The June Tyson Sessions: remixperiments with vocal materiality and the becoming-woman of cosmic music | Nick Bazzano
Cosmic artisanship and the sonic-affective impossible
In A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari develop a concept of the artist as not one who seeks to represent the world, or even to express or perform her soul or subjectivity, but as a “cosmic artisan”—an arranger and forecaster of a cosmic-people-to-come, a performative conduit through which intensive cosmic events continue and extend outward. The cosmic artisan is sensitive to and follows the immanent flows and forces coming from earthly and expressive matter on a quest to escape just that: “To be an artisan and no longer an artist, creator, or founder, is the only way to become cosmic, to leave the milieus and the earth behind.”2 In developing his “CosmoDisciplinary MythScience” philosophical system and performing his Afrofuturist, free-jazz “intergalactic music,” Sun Ra could, in some ways, be considered the Deleuzian “cosmic artisan” par excellence. Throughout his career, Ra assembled multiple “Arkestras,” or improvisational performance outfits that used poetry, sound, music, dance, film, political broadsheets, and performance art to compose a differential ground from which a speculative sonic cosmogony for a future world and its people-to-come could be rendered thinkable, audible, and feelable. In his conceptual conquest of “The Outer Darkness” and his alien emigration from Saturn, it becomes clear that Sun Ra's and Deleuze's respective philosophical projects gravitate around experimentally following the immanences of sonic materiality to explore what I understand as “the sonic-affective impossible.”3 As Deleuze writes: “There is no absolute ear; the problem is to have an impossible one – making audible forces that are not audible in themselves. In philosophy, it is a question of an impossible thought, making thinkable through a very complex material of thought forces that are unthinkable.”4
Sun Ra often wrote about how his collaborations with and disciplining of his Arkestras led to a maximal opening of their experimental and performative potentialities. In The Immeasurable Equation, Ra elaborates on his strategies as a bandleader to instrumentalize and make sound from the Arkestra itself the most differential and affirmative inflections of the sonic-affective impossible. He writes:
In my cosmic music [ … ] my intergalactic music, every person is a key to something. Every one of them knows something or they don't know nothing, so when it comes time for their key to speak they'll be in place or out of place as required. They are pressed too, like any other key, and they won't make a sound unless they are pressed [ … ] To me the musicians I am using are much more than band sectionmen [ … ] each instrumentalist is a creative artist capable of dynamic, soul-stirring improvisation. These men have practiced over twenty hours a week perfecting themselves, so that they are capable of performing [ … ] the music of the future [ … ]5
Ra's figuration of each Arkestra member as a key on a cosmic piano waiting to be pressed characterizes his goal of cultivating and rendering sonic what Elizabeth Grosz might call “cosmological imponderables” in a becoming-universe of music and a becoming-other of the universe.6 Ra's cosmo-disciplinary materialism fuels the (space)flight away from meaning and metaphor, leaving representationality behind by allowing to emerge from improvisational, instrumental sonic materiality the artisanal, immanent rendering sonorous of non-sonorous, cosmic forces. However, there appears to be a gendered snag in this becoming-cosmic, such that the universal, the unthinkable and the impossible are only immanent from or accessible via the performances of “men,” a nuance that Kodwo Eshun alludes to when describing the Arkestra as an “all-male orchestra run as a Military Monastery.”7 Ra's privileging of the masculine extends far beyond his linguistic rhetoric, such that John Szwed, in his biography of Ra, mentions his militant code of celibacy for the Arkestra that came as a result of his fear of women as “distractions” from cosmo-discipline, and his inability to “create with women in [his] environment,” ejecting all females from the studio when “things weren't going well.”8
Ra's masculine privileging of the sonic-affective impossible complicates June Tyson's place in the Arkestra's differential ground or plane of immanence. Sometimes credited as some variation of the mysterious moniker “U Other Space Ethnic Voice,” June Tyson (1936–92) performed with the Arkestra as lead vocalist, dancer, choreographer, cantor, sometimes-violinist, and cosmic artisan in her own right, performances which have often been valorized as the jet fuel propelling Ra's work “Out There.” Hers is the voice through which “sometimes the Universe speaks,” the performative, linguistic embodiment of Sun Ra's “MythScience AlterDestiny.” However, Tyson's performances resonate on a different register than the rest of the Arkestra's improvisational engagements with sonic materiality. Tyson herself described her place in the Arkestra as giving language back to Ra's intergalactic sonic experimentation, claiming (however happily) that she often performed in a strictly “do-as-told” mode, with Sun Ra literally whispering his cosmic philosophies to her on stage word for word, providing linguistic incantations to be ritualistically re-performed.9 This strategy seems starkly at odds with the rhizomatic, immanent performativity of the rest of the Arkestra, pushing Ra's aesthetic experimentation back to earth, back into language, meaning, and metaphor, through the fetishization of Tyson's voice as a para-performative, patriarchally “Other”-ed and gendered currency circulating around Ra and the Arkestra's otherwise material-discursive becoming-cosmic. In the words of Ra's figuration of his musicians as “keys,” Ra pressed June, and June sounded, sounding not improvisationally or immanently, but as the exact image of thought (or echo of thought?) that Ra planned.
The June Tyson Sessions, a collaboration between Alex Silva, Willie Avendano (a.k.a. biggs hoson), and myself, is an abstract sound project produced solely from processed vocal samples of Tyson's performances with the Arkestra. These vocal samples comprise an archive of June's instrumental materiality as a plane of immanence that Ra uncharacteristically chose not to optimize. This project remixperimentally seeks to follow a line of flight in which Ra's music undergoes the becoming-woman that it should have passed through before being able to become-cosmic, impossible, and from the future.10 Starting with the same material femininity that Ra fetishized and theorized as “Other,” but performatively instantiating an immanent, matter-realist becoming-woman, The June Tyson Sessions seeks to interrogate the performativity of the materiality of June's voice itself as what Jane Bennett calls “vibrant matter,” intrinsically and immanently vital material “detach[ed] … from the figures of passive, mechanistic, or divinely infused substance.”11 Treating, assembling, and conceptualizing our archive of Tyson's vocal samples as vibrant matter allows us to posit the sonic material of sexual difference and becoming-woman as constitutive of a differential ground from which the sonic-affective impossible can vitally emerge. We hope that The June Tyson Sessions is heard as what Joshua Ramey calls an “affect-event,” or an experimental “transformation taking place in matter that is not yet the imposition of a form, and yet is inseparable from expressive or intensive qualities.”12 Deleuze and Guattari might characterize this as “a composition of speeds and affects on the plane of consistency: a plan(e), a program, or rather a diagram, a problem, a question-machine.”13 How can Tyson's “Other Space Ethnic Voice” be separated from Ra's linguistic thought-control and relaunched so as to explore the distinct materialities, vitalities, and differential becomings that enable her vocal performances to resonate in such a speculative and affirmative realm? To be clear, this is less a project of liberation than a project of experimental re-materialization, opening the possibility for June to act as a cosmic artisan, composer of forces, and arranger of forms herself. This matter-realist, queer-feminist recalibration of Tyson's vocal materiality gives agency and immanence back to June, abstracting vitality, difference, and affirmation from materialities which remained inert and blocked in Sun Ra's aesthetic practice. By remixperimenting in and with this overlooked and under-sounded source material, we hope to catalyze lines of flight from these blockages that will give rise to resonances and vibrations that bring Ra's cosmo-disciplinary endeavors to fuller fruition, in excess of Tyson as a static, fetishized figure of sexual difference.
Becoming-woman, sexual differing, and the immanence of vocal materiality
We chose to work solely with samples of June Tyson's voice for The June Tyson Sessions not only because they comprise the contested site of cosmic negligence on Ra's behalf, but also because Tyson's voice is the material locus of her potential sonic-affective instrumentality, just as Ra's Moog synthesizer and Marshall Allen's alto sax materially and improvisationally put the Arkestra in contact with the cosmological imponderables of the AlterDestiny. Most instances of Tyson's collaborations with Ra and the Arkestra come as linguistic call-and-response incantations repeated after Ra. By limiting the use of Tyson's voice mainly to speech, Ra effectively silences the material vitality and performativity of Tyson's voice, in a silencing move similar to Judith Butler's relegating of the voice to the linguistic speech-act in her theory of gender performativity, creating what Annette Schlichter would call a “muted body,” or a body stripped of its extra-linguistic performative vocality.14 While we did choose to sample large sections of Tyson speaking excerpts of Ra's philosophy that resonate productively with our otherwise purely material engagement with her vocality, we also chose to microsample the actual soundwaves of Tyson's speech as vibratory matter, stripping them of their linguistic and articulable meanings, allowing for new, immanent affects and performativities to emerge. In addition, in production, we found most vibrant the samples extracted from Tyson's extralinguistic vocal tics, laughs, stutters, ululations, screams, breaths, and whispers, that, when assembled (s'agencer), compose a differential ground which renders perceptible speculative and experimental vocal performativities, self-arranging a material plane of immanence from which we can begin to explore the becoming-woman not only of Tyson's voice but of Ra's and the Arkestra's sonic cosmogonic speculations.
While these potentialities always already existed virtually in Tyson's vocality, Ra and the Arkestra tended to use her as a static figure of sexual difference, fetishizing the grain and timbre of her “Other Space Ethnic Voice” in the reductive, masculinist aesthetic register of muse, siren, handmaiden, and devotee (and commodity? and victim?). In a move beyond these oppositional, reactive, binary articulations of voice, sex and gender, Deleuze and Guattari highlight the role of the voice in the minoritarian operation of the becoming-woman of music.
The becoming woman [ … ] of music [is] present in the problem of the machining of the voice [ … ] the musical problem of the machinery of the voice necessarily implies the abolition of the overall dualism machine, in other words, the molar formation assigning voices to the “man or woman.” Being a man or a woman no longer exists in music [ … ] The voice itself must attain a becoming woman.15
Elizabeth Grosz elaborates on this affirmative, positive process of becoming-woman as moving away from a static, oppositional, or reactive understanding of sexual difference: “What today is actual is sexual opposition or binarism, the defining of the two sexes in terms of the characteristics of one. Sexual difference is that which is virtual; it is the potential of this opposition to function otherwise, to function without negation, to function as full of positivity.”16 The becoming-woman of vocality, and the way it performatively rewrites (re-sounds) sexual difference, implies two distinct yet interrelated critical maneuvers: (1) understanding becoming-woman as an affirmative, non-dualistic minoritarian operation allowing vocality and vocal materiality to open onto different affective states, topological modes, rates, speeds, and intensities; and (2) restructuring sexual difference as a plane of immanence for an experimental, creative, performative ontology, less about static difference and much more about differing.
When we theorize the becoming-woman of Tyson's voice, of the Arkestra and of cosmic music in general, Rosi Braidotti helps us understand that the “woman” central to this concept refers less to empirical females and more to a minoritarian operation on molar categories of thought, to the creation of new “topological positions, degrees and levels of intensity, affective states. On the affirmative side, the becoming-woman is the marker for a general process of transformation: it affirms positive forces and levels of nomadic, rhizomatic consciousness.”17 The virtual, potential becoming-woman of Tyson's performances with the Arkestra constantly and always already subverted the molar, static categories of sexual difference as instantiated by the Arkestra's employment of her voice-as-fetish. Furthermore, remixing her vocal materiality into an immanent differential ground upon which material sexual difference gives way to the performative interrogation of the sonic-affective impossible sonifies and actualizes one trajectory by which becoming-woman leads to becoming-cosmic and beyond. This affirmative, experimental edge of becoming-woman doesn't emerge as much from sexual difference itself as from a process of differentiation within sexual difference, within bodily material, or what Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin might call “sexual differing.” In their book New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies, the authors explicate their understanding of a performative ontology of sexual differentiation:
[We] try to further the development of sexual difference as a performative ontology. We call this “sexual differing”: an allowance for sexual difference actually to differ. It involves a rewriting of sexual difference and sexuality not by means of dualist premises, but as a practical philosophy in which difference in itself comes to being. What we see here is that it is in sexual difference that we can find sexual differing. Sexual difference is nothing but a collective molar habit of mind [ … ] Sexual differing is not found in the future, but between the [ … ] codes of sexual difference where it always already roams, materially and vitally.18
By focusing their critique on the immanence of difference in itself from the uniqueness of singular instances of material production, perception, and vitality, Dolphijn and van der Tuin defend a matter-realist ontogenetic performativity, or the emergence of difference-in-itself via the process of differing. Catalyzing the materiality of Tyson's voice to become-woman, to differ from, in, within and without itself, through the mediation of audio production technologies, The June Tyson Sessions seeks to re-materialize the virtual differential potential that always already existed in the material-discursive performative register of Tyson's vocality. Our creative, aesthetic experimentation with Tyson's vocal materiality works to affirm the positive structure of sexual difference while also (re-)mobilizing June's agency as composer, creator, and cosmic artisan, proving in the process the truth of Tyson's statement from our epigram: “The Universe is in my voice.”
Hip-Hop experimentality, material-discursive performativity, and the queering of bodily matter
While this project may at first sound more like an adventure into the aesthetic plasticity and openness of traditions including free jazz, cosmic music, experimental noise, abstract vocal processing, and texturhythmatics, we would like to think of this as a queering of and with particularly “hip-hop” objects, processes, and performances. In fact, it might be best to borrow a term from Patricia Clough, such that we can theorize the vocal processing and sample-based hip-hop production techniques we used in The June Tyson Sessions as instantiating a performative “queering of bodily matter.”19 First things first, we view “hip-hop” as a processual, creative “showing-by-doing” more so than a certain style or gathering of tropes, performatively reactivating the mantra that appears at the end of the track: “Creation is a transitional form of intuition.” In other words, only through an experimental sonic process of material creation-through-deterretorialization can we come to more fully know the speculative performativities that we find so positively, affirmatively, and productively “Alien”-ating in June's voice. Secondly, we understand “hip-hop” less as a specific aesthetic and more as a certain process or process-based mentality, a strategic, sample-based, and often queer engagement with sonic materiality that embraces certain remixological (or, to sample Kodwo Eshun, “remixillogical”20) technics and techniques. The key to this strategy for our project comes in treating Tyson's vocal samples not only as material sonic objects that re-ground and rematerialize the necessary becoming-woman of both Tyson's and Ra's cosmic artisanship, but also as samples exhibiting their own set of particular and immanent affects, allures, topologies, and unknowables, their own performative potentialities, their own array of contingencies to be folded over and twisted around each other in a process of revealing their speculative potential and our complicity with their material behaviors and vitalities, to paraphrase a vein of aesthetic theory re: contingency and complicity as suggested by Reza Negarestani.21 We take seriously the ability of hip-hop tools, including analog samplers (Roland SP-404SX), digital audio workstations (ProTools, Logic, and Ableton Live) and the unpredictability of scratch/glitch/cut-and-paste aesthetics, to reveal and render malleable what Karen Barad calls “the material-discursive performativity of matter,”22 allowing us to machinically experiment with Tyson's vocal matter itself outside of linguistic, biologically essentialist, or social constructivist meanings and metaphors. A hip-hop ethos permits us to remix the politics and aesthetics of both sexual difference and sonic ontology such that we can think otherwise, hearing and feeling with June just how “matter come[s] to matter.”23 Through hip-hop processing, we are able to follow the textures and material vitalities immanent to Tyson's voice in order to navigate the outer darkness, to render sonic and sensible the suprasonically infrasensible, and to recatalyze a necessary becoming-woman, becoming-cosmic, and becoming-different through the deterretorializations of a particularly queer feminist sampladelia. It is this queer feminist recasting of hip-hop as an experimental, performative, aesthetic process in The June Tyson Sessions that will ultimately, speculatively, hopefully, reactivate Tyson's incantatory promise from Space is the Place: “I will take you to new worlds!”24
Outro: “The Potential”
In the souvenir programme for the concert by Sun Ra and the Arkestra at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on 9 November 1970, June Tyson elaborates on her instrumentality in performing with the Arkestra. She writes: “Because of the thousand Space Age tunes Sun Ra has written for a vocalist, I am singing with him to help relay these Space Age messages to the people on planet earth.”25 In this same document, Tyson chooses to share one of Ra's poems that she feels inspires her performances:
“The Potential” (1965) Beyond other thoughts and other worlds are the things that seem not to be And yet are. How impossible is the impossible, Yet the impossible is a thought And every thought is real An idea, a flash of potent fire A seed that can bring to be The reality of itself. Beyond other thoughts and other worlds Are the potentials … That hidden circumstance And pretentious chance Cannot control.26
The June Tyson Sessions seeks to rematerialize and reactualize the virtualities and potentialities immanent to Tyson's vocality and vocal performances with the Arkestra in the spirit of this poem. We hope to have mobilized the potentiality of Tyson's cosmic artisanship to explore and superject the sonic-affective impossible, “the potentials that hidden circumstance and pretentious chance cannot control.” These potentials, these virtualities, develop along and resonate with the line of flight channeling the becoming-woman of both June Tyson's voice and Sun Ra's cosmic music. This becoming-woman emerges through using hip-hop as process to queerly reimagine sexual difference as a material-discursive sexual differing, the fulcrum of which, we argue, is to be found in the performativity of the materiality of Tyson's voice, that key which Sun Ra pressed, but failed to let resound to its fullest cosmic potential.
I must acknowledge my collaborators Alex Silva and Willie Avendano (and June Tyson) for their cosmic vibrations and resonances. I would also like to thank Aliza Shvarts and the anonymous readers from the Women & Performance editorial collective; their comments and insights have greatly helped us all further navigate the immanence of June's voice. Additionally, I would like to thank Prof. Rosi Braidotti and the participants in her “Critical Theory, Culture and Citizenship” seminar at Utrecht University in August 2013 for the opportunity to present and discuss early stages of this work.
1. Sun Ra. Astro Black. Rec. 7 May 1972. Impulse! Records, 1973. Vinyl recording.
2. Deleuze and Guattari (1987, 345). For an extended discussion of the cosmic artisan and its relation to the hermetic and artistic production, see Ramey (2012, 148–170).
3. “The Impossible (1965): ‘The impossible is the watchword of the greater space age.’ The space age cannot be avoided and the SPACE MUSIC is the key to understanding the meaning of the IMPOSSIBLE and every other enigma.” Ra (2005, 464).
4. Deleuze (2006, 160).
5. Ra (2005, 447-459).
6. Grosz (2008, 22–23).
7. Eshun (1998, 161).
8. Szwed (1997, 249–250).
9. Tyson (2012).
10. According to Rosi Braidotti (2011, 37): “Deleuze states that all the lies of deterretorialization necessarily go through the stage of ‘becoming-woman’, which is not just any other form of becoming minority, but rather is the key: the pre-condition and the necessary starting-point for the whole process.”
11. “What I am calling impersonal affect or material vibrancy is not a spiritual supplement or ‘life force’ added to the matter said to house it. Mine is not a vitalism in the traditional sense; I equate affect with materiality, rather than posit a separate force that can enter and animate a physical body. My aim, again, is to theorize a vitality intrinsic to materiality as such, and to detach materiality from the figures of passive, mechanistic, or divinely infused substance.” Bennett (2010, xiii).
12. Ramey (2012, 155).
13. Deleuze and Guattari (1987, 258).
14. For an astute critique of Butler's silencing of the performativity and materiality of gendered vocality, see Schlichter (2011, 31–52).
15. Deleuze and Guattari (1987, 303–304).
16. Grosz (2005, 164).
17. Braidotti (2011, 37).
18. Dolphijn and Van Der Tuin (2012, 3, 13).
19. Clough (2003, 359–364).
20. Eshun (1998, 20).
21. Negarestani (2011, 11–16).
22. “Discursive practices are specific (re)configurings of the world through which local determinations of boundaries, properties, and meanings are differentially enacted [ … ] Material-discursive practices are specific iterative enactments—agential intra-actions—through which matter is differentially engaged and articulated (in the emergence of boundaries and meanings), reconfiguring the material-discursive field of possibilities in the iterative dynamics of intra-activity that is agency.” Barad (2003, 801–831, 820–823).
24. Space Is the Place. Dir. John Coney. By Sun Ra and Joshua Smith. Plexifilm, 1974. UbuWeb. Web. 1 August 2013. http://ubu.com/film/ra_space.html
25. Souvenir programme for the concert by Sun Ra and the Arkestra at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on 9 November 9, 1970, 16-page booklet.
26. Ra (2005, 309). Also printed in the archival souvenir program cited above (see n. 23).
Barad, Karen. 2003. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28 (3): 801–831.
Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.
Braidotti, Rosi. 2011. Nomadic Theory: The Portable Rosi Braidotti. New York: Columbia University Press.
Clough, Patricia Ticineto. 2003. “Affect and Control: Rethinking the Body ‘Beyond Sex and Gender.'” Feminist Theory 4 (3): 359–364.
Deleuze, Gilles. 2006. “Making Inaudible Forces Audible.” Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975–1995, edited by David Lapoujade. Trans. Ames Hodges and Mike Taormina, 156–160. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
Dolphijn, Rick, and Iris Van Der Tuin. 2012. “Sexual Differing.” New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities.
Eshun, Kodwo. 1998. More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction. London: Quartet.
Grosz, Elizabeth A. 2005. Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power. Durham: Duke University Press.
Grosz, Elizabeth A. 2008. Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. New York: Columbia University Press.
Negarestani, Reza. 2011. “Contingency and Complicity.” In The Medium of Contingency, edited by Robin Mackay, 11–16. Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic.
Ra, Sun. 2005. The Immeasurable Equation: The Collected Poetry and Prose. Comp. James L. Wolf and Hartmut Geerken. Wartaweil: Waitawhile.
Ramey, Joshua. 2012. The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal. Durham: Duke University Press.
Schlichter, Annette. 2011. “Do Voices Matter? Vocality, Materiality, Gender Performativity.” Body & Society 17 (31): 31–52. 15. Szwed, John F. 1997. Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. New York: Pantheon.
Tyson, June. 2012. “Sun Ra Research June Tyson Interview: September 25, 1986.” YouTube. Accessed August 1, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17EEO6eLzCs
About the author
Nick Bazzano, firstname.lastname@example.org Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University