . . is that Whitman at several points seems to say, “I don’t know how I can find words that are adequate to express the depth of my grief” . . . Crumb intensifies the sonorous qualities of the words, helping us to hear how Whitman is “musicalizing” the language . . . It’s Whitman’s way of saying that mere words can’t express a sense of loss—only music can do that.

Interspersed among the Whitman song settings are vocalises, i.e. melodies without words. This vocalise comes right before the song “Approach, strong deliveress!”

It may sound absolutely wild, free, and improvisatory, but it is not, as you will see when you look at Crumb’s score in the classroom.

On the other hand, John Cage’s Aria (1957) is improvised, with guidance from the score:

As is Cage’s Water Music (1952):

 

And his Water Walk (1960), a revised version of Water Music:

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Here is Cage performing Water Walk on the game show “I’ve Got A Secret”:

 

Black Men Play (with) the Classics

Theaster-Jason

More cross-cultural encounters:

The great jazz pianist Jason Moran (above right) plays one of the late piano works of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), the Intermezzo op. 118 no. 2, with his trio, the Bandwagon.  Listen to what happens.

The piece as Brahms wrote it: