Monday, September 27, 2010

Today on Scene and Not Seen - Sun Ra and The 'Noise of Jazz

Subcultures represent 'noise' (as opposed to sound): interference in the orderly sequence which leads from real events and phenomena to their representation in the media. We should therefore not underestimate the signifying power of the spectacular subculture not only as a metaphor for potential anarchy 'out there' but as an actual mechanism of semantic disorder: a kind of temporary blockage in the system of representation. (Dick Hebdige, 1979)

The above quote comes from Dick Hebdige's monumental study on the relationship between style and social resistance. Looking at a variety of different 'subcultures' developing in post-war England (ie. The Teddy Boy, The Skinhead, The Mod and The Punk) Hebdige attempts to illustrate how these cultures, formed predominantly in response to the culture and lifestyles of the dominant classes of the day, provided British youth with a means to short-circuit and disrupt the powers and ideologies propped up by mainstream society, powers and ideologies that elsewhere serve to keep them subdued and in the minority. Subcultures represent 'noise' in the sense that they serve to break apart and bring into disarray typical systems of representation; taking daily objects (for punks, objects such as safety pins, tubes of vaseline or even the Union Jack) and reordering them in a way to make them seem like nothing but nonsense.

While there is much to be critical of Hebdige's analysis of the social functions of style (such as his depiction of the active participant in a subculture vs. the passive/disinterested participant in the mainstream, or even his unquestioning assumption of the possibility of a true subculture as such), his narration of the place of 'noise' in popular forms of music, in many ways, provides us with a helpful way of reading the work of Sun Ra. It is fairly easy to write-off Sun Ra's project as yet another vain form of escapism (this time arising out of the free-form jazz tradition), as Sun Ra sought first and foremost to provide his listeners with the means to imagine life outside of this world. While this is certainly part of what is most appealling about the pianist, looking at Hebdige's reading of noise, it seems to me that Ra's other-worldness can also be read as a form of resistance, seeking to re-read this world in a new light, in the hopes of uncovering new possibilities and potentialities. Much of his music is nothing but nonsense, taking one of the great African American triumphs - jazz - and stripping it of western conceptions of harmonic construction (a lack of melody, closed chord progressions etc ...), infusing it instead with a bizarre blend of Old Testament and Sci-Fi imagery. He took that classic American art-form that gave us "Ain't Misbehavin'" "Autumn Leaves" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and transformed it into sonic (and with Ra you can also add visual) nonsense. Like Hebdige's 'punk' figure, Ra's music can be seen as another form of stylistic resistance, seeking to make this world seem 'other-worldly' and as such infuse it with a messianic hope illustrating how the way things appear isn't necessarily the way they are.

All of this is but a means to say you should listen to tonight's show as I will be playing a selection of tracks from ESP-Disc's recent box set Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra. The box set is a wonderful collection of some of Ra's more bizzare moments (which, considering Sun Ra's generally out-there aesthetic is saying something), and does well to illustrate just how 'this-worldly' Ra's declaration that "The Space is the Place" is.

Until next time ...

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