October 2008

"Space Is The Place" Symposium
at the third annual X Avant Festival of New Music
October 25, 2008 The Music Gallery Toronto
Report by David Fujino
On a cozy Saturday afternoon at The Music Gallery, six guest speakers and the audience assembled in a semicircle (as friendly listeners) to celebrate the music and visionary ideas of Sun Ra and Karlheinz Stockhausen — two radical composers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The first speaker, Alan Stanbridge, really nailed it when he observed that Sun Ra's music blurs the line between art and entertainment, but more importantly, he said, it's really entertainment and politics that dominate Ra's art, whereas in the case of Stockhausen, a desire to escape political oppression most likely motivated the German composer's adventures in outward bound music.

Up next was Winston Smith who delivered a thoroughly engaging and informative Afro-centric talk about Sun Ra. Smith spoke at length about Ra's link with the jazz tradition; he associated Ra's concerns about Black identity and reclamation with the writer Zora Neale Hurston's identity concerns; and he identified Ra's lifelong mission to escape a racist world by pointing to Ra's Egyptian costumes, Space Age head dresses, and his lyric chants ("Space Is The Place"). Sun Ra always claimed to be from Saturn.

In a clever bit of programming, Andrew Timma spoke about the astrologist Julie Simmons whose work can be found on the Internet. Simmons knew nothing about Sun Ra or his music, but based on the information received at the time, she came up with several startling findings. Simmons found Ra to be exceedingly eccentric, a Gemini with Saturn in the centre of Gemini. She also found Ra to be a very brilliant person who saw himself as a visitor to earth.

It turned out that some of the symposium's six speakers knew the music of Sun Ra but not Stockhausen, while others had heard of Stockhausen, but little or no Sun Ra. It was like that for the audience, too.

Carl Wilson cited Stockhausen's opera "Licht" for its freedom from constraint (musical, political and social); then he advanced the big idea that Stockhausen's introduction of synthesizers into the acoustical tradition of European art music was a step into a future which was changing into the inorganic. In the case of Sun Ra and his Arkestra members, with their Egyptian costumes and symbols — dressed in a kind of futuristic imagery — Wilson pointed out that they looked like a blend of present and past. Futuristic imagery was like that. Otherwise, he said, you could say Sun Ra was against White Supremacy, and was non-Christian in his spiritual beliefs, but was equally critical of Blackness.

Stockhausen's own unique concept of space — or 'spatialization' as it came to be known — actually materialized in the form of the 1970 "Spherical Concert Hall", as Andrew Timma explained. Stockhausen's listening space was shaped like one of Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes and had the audience seated in the centre. Timma went on to talk about Sun Ra's space, which is mystical and, above all, 'outside' social and earthly norms. If you're 'outside', then you've got a hold on your own territory, Timma said. You've got a space as place. ("If you find earth boring, it's the same old story ... "Space is the place" — Sun Ra)

Percussionist Aiyun Huang next spoke about Stockhausen and noted that his music is largely played today in academic circles and she'd be performing Stockhausen's "Kontakte" (1958-1960) for piano, percussion and electronics on Sunday at the Music Gallery. She's performed "Kontakte" before. Then one of the speakers asked Aiyun whether Stockhausen accepted the performer's input. Yes, she said, there are places in "Kontakte", with the tape, where the performer chooses when to come in — here was an 'interesting' facet, a glint, I thought, from Stockhausen's already very brilliant musical mind.

Sun Ra

Karlheinz Stockhausen
Finally, as if 'we' weren't exhilarated enough by all this elevated talking, Arnd Jurgensen started observing that these two exceptional artists, one German-born, and one born an African American in Alabama, lived their lives as art; and, like artists before them — like William Blake who fought against church and science — Stockhausen and Ra continued to fight against many of the same forms of societal/mental/spiritual oppression. In the world of music, Stockhausen 'escaped' from somewhere, while Sun Ra never belonged, so he traveled on to somewhere there.

Jurgensen concluded the symposium by quietly quoting the poet, André Breton, who famously said: "Art is not a mirror. Art is a hammer."

... "We came from nowhere here, why can't we go, somewhere there?" (Sun Ra)

We welcome your comments and feedback
David Fujino
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