- “Why Can’t We Go Somewhere There?” Sun Ra, Improvisation, and the Imagination of Future Possibilities
In this short think piece, I’d like to riff on the question of why improvisation matters, and for whom. What is at stake in improvised performances? If creativity and innovation are vital tools for building sustainable communities, promoting social cooperation, and adapting to unprecedented change, then what role might improvisation play in this context? What kinds of critical questions might the theory and practice of improvised performances open up about artistic expression and responsibility; about the role of performing artists and their audiences; about intent and interpretation; about histories and futures; about activism and forms of critical practice; about the ethics and aesthetics of surprise; about a politics of hope? At its best, improvisation can encourage us [End Page 98] to take new risks in our relationships with others, to work together across various divides, traditions, styles, and sites, and to hear and see the world anew. As a fundamental site for the choices made and the challenges emerging out of social contexts, improvisation can provide a trenchant model for new forms of social mobilization that accent agency, collaboration, and difference. Indeed, we have much to learn from performance practices that accent dialogue, collaboration, inventive flexibility, and creative risk-taking, and much to gain from noisy and boundary-shattering art forms that disrupt orthodox standards of coherence, judgment, and value with a spirit of experimentation and innovation.
Taking as a point of departure such performance practices that cannot readily be scripted, predicted, or compelled into orthodoxy, I’d like to argue that the innovative working models of improvisation developed by creative practitioners have helped to promote a dynamic exchange of cultural forms, and to encourage new, socially responsive forms of community building across national, cultural, and artistic boundaries. These models find particularly relevant expression in the lifework of the Astro-Black philosopher, composer, and improvising artist Sun Ra. “If you find earth boring, just the same old same thing,” Ra liked to declare before he left the planet, “then come on and sign up for Outer Spaceways Incorporated.” Or, in a piece entitled “Imagination,” Ra asked us, “If we came from nowhere here, why can’t we go somewhere there?” The full lyric, reprinted in Ra’s book of poetry and prose, The Immeasurable Equation, reads, “Imagination is a magic carpet / Upon which we may soar / To distant lands and climes / And even go beyond the moon / To any planet in the sky / If we came from nowhere here / Why can’t we go somewhere there?” (206).
Now, all this might seem like flippant rhetoric and offhand space-age futurism from an eccentric and marginalized figure in jazz history. I’d like to suggest, however, that it is anything but that. Despite being marginalized and summarily dismissed in dominant narratives of the music and all but forgotten in most institutionalized accounts of jazz history, Ra, in my mind, remains a hugely influential and pioneering improvising artist whose reinvention of musical and conceptual categories, and whose profound and salutary commitment to enabling aggrieved peoples to become subjects of their own histories and futures, continue to command our respectful attention. Indeed, “nowhere here,” for Ra, was an apt and serious descriptor for the earth-bound dead-end life situations in which African-Americans repeatedly found themselves, a world of systematized and institutionalized forms of violence, oppression, and racist constraint. As Ra wrote, “We need to get off this planet as fast as possible. We’d better be out there when here blows up” (461). “Somewhere There,” and “Outer Spaceways Incorporated,” by contrast, offer a place of hope and possibility, a place of black social mobility. I’ve argued elsewhere that outer space (remember: Ra flatly declared that he was from Saturn and would, as reports would have it, show up in supermarkets and other public places dressed in his space outfit!) functions as a metaphor for possibility (or perhaps for performing the impossible), for alternatives to dominant systems of knowledge production, or, in the words of his biographer, John Szwed, as “a metaphor of exclusion and reterritorialization, of claiming the ‘outside’ as...