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Sun Ra: “Space Probe” (excerpt)

From the album Space Probe (1970)

In 1968, the visionary afro-futurist musician and bandleader Sun Ra moved his Arkestra from New York to Philadelphia, where the band took up residence in the Germantown neighborhood in the northern part of the city. “To save the planet, I had to go to the worst spot on Earth,” he later recalled, “and that was Philadelphia, which was death’s headquarters.”

But despite his initial disdain for what he called the “city of brotherly shove,” Sun Ra eventually made himself at home in Philadelphia, and became a fixture at the city’s libraries, record stores, and radio stations. He lived in Philadelphia until his death in 1993, and the Arkestra remains based in Philly to this day, led currently by saxophonist Marshall Allen.


Space Probe was among the first Philadelphia releases on Sun Ra’s own Saturn label. Like many of his recordings from this period, it was put out in limited numbers and available only at performances. The title track is an 18-minute odyssey of synthesized pyschedelia created on a prototype Minimoog. (The thick, layered sound was probably created by multi-track recording the synth, which was monophonic.) This was Sun Ra’s first recorded work with the Moog, an instrument that would become a regular part of his setup. It is a stunningly experimental piece of music whose throbbing electronic ecstasies bear a remarkable affinity to Henri Pousseur’s Études Paraboliques of 1972. (Was the Belgian composer inspired by Sun Ra, perhaps having heard him during the Arkestra’s 1970 European tour? Anything’s possible.)

John Szwed’s biography of Sun Ra, Space is the Place, provides a taste of the Arkestra’s performances circa 1970:

At Gino’s Empty Foxhole, the basement of a church [St. Mary’s episcopal] on the edge of the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia, he used lighting combined with industrial fans to create solar storms that sent the musicians’ capes billowing as if the Arkestra was in flight. Then Sun Ra disappeared into his own cape, his face outlined against the windblown fabric, and, while a space chord howled, he tore a hole in the cape and poked his head through, as if he were ripping an opening in space itself. To members of the audience who came prepared by hallucinogens and stimulants—as they did more and more often nowadays—the spectacle was magnified beyond belief.

Played 92 time(s).

May 05, 2011, 3:34pm

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