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The Arts in the Humanities Lecture Series, 2014-15 
Sun RaSun Ra
Performance: Loose Assembly
Exhibition Opening: Calling Planet Earth: The Graphic Cosmos of Sun Ra and El Saturn Records

October 2, 2014
7-9:00 p.m.
Main Gallery, Rice Media Center

To mark the end of the centenary year of bandleader, pianist, composer, mystic, and extraterrestrial Sun Ra (b. 1914, Birmingham, Alabama; d. 1993, Birmingham), Calling Planet Earth: The Graphic Cosmos of Sun Ra and El Saturn Records presents an in-depth survey of the graphic materials that he and his El Saturn label produced from the 1950s to the 1970s.  Long recognized as one of the great jazz pioneers of the 20th century and a progenitor of Afro-Futurism, Sun Ra’s importance to the broader artistic world has risen exponentially in the last decade, as young artists and musicians have discovered and taken inspiration from his work.  Founded in 1956 by Ra and his manager Alton Abraham, El Saturn was one of the first artist-run labels in the world, alongside Charles Mingus and Max Roach’s Debut and Harry Partch’s Gate 5.  Based in Chicago, where Abraham deployed a small crew of semi-professional designers and a grass-roots community of local print shops, pressing plants, and suppliers, El Saturn and its publishing wing Ihnfinity Incorporated produced singles, LPs, and a couple of books, most of which were focused on Ra’s music, poetry, and philosophy.  Many of these were assembled – some even printed – in Abraham’s basement, a DIY effort presaging punk by 20 years.  A visionary thinker with an intergalactic outlook, an apocalyptic message, and a messianic game plan, Ra spread word that the world was in peril, that its inhabitants were acting irresponsibly, and that only through the arts – especially music, his music – could humanity be saved.  The primary vehicle for the dissemination of Ra’s haunting missive was his band the Arkestra, a multiform big-band established after the era of big-bands had ended.  Although he was utterly serious, Ra did not deliver this dire news without a sense of humor.  The graphics of many of the early albums feature a wild amalgam of tiki lounge and rocket-ship imagery, modernist abstraction, classic ‘50s jazz iconography, a rubbery surrealist sense of perspective, Afrocentric motifs, and end-of-the-world fantasy-scapes.

Calling Planet Earth brings together outstanding examples of these designs, many of them created by a mysterious figure named Clyde Dangerfield, a few drawn and laid out by Ra himself.  The sleeves for When Sun Comes Out, Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth, Interstellar Low-Ways, Discipline 27-II, Super-Sonic Jazz, Night of the Purple Moon, and My Brother the Wind incorporate Ra’s poems and proclamations into each package.  The exhibition features unassembled working materials for these and other LPs, as well as Ra’s two books of poetry.  These include the original, un-folded, un-cut pages for Ra’s first collection, The Immeasurable Equation, together with the beautiful un-folded cover prints.  Drawing on an extraordinary cache of materials uncovered after Abraham’s death, curators John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis explore the playful and profound parallel universe – or omniverse, as Ra preferred to call it – invented and made visible by Sun Ra and his El Saturn imprint.  In addition to the exhibition, Corbett and Kapsalis will give an informal presentation on their ongoing investigation of Ra’s music and thought, comparing notes on encounters with Ra, fifteen years working with the Abraham material, and the establishment of two El Saturn archives in Chicago.  A concert by the brilliant Chicago-based ensemble Loose Assembly, led by drummer Mike Reed, brings live music to the occasion, featuring alto saxophonist Greg Ward, cellist Tomeka Reid, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, and bassist Joshua Abrams.      


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