Music as Science Fiction; Sun Ra’s Soundtrack in Space is the Place

25 October 2016

Music as Science Fiction; Sun Ra’s Soundtrack in Space is the Place

Countless scholars and fans alike have attempted to define the enigmatic category that is science fiction, but there is no one definition that can be settled upon by everyone. As Vivian Sobchack puts it, “if it is to remain relevant, a definition must accommodate the flux and change which is present in any living and popular art form.”1 Sobchack raises a good point because the genre is constantly evolving, so its definitions must evolve along with it. I have found that piecing together elements of multiple definitions produces the most accurate depiction of the genre. Sobchack finds that “[s]cience fiction is a branch of fantasy identifiable by the fact that it eases the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ on the part of its readers by utilizing an atmosphere of scientific credibility for its imaginative speculations in physical science, space, time, social science, and philosophy.”2 This definition makes sense; science fiction is quite similar to fantasy, but is typically a bit easier for an audience to swallow since its concepts are based in science rather than magic. However, often times the lines between these two sources of the unexplainable are blurred. “Magic, science, and religion interact in the SF film as they do in society, fulfilling our need for comprehensible answers to cosmic questions. All three—in some way—attempt to reconcile man to the unknown.”3 This addition emphasizes the point that the source of the unknown isn’t always the point of science fiction, but rather, the investigation of how to cope with the unknown. Science isn’t rigidly defined either; sometimes it is unclear whether phenomena are caused by supernatural origins, scientific advancements, or some hybrid of the two. Based on these definition fragments, my own definition is as follows: science fiction is the imagination of an alternate reality, often a futuristic reality, that is different from our own due to scientific developments or discoveries.

To broaden our definitions even more, there is nothing within music that prohibits it from acting as a medium for science fiction just as a film does. A piece of music, if carefully and complexly written and played, creates an alternate reality from the one in which a person lives while listening to it. For example, when one listens to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” one is mentally transported to Wagner’s opera, or at least to a more intense state of mind than before hearing it, just as one can become invested in a film and temporarily forget about reality. A medium is defined as “[t]he intervening substance through which sensory impressions are conveyed or physical forces are transmitted.”4 Music can create these “sensory impressions” through audio just as easily as film can with visuals; therefore, science fiction can be created through music in just the same way.

If an integral part of science fiction is based on world building, then Sun Ra’s soundtrack in John Coney’s 1974 film Space is the Place certainly constitutes as a medium of science fiction. Sun Ra is successfully able to construct a world, a new atmosphere, with his starkly unique music. Music is often used to intercept the subconscious while one watches a film. It can influence how one should feel without one necessarily perceiving why or how. By setting a tone of mystery with foreign sounds and unconventional music, Sun Ra is able to influence how we feel about the film, as well as temporarily transport us to an alternate reality.

The opening scene of Space is the Place includes almost two minutes of Ra’s jazz piece. It begins with pulsing tones that don’t hint at any key or pitch collection, and a woman’s voice chanting “It’s after the end of the world. Don’t you know that yet?” She is soon joined by more male voices who chant along with her, and an electric keyboard which adds seemingly random collections of notes. At this point, a spaceship flies through space on the screen, though we don’t necessarily need that visual to be presented with the concept for a new world. As the chanting fades out, the keyboard grows louder with dissonant chords, and a trumpet part is added, although it sounds very unconventional. It seems as if it is imitating an elephant or some other phenomenon in nature rather than providing a stable beat or harmony of any kind. The crunch of the trumpet riffs and dense, chromatic keyboard chords are joined by the occasional tap of a drum which, again, doesn’t seem to follow a pattern, and then a synthetic, quivering noise often found in more traditional science fiction film music, which achieves an otherworldly quality. All of this occurs when we are shown Sun Ra’s planet, which includes a strange assortment of unfamiliar plants, floating scepter-like objects, an intimidating robed figure with a mirror for a face, and Sun Ra himself, dressed to resemble an Egyptian pharaoh.5 Ra’s use of atonality and lack of a meter cause the listener to become completely disoriented when listening to his music; they cannot begin to know what to expect, which transports them to an unknown space. This is not unlike how the visual representation of Ra’s planet does the same thing at the same time: it disorients the viewer so that they cannot yet know or understand what is coming. Both of these media exemplify science fiction in the first two minutes of Coney’s film.

Science fiction music often uses synthesized sounds as they connote with futuristic instruments, which sound otherworldly in comparison to traditional orchestral music. It also tends to include sounds one associates with machines or technology, rather than conventional musical instruments. There is no denying that Sun Ra’s orchestration is unique, but it is not the first to use these sounds. The synthesized noises develop a mild sense of familiarity since the audience has probably heard these in other science fiction film music before, but only orients them enough to tell them that the world being created might resemble those of other science fiction films they may have seen. Ra distinguishes himself by writing atonal music that has no meter, which still disorients the listener as much as possible.

In the film, Sun Ra also presents his ideas about the world which relate directly to music. He asks: “Why doesn’t the Earth fall? How can you walk upon it? It’s the music. It’s the music of the Earth, the music of the sun and the stars, the music of yourself, vibrating. … Everyone’s supposed to be playing their part in this vast orchestry of the cosmos.”6 Ra’s philosophy goes so far as to say that the Earth’s music or vibrations are the cause for everything, including gravity. He has a very scientific way of thinking about music as the cause for many of Earth’s phenomena. His last statement here is a fascinating outlook on humankind: life is like an orchestra and everyone should be playing their part correctly, but the “supposed to” here implies that some people are not. If people are on different “vibrations” or are playing different parts, then the orchestra falls apart, just as he believes Earth does because people do not exist in harmony with each other. With his spoken word, which often rings like poetry, he is able to create science fiction: a new way of looking at the world.

Ra’s philosophy on music is introduced in the film right after the two-minute musical opening when he describes how his planet is different from Earth. First he states that “[t]he music is different here. The vibrations are different,” which emphasizes the concept of foreignness immediately. He goes on to describe how black people can treat this planet as a haven from Earth, which has only shunned them. “They can drink in the beauty of this planet. It will affect their vibrations, for the better of course.” This elaborates on Ra’s belief that everything is music, everything consists of vibrations, and he believes that Earth’s vibrations, (“the sound of guns, anger, frustrations,”) are inferior to the ones on the planet he has founded. He wishes to “teleport the whole planet here through music,” which demonstrates his notion that music is more than just sounds, but a source of energy or power.7 Again, the power to teleport people is a scientific one that is fictional in our reality.

His concept of time, which is integral to his philosophy of music as well as his philosophy of life, is introduced in this first minute of speech as well. He has created a separate world, “another place in the universe, up on a different star. That would be where the alter-destiny would come in.” Ra’s concept of the “alter-destiny” is similar to the concept that “hope is when there is no tomorrow.” He believes there is no future for him, so he must create a different world where he can exist happily, or even simply exist. He emphasizes that the first step in understanding this abstract concept is eliminating the construct of time altogether. “The first thing to do is to consider time as officially ended.”8 Sun Ra does not concern himself with history, nor does he predict the future. For him, time does not exist within the “alter-destiny” he has created.

As previously stated, Sun Ra believes that the music or vibrations on Earth are worse than those on his own planet, and this claim is validated in the film when Jimmy Fey, a character who does not take part in Ra’s world and practices, puts on the helmet given to him by one of Ra’s supporters. This helmet is associated with musical power, as shown by the way the supporters, who value music like Sun Ra and are therefore on the same vibrations as him, treat it with great care. When Jimmy Fey puts on the helmet, there are loud screeching noises of static and other technological sounds, as opposed to the music that Sun Ra’s band plays. This demonstrates that Fey’s vibrations are different from Ra’s in a concrete, musical sense: he is not capable of hearing the music that Ra plays. To go even further, it seems to harm him to come in contact with Ra’s music, which more greatly emphasizes their differences. This scene is symbolic of the fact that very few people seem to be on the same page philosophically with Ra and his supporters, and thus cannot understand their music or ways of life. Ra states that “[t]his music is all a part of another tomorrow, another kind of language.”9 Those that do not support Ra cannot speak his “language” – the language of his music.

Another form of music present in Space is the Place in addition to the ambient, structureless sounds is the recurring performance of a female singer. She often sings atonally as well, her words more like chanting than singing, which causes greater focus on her lyrics. Accompanied by atonal, pulsing instrumentation, the singer repeats phrases like “Oh, we sing this song to a great tomorrow. Oh, we sing this song to abolish sorrow.”10 Here, the lyrics, which have quite a straightforward message, are placed in a context that is unstable and unfamiliar to the listener – atonal, random, flippant-sounding music. This distorts the message, or distorts the messenger, and demonstrates that perhaps the sufferer is not on the same level or does not share the same vibrations as those who listen. This further distinguishes the different worlds created through the science of music.

The first three minutes of the film alone include massive amounts of information about Sun Ra’s philosophy and the world he has created, which is vastly distinct from reality. This other space that he has created falls right into the typical crafting of science fiction. Often times, the draw to science fiction, due to its prevalent disaster element, “is that it releases one from normal obligations.”11 Sontag’s point is strongly supported in the case of Space is the Place. Sun Ra imagines exactly this: a world where normal obligations, much more negative and burdensome for him personally, since he is a black man in a world dominated by white men, fall away and he can exist more freely. The music helps to achieve this brand new space by presenting the listeners with an unfamiliar collection of sounds where they can imagine a new world, or perhaps cannot imagine anything at all, but can rely on Sun Ra’s words and connections to the images of the film to guide them.

By including music, science fiction films are infinitely better able to get their messages across, as is the case with any genre of film. However, for science fiction specifically, a genre so rich in visual tropes and images meant to shock the viewer, music and sound greatly enhance an audience’s deeper understanding of the narrative of a film. “In science fiction films disaster is rarely viewed intensively; it is always extensive. … And it is in the imagery of destruction that the core of a good science fiction film lies.”12 I believe music adds a new element to this theory. Music helps to make the disaster in a science fiction film, which is most often presented extensively through violent or disturbing images, more intensive. People connect emotionally to music, often in ways they cannot explain or understand. That is because it is a medium all its own that, especially when paired with film, has the ability create a world with which people can connect or cannot connect. In the case of science fiction music, which emphasizes unexpectedness, suspense, and the unknown, the audience is kept from being able to guess what is coming. In this way, it is intentionally difficult to connect emotionally with the music, yet it makes it easy to transport an audience to a different frame of mind than their own reality. Sontag later elaborates on this point: “[s]cience fiction films are one of the purest forms of spectacle; that is, we are rarely inside anyone’s feelings.”13 This claim is just as easily supported with science fiction music. Ra’s dissociation with any typical patterns of music keep us from getting emotionally invested in the plot. Just because music can help us understand what is going on, does not mean that we can connect with it. Sun Ra’s atypical music presents us with an alternative way of thinking, an alternative sound world that we are unfamiliar with, so, though it is presented clearly, we are unsure how to react to it. As for Sontag’s second point, I have to disagree. Music and sound plays an equal part in the making of a “good” science fiction film, so much so that one could argue, as I have, that music alone can exemplify science fiction.

According to Sun Ra’s philosophy, music is the “alter-destiny,” is another language, is the very explanation for gravity. There is a cosmic power in music in his world that only those with the right vibrations can fathom. The science in his philosophy is fairly hard to believe, but it is no stranger than countless other science fiction films, music, and other media that have presented equally distinct alternate realities. Ra’s creation is less futuristic due to his avoidance of time in the conventional sense, but in another sense, it does provide the audience with the idea of a possible future. In this way, music acts as an effective portal to a new mindset about a new concept, or a successful medium for science fiction.

 

Bibliography

Coney, John. Space is the Place. US, 1974. 0:01-19:43.

Oxford Dictionaries, s.v. “medium,” accessed October 24, 2016. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/medium

Sobchack, Vivian. “The Limits of the Genre: Definitions and Themes.” In Screening Space; The American Science Fiction Film, 18-58. Second, Enlarged Edition. Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Sontag, Susan. “The imagination of disaster.” In Against Interpretation and Other Essays, 213-215. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961.

  1. Sobchack, Vivian. “The Limits of the Genre: Definitions and Themes.” In Screening Space; The American Science Fiction Film, 18. Second, Enlarged Edition. Rutgers University Press, 1987.
  2. Sobchack, Vivian. “The Limits of the Genre: Definitions and Themes.” 19.
  3. Sobchack, Vivian. “The Limits of the Genre: Definitions and Themes.” 58.
  4. Oxford Dictionaries, s.v. “medium,” accessed October 24, 2016. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/ definition/medium
  5. Coney, John. Space is the Place. US, 1974. 0:01-1:47.
  6. Coney, John. Space is the Place. US, 1974. 19:08-19:43
  7. Coney, John. Space is the Place. US, 1974. 1:52-3:01.
  8. Coney, John. Space is the Place. US, 1974. 1:52-3:01.
  9. Coney, John. Space is the Place. US, 1974. 16:54-18:15
  10. Coney, John. Space is the Place. US, 1974. 18:36-19:48
  11. Sontag, Susan. “The imagination of disaster.” In Against Interpretation and Other Essays, 215. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961.
  12. Sontag, Susan. “The imagination of disaster.” 213
  13. Sontag, Susan. “The imagination of disaster.” 215

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