J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Earth to Sun Ra, Red Pencils Needed

As part of the Whitney’s Earth to Sun Ra tribute to the intergalactic bandleader last night, Fred Ho and Quincy Troupe staged a reading of an excerpt from their forthcoming Sun Ra opera. (Born Herman Sonny Blount in Alabama, Sun Ra claimed to hail from the planet Saturn, and mixed science fiction and Egyptian elements in his productions.) Based on what was seen last night, they need serious revisions.

To start with the positive, Taylor Ho Bynum’s group put on an excellent show. His horn section made quite an entrance coming down the Whitney staircase into the café area. His band found a nice Sun Ra groove, swinging, yet explorative, with some knock-out percussion from Abraham Gomez-Delgado. Vocalist Jen Shyu was in strong voice interpreting appropriately spiritual lyrics that conveyed a message without sounding didactic. It can be done. The man from Saturn would approve.

It did not happen in the preceding reading of Ho & Troupe’s opera, though. Admittedly, the actors were at a disadvantage without accompanying music. However, the strident moralizing would be overwrought with any accompaniment. What becomes immediately apparent is that Troupe took little effort to capture Sun Ra’s voice. The legendary bandleader could mix politics with mythology, while maintaining a sense of humor through his ingenious (and often cryptic) word play. (For an example check out Sun Ra’s science fiction film Space is the Place, in which the bandleader battles a pimped-out Satan figure and his minions in the FBI. Equal parts blaxploitation and Bergman’s Seventh Seal, it gives a good sampling of Sun Ra’s unique language and philosophy.) That unique voice was nowhere to be heard last night. The Sun Ra of Troupe’s libretto may as well have come on stage and announced himself as Troupe’s mouthpiece for the night.

There was something in Troupe’s words to offend everyone. From an overlong exploration of Sun Ra’s reported sexist attitudes, to a litany of heroes that crossed over from the dubious into the offensive. We hear Troupe’s Sun Ra place mass murderers like Yasser Arafat, Mao Tse-tung, and Fidel Castro in a Pantheon with the likes of Frederick Douglass and Duke Ellington. Perhaps Troupe should talk to the family of Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet about what it is really like to live under Castro’s police state. Obviously, he is not expecting the family of Leon Klinghoffer to show up for the next preview of the opera at the Guggenheim.

Last night’s reading was stentorian, didactic, and dull. It was redeemed by the other acts. As mentioned, Taylor Ho Bynum’s group put on a great show. They were followed by an interesting collaboration between Latasha Diggs and Matana Roberts, which included a new piece dedicated to June Tyson.

You can mix music and politics without spoiling the effect of both. It would not be hard to take an environmental message from some of the lyrics heard during Bynum’s entertaining set. Lionizing dictators and terrorists however, would detract from even the most brilliant score, which in this case remains unheard. Sun Ra fans, let’s hope for some extensive revisions.

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