Plunge into the world of Sun Ra and the Outer Space Visual Communicator

When Earth seems to lack perspective, call on a Saturnian. And it’s a perfect time the Sun Ra Arkestra is back, and the Outer Space Visual Communicator is running, too.

I’m absolutely serious – we may need some planetary-level vision now to keep our sanity and recall what we’re doing as Earthlings.

Last week, the ensemble founded by the compositional and visionary legend released their first studio recording in over two decades. The piece is “Seductive Fantasy,” from 1979’s On Jupiter. But it sounds fresh today, realized with a sense of confidence and urgency.

A seductive fantasy seems like what everyone could use right now. But it surely needs visuals. Calgary’s own Chad VanGaalen – himself a musician (SubPop) – applies his hand-drawn animations, with a decidedly morphing-trippy-album art vibe, if updated. (From a Yellow Submarine to a Rocket Number 9.)

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That was now, this is then.

Outer Space Visual Communicator

One unexpected discovery of 2020 is the lost documentation of Sun Ra and his Arkestra playing with the Outer Space Visual Communicator. [OVC]

The OVC is really its own story. A late 70s invention of artist Bill Sebastian, the machine was a sophisticated light color organ, with an array of sensors that you could “fingerpaint” with, and lights on a structure overhead. It’s a 70s spiritual descendant of Scriabin’s own color organs from the early part of the century, but updated with more sophisticated lighting and sensing and Space Age aesthetics.

Bill and company have updated these ideas in 3D (see Boston Globe).

Now, the name Outer Space Visual Communicator must have attracted Sun Ra, because the Arkestra found Bill and the OVC and played together. (Space cats attract!)

The amazing thing is that, with little fanfare, a bunch of documentary videos of Sun Ra and the Arkestra live have been archived by its original inventor. And the honeycomb of hypnotic color matches perfectly with the Arkestra at peak orbit.

I mean, all of this is just stunning. Bill uploads/writes:

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This video was recorded at the Massachusetts College of Art in June, 1980. It features the Sun Ra Arkestra with Bill Sebastian on the OVC. This is the Arkestra at the peak of its powers, radiating an energy unlike anything else and captured in an excellent recording.

The videos from these concerts are the only videos that were ever shot of the OVC in performance.

The video was photographed and produced by Geoffrey Alderman. The lighting levels at the concerts were often much lower than the cameras of that era were able to capture. so the video is a bit grainy at times. Geoffrey also uses the camera focus as a visual effect, which was a technique we developed to emphasize shapes and movements rather than individual hexagons.

The completed video was not released for 37 years, as I could not tolerate the loss of dynamic range in the transition to video. The OVC worked from the scotopic range (where there isnt enough light to see color) all the way to 15,000 watts of intense colors. We staged the performances to capture this range – even covering up the exit lights in the theaters to achieve total environmental darkness. This palette was lost in the transition to video, so it was hard to look at the tapes. Eventually, I felt like we should give some hint of what it was like for people who never had the opportunity to see the live show. We had tapes of the concerts from two nights, but most of them were too degraded after all the years in storage.

There’s also a video from 1986, in which Sun Ra himself climbs into a video art kaleidoscope, and looks – very much at home.

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Here’s how the two projects worked together, as described by Bill:

The OVC-2D was the 2nd generation implementation of the OVC. I played the old OVC, but used my right hand to control a video that was then sent to the monitor in the kaleidoscopic feedback unit. This which consisted of a pair of 6 foot long front surface mirrors with servo motors controlling the positions and angles of the mirrors, monitor, and camera. That 2nd camera image was then fed to other monitor camera units, which were all fed into a 54 channel analog RGB mixing console. This 2D version was essentially the bridge between the original performance instrument and the OVC-3D which would be completed 30 years later.

There’s this beautiful piece, too. (So yes, if you really want to go down a linkhole, Robert Suber is now Subabad.)

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Apart from that Vimeo channel, here’s the apparent current home of Bill and Visual Music Systems, the new project:

https://visualmusicsystems.com/people/

Class with Sun Ra is in session

Various people have collected bits from Sun Ra’s course at the University of California Berkeley, intriguingly entitled “The Black Man in the Cosmos.”

Sun Ra’s Full Lecture & Reading List From His 1971 UC Berkeley Course, “The Black Man in the Cosmos” [openculture, via a reading list posted on New Day]

That reading list starts with the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and just… keeps going. There’s also full audio of one of those lectures, which includes mind-bending wisdom – just to give you a taste:

And I see evil killing black men every day, destroying him. Why should I be good? No, it’s better for me to come up to the white race and say, ‘Yes. We evil people should sit down to the table and talk together. You’re evil, I’m evil too. Now, them other folks that you’re dealing with are good black folks. I’m not good, and you’re not good. We understand one another.

Other parts are more direct, including his lamentation of violence that certainly resonates now:

When you have a country like that, that someone who really is doing something worthwhile – and they get shot down by policeman or by anybody – it’s really ridiculous. It doesn’t make sense for someone who’s irreplaceable like him, nobody like him ever existed in the white or black race, to have to meet that kind of fate and be cut off so soon.

Unfortunately, I think in all the exoticism of Sun Ra interest, it’s easy to lose just how sharp his mind was. This is someone who ought to be studied as one of the 20th century’s great philosophers, not just shrugged away as an acid trip with some weird jazz. His speaking has the same arresting power as the music – coolly shifting your perception, before you know what’s happening. It’s the intellectual equivalent of the moment when the rocket enters orbit and microgravity arrives.

The full audio is on Ubusound, and you really need to hear the whole thing.

https://ubusound.memoryoftheworld.org/ra_sun/Ra-Sun_Berkeley-Lecture_1971.mp3

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Plus watch this documentary

There’s also a full documentary about Sun Ra and his art, which you can stream online via Amazon and others. (It also seems widely pirated, but do go support the legal version – not least because it’s worth seeing full quality.)

Richard Brody wrote a thoughtful review of the documentary and the artist’s impact back in April:

An Extraordinary Documentary About the Art of Sun Ra [ The New Yorker ]

And for good measure, listen to a live set from SummerStage in 1986.

Maybe access to all this artwork from across the decades is at home with new creation and futurism. It’s clear that we don’t always just go from old art to new art – least of all in the past decades. Sometimes we find something more futuristic in history than what we get from what’s out this week.

So I don’t want us to just get lost in the – apologies, seductive fantasy of Sun Ra hero workshop. I think it’s worth listening to Sun Ra’s urgent messages. We may all of us need to continue our own space journeys with one another, too. I hope at least this gives you some fuel.