Review Summary: Strange, zany, and still at points incredible and amazing, John Cage and Sun Ra performed this concert in 1986. Sun Ra steals the show, improvising amazingly on his Yamaha synthesizer and simply mesmerizing anyone who hears the music.
For those who think Thom Yorke is weird, meet Sun Ra. Yes, this man calls himself Sun Ra. This isn’t a band name, this is a man. Although legally born Herman Poole Blount, Sun Ra took upon his persona after being nicknamed Sonny as a child. But his name isn’t even the weirdest part. The man claims to be of the “Angel Race” and from the planet Saturn. He’s so mysterious that people think his date of birth could be anywhere from 1910-1918. Sun Ra said his astrological sign was Gemini, but who knows if even he knows? Sun Ra, of course, was a musician. He performed free jazz, known for his piano and synthesizer skill. He sounds like no other piano or synthesizer player and makes Miles Davis’ experimentation look like Lawrence Welk swing. Critics call his technique “a variety of influences, including blues, Count Basie's bounce, Thelonious Monk's dissonance and a degree of European impressionism.”
John Cage isn’t exactly all that normal either. He has a bit more of a revered background, studying music at the Cornish School of the Arts. However, the formal studying never got to his head. He created some of the most unique and contemporary music of the 20th century. On top of creating a musical piece for twelve radio receivers and music for an ensemble of metal percussive instruments, Cage made countless pieces of music based on the theory of “chance music.” In the score, Cage wrote silence in his music, however, he knew that at a live performance no such silence would occur. The sound in the performance venue becomes the music. He even wrote his most famous piece based on this theory, 4’33”, a 4 minute 33 second song divided into 3 movements of written silence. Not a single note.
These facts about these two men are essential to understanding this live performance. Without this information, the 45 minute performance seems terribly odd and zany. Sun Ra’s spastic, heavy synthesizer matched with Cage’s minimalist, sparse vocal noises seem all too much for a stable, sane human mind. On this recording, there are literally minutes of absolutely no music going on at the time. Cage showcases his “chance music” theory on this live recording, and the crowd apparently knows his ideas well. However, the recording quality diminishes from the chance music theory. Either the crowd kept incredibly silent or the recording did not pick up the sounds coming from the crowd. Overall, the recording quality of the performance is quite poor, often sounding like an old 50s movie.
Due to variety and musicality, Sun Ra heavily defeats John Cage on the performance. He opens the concert with a huge, furious, dissonant keyboard performance. The crowd cheers wildly and the spacey synthesizer sounds jump all around the range of the instrument and jump around in styles just as quickly. Elements of jazz flow in and suddenly a huge, orchestral sounding chord will overpower the recording instrument. The synth voices change frequently from a typical square lead voice to a bell sound to a synthesized voice. Sun Ra uses his range of voices perfectly, creating a heavy, metallic sound at some points which makes an even more frenzied sound to the already insane harmonic structure. He manages to jump from the most beautiful chords to the most dissonance in a matter of seconds. His first appearance goes on for 7 and a half minutes, garnering tumultuous applause from the audience. He later closes out the first half of the performance with a much more eastern tinged movement. Just when his playing couldn’t get any darker, he spends most of the second half making ambient, creepy noises. Much in the manner of the Mars Volta, he goes off without any sense of time or rhythm, creating whatever comes to mind. However, he lets the ambience slowly build into huge, crashing chords of either beauty or dissonance. Everything is going somewhere.
John Cage is just the opposite. His performance is much simpler. He merely steps up to a microphone and makes strange vocal noises. Cage’s voice sounds akin to an aging Johnny Cash. However, Cage never steps over saying more than 3 or 4 syllables at a time. He takes minute breaks before starting another few indistinguishable syllables. Of course, he relies on his “chance music” theory to get away with the minutes of silence. Sure, it’s a profound and intriguing idea, but it just gets old after a few minutes, especially when the recording buzzes in the background due to the quality. In truth, Cage is reciting excerpts from one of his poems in some strange language, known as Empty Words IV. However, who knows what he is saying? Luckily, Sun Ra saves the performance on the second half by filling in where Cage leaves silence. He fills with light, dainty keyboard lines way up high on the keys. He lets Cage have the show, not doing much of anything, but neither Cage still does less than Sun Ra. Cage proves a better composer and philosopher than a performer. Regardless, the crowd eats everything up, probably being mostly young, profound college kids themselves.
Knowing the stories and ideas of these two men, the performance of this album is almost the sonic equivalent of their lives. Sun Ra shows off his zany, spaced out mind. His music sounds like it’s from another planet, a royal proclamation from Saturn. Conversely, John Cage shows his independent, introspective self with his Empty Words IV literature and extended periods of silence. The two together form a compilation of some of the strangest, weirdest, and somehow profound music of all time. Both men being underappreciated and extremely important 20th century innovators, they never worry about fans or appeal like so many other artists. The two men show a love for music, ideas, and the profound relationship between them.