Illuminating the Eye of the Cosmic Needle
By Cat Celebrezze
Sun Ra, readers. Say it with me. SUNNNNNNRAAAAAA. As monikers go, this is the mother lode. Mysterious and mystic, evoking ancient worlds founded by futuristic aliens. "It's my vibrational name," Ra commented once 1. As artists go, ‘enigmatic' and ‘vibrational' nail it, since the musician Sun Ra was, far, far, ahead of his time 2. So far, in fact, he was from the future, a cosmic entity that "only returned to say he left," according to Amiri Baraka 3.
Sonically, there are a thousand Sun Ra's to experience: the high aptitude jazzman of the 1950's; the 1960's and 1970's leader of the electronic maelstrom orchestra bent on hurdling you through the cosmos via epic, improvisational cacophony; the moogified outer space alien seen in the 1974 Afrocrypticfuturist film, Space Is the Place; the surprisingly funky and hypnotic fusionist found on his 1978 release, Lanquidity. Like Ravi Shankar and Grateful Dead, Sun Ra's prodigious discographic output is dominated by a plethora of live recordings, punctuated by ground-breaking studio releases, and diluted by repackaged and recombined re-releases. Add to that with the cosmologic mythos and persona he created ("a disguised twin of tomorrow" 4) to bring forth his message of the interstellar beyond to come, Sun Ra is a sonic and existential universe unto himself. No matter how good your listening skills, sooner or later you'll find yourself overwhelmed, awed, and in a state of dread and wonder by the sheer magnitude and density of his catalog. To our current, dilapidated cosmic situation, Sun Ra offers no yantra, or mantra, or mandala to help map the universe he says is to come, or, in fact, already is and was. He just throws you into it.
So thank Ra for June Tyson. But who is June Tyson?
Born in North Carolina in 1936, Tyson met Ra in 1968 and became a permanent member of his Arkestra as vocalist, dancer, choreographer, costume director and violinist, until her death in 1992 (notably just six months before Ra himself). But unlike others in Ra's orbit, not much is written specifically about her. Often she is mentioned quickly and in passing as cutting an odd figure - both "untrained" and female - amidst the cohort of male and technically endowed musicians Ra cultivated, like John Gilmore or Marshall Allen. It's no secret that Ra preferred male relationships to female relationships; his view of women (and drink and drugs) as distractions is well documented 5.
Tyson, it seems, was the exception that proved the rule. As such, her role in that creative universe has been given short shrift, often seen in the "reductive, masculinist aesthetic register of muse, siren, handmaiden, and devotee" 6. At the same time, Tyson herself in the very few places she is quoted, comes across with a strong conviction in her acolyte status to Ra as artist and teacher 7. So it's complicated.
There is a danger in attempting to correct her alleged relegation to a "static figure of sexual difference" and to rehabilitate her legacy in (laborious) terms of "the voice in the minoritarian operation of the becoming- woman of music" 8 - it runs over Tyson's agency with a philosophical Mack truck 9. And yet it's not enough to see her solely as the mother-sister remembered by people who knew her and worked with her 10. That leaves her significance on the level of personal relationships and ignores her very real sonic participation in the Arkestra. So let's all consider ourselves neophytes for a moment and hear what June Tyson's voice attunes us to within the cosmos of the Arkestra, the philosophy and musicology of Sun Ra, and the complicated jazz terrain known as Experimental Afrofuturism. Think of her as a kind of Beatrice Virgil, a reoccurring presence in the music for us listeners as we travel through Sun Ra's realms.
Tyson had a voice of unique timbre, somewhere between haunting and ethereal, rooted in both a genteel North Carolinian accent and the strong, fierce, emotive vocalizations found in the blues shouter tradition. And as with that tradition, Tyson had a fearlessness with regard to imperfection, using such asymmetries instead to cast her voice with an expressiveness - something key to listeners treading, uninitiated, into Sun Ra's territory. It is a quality that gives her voice a texture far and away and deep, both existentially and physically, like the sounds Voyager transmitted back to earth as it has traversed out of the heliosphere. Called "sempiternal" 11 - a word with roots in Latin that means "everlasting and eternal" - Tyson's voice is a quixotic yet friendly aural peculiarity.
Two early examples of her specific vocal temperament are found in surprisingly straightforward fashion on Ra's 1970 release, My Brother The Wind Vol II on the tracks "Somebody Else's World" and "Walking on the Moon." Here, her performances are layered and rhythmic, totally at home in the context of Ra's bluesy, vamping approach that nonetheless includes early instances of hyper speed fugues by both Ra himself and John Gilmore, on tenor saxophone, and Marshal Allen, on alto. Listening to Tyson on these two tracks lays the groundwork for her as a ‘familiar' within Sun Ra's universe, a focal point that keeps center stage only momentarily and which gives the listener a grounding in the traditions Ra is working from and transforming (in literal fashion with the track, "Contrast"). This release established Tyson as an elemental part of the Arkestra cosmos.
Tyson is heard again on "The Satellites Are Spinning" from Ra's The Solar Myth Approach Vol. I (1971) in another role she would frequently take as part of cosmic chorus or what Ra referred to as his "Space Ethnic Voices". Ra often had musicians recede into a chanting and recitative mode that could be either mysterious (as it is on the Solar Myth rendition of "Satellites"), or a call and response, as found on "Nuclear War" from A Fireside Chat with Lucifer (1981), or an outright boisterous party as it is on the 1972 version of "Rocket Number Nine" on Space is the Place. In all these examples, despite being part of a larger group, Tyson's voice is very discernible, there in the midst of others but so, so uniquely identifiable.
From here, things go off on the planetary tangents of Ra's more famously fugue-centered compositions. Tyson is again heard at the very end of "Strange Worlds" from The Solar Myth Approach Vol. II (1971) after an intense set of extra-chromatic sonic explorations. Hearing her emerge from the fantastic cacophony has all the power of creation myth and frankly, is a relief, even if it arrives just before the tape gets cut off. You can go only so long in Dante's Divine Comedy without Beatrice or Virgil to hold your hand. Ra must have had a sense of the respite and opening that Tyson's vocals provided, and appreciated their beauty, especially considering The Paris Tapes (1971). Lose your mind and listen to "Love in Outer Space Part 1" and "Part 2" and then find it again when Tyson comes in with the calm rejoindered vocals on "Somebody Else's Idea / World" and "Space is the Place."
Same thing is true of the 1971 live recording called Black Myth / Out In Space that opens and proceeds with intense Ra calisthenics but then at around the fifty-one minute mark Tyson bobs up and allows you to regain your center of (non)gravity before the improvisational madness and maelstrom begins again 12. Again, it happens at the one hour and twenty-nine minutes mark when Tyson comes forth with a poignant version of "Walking on the Moon" - different from the one heard on My Brother the Wind in that we have not bluesy vamp that serves as context; only the feeling of jittery pause before the giant of improvisation returns to stomp all over our bearings (for our own good, mind you!). This recording doesn't let the humor remain absent for too long though: Tyson returns in the playful "Space Chants Medley," leading Ra and the Arkestra in a rhetorical romp that tells us why the Moon should not be the ultimate destination on our collective space travel adventure.
Probably the most popular toe-dip into the Sun Ra ouevre is the posthumous album Soundtrack to the Film Space is the Place 13, released in 1993 but recorded in Oakland in 1972 (not to be confused with studio release called Space is the Place). Tyson's performance on these tracks is outstanding and illustrates how she is acting as a transposer for Ra's vision for us, as non extraterrestrials. Compare her performance of "The Satellites are Spinning" on Solar Myth and The Complete Nothing with the performance here. Her voice is out front and pitched to emphasize the hymnal qualities of the composition. Or compare the version of "We Travel the Spaceways" here with Tyson in front with the one the appears on Ra's 1978 Disco 3000 release, which does not include Tyson. Same composition but the emotional presentation of the song is altered with her vocalizations. A stark example of how Tyson acted as a expressive translator of sort is in this call-and-response excerpt from the film, Space is the Place:
It is this expressiveness that allows the listener a foothold into the compositions, one from which to experience the more disorienting aspects of Ra's improvisational force. Listening to the Space is the Place soundtrack is a see-sawing experience between states of calm and states of chaos. And almost always Tyson is what ushers in the calm, though she is certainly there in the chaos (listen to the flow between "Cosmic Forces" and "Outer Spaceways Incorporated") 14. So much of what Sun Ra's music is about is the presentation of a churning unpredictable universe. Whether you consider it chaos or highly-skilled improvisation probably has something to do with your genre proclivities. But even if your ear finds these sounds convivial, the break that Tyson's performance provides over and over again allows listeners a moment to feel they are not so lost and buffeted by the intensity of Ra's talent and cosmic message he conveys through the Arkestra.
Tyson's voice cannot be heard on all Sun Ra releases. She is much more frequently listed as personnel on live recordings than on studio releases. Probably more often than not, she was a visual presence that interpreted the Ra and the Arkestra as dancer and choreographer and of course, costume designer. But when she did take to the mic, she was an aural anchor for audiences, an "unknown-knowing voice" 15 assuring us that we are not alone in the chaos. She was the familiar of Ra and often I imagine their relationship similar to how they look together in the footage of the Arkestra in Egypt around the 4 minutes mark 16: stepping forward and stepping backward in sync, animated by sonic, cosmic friendship with each other and all the musicians and dancers that surround them.
For those of us that either flail embarrassingly in the unmoored freedom found in the outer void of Sun Ra's space-music or freaked out completely at his notion of an unfixed identity, buffeted and shaped and alive in a cosmic drama (listen to the synthesizer evolutions in the trilogeic "The Wind Speaks," "Sun Thoughts," and "Journey to the Stars" on My Brother the Wind, 1970);
For those of us that feel like an awkward party guest while witnessing the conversation on "Enlightenment" between Sun Ra and John Cage at Coney Island in 1986;
For those of us who don't have the arkestral chops to decipher how John Gilmore goes from rock-solid hard bop to avant garde altissimo planes, to (literally) blow apart the post-modal jazz universe;
For those of us who know too well the 'Truth' is cobbled together by the hammers of language and power and, as John Szwed so aptly summed up Ra's twist on it, that both those forces are in "a state of babble" 17 - but still crave an interlocutor to guide us;
There is June Tyson.
So thank Ra for her - and thank Her for Ra - for the uninitiated, she illuminates the eye of the needle that you have to pass through to get to the cosmos of Sun Ra and his Arkestra. And once on the other side, she makes sure we don't get lost. Give an ear for listening to this cosmic balladeer and translator. If not for her, the Sun Ra enigma might remain an unknowable unknowable.
1982's "Sometimes I'm Happy" via Spotify
All dates are recording dates (rather than release dates) taken from the immensely well-research discography available on the Sun Ra Arkestra website now under the tutelage of Marshal Allen: http://www.sunraarkestra.com/sunradisco/list.php
June Tyson- Spotify Playlist
 Szwed, John. Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. Da Capo Press, 1988. p. 86.
 "Sun Ra came from the galaxies decades before Isaac Hayes whipped off his multicolored robe and became Black Moses, shackled in gold chains; before Parliament arrived on the Mothership, or Hawkwind took their first ride on the Silver Machine; before Ziggy Stardust fell to Earth from Mars; before Dr. Octagon left his native Jupiter; before Kanye West donned a Margiela mask and longed for his own spaceship to fly past the sky. In his spangled capes and violet cloaks, his painted third eye, his mesh caps and pyramid hats and pharaoh's headdresses and solar antennae, Sun Ra ushered in an utter sense of liberation, mystery, and free expression." "The Interstellar Style of Sun Ra" by Rebecca Bangel, The Pitchfork Review, https://pitchfork.com/features/from-the-pitchfork-review/9866-the-interstellar-style-of-sun-ra/
 Amiri Baraka, Eulogies, 1996, p. 171, quoted in Space is the Place (ibid) p. 388.
 "The Cosmic Age" poem by Sun Ra. The Immeasurable Equation. WAITAWHILE, 2005, pg. 107.
 Szwed, p. 250.
 "The June Tyson Sessions: Remixperiments with Vocal Materiality and the Becoming-Woman of Cosmic Music" on Women and Performance, 5/22/2014. https://www.womenandperformance.org/ampersand/ampersand-articles/the-june-tyson-sessions-remixperiments-with-vocal-materiality-and-the-becoming-woman-of-cosmic-music.html
 "June Tyson: Sometimes I'm Happy" by Adam Lore (which reprints parts of the interview Phil Shaap of WKCR did with Tyson in 1987). http://www.50milesofelbowroom.com/articles/353-june-tyson.html
 "The June Tyson Sessions: Remixperiments with Vocal Materiality and the Becoming-Woman of Cosmic Music" on Women and Performance, 5/22/2014.
 I'm being a little rough on Nick Bazzano here. He has written a very substantial, if academic, paper on June Tyson. Using a combination of gender performativity theory and French heterodox philosophy, he makes a solid case for Tyson being a true citizen in Ra's "sonic affective impossible." The paper is accompanied by his remix of recordings of Tyson (in collaboration with Alex Silva and Willie Avendano) that reasserts, in Bazzano's words, "the performativity of the materiality of Tyson's voice, that key which Sun Ra pressed, but failed to let resound to its fullest cosmic potential." It's hard, however, not to ask if the act of remixing replicates the problem of the conductor playing the musicians as objects, a criticism which Bazzano levels against Ra: "In the words of Ra's figuration of his musicians as "keys," Ra pressed June, and June sounded, sounding not improvisationally or immanently, but as the exact image of thought (or echo of thought?) that Ra planned." Isn't the electronic splicing and remixing of Tyson's vocals very much a "pressing of keys" that produces a planned "image of thought (or echo of thought?)" of Bazzano's own theoretical stance? Regardless of this quibble, Bazzano's paper is worth the read and the remix (on Soundcloud) worth the listen. https://soundcloud.com/nmb2115/the-june-tyson-sessions.
 "Remembering June Tyson." Art Yard Records. http://artyardrecords.co.uk/remembering-june-tyson-by-knoel-scott/
 "Satellites Are Spinning" by Paul Younquist. Paris Review, 8/13/2017. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/08/03/satellites-are-spinning-notes-on-a-sun-ra-poem/#more-113398
 Black Myth / Out in Space by Sun Ra available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvoEQoVDtFk
 Soundtrack to the Film Space is the Place available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZZx0oEdFpc
 Ibid, starting at around the 24:50 minute mark above until 30:55.
 "The Universe Sent Me" poem by Sun Ra. The Immeasurable Equation. WAITAWHILE, 2005, pg. 404.
 Sun Ra and the Arkestra in Egypt available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5azChH6Z7QA
 Szwed, p. 384.
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