New Equations of Meaning

“A pioneer of “Afrofuturism,” bandleader Sun Ra emerged from a traditional swing scene in Alabama, touring the country in his teens as a member of his high school biology teacher’s big band. While attending Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, he had an out-of-body experience during which he was transported into outer space. As biographer John Szwed records him saying, “my whole body changed into something else. I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn.” While there, aliens with “little antenna on each ear. A little antenna on each eye” instructed him to drop out of college and speak through his music. And that’s just what he did, changing his name from Herman Blount and never looking back.

“Whether you believe that story, whether Sun Ra believes it, or whether his entire persona is a theatrical put-on should make no difference. Because Sun Ra would be a visionary either way. Combining Afrocentric science fiction, esoteric and occult philosophy, Egyptology, and, with his “Arkestra,” his own brand of free jazz-futurism that has no equal on earth, the man is truly sui generis. In 1971, he served as artist-in-residence at UC Berkeley and offered a spring semester lecture, African-American Studies 198, also known as “Sun Ra 171,” “The Black Man in the Universe,” or “The Black man in the Cosmos.” The course featured readings from—to name just a few—theosophist Madame Blavatsky, French philosopher Constantin Francois de Chasseboeuf, black American writer and poet Henry Dumas, and “God,” whom the cosmic jazz theorist reportedly listed as the author of The Source Book of Man’s Life and Death (otherwise known as the King James Bible).

Now we have the rare opportunity to hear a full lecture from that class, thanks to Listen to Sun Ra spin his intricate, bizarrely otherworldly theories, drawn from his personal philosophy, peculiar etymologies, and idiosyncratic readings of religious texts. Hearing him speak is a little like hearing him play, so be prepared for a lot of free association and jarring, unexpected juxtapositions. Szwed describes a “typical lecture” below:

Sun Ra wrote biblical quotes on the board and then ‘permutated’ them—rewrote and transformed their letters and syntax into new equations of meaning, while members of the Arkestra passed through the room, preventing anyone from taping the class. His lecture subjects included Neoplatonic doctrines; the application of ancient history and religious texts to racial problems; pollution and war; and a radical reinterpretation of the Bible in light of Egyptology.

Text: Sun Ra’s Full Lecture & Reading List From His 1971 UC Berkeley Course, “The Black Man in the Cosmos”

Image: Film Still, Afronauts, Frances Bodomo (2014)


Black-eyed Angels


I jumped in the river, what did I see?
Black-eyed angels swam with me
A moon full of stars and astral cars
And all the figures I used to see

All my lovers were there with me
All my past and futures
And we all went to heaven in a little row boat
There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt

Text: Pyramid Song, Radiohead.

Image: What the world would look like if all the ice melted, National Geographic.


“Be warned, these are not songs, but sound pieces inspired by the works of artist Richard M Powers, who in the 1950s was one of the most important Science Fiction artists of his time. Prolific to the point of producing more than 1500 cover and interior illustrations, the world of the SF paperback had been truly informed by “the Powers style”.

“Over the last year Andy has been sculpting and squeezing sounds in his shed to put together a collection of pieces linked to his experiences as a child where he would literally disappear into the book jacket art of Mr Powers.

“Every week or so, a young Andy would go to his local library and loan out three books, sometimes the same ones, sometimes different ones. He wouldn’t read them, but instead stare intensely at the jacket illustrations and drift into these fearful future worlds, hearing unusual soundscapes and noises. In the last couple of years Andy found out that the vast majority of illustrations he liked were done by the same artist, one Richard M powers. Finally he had a name to link with his experience.

“The pieces that he has recorded are an attempt to capture the sounds that played in his schoolboy head when he would stare at the cover paintings. Thus these are not songs, or even what the majority of people would call ‘music’, but are aural sculptures if you will, that are meant to marry in your head with the fluid and often frightening vistas that Powers would portray in paint.”

Text & Image: Ape House

Krell Metal

“The film that, at first sight, would seem to challenge most forcefully the aesthetic framework set up by Metropolis is Forbidden Planet (1956). Its entirely electronic “score” by Louis and Bebe Barron, the first of its kind in Hollywood, is described in the credits as “electronic tonalities” and was composed at a time when the electronic music of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Herbert Eimert was in its infancy. Functioning both as music and as a sound effect track, the score was clearly designed to sound alien and futuristic.

“For instance, its sounds are increasingly aligned both with references to the astounding relics of a long-dead but highly advanced civilization and, in the latter half of the film, with the monstrous emanations unwittingly created from the main character’s subconscious mind with the help of the aliens’ unimaginably sophisticated technology. Yet the score shifts effortlessly from this nondiegetic function into diegetic mode when visiting astronauts are played an ancient recording of the creatures’ music, which has been clearly contextualized in the dialogue as an alien artifact of great value and wonder. The ease of this slippage is facilitated by the largely nondramatic nature of the score as a whole, which, in its twin function as music and sound effect, maintains a flexible and discreet distance from the emotional contours of the narrative. Despite Rebecca Leydon’s claims – and even the efforts of the composers themselves— this music, through its contemporaneous strangeness, for the most part seems to be conspicuously separate from the middle-American, patriarchal 1950s approach to human relationships depicted in the film, acting as a repository of certain concerns about new technological growth that were characteristic of postwar Western culture—concerns which, typically, develop from an initial lack of understanding and na ̈ıve wonder- ment at the benefits of technology beyond those already harnessed by humankind, move through fear and distrust of its potential, and arrive at a final rejection of technology’s evil and uncontrollable superhuman power (the planet is set to self-destruct by the departing astronauts).

“There is a tension between the film’s abstract, largely nonthreatening “coffee-percolator” sound world, which briefly intensifies into a louder, throbbing siren like noise—sometimes ambiguously diegetic in origin— for moments of dramatic pressure (the only concession to the prevailing aesthetic), and the all-too-threatening real prospect of the amoral use of technology that seems to constitute the story’s message. If this sound world has since become the clich ́ed symbol of an old-fashioned future, the film should nevertheless be commended for resisting the temptation to provide a counterpoising sentimental “human” element in its scoring, particularly in light of the narrative’s ostensibly tidy closure, which, through this resistance, is curiously lent an open-ended, distanced, mythic quality.”

Text: Jeremy Barham, Scoring Incredible Futures: Science Fiction Screen Music, and “Postmodernism” as Romantic Epiphany.

Image: Music edit from Forbidden Planet, via YouTube.

Near Mercury

“Sound whose source is visible on the screen or whose source is implied to be present by the action of the film: voices of characters, sounds made by objects in the story music represented as coming from instruments in the story space ( = source music). Diegetic sound is any sound presented as originated from source within the film’s world Diegetic sound can be either on screen or off screen depending on whatever its source is within the frame or outside the frame. Diegesis is a Greek word for “recounted story”. The film’s diegesis is the total world of the story action.”

Text: Diegetic & Non-Diegetic Sounds.

Forward Looking Statements

“This press release contains forward-looking statements. The words “believe”, “expect”, “anticipate”, “estimate”, “intend”, “may”, “will”, “would” and similar expressions and the negative of such expressions are intended to identify forward-looking statements, although not all forward-looking statements contain these identifying words. These forward-looking statements are subject to important assumptions, including the following specific assumptions: the ability of Mood Media and Muzak to meet their respective revenue targets; the ability to achieve cost synergies; general industry and economic conditions; changes in Mood Media’s or Muzak’s relationships with their customers and suppliers; pricing pressures; and other competitive factors; and changes in regulatory requirements affecting the businesses of Mood Media and Muzak. While Mood Media considers these factors and assumptions to be reasonable based on information currently available, they may prove to be incorrect. Historical performance may not be indicative of future performance.”

Text: Mood Media Corporation Completes Acquisition of Muzak DA: April 16, 2012.

Image: John Baldessari, Two Whales (with People), 2010. Screenprint, 32.25″ x 23.625″.