Music Monday: Some Sun Ra Notes

This weekend, I started to think just a bit more seriously about writing something on Sun Ra and the relationship between his work (both in music and writing) and Orientalism. I’ve toyed with some ideas related to this topic a few months ago, and you can read some of them here. I’m not entirely sure where this project is going, but I wanted to get some momentum behind it.

To help this project along, I took a dive into Kevin McGeough’s massive and impressive (and massively impressive) The Ancient Near East in the Nineteenth Century: Appreciations and Appropriations (Sheffield Phoenix Press 2015). I was particularly interested in the final chapters of volume 3 which deal with the Theosophical movements of the late 19th century and, then, in the final part a quick tour through some of the early 20th century legacies of 19th century views of the Near East with special attention to Freud and H.P. Lovecraft.

McGeough’s attention to Helena Blavatsky’s work drew my attention both because her works appeared in Sun Ra’s library and because she located the source of an ancient and unchanging wisdom in ancient Near Eastern (particularly Egyptian) sources. While Blavatsky’s understanding of the Egyptian, Near Eastern, and Classical texts left much to be desired, her work nevertheless reflected a growing popular and academic interest in the Near East that had fomented over the 19th century. Oddly, her most famous work Isis Unveiled (1877) does not appear in Sun Ra’s library but her subsequent book, The Secret Doctrine (1888) does. Connecting Sun Ra’s rather eclectic esotericism to theosophy of Blavatsky may be useful in disentangling some of the pseudoscientific elements of his thinking which are explicit in both his poetry and his fascination with the space age.

Sun Ra’s library also contained books by Gerald Massey, the eccentric 19th century poet and playwright, who wrote a number of works that sought to trace Biblical origins to the Nile valley. In particular, Sun Ra owned a copy of Massey’s A book of the beginnings : containing an attempt to recover and reconstitute the lost origines of the myths and mysteries, types and symbols, religion and language, with Egypt for the mouthpiece and Africa as the birthplace (1881).   

I also want to try to understand works like Oahspe: A New Bible by John Ballou Newbrough which is a mystical text that was dictated to Newbrough while in a trance. It evokes both Biblical and Egyptian motifs in its spiritualism and likewise appears in Sun Ra’s collection. Similarly Sun Ra’s library contains works of James M. Pryse, another late 19th century Theosophist. 

The other aspect of Sun Ra’s work that has fascinated me is his connection with African American writers who looked to connect Black culture and race, in various ways, to Egypt, the Near East, and Biblical narratives. The most prominent of these was George G.M. James‘s work, Stolen Legacy: The Greeks Were Not the Authors of Greek Philosophy, But the People of North Africa, Commonly Called the Egyptians (1954) which anticipated some of Martin Bernal’s arguments in Black Athena and famously attracted the critique of Mary Lefkowitz

James’s work represents a key early text that we might associate with Afrocentrism. And I’d like to try to understand similar 19th and early 20th century works in Sun Ra’s library. For example, I was not familiar with Boston Napoleon Bonaparte Boyd whose work appear among Sun Ra’s books. His work, Search light on the seventh wonder; x-ray and search light on the Bible with natural science; discoveries of the twentieth century,  from what I gather, attempted to link Biblical and historical narratives to the condition of Africa and Blacks in society and the need to reclaim lost knowledge to restore true wisdom to the world.

Similarly, I’m fascinated by the work of Theodore P. Ford, especially his God Wills the Nego (1939) which sought to locate the history of Black people in Ethiopia and Egypt as a way to restore their status in mid-century American society. (There is one line of thinking that connects Ford with Wallace Fard Muhammad, the mysterious founder of the Nation of Islam.)

Finally, I want to understand a bit more about his relationship to the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the shooting of certain scenes from Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise (for a review of it, see here). 

Music Monday

I have always wanted to write more regularly about music on my blog (and in real life more broadly). The problem is that whenever I start to write about music I find myself lacking the right words, technical vocabulary, and historical understanding to write confidently.

Today, for whatever reason, I decided to throw caution to the wind and write a bit about music. I don’t have a cohesive or coherent post on music to offer, but I thought I’d pull together some little observations for a kind of fragmentary start.

First, I’m pretty enchanted by Promises, Pharoah Sander’s latest album with Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s exactly the kind of ethereal, cerebral, ambient music that you might expect from Floating Points made more richer through the London Symphony’s strings. Pharoah Sander’s saxophone floats in and out, mostly above the mix, and his solos create new impressions and add textural relief to nuance soundscapes produced by Floating Points. In short, it’s good stuff and a real album rather rather than a project designed to leverage Sanders’ place in the jazz pantheon to entice us to listen.

Sanders is not the only post-Coltrane sax player to continue to release new music this year. Archie Shepp’s Let My People Go with Jason Moran is a more intimate album than Promises that emphasizes Shepp’s distinctive tone and style rather than something more grandiose. For fans of Shepp, Let My People Go evokes his two recordings with Horace Parlan, Goin’ Home (1977) and Trouble in Mind (1980). This is a good thing. Shepp returns to his long tradition of political Black music statements that stretches into the 60s and 70s, while embracing a less complicated setting of a saxophone and a piano. 

Readers of my “what I’m listening to” section of my Friday Varia and Quick Hits know that I’ve taken some deep dives in Charles Lloyd’s discography and have been really enchanted by his recent work with the Marvels. His 2021 release, Tone Poem, isn’t quite as engaging as Vanished Gardens (2018) or I Long to See You (2016) and it doesn’t have the soul shattering beauty (and context) of his last gaggle of ECM albums (crowned by his 2002 Lift Every Voice), but they’re solid albums where Lloyd plays within himself. Like Shepp and Sanders, he relies on his exquisite tone to make his points (although he was never as keen to show his pyrotechnic chops as Sanders and Shepp; although see his recently released Manhattan Stories which is Lloyd’s private recording of a 1965 live date at Slugs).   

Second, I’ve been listening to and thinking about Maria Schneider’s Data Lords (2020) a good bit lately. It not only represents a particularly fertile few years for large ensemble jazz (I’m still really enjoying the Sun Ra Arkestra’s Swirling) but also the emergence of jazz that critiques the pervasive character of our digital world. Data Lords, for example, deliberate juxtaposes the chaotic and incessant world of digital data with the personal, spiritual, and intimate world of human experiences. Putting aside the validity of this juxtaposition (which clear has both merits and shortcomings), Schneider’s music is a sometimes strident call for balance which has particular salience in the music industry where the datafied nature of music and download culture can often reduce the success of a work to bits in a stream.

This kind of critique goes beyond Schneider’s album. I’m looking forward to listening to Malnoia’s Hello Future which is likewise framed as a complex response to the dehumanizing character of technology. Magnus Granberg’s Come Down to Earth Where Sorrow Dwelleth is also high on my spring listening list. The album apparently draws you into its slow, dolorous sound and forces a kind of reflective state on the listener. 

I got wondering how these albums that explicitly or implicitly critique our face paced digital worlds sit alongside the traditions of futurism in jazz music. I keep thinking of the Afrofuturism inherent in Sun Ra’s work or in Herbie Hancock’s explicitly futuristic sounding work on Head Hunters. The implications that this music is the “shape of jazz to come” fused the sound of avant-garde music with a view of the future. 

The rise of digital technologies and synthesizer music forms a useful backdrop for the futurism of bands like The Comet is Coming (and their other UK based projects). I wonder if Afrofuturism also informs the spirit present in the recent albums by the likes of Kamasi Washington and Christian Scott which manage to look back and forward at the same time? Maybe I’ll blog a bit about this next Monday.   

Two Things Thursday: Open Access and Data Lords

It’s spring break and I’m focusing on self-care for a few days and trying to build some stamina for the final six weeks of the semester. So instead of a full three things on Thursday, I’m cutting back to two things, but I hope that these two things are cool enough to make up for being one short.

Thing the First

The yuge news in scholarly publishing was that Elsevier and the University of California system reached $10 million+transformative agreement.” This agreement makes it for possible for Elsevier to publish over 4000 articles per year written by University of California faculty under open access licenses. The UC system will also get access to all Elsevier published content for “free.” Authors with grant funding will pay additional fees for their articles to appear in Elsevier journals. The library will support authors without grants. Thus, this agreement reflects a “multi-payer” type arrangement with the university and grant funded researchers sharing the burden of publication fees. This transformative agreement restores access to Elsevier journals interrupted when negotiations broke down in 2019 between the UC system and the publishing company. It also ensures that research from the amazing scholars at the UC system is available in open formats.

To be clear, if I were negotiating on behalf of UC, I would have considered this agreement a “win” for my side. I also have a deep distrust of Elsevier and understand that the company is not giving anything away here, but adopting alternative strategy to generate profits for its stakeholders. 

I have some worries, of course. First, I worry that this will draw more scholars to publish in Elsevier journals. Not only will it attract UC scholars, with the prospect of open access publishing at no or known costs, but it will presumably attract other scholars to these journals which will benefit from appearing in the same pages as prestigious work by UC faculty. This is good for Elsevier.

Second, I also worry that this is a bad deal for journals that are not covered (or likely to be covered) by such transformative agreements. How will independent publications such as Hesperia fair if these kinds of agreements become the norm? How will these agreements shift the landscape for journals published by smaller presses which may not have the massive economies of scale to negotiate transformative agreements that swap subscription fees for publication fees? I can’t help but fear that these kind of agreements are not great for small and mid-sized presses that publish specialized journals. These arrangements risks drawing high quality content away from their pages and making these journals less visible in citations, subscriptions, library use, and increasing important journal rankings. In other words, these kinds of agreements are good for Elsevier journals, but not necessarily good for the wider academic publishing ecosystem. 

They’re also good for UC scholars, of course, by ensuring that scholars from UC have an expansive platform to share their work and their influence. This kind of system, however, serves to amplify the voices of UC faculty in ways that are not open to all scholars at all institutions. While this kind of asymmetry has always existed in higher education, I worry that these agreements further reinforce the division between the haves and the have nots. Multi-payer, open access models connect the reach of one’s scholarship more explicitly to institutional and individual resources. While this parallels access to facilities and grants for scholars in the sciences, for scholars in the humanities where institutional resources are less determining in the quality of scholarship (or I would guess) this will work to the detriment of scholars at institutions unable to negotiate favorable publishing agreements with major presses. Perhaps this is just my paranoia as a scholar at a smaller institution that is unlikely to negotiate such transformative agreement, but also my worry that this might negatively impact scholars at less wealthy institutions that often serve historically underserved communities. (Again, this isn’t to suggest that the UC system represents an especially elite cross section of the academic community or to denigrate the significant scholarly impact of those scholars! I know that folks at UC institutions do amazing and impactful work that makes life better for people from all walks of life).

My final worry is this reflects a shift by Elsevier from publishing as a means to profit directly from the dissemination of knowledge and toward a new role as the aggregator of knowledge. By attracting research from major institutions to their journals, Elsevier expands the quantity of content that they can package, analyze, and interpret. The role of major publishers in tracking the impact factor of journals and individual publications, for example, benefits from this kind of expansive data set. It also positions Elsevier to track trends in research, anticipate new directions, and funnel scholarly inquiry through Elsevier owned properties. While this might seem like a dystopian view of Elsevier’s corporate interest, I worry that it’s not.

Thing the Second

This brings me to Maria Schneider’s Data Lords. Just as the UC system was announcing their transformative agreement, the 63rd annual Grammy Awards was taking place (sort of) in Los Angeles. Schneider’s Data Lords won the Grammy for the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. The album was released on the innovative artist owned and crowd funded label ArtistShare.

The album traces the relationship between our digitally mediated world and what Schneider calls the real world of the human experience of nature. She sees the distinction between the digital and the human as complex with the former being closely tied to corporate interests, oppressive workflows, and bustle. The latter, in contrast, is more peaceful, restorative, and less corporate and capitalized.

My description overly simplifies a complex work and the album is worth a listen. At the same time, the album clearly recognizes the complex landscape of the contemporary music industry where streaming serves reward music that garners millions of clicks and further marginalizes music that tends to attract devoted, but smaller audiences. Data Lords is not available on streaming services and was funded through sponsors who contributed before and during the recording process. In other words, it wasn’t distinct from the digital world it sets out to critique. In fact, it relied upon digitally medicated crowdfunding to come into existence. At the same time, it navigated an independent path, avoided commercial record labels, and metered metrics of the streaming world.  

It seems to me that projects like Data Lords offers one way to critique the kind of transformative agreements negotiated by UC. It reminds us that knowledge is data and when companies control access to data (whether that’s knowledge or publications), they do so for their own benefit. 

 

A Conclusion to Hearing Corwin Hall

This week, I started pulling together a short article for Shawn Graham’s journal Epoiesen. I’ve been posting them in somewhat random order here on my blog. Because I wanted to foreground Mike Witrgraf’s video work “Hearing Corwin Hall,” I decided to introduce the article with only a very short lede and then embed the video work on the page. You can read that here and watch the video here.

Then, treating “Hearing Corwin Hall” as a kind of archaeological data or object, I proceeded with a longer discussion that offers context for the piece and some basic analysis. You can read more of that here.

Finally, I’ve put together a not entirely satisfying conclusion here which draws on the work of Sara Perry, Ruth Tringham, and Cornelius Holtorf. This will obviously require some revision for clarity and it’ll also need to be expanded, but I’m tired today and have grading to do and some other projects that are demanding my attention. So for today, this feels like a wrap. I’ll put the entire piece together sometime in the next week or two, circulate to my co-authors, and then send it off to Shawn and Company early next year.  

Conclusions

The piece seeks to communicate in non verbal ways the history and archaeology of Corwin Hall. This approach to archaeology with parallels with recent calls for an affective archaeology. Sara Perry’s work, for example, explored the role of enchantment and affect in producing knowledge of the past (Perry 2015, 2019). For Perry, enchantment lies at the core of archaeology’s ability to produce action. Hearing Corwin Hall communicates the anxiety of change in campus through a range of non-verbal techniques anchored in the reproduction of the acoustic character of the recital room and the various events associated with the Wesley College Documentation Project. The techniques used in Hearing Corwin Hall paralleled those discussed by Ruth Tringham’s in her recent article on creating ways to explore the deep past that do not rely on the use of contemporary language. Tringham’s willingness to create engagements with the past that allow for significant ambiguity where the audience has opportunities for an emotional response, imagination, and reflection often lost in traditional archaeological texts, descriptions, and reconstructions (2019). We hoped that Hearing Corwin Hall allows listeners to not only experience some of our own encounters with these buildings, but also formulate their own views. Despite the ambiguity of many of the electronic sounds and the garbled looped voice, and the abrasiveness, abruptness, and density of the piece invites strong opinions and responses.

In many ways, the appeal of Hearing Corwin Hall to the enchanting and affecting potential of heritage, does not entirely avoid appealing to“crisis based” or “heritage at risk” narratives. As Cornelius Holtorf has argued crisis based narratives which seek to communicate a sense of urgency by viewing of cultural heritage as a limited and ever shrinking resource has only a limited potential to motivate more expansive, inclusive, or resilient views of the community (Holtorf 2015, 2018). At the same time, by seeking to commemorate and recognize the destruction of the Wesley College buildings on UND’s campus through conventional documentation practices as well as performances and the Hearing Corwin Hall recording we situated the demolition of these buildings within a larger conversation of change on campus and the anxieties that liminal states induce. Our efforts to document the changes to these buildings prior to their destruction by using the compromised acoustics of the recital hall as filter for Hearing Corwin Hall serves as both a reminder that campuses have always been the locations of change and art, music, history, and archaeology offer ways to bring attention to both the emotional impact of the contemporary situation, but also the resilience of the campus community. Hearing Corwin Hall makes clear that the loss of the Wesley College buildings contributed to a sense of local trauma. Performances offer one way to recognize, communicate, and ultimately mitigate the impact of continuous trauma of liminal anxiety on our campus.

More Fragments from Hearing Corwin Hall

This week, I’ve been working on a piece for Epoiesen based on Mike Wittgraf’s “Hearing Corwin Hall.”

You can watch the video here: 

My article introduces the video with a brief lede. The rest of the article follows the video and includes a short introduction to the Wesley College Documentation Project called “Studying Corwin Hall” and then a section on the history of Corwin Hall (“Building Corwin Hall”). The final two sections, which I’ve included in the blog post, deal at least superficially with performance, ruins, and affective and emotive archaeology.

Performing Corwin Hall

By the time that the Wesley College Documentation Project began the buildings were already abandoned. The last psychology faculty had reluctantly pulled up stakes from Corwin-Larimore Halls only after he had sent off the last grant application of the season. The honors program and campus technology services had departed Robertson-Sayre Hall at around the same time. Thus the buildings themselves entered a period of liminality. The traces of their prior use continuing to linger in the rooms, offices, and hallways, but at the same time, their fate was sealed and asbestos mitigation and demolition scheduled. The objects left behind and the histories of these buildings seemed to have reached a clear end point. Offices with mid-century desks, 21st century chairs, particleboard books shelves, bulletin boards, window air-conditioner units, and locked filing cabinets still preserved the imprints of their former occupants. Classrooms remain filled with rows of abandoned chairs too outdated for even state-university surplus and tables and lecterns long ago supplanted by high-tech ”teaching stations” with integrated computers. The labs of the third floor were filled with aging computers, dense tangles of obsolete connectors, and abandoned equipment of uncertain age and function. The content of these spaces reflected not only their present abandoned state, but revealed the abandonment as a process that began long before the university scheduled these buildings for destruction.

Our encounter with Corwin and Larimore Halls was not only infused that its failure to survive as an independent institution and its impending erasure from campus, but also by the objects that were left behind which served as a diachronic reminder that campuses exist in a state of constant flux. As a result, our work in the liminal space of the Wesley College buildings amplified the pervasive sense of anxiety across campus. In an effort to recognize the liminal state in which these buildings existed, we decided to combine our work with two events designed to mark out both contemporary and past changes on campus. The first event centered on recognizing that Sayre Hall was renamed in the 1920s for Harold H. Sayre who was killed in World War I. To commemorate the demolition of this building almost exactly a century after the Armistice that ended the Great War, we invited campus dignitaries, officials from the Grand Force Air Force Base and the city, as well as faculty, staff, and students to a short ceremony designed to recognize the end of this memorial building. The event involved brief reflections on the building, the sacrifices of veterans, and a bagpiper on a beautiful spring day. The program included a poem composed by Sayre’s pilot who credited Sayre’s bravery with saving his life when they were shot down in France.

Simon Murray’s recent book, Performing Ruins, considers the feelings that ruins evoke when they serve as the setting for performances. Murray acknowledged that the definition of ruins was ambiguous, but that the term typically described buildings that were in movement or between the states of use to terminal collapse. In this context, the Wesley College buildings, while still standing and intact, were ruins as their abandonment, neglect, and fate combine to create a sense of inevitable decline. As Wyatt Atcheley’s photographs, which accompany this article demonstrate, the status of the Wesley College buildings as ruins produced an experience of the uncanny which is common in liminal spaces and confused encounters with the familiar and unfamiliar. In Murray’s work, he notes that the occupation of ruins through their performance seeks in some cases to suspend these spaces and to arrest, for a moment, their movement into oblivion (288-289). The ceremonies associated with Sayre Hall implicitly invited the community to consider the parallel between Sayre’s death and the destruction of his memorial. By accentuating Sayre’s memory, the ceremony briefly reversed the inevitable flow of time toward the building’s destruction and the memorial’s erasure from campus. This also presented an opportunity to critique the changes taking place on campus by drawing attention to buildings prior to their destruction. The tendency for contractors to demolish in between terms and in the summer months when students and faculty are not on campus is often a concession to safety, but it also has the effect of making buildings seem simply to disappear.

The second performance associated with the Wesley College buildings was a final concert in the Corwin Hall recital room. William Caraher introduced the room and the selection of songs with brief remarks at the beginning of the event. Then, Michael Wittgraf performed several songs from the Methodist hymnal on an electronic keyboard to a small audience who sat amid stacks of abandoned classroom chairs, tables, and scraps of paper. At the end of the performance, he recorded a series of sounds designed to capture more clearly the acoustic signature of the space. To record the room’s signature and the concert we arranged seven microphones both within the recital hall, but also throughout Larimore Hall and on the landing outside the southern entrance to the room. Our goal was to produce an acoustic archaeology of the room by capturing not only whatever character of the original recital hall remained, but also the sound of the transformed space. In this way, we use acoustic recording methods in a similar way to the visual recording techniques typically used by archaeologists to record buildings and landscapes.

The inspiration for this project came from several recent efforts to capture the acoustic character of Byzantine churches in Greece and Turkey (Papalexandrou 2017; Gerstel et al. 2018). These projects typically involved sophisticated recording strategies and technology as well as choirs performing period appropriate music. This work, however, sought to reconstructing ancient, Medieval, or Early Modern “soundscapes” (Smith 1999). It was appealing to imagine that we could reconstruct the original acoustics of the now-compromised Corwin recital room, but we neither had the technology nor the time to attempt such an ambitious sonic simulation. Instead, by performing in the Corwin Hall room, we aimed to document the room’s abandoned and transformed state. Like the project’s broader effort to recognize the traces of use throughout these buildings, the acoustic signature of the room would capture, even if in subtle and indistinct ways, the sounds of its transformation, neglect, and abandonment. By performing this event with an audience we once again sought to pause the inevitable progress of the building toward demolition and abandonment. We also sought to locate bodies in the acoustic space of the building invoking its history as a recital hall, a classroom, and part of a bustling department and campus. In short, our recording both recognized the terminal status of the building and the room, while also capturing its transformations. The songs were superficially familiar, but the transformed space rendered them uncanny.

Hearing Corwin Hall

The event in the Corwin Hall recital room was not the final performance associated with the project. The recordings of the music and the sounds of the rooms became the basis for a multimedia performance work called Hearing Corwin Hall which captured the liminal state of Corwin Hall but also embodied the anxiety present on our university campus. These performances, in turn, became the basis for the video associated with this article. By using the acoustics of Corwin Hall as a filter for the audio component of performance, Wittgraf located the anxiety present in the recital hall’s liminal and compromised space. It also embodied the anxiety endemic on university campuses and in the particular situation on UND’s campus created a heightened sense of anxiety.

Hearing Corwin Hall told the story of the buildings and the Wesley College campus. From the construction of the buildings, triggered by the placement of a brick on the stage at the 1:30 mark which interrupted the peaceful chorus of crickets that comprised the first 100 seconds of the piece. The introduction of the sounds of motors and passing traffic along side the crickets and soon a looped track of Caraher’s voice indicates the purchase of campus by UND in the 1960s. The initial placement of a sledge hammer on bricks, then brings in the organ and Sheila Liming’s bagpipe from the Sayre Hall memorial ceremony as the din of traffic and Caraher’s looped voice continues. The powerful blows with the sledgehammer at the 6:40 mark the start of the building’s destruction which then slowly descends into the reverberation acoustics of the Corwin Hall. The last four minutes of the piece lingers offering a false sense of resolution. The buildings are gone, but their echoes persist.

Hearing Corwin Hall

One of my favorite things is Shawn Graham’s Epoiesen journal. As its tag line suggests, Epoiesen is a journal for “creative engagement in history and archaeology,” and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to contribute something more substantial than a response to its digital pages.

A couple of years ago, I worked with an amazing team of students and friends on the Wesley College Documentation Project. As part of that project, my colleague Mike Wittgraf produced a mixed media piece called “Hearing Corwin Hall.” He has both performed this piece nationally and recorded a video version. Our plan is to submit the video version with an accompanying essay to Epoiesen sometime “soon.” The video is done and my essay is… well, it’s coming together. The hardest part so far is balance my need to explain everything with the desire to allow the work to stand on its own. My current solution is a short “lede” followed by the video. I think will develop more of the academic component of our piece in a “discussion” after the video. None of this is cast in stone, obviously, but I present it here as a start.

Hearing Corwin Hall

Introduction

Hearing Corwin Hall is a multimedia work composed and performed by Michael Wittgraf. The piece is based on two month archaeological, architectural, and archival documentation project of two, adjoining, double buildings on the University of North Dakota’s Grand Forks campus: Robertson-Sayre Halls, built in 1929 and 1908 and Corwin-Larimore Halls, built in 1909/1910. The buildings were originally part of Wesley College, an independent, Methodist Institution established in Grand Forks in 1905 and closely affiliated with UND. Sayre and Larimore were men’s and women’s dorms respectively and Robertson and Corwin hall were offices and classroom space. Corwin Hall also housed music rehearsal rooms and the college’s recital hall, a fine room with a capacity of 100.

In 1965, UND acquired the buildings and until 2016, they housed various departments, programs, labs, classrooms, and offices. In 2018, UND demolished the buildings as part of an effort to reduce the campus footprint by eliminating buildings encumbered with significant deferred maintenance costs from the university budget and campus. A team of students in collaboration with William and Susan Caraher formed the Wesley College Documentation Project to study the buildings and the objects left behind. They had virtually unfettered access to the buildings in the time between their abandonment and their demolition. This project produced not only a small archive of descriptive data, photographs, and analysis, but also coordinated two public events and published a photo essay that commemorated and critiqued the buildings, Wesley College as an institution, and the contemporary financial and cultural situation on UND’s campus.

Hearing Corwin Hall draws upon the work of the Wesley College Documentation Project. It integrates images from the building’s final months, audio drawn from the project’s public events, and the acoustic signature of the Corwin Hall’s recital room which although compromised over the 100 year history of structure preserved traces of its past function. Michael Wittgraf’s Hearing Corwin Hall is also set against the backdrop of significant institutional, administrative, and cultural changes at UND and in higher education more generally. A more thorough consideration of the work and the Wesley College Documentation Project appears in the discussion below.

Discussion

College campuses are anxious places.

The looming demographic downturn, changing funding priorities among donors and legislators, and a whelming tide of anti-intellectualism in American life have contributed to a growing sense of uncertainty surrounding the future of higher education. Many college campuses, at least in the United States, have initiated strategic planning, prioritization, and reimagining programs designed to help institutions navigate an uncertain future. Each year, another crop of books appear promising to diagnose, mitigate, or manage current or anticipated crises in funding, enrollment, teaching, research, and student expectations. There is an expectation that higher education is an industry in transition and that the college campus of the future will look very different from the campus of today.

The contemporary situation in higher education in many ways follows a familiar path. State universities, in particular, have long situated themselves at the intersection of progress and tradition. They celebrated both cutting edge research and conservative practices both in the rituals of college life, the architecture of campus, and the academic and research programs undertaken by students and faculty. College Gothic buildings rub shoulders with the latest in post-modern architecture, the century-old rituals of commencement and graduation accommodate spectacles of more radical inclusivity and reconciliation, online teaching introduces students to Classics and calculus, and researchers on Shakespeare share library budgets with new programs in nanotechnology and unmanned, autonomous vehicles.

Many contemporary college students remain liminal creatures as well. They live communally in dormitories or rental housing, and their lives pivot as much around the rhythm of the semester as off-campus employment, family life, and socializing. As a result, many college students neither bear the full economic and social responsibilities of adulthood nor the living arrangements and dependence of childhood. As any number of commentators have observed, college is a time of social transition for students. In college students learn to navigate the responsibilities of adult life without fully giving up the structures of student life or parental protections which are often transferred to institutions who provide food, housing, and social opportunities. The distinctive space of the college campus, for example, often locates the liminal experience of college students in areas not entirely public and integrated into the fabric of their community or entirely private and set apart.

Thus, college campuses embody a kind of liminality that not only emphasizes the current sense of institutions in transition but also longstanding tensions between progressive values and traditional practices and between adulthood and student life. As mid-century anthropologists have taught us these liminal situations often contribute to a sense of anxiety which underscores the vulnerability and strangeness of institutions and individuals that resist clear definition and stand “betwixt and between” various social statuses. Societies often seeks to resolve and contain liminal individuals and groups through formally structured ritual practices, confinement, and other forms of social limiting designed as much to protect society from the destabilizing entities as to confer a temporary status on those outside of traditional categories. Rites of passage, for example, frequently mark the successful navigation from one status to another and resolve the tension of liminal transitions with celebration. At the same time, we continue to treat individuals and groups who are unable to escape from the liminal status with deep suspicion.

The Wesley College Documentation Project involved a group of students interested in studying the Wesley College buildings on the University of North Dakota campus. The class began as a 1-credit Honors “pop up course” that ran in the spring of 2018 and paralleled an honors class dedicated to studying the UND budget which had undergone significant changes over the preceding years. The goal of the project was to document in as many ways as possible, the architecture and material culture of the Wesley College buildings, their history, and the process of abandonment. We worked in collaboration with UND Facilities, who provided access to the buildings and offered their considerable expertise concerning the physical fabric of the buildings.

Sun Ra, Papyrus, and Ancient Aliens

A recent New York Times article on the latest album from the Sun Ra Arkestra included an interesting lede: “In the early 2000s, the pianist Farid Barron read that his idol John Coltrane had once received a papyrus from Sun Ra that was said to stop time.”

I immediately skimmed the article for a reference to Dirk Obbink or Karen King assuming that any reference to papyrus in the national media was likely tied to the recent controversies in papyrology. Since Coltrane died in 1967, I quickly came to realize that this story did not involve academia, but, instead, was simply a very brief, and potentially innocent (if not apocryphal) reference the exchange of papyrus between two members of the jazz aristocracy. Of course, the exact character of the papyrus in question remains unclear and the papyrus is now lost. It might not be ancient. It might not be papyrus, and if the papyrus could stop time, it is possible that Obbink was somehow involved after all. 

Sun Ra’s legacy is getting a good bit of attention lately. His eponymous band, the Sun Ra Arkestra, under his long time tenor player Marshall Allen, released its first live album in 20 years, Swirling, and it’s good. Sun Ra’s estate continues a regularly flow of re-releases and many fans eagerly await the re-release of the recordings from his tour of Egypt in 1971 on Friday

There has also been a growing interest in Afrofuturism. The popularity of the 2018 film, Black Panther, has almost certain contributed to the interest in recent work by Marlon James (Black Leopard, Red Wolf) and newly-named MacArthur Fellow N.K. Jemisin and brought renewed attention to the work of Octavia Butler. As Blacks and People of Color struggle for freedom and equality in the present, they continue to imagine emancipatory futures, often anchored in significant and expanded perspectives on the past, that complicate and subvert the persistent paternalism rooted in myths of progress and development. Modern scholarship, such as Paul Youngquist’s A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth  of Afrofuturism (2016), recognizes Sun Ra’s work in the origins of both Afrofuturism and distinctive forms of Black mystical history that links the Space Age with a Black African past. Considering the growing interest in this work, it is hardly surprising that Duke University Press has republished John Szwed’s expansive biography of Sun Ra, Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra, this year with a new preface. 

As Ra’s name suggests, he was particularly interested in the history of Egypt and the role of Egypt in Black culture, religious power, and identity. In this way, he was similar to any number of jazz artists in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s from Nina Simone (High Priestess of Soul (1967)) to Miles Davis (Nefertiti (1968)), Pharoah Sanders, and John and Alice Coltrane. Despite his over the top theatrics, Ra’s interest in Egypt was not casual. As his biographer John Szwed makes clear, Ra read extensively not only 1950s pop-Egyptology, various mystical writers seeking to explore and unlock the power of Egyptian religion and culture, and scholars seeking to find the origins of Black people in ancient Egyptian, Nubia and Ethiopia, but also the work of academic Egyptologists James Henry Breasted and Sir. E.A. Wallis Budge. During Ra’s time in Chicago (from the end of World War II until around 1960), Ra had access to the Oriental Institute and the Field Museum with their collections of Egyptian Antiquities. From the late 1960s until later in his life, after he relocated to Philadelphia, he not only gave interviews at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, but also performed concerts there (some of which appear in the brilliant 1980 documentary, A Joyful Noise.)

Ra also encountered George G.M. James‘s work, Stolen Legacy: The Greeks Were Not the Authors of Greek Philosophy, But the People of North Africa, Commonly Called the Egyptians (1954), although it is possible that Ra had overlapped with James when he was a student at Alabama A&M and James a professor there. James’s book sought to locate the origins of Greek thought in Egypt. While many scholars have read it with a jaundiced eye, it not only anticipated academic works like Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1984), but  its wide circulation among African Americans contributed to a growing interest in Egypt as a source of contemporary Black identity in the 1950s and 1960s. Paul Youngquist argues that Sun Ra’s interest in Egypt formed the roots of an identity that sought autonomy from the oppressive anti-Black character of White society in 1950s Chicago.

Considering the depth and sincerity of Ra’s interest in Egypt, it is entirely possible that sometime in his life he acquired a papyrus fragment which he, in turn, gifted to John Coltrane. I’m not familiar with work on African American collectors of antiquities, but I suspect that folks like Coltrane and Ra would have seen collecting as part of a larger effort to consolidate their cultural and intellectual roots. 

~

Part of my wanted to name this post: Not All Believers in Ancient Aliens are Racist. I obviously though better of it.

Sun Ra’s interest in the space age complemented his interest in Egypt as even a quick viewing of his 1974 film Space is the Place reveals. Starting in the 1960s, space related imagery and sounds (e.g. the theremin and various electric organs) played a more and more significant role in Ra’s music. This coincided with the launch of Sputnik, the US-Soviet space race, and the growing interest in American culture. Unlike the lily-white Jetsons, Ra anchored his view of the space age in a continuum that begins with the celestial beings of ancient Egypt and especially, Ra, the sun god. To the best of my knowledge, Sun Ra never directly credits celestial beings with, say, building the pyramids or creating Egyptian culture. It is nevertheless clear that for Sun Ra, there is a direct line from the celestial deities and especially Ra (the god) to Egyptian culture to Black culture to outer space. This trajectory is not meant to somehow alienate (heh heh) the achievements of the Egyptians from their humanity, but to elevate the status of Black culture by connecting them to the origins in the first, mystical, celestial, space age.

This connection was emancipatory as it broke Black culture free from narratives of development and progress and disrupted time — as his putative papyrus suggested — by saying that Blacks have always been celestial beings and living in the space age.

To make all this more clear, Ra famously claimed to have been abducted by aliens sometime in the 1930s (although his earliest account of the abduction appears to have been in the 1950s). As Szwed cleverly notes, Ra’s account of his abduction echoes “Velikovsky revised by von DanikenWorlds in Collision reimagined through Chariots of the Gods?” It’s anachronistic, of course, as Chariots was not published until 1968, but it would seem that Szwed recognized the allusion to “ancient aliens” or at very least extraterrestrial influence on the past.

~

To be clear, I’m far from an expert on the thought of Sun Ra, Afrofuturism, and Egyptology. The lede from the New York Times, a recent article on the Society for Classical Studies blog on “Casting Cleopatra” (part 1, part 2), and a piece at Hyperallergic on Egyptology cosplay, however, got me thinking about the relationship between Sun Ra and contemporary concern for “Everyday Orientalism.” The sophisticated work at the intersection of the popular and the academic by these scholars has inspired my own, far more modest, musings especially as my press has a book that will deal with Sun Ra’s music (and bewildering discography) in the works. 

On the one hand, it is clear that Sun Ra’s view of Egypt is the stuff of Orientalist (especially Modernist) fantasy and his interest in the esoteric and mystical character of “the East” confirms this. At the same time, Ra’s goals are less invested in a desire to perpetuate colonial relations of power by “othering” the Orient. Instead, it would seem, that Ra sought to negotiate his own sense of alienation from White society in the US by locating the spiritual, racial, historical, and, indeed, cosmic roots of Black people in ancient Egypt. The celestial origins of Ra, his own abduction, and the space age character of his music and thought do not seek to somehow deprive ancient or contemporary Egyptians of their historical legacy as pyramid builders, but to elevate Black culture and society to the space age by arguing that they have always been celestial. Thus, Sun Ra’s emancipatory music and thought short-circuited any pride in the technological progress of the Cold War “space race” and sought to reinforce the primacy of Egyptian culture as a way to elevate the status of Black people in America. 

In this context, a papyrus that stops time makes perfect sense.

The Political Ecology of Recorded Music

I listen to a ton of music, mostly in various digital format — CDs, downloads, and streams — but I do so through a occasionally painfully anachronistic system that involves vacuum tube amplification and single-driver, paper-cone speakers and enough cables to stress my wife (and my  dad, a former old-school IT guy) out. And, yes, I’m one of those guys who believes valves sound better and the best speakers are dynamic and biased toward the middle frequencies where the human voice and most instruments happen (at least at the price point where I operate). I also continue to buy and play CDs but I’ve never allowed myself to get into the so-called vinyl revival.

My stereo, then, is a very material presence in our home even when it’s playing music downloaded or stream through the internet. Kyle Devine’s book, Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music (MIT 2019) examines the political ecology of recorded music starting with shellac disks and vinyl LPs and continuing through to modern CDs and digital music streams and downloads. 

As with so many works informed by “neomaterialist” approaches to objects, Devine shows a particular interest in the processes and materials involved in the manufacturing of recorded music. From the harvesting of lac beetle secretions and quarrying for limestone required for shellac records to the petroleum based plastics that make up vinyl LPs and CDs and their jewel cases, Devine shows how that Father John Misty is right when he sings: 

Try not to think so much about
The truly staggering amount of oil that it takes to make a record
All the shipping, the vinyl, the cellophane lining
The high gloss
The tape and the gear

Devine goes into some detail about the environmental damage and dangers faced by works in the record manufacturing industry which both left behind toxic waste and workers scarred by the process. He spends less time linking the processes involved in making an LP with the experience of playing or handling (or even destroying) a record which is a departure from a certain among of popular writing that celebrates how consumers engage with the distinctive materiality of the vinyl disk.  

The contrast between the consumer experience of materiality and the perceived immateriality of music in the 21st century (as downloads and the like) parallels a broader trends in how we understand consumer culture. On the one hand, people are becoming increasingly aware that we pay for intellectual property as much as the materials themselves. In fact, the intellectual property associated with goods and objects often shapes how we can engage with the objects themselves. Proprietary software updates, for example, can change the sonic signature of playback devices and, in some celebrated examples, prevent informal maintenance and repair on farm equipment. 

On the other hand, there’s been growing attention to the physical infrastructure that supports our download and software driven consumer culture. The human cost of the material in our portable devices which often comes from countries with poor worker safety, child labor problems, and little organized labor. Server farms generate tremendous amounts of heat and require immense quantities of power to serve music. They also reflect increasingly deterritorialized nature of consumer culture where regional and global servers work together to distribute copies of songs to devices in ways that offer only the faintest resemblance to the supply chains that produced and distributed vinyl records or plastic CDs.

Among the most interesting observations in the book is that prior to the advent of the CD (or the distribution of music digitally), record companies were organized and thought of themselves much more as manufacturing companies with significant investments in not only the production of vinyl disks, but their chemical make up and the technologies involved in their playback. A few companies, such as Sony, continue this tradition with investment in both playback technology, devices, and record labels (Columbia, RCA, as well as their own record labels). 

Today, there’s a much greater awareness of the intellectual property associated with music. The fluidity and relative ease of digital recording and distribution streamlines the relationship between a singer, a song, and its possible monetary value. In the past, however, the record companies role in manufacturing the medium through which the song circulated made the link between the song as an idea that could be monetized and the song as a commodity less direct. The medium of the recording and distribution of the music made the record company’s role in the literal manufacturing of a hit song or album much more significant and the role of the artist less distinct and clear. Today, in contrast, the success of musician-owned labels and private, independent releases on the internet shifts the emphasis from song as commodity made possible through the collaboration of the artist, recording industry, and manufacturing, to the artist as primary, if not sole, generator of value. When individuals project this contemporary view of how music generates value onto the past, it is easier to see artists as being exploited in the past, and recordings as more intellectual than material property.

To be clear, this isn’t to suggest that exploitation didn’t occur. The story is well known: white musicians exploited African American artists and used their social and racial access to the manufacturing and distribution capacities of the record industry to make money for white record labels and performers. The role of ASCAP in protecting the intellectual rights of artists took on greater significance well before the internet, of course, with the radio and within the recording industry, but as the route from recording to revenue undergoes material changes in the 21st century so will the very idea of how art is valued.

Three Thing Thursday: Multitasking, Jazz, and NDQ

Whether Three Thing Thursday is becoming a tradition or a routine depends, I guess, on your point of view. But once again, my week has become hectic and strangely the end of the week is more busy than the start. As a result, my world is pretty fragmentary and all that I have left are snippets of ideas, thoughts, and projects that swirl about my feet as I race from meeting to meeting.

Thing the First

One of the things that I love most about academia is the opportunity to multitask. By this I don’t mean having to flip back and forth between a bunch of open tabs in a browser and a stack of grading while preparing a class and writing an article (although that can also be fun!). What I mean is the inevitable overlap between projects that is so productive for new ideas. For example, I have learned a good bit about how archaeology works in practice through my work as a publisher. Thinking about the technical aspects of making a book has helped me to think more clearly about archaeology as a process of knowledge making that extends not just from the “survey unit” through the database to analysis and interpretation, but continues through the presentation, distribution, and reception of our arguments and data. Without working simultaneously on data collection in the field, computer aided analysis, writing, and publishing, I wouldn’t have entirely grasped this. Working both in the Bakken oil patch and in Greece and Cyprus has likewise informed my thinking on both projects, pushed me to read more widely, and muddied many ideas that I would have confidently said that I understood had I not tried to transfer them from one context to another.   

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to have to deal with just this kind of overlap as I continue to plod ahead with my book on the archaeology of the contemporary world and write a paper for a conference on “Cyprus in the Long Late Antiquity: History and Archaeology between the 6th and the 8th centuries.” As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found it harder to switch gears between project without a good bit grinding and clunking, but maybe that makes the need to switch gears all the more important.

Thing the Second

Recently, I’ve been very quietly working on new project for The Digital Press. What I write here doesn’t really constitute an announcement as much as an acknowledgement that this is something that might very well happen.

Over the past two years, I’ve discovered that I really like jazz. As with so many things in my life, this has slowly grown beyond a kind of casual interest or the vague appreciation of the odd John Coltrane or Charles Mingus album. My interest in jazz is on the very of becoming a full fledged obsession. To be clear, when I get obsessed with with something, it rarely follows a orderly trajectory. I’m not someone who tends toward the exhaustive. Anyone who knows me will admit that I’m a flâneur even when I should adopt a more rigorous approach. Fortunately my flânerie often leads me down some pretty interesting corridors and my interest in jazz led me to try to understand Sun Ra. 

Sun Ra’s discography is particularly baffling. It’s not only immense, but also complicated as his career spanned a range of labels including his own “El Saturn Records” label, Impulse!, and about 40 others. When I first started listening to San Ra’s music, I quickly became baffled especially when I encountered the myriad of re-releases and dodgy bootlegs of his live shows. One of my regular stops as a Sun Ra fan, however, became a series of blog posts called “Sun Ra Sundays”.  

This week, I’ve started a project to publish formally the Sun Ra Sunday blog in collaboration with its author Rodger Coleman (and thanks to some help from Irwin Chusid and Sam Byrd!) I’m pretty excited about being able to bring this to a wider audience, to give it a bit of a formatting, to get it circulating in paper, and to give it a good copy and content edit. Stay tuned.  

Thing the Third

It’s almost time to submit NDQ issue 87.1/2 to the University of Nebraska Press for typesetting and layout. That means this weekend, I get to spend time reviewing and re-reading the amazing contributions to the next issue. It’s one of the absolute best parts of my job at the University of North Dakota, and while I love to work on my own stuff, it’s never as rewarding as promoting the work of others. We posted the first peek at some of the 87.1/2 contents today over at the NDQ blog. Go check it out and stay tuned for more!

Against the Epic?

I had a lovely breakfast with a (at the time) PhD candidate on the day of her successful dissertation defense. Describing her life in Montana, she told me that so many people in the college town where she lived were “epic.” That seemed like a particularly apt word for folks who lived in state known for its mountains and big sky. 

Later that morning, I put in Earl Sweatshirt’s new EP, Feet of Clay. The entire EP runs to just over 15 minutes. It mostly consists of Sweatshirt’s characteristic stream of rhymes lyrics over a looped sample and beat. There are few breaks and no choruses. The entire EP is mercifully devoid of pretense and, despite it’s Biblical title, grandeur. It’s the opposite of the epic. 

Mami Wata, shawty blew the fish out
Piscean just like my father, still got bones to pick out
For now let’s salt the rims and pour a drink out

Taking nothing from the sincerity of the EP’s lyrics. Like his previous album Some Rap Songs, which stretches over the luxurious 24 minute mark, Sweatshirt reflects on the loss of his father, his own coming of age, and the challenges of success.

I put my fears in a box like a prayer that you won’t read
Spirited Away the whole thing
Peerin’ away, I won’t leave
See you starin’ into old beefs

This circumscribed scope sets it apart from so much of the recent output in the hip hop scene. Sweatshirt’s biblical allusion does not appear to symbolize some kind of monumental conversion that might warrant an entire album as in Kanye West’s contemporary Jesus is KingFeet of Clay’s lyrics are compelling:

Depending how I play my cards
The wind whispered to me, “Ain’t it hard?”
I wait to be the light shimmering from a star
Cognitive dissonance shattered and the necessary venom restored
As if it matters if you think it matters anymore

But they are not going to be taught in private college art history classes. They don’t explicitly challenge patrimony, racism, or capitalism. At 15 minutes, Sweatshirt’s EP doesn’t push you to consider existential themes along the lines of Kamasi Washington’s 3-hours masterpiece Heaven and Earth. It’s not a concept album, a statement, or a gimmick. To circle back: it’s not epic.

This semester, in a small graduate seminar, we concluded the semester by reading John Brooke’s Climate Change and the Course of Global History: a rough journey (2014), Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s The History Manifesto (2014), and numerous texts that refer to Daniel Lord Smail’s On Deep History and the Brain (2009), Manuel De Landa’s A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History (2011), or various other works that seek to narrative history on a monumental scale. These works are exciting, to be sure, and their scope and scale are intoxicating particularly to those of us who often spend our lives worrying about the distribution of broken ceramic sherds or history at the level of the decade or century. Moreover, their willingness to engage in big issues from climate change, to race, capitalism, colonialism, and violence, presses us to understand the immense scale of various oppressive regimes and systems. 

At the same time, these works are strangle distant from our daily experiences. It is possible, of course, to understand how choices we make contribute to deep history and patterns of injustice, inequality, and pain, but epic scale of these processes often can lead to a compromised sense of agency. On the one hand, maybe this is the goal. By revealing the vastness of our problems, we distribute the responsibility from our own shoulders as denizens of the 21st century and, instead, share the burden with our past. Our inability to escape our present allows us to live in a tragic moment. 

On the other hand, revealing how past decisions have shaped the present tempts us to be more deliberate while still reminding us that whatever our choices will inevitably have negative consequences for those who will invariably see the world in ways much different from our own.

Earl Sweatshirt’s EP, on the other hand, offers us 15 minutes of the explicitly non-epic. Seemingly scaled to the human attention span, it offers relief in the realm of the momentary and the personal. This doesn’t mean that it’s not deep, that it’s not meaningful, and that it’s not significant. In fact, Sweatshirt’s lyrics are on point, the production is tight, and the EP is rich with wordplay, sincerity, and history. By casting aside epic pretensions for even just for 15 minutes, it reminds us that the contemporary world, circumscribed by our own horizons, does exist even if it’s not all there is to the world.

 

Afterword: The entire concept of the EP in the digital age is great. There’s no reason for the EP to exist today, of course. It originally referred to a kind of vinyl pressing that was shorter than the LP and usually spun at 45 rpm and were 7-inches rather than 33-1/3 for 10-inch LPs. This conscious reference to an analogue past complements the every-day scope of Feet of Clay and strips from it some of the monumental hype that an LP requires.