Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2011 v10n1
print version


Listening to Sun Ra, Birds Convene Outside My Window

A friend of mine likes to chide me
for what he calls my bourgeois proclivity
to listen only to music played in time.

So each time this afternoon I’ve put on
volume one of The Heliocentric Worlds
by Sun Ra, I’ve thought of that friend,

and wondered whether he would let this
qualify as sufficiently experimental,
though it isn’t the full recorded chaos

he often argues is the only moral
kind of music left. A silly pretense
of his, but one I can’t help sometimes

measuring myself against. And, I admit,
though there are stretches of incoherence
on this record that try my patience,

I can usually find a definite plotting,
particularly the sections where the bass
begins a walking line the other instruments

organize themselves around; making what
Sun Ra, in his own way chiding one critic’s
attempt to classify his compositions

as free jazz, more accurately dubbed
“phre” jazz: the ph signifying the definite
article, and though I don’t know how

in English to make that claim cohere,
it’s an assertion I’ll grant Sun Ra
not just because he may have meant

the definite article of some form of speech
not yet part of human understanding,
but also because it imbues everything

in his songs with purpose. There in the word,
Ra said, indicates the sun, so that his music
is the music of the sun. And really,

though I don’t hear on this record
the enveloping whiteout of sound
I think of when I try to imagine the music

of the sun, I appreciate his gesture
at something so large. And, in the most
chaotic moments, where I hear him

fumbling with the meter, when Sun Ra
lets out a too-quick flurry of notes and the band
behind him lets the song dissolve into

something like the noise of two dozen
pinched balloons deflating as they streak
across a room, I hear in it their collective

enthusiasm, all of them overeager to enjoy
at once all the notes in the song, which
validates the notion of this music as

a perpetual celebration of motion and being.
Perhaps that’s the thing that’s got
these two mottle-headed blackbirds

returning to my windowsill each time
I put the record on. Now, because I’ve made
my friend’s voice into one of the many critics

always running through my head, and so
clearly hear his claim to distrust something
as cogent as the pleasure one might take

from listening to arranged sound, I think how,
seeing this scene, my friend would say
that these two birds can’t be lingering here

to enjoy the songs with me; he’d claim how
they sometimes caw and flap around is proof
of agitation, their dancing a defense,

a sign they fear the source of such adamant,
inscrutable music, and he’d say that if there’s
a lesson to take from the nature these two birds

exemplify, it’s in the way they distrust art
like it’s some classic predatory foe. Granted,
I’ve stacked my lines against him; granted,

I’ve heard him sing “Daisy, Daisy, give me
your answer, do” to his daughter in perfect
tender pitch, and though when singing it

he did disrupt the tune’s rhythm, it wasn’t
to deconstruct the body of the song,
but so he and his girl could exchange

a bit of laughter. But I’d like to think
he would agree with how I’ve drawn him,
that this is an accurate description of how

he prefers to think about music, diminishing
the notion that art can provide joy,
calling me either wrong or naive

when I disagree. I can see him citing the way
I’ve made a prop of him here as proof
that coherence is all a false elaboration.

So what can I say to such a claim, other than
to admit I know no more than he does
how birds experience joy, and that

my pleasure in this scene comes as much
from listening to Sun Ra dismantling a melody
as it does from the wonder of these birds

returning to hop and sputter along my sill,
whether they gather here by chance, delight,
or to try to call the song to order.  end

return to top