At the Sun Ra/El Saturn Archive, the Iconic Bandleader’s Legacy is Living Inspiration

In 2000, writer, curator, and collector John Corbett found himself on his hands and knees digging through stacks of ephemera inside the home of Alton Abraham, the founder of El Saturn Records and the manager of Sun Ra. The iconic bandleader is often seen as a mythical figure, whose generative multimedia practice connected African American culture, outer space, and ancient Egyptian mythology. As Corbett sifted through records, original album cover drawings, and tapes galore, they began to unveil Ra’s inner world, humanizing a figure whose otherworldly presence looms large in creative music.

The approximately 600 tapes Corbett found, dating from the 1950s-1993, now dwell in the Creative Audio Archive at Chicago’s Experimental Sound Studio (ESS). Inside, there are voicemails of people asking Ra about everyday things like borrowing a car; recordings of extended practice sessions with Ra’s trailblazing Afrofuturist ensemble, The Sun Ra Arkestra, that reveal the behind-the-scenes of the group’s methods; piano tuning sessions; and lectures that touch on issues that still hold weight today.

“It represents what’s behind the music, the creative process of the music, and the foundation of his music,” said James Wetzel, the Creative Audio Archive Manager at ESS. “What we see of him is a spiritual figure that transcended the planes of reality – he had this cosmic presence. Some of the moments in the archive that give a glimpse into his day-to-day life and humanize him are really interesting.”

Image from Space is the Place (1974) -- Courtesy of Criterion Collection/Janus Films

Image from Space is the Place (1974) — Courtesy of Criterion Collection/Janus Films

Beyond safeguarding Ra’s legacy, the Creative Audio Archive also preserves and shares the history of other important people and places in experimental music history. Archives include the Malachi Ritscher Collection, which has thousands of recordings of Chicago improvised music shows from the 1980s-2006; the Studio Henry Collection, which hosts free jazz recordings from 1979-1986 featuring artists such as John Zorn, Ikue Mori, and Zeena Parkins; the Fred Anderson Collection, which comprises recordings made by the free jazz saxophonist; and the Links Hall Collection, which holds records of more than 135 spoken word, performance, and music events that took place at the historic Chicago venue of the same name.

Most importantly, these archival materials also provide opportunities for contemporary artists to connect with past music and bring them into their own work. ESS residency programs give artists space to innovate, using archival materials to develop their own pieces. In the Sun Ra / El Saturn Collection in particular, artists have explored the unexpected audio snippets they’ve found; artist Alyssa Perry, for example, delved into the archive and pulled out a bootleg recording of Ra playing piano, using it to compose a new work.

For Wetzel, this is the beauty of the archive: “What excites me most is people hearing this stuff and feeling compelled by it to make music,” he said. “I think that’s a large part of what people find inspiring about Sun Ra: while he preached precision and discipline, he had a belief everyone could tap into their musical creativity. That’s the vibration that his music has.”

Darius Jones and Amirtha Kidambi -- Photo by Walter Wlodarczyk

Darius Jones and Amirtha Kidambi — Photo by Walter Wlodarczyk

Items from the Sun Ra / El Saturn Collection will be highlighted during a six-hour multimedia marathon event at Roulette on April 25. The evening will explore the long tail of Ra’s legacy by presenting the archival materials alongside artists who have engaged with his work, including vocalist Amirtha Kidambi, saxophonist Darius Jones, and media artist Kamau Amu Patton. The marathon will also feature music videos made by Bill Sebastian in collaboration with the Arkestra, and Phill Niblock’s experimental film of the Arkestra called The Magic Sun (1966).

Matt Mehlan, Roulette’s Associate Artistic Director and the curator of this event, envisions the evening as a seamless playlist of archival materials that contextualize and culminate in the world of Space is the Place (1974), Ra’s Afrofuturist science fiction film that features him as a prophet landing his spaceship in Oakland, CA. The program also includes footage from a lecture Ra gave at UC Berkeley – which Mehlan heard amidst the George Floyd protests of 2020 and felt was prescient to what was collectively experienced during that moment – as well as selections from Ra’s poetry, which Mehlan also finds lucid and pivotal to Ra’s work.

Mehlan first encountered the Sun Ra / El Saturn archive while working as the archives manager at ESS. “I really think of it as an honor to have had the time to get to know some of that material and get a better picture of who he was and how he thought about things,” Mehlan said. “For me, some of the most exciting stuff about Sun Ra is where his music meets his philosophies. And he expressed the way he thought so incredibly, in my opinion, in interviews, poetry, and in the lectures that he did at Berkeley.”

Recording of a California lecture, piano and MOOG solos from the Sun Ra / El Saturn collection -- Courtesy of Experimental Sound Studio

Recording of a California lecture, piano and MOOG solos from the Sun Ra / El Saturn collection — Courtesy of Experimental Sound Studio

The central goal of the Roulette marathon is to shine a light on the multitude of artforms Ra touched in his lifetime and how they continue to inform and re-inform each other. “He can’t be boxed in…he left behind something really historic in so many ways, and that’s ultimately what draws me to him,” Mehlan said. “It’s at the core of what I’m most interested in — people that work both inside and outside of their chosen fields or mediums, and who really push any boundaries that they can, who are singular, who do what they want, because what compels them is their interest and nothing else.”

Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Space is the Place, the event serves as a fundraiser for Roulette and a celebration of the people who have been united by visionaries like Ra. This concert is, crucially, a way of bringing worlds together, in remembering how Ra is a great connector across musical worlds. “We’re all interconnected,” Mehlan said. “The most important thing that [Roulette] can do is engage and inspire our creative community.”


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

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