Space is the Place

Collected Works: Music


Space is the Place

by Sun Ra

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A dark void. The emptiness between galaxies. A vacuum in which nobody can hear you scream. Or so we thought; voices begin to cry out, chanting, wailing. A rocket streams a blue-hot blast of big-band swing. A beeping electronic orchestra zips by at the speed of light, responding with a volley of Hammond organ honks. Unclassifiable sounds glimmer all about, the humming of a luminescent nebula. Before us, a star-studded celebration explodes with the style of a supernova.

Space Is the Place passes jazz tropes through a futuristic filter. ‘Images’ opens as a delicate piano ballad before shifting into a bout of ensemble improvisation that becomes gradually unstuck. As individual instruments vie for prominence, the composition collapses into waves of distortion from Sun Ra’s electric keyboard. ‘Rocket Number Nine’ is built upon the freneticism of bebop, but superimposes enigmatic, synthesised noises and exclamations about intergalactic flight.

Though there are moments of comedy, these sit alongside serious themes. The album was composed to accompany the blaxploitation film of the same name, in which racism is explored through the medium of science fiction. Space functions here as a metaphorical utopia, encapsulated by the music’s dizzying plurality and stylistic fusion. The title track’s repetition of the phrase ‘Space is the place!’ distils Sun Ra’s hope for a mysterious, otherworldly inclusivity into four euphoric words.

Sun Ra may draw on the organised chaos of free jazz, but with Space he coordinates a delicate balancing act. Each member of the ensemble follows a different trajectory, the many forces at work resulting in loose structures of planetary proportions. These orbital pulls often oppose each other, undermining the listeners’ expectations and hinting at an impending collision. Yet the group always veers away at the last moment, as the party’s cluster of stars move back into alignment.

Words by Lewis Coenen-Rowe

More to discover

You can listen to 'Images' here, 'Rocket Number Nine' here, and 'Space Is the Place' here. The following explore different aspects of Space Is the Place: Lanre Bakare's post on Afrofuturism for The Guardian; J. Hoberman's piece on otherworldly identity in the film for The New York Times; and Päivi Väätänen's essay on myth and science fiction for Fafnir.

Question of the day

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Historicity by the Vijay Iyer Trio. It’s hard to believe that the diverse sounds heard on this album are made by just three instruments. (→)

– Lewis Coenen-Rowe, Silent Frame Sub-Editor (via Patreon →)

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