Archive Dive : Happy 105th Birthday Sun Ra !

An article by Matt Mehlan, published on May 23, 2019

As a part of the ongoing work of The Creative Audio Archive at ESS, we present Archive Dive – a regular newsletter featuring unheard recordings and ephemera related to the collections housed in the CAA. For more information on the recordings and/or collections included below, please contact or visit:

May 22nd, 2019 marks what would have been Sun Ra’s 105th birthday, or as many refer to it, his “arrival day” on planet Earth.

To celebrate, this month’s Archive Dive looks at two particular recordings from the Sun Ra / El Saturn Collection at the CAA, recently utilized as inspiration and source materials for a performance and recording by artists participating in The Bridge, a “Transatlantic Network for Creative Music” that pairs American and French musicians in collaborative performing ensembles. This iteration of The Bridge brought together the French artists Olivia Scemama and Simon Sieger with Americans Dan Bitney, Rob Frye and Jayve Montgomery.  

The Bridge came to visit ESS for a two day stretch: first to spend time with the Creative Audio Archive, then to create a new piece of music inspired by interaction with the archive. I prepared a playlist of recordings from the Sun Ra collection that I began compiling late last Summer, of recordings of Sun Ra speaking. I’ve always been particularly interested in Sun Ra’s voice and writing – the lectures from his course at UC Berkeleyhis poetry, his song lyrics… They are poetic and prescient, playful and intense, for example from the first reel featured here:

“Truth is Bad, Truth is Bad… or Truth is Good. It depends on where and why and how and who you are…”

It doesn’t take long to find inspiration in Sun Ra – and the first two things we pulled up for listening in Studio B became the focus of the day. The first is an entry marked “Ra poetry with Arkestra” (SR-R116 – Reel 107). The label transcription read “(Shamrock)”. This is in reference to the reel box, Shamrock being the tape manufacturer. No other labelling is found on the box or the reel.

The recording features 32 minutes of uninterrupted poetry, recited by Ra himself, over various recordings of the Arkestra and synthesizer explorations. It’s heady, gorgeous stuff.

The second recording, a portion of which became the starting point for The Bridge’s new material – is a recording of one of Sun Ra’s lectures at UC Berkeley (SR-R149 – Reel 179). Unlike other recordings I have heard from the course he taught in 1971, this fantastic recording concludes with performances by Ra on both the piano (playing a version of “Love in Outer Space”) and synthesizer (a wild and wonderfully noisy solo on the Moog, according to the box).

The Bridge group members utilized this recording to make samples, midi files and notation that was shared among the musicians, generating patterns and a melodic core from which to expand.

Jayve Montgomery explains:

“The Sun Ra archives presented a magical moment for us. We covered ‘Love in Outer Space’; scratched and cut his lecture text and piano solo into our live improvisation using the Ms. Pinky DVS software; and we MIDI translated/transcribed his synth solo from a 1973 lecture at Berkely into MIDI data we thensent to two synths and two parallel paths of effects, twisting hardware parameters while the ‘Ghost of Sun Ra’ (as we call the piece) vibrated through the room.

After our ESS residency, ‘Love in Outer Space’ became a rallying piece of focus in our remaining sets the following week.”

I am sure the result of this collaboration will make its way to the web soon and some images of the archive visit and recording session can be found on our Instagram, as well as The Bridge’s various web outlets.

About 30 minutes into Ra’s lecture is this great bit on the potential power of music and (as he says a bit later on the tape), his belief that artists need to always “do something impossible”:

“If I had the musicians to do what I wanted them to do, by this time – well, according to the theories I’m working on – I’d take the planet and move it to Jupiter – and everybody could get off and go and look around… [inaudible] ask me, ‘Well uh, you planning to take Black people to outer space?’ I said, ‘Sure!’ They said ‘How you gon’ do it, you don’t have no spaceships or nothin’’. I said, ‘I’m gonna do it with music – all I have to do is get enough musicians, and we play this particular song… in order to move the planet, because the planet is a spaceship… All we have to do is direct the movement… [and] just take the whole world!’”

Happy Arrival Day to Sun Ra.

Both of these recordings are available for listening by appointment. In addition to some of the links here, a large number of Sun Ra recordings have been uploaded to Bandcamp, where they have published a short guide on this newly available resource. Also recently, a selection of Sun Ra reels from the collection at ESS, chosen and photographed by John Corbett, was featured in the Blank Forms journal – a worthy Arrival Day gift.

Please be in touch to listen and feel free to send questions, comments, corrections, ideas, interests.

-Matt Mehlan

Archives & Media Manager, Experimental Sound Studio