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Sonic Visions

Graham Lock

Sonic Visions

Author:Graham Lock
Publisher:Duke University Press

By Rupert Wondolowski | Posted 3/29/2000

The impossible attracts me," Sun Ra said in the 1960s, "because everything possible has been done and the world didn't change." This quote aptly captures the spirit of Sun Ra as well as the other musicians, Anthony Braxton and Duke Ellington, explored in Graham Lock's scholarly but passionate Blutopia. The title of the book is taken from the name of an early Duke Ellington piece, and Lock sees it as "signaling a utopia tinged with the blues, an African-American visionary future stained with memories."

The book grew out of Lock's first meeting with Sun Ra in 1983, so it's not surprising that the heft of the book deals with that musician. It's not space wasted; even if you've read John Szwed's massive biography of Ra, Space Is the Place, there is plenty of fresh information here, as well as links to other sources.

Ra, like Braxton and Ellington, didn't see himself in a confining role as a "jazz musician," but considered himself a sound scientist and tone artist. Braxton refers to his own music as "trans-African functionalism." Ellington told New York Evening Graphic Magazine, "I am not playing jazz, I am trying to play the natural feelings of a people." All three artists have had their work attacked for not being "hot and lowdown" enough, or for being too influenced by Western classical music, but Lock shows that their goals go way beyond just swinging or getting folks to dance (although they all could do that with a vengeance). As Lock sees it, the three are philosophers looking for a more harmonious world.

Ra was the most outlandish of the book's three subjects, with his wild flowing capes, glittering headgear, and claims of being from another planet. Accordingly, he came under the most attacks during his lifetime, with critics intimating that his spaceship was perhaps a few tech commanders short of being air-worthy. But as Lock cogently explains it, "Ra's mythology then celebrates alien-ness and offers a way for African-Americans to turn the dehumanizing 'alien' status imposed on them by slavery and racism into a new and positive mythic identity as 'another order of being.' "

Lock describes Braxton's music as "an exhilarating dance with the infinite possibilities of time." Like Ra, Braxton seeks to push music beyond the mortal limits of this world, hatching "plans for a music played by a hundred orchestras linked by satellite, for a music played by orchestras on different planets, in different galaxies." The section on Braxton (who was the subject of an earlier Lock book, Forces in Motion) mainly deals with the musician's Tri Axium Writings (his philosophy on life and music) and explications of his titling system, which has gone beyond mere words into diagrams, drawings, and stories that flesh out his philosophy and satirize the American social and political system.

Ellington's beliefs were rooted in Christian spirituality, making them decidedly more traditional than Ra's and Braxton's, but his ambitions were just as great: to represent black history and black experience in America in his music at a time when this country was still openly, virulently racist. Lock follows Ellington's rise to fame from his start at the Cotton Club, where black performers were often framed as "jungle savages" in front of an all-white audience, to being "the first major black composer to present an evening of original music at Carnegie Hall."

Lock carefully compresses a wealth of information and interviews about these three musician/philosophers into a book that only occasionally reads like a doctoral thesis. Blutopia did begin as an academic work, but Lock turns it into something more by presenting a solid case for creative forces whose music "could yet turn out to be black holes, in which our little local universe of Western materialism will be 'swallowed up -- leaving us in a sea of music and color.' "

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