MY CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH A CREATIVE ALIEN.

The title of a Documentary film about Sun Ra

 

In my last post I explored the creative benefits of being an alien from another planet, which is how the jazz musician Sun Ra saw himself.  In this post, I will examine how my creativity was affected by a “close encounter” with this alien.  In the next post I’ll look at what Jonas Lehrer (Imagine: How Creativity Works) says about the importance of such “close encounters” to the creative process, in general.  (Also see the “Caption Challenge” at the end of this post.)

Sun Ra and I both lived in or around Philadelphia in the 1980s.  A friend and I decided

Sun Ra with Mask

to go to a Sun Ra concert in neighboringCamden N.J.  It was held in a run down Community Center in the middle of one of Camden’s poorest neighborhoods.  There were supposed to be refreshments before the concert, but by the time we arrived the Arkestra had eaten their way through the goodies.  The concert was held in a small basement room with a tiny stage crammed with the band members wearing weird costumes.  I was not really a big fan of Ra’s music (and am still not) so what I remember best is just the sheer weirdness of the spectacle.

Tibetian Monks

At one point, about mid-way through the concert, Sun Ra got up from the keyboards and came down into the audience.  Shortly , each member of the band stopped playing and followed him down the stairs.  Soon the whole band was walking up and down the aisles chanting something  in unison. I could not make out the words at first since the band members were on the far side of the auditorium.  It was a simple, non-melodic refrain,  that had a hypnotic quality to it.  Because it was chanted in unison and Sun Ra and the band maintained a serious demeanor , I felt like I was witnessing some sort of mysterious ritual.  As the line of musicians came closer to where we were sitting,  I began to figure out what they were chanting with such solemnity.  This was the chant:  “Gonna rip the mask, rip the mask off Batman.  Look out Robin, gonna get you too”.

That scene has stuck with me over the years and, as you will see,served as an inspiration for my first music video.  Click on the link below to see the short video on YouTube.  At the end of the video, click on return arrow to finish reading this post and to respond to today’s “Caption Challenge

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkAPFPLiNoI&feature=plcp

After watching this video you may have the same kind of response as you did to the video featured in What the ____ is that Video About?, namely: “What the _____is this video about?”  Fair enough.  I’ll try to tackle that in my next post where we’ll return to some of the ideas put forth in Lehrer’s book.  Be sure to send in your caption for the image below, which will pop up again in future posts.

YOUR CAPTION HERE

SUN RA, THE ALIEN: THE THIN LINE BETWEEN GENIUS, SPIRITUALITY AND CRAZY.

(Click on “Forums” on the menu at the top for a in-depth response to comments from Jane on “What the ____was that Video about?”.)

Of all the early jazz musicians, Sun Ra had to be one of the most “far out”.  He claimed that he was from Saturn, not from earth, and used cosmic philosophies and lyrical poetry to preach awareness and peace. The notion that he came from Saturn seems to be connected to a profound altered state of consciousness experience he had while  in college.  Here is how he chose to describe it:

my whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up … I wasn’t in human form … I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn … they teleported me and I was down on [a] stage with them. They wanted to talk with me……..They told me to stop [attending college] because there was going to be great trouble in schools … the world was going into complete chaos … I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That’s what they told me.   Szwed, John F. (August 21, 1998). Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-80855-5

 

He abandoned his birth name and took on the name and persona of Sun Ra (Ra is the Egyptian God of the Sun) and formed his “Arkestra” to help him spread his message through his music. The band members wore colorful  outfits that were a combination of African garb and space suits and  Sun Ra usually wore an outfit, with a headdress and flowing cloak.

The music they played was very complex and often atonal.  . But being in the Arkestra

House in Phila. where the Arkestra lived and rehearsed.

was a difficult way of life. The band members never made much money, and Ra demanded discipline and hard work. He banned drugs, alcohol, and women, and band members had to be available for practice around-the-clock.  This monastic atmosphere seemed to have been something close to what one might find in a Zen monastery.

One band member who had studied Zen before joining Sun Ra said that the leader’s use of non sequiturs and absurd replies to questions seemed to resemble the use of Koans and other responses observed among Zen Masters.       According to John Szwed, Ra’s biographer, the drummer Art Jenkins admitted that Sun Ra’s “nonsense” sometimes troubled his thoughts for days until inspiring a profound change in outlook.    Drummer Andrew Cyrille said Sun Ra’s comments were;

 “very interesting stuff … whether you believed it or not. And a lot of times it was humorous, and a lot of times it was ridiculous, and a lot of times it was right on the money.”Szwed, John F. , 1998). Space Is the Place.)

In addition, I’ve found numerous quotes from Sun Ra, like the one below, that could have just as easily come from the mouth of a Zen master.

“I’ve been to a zone where there is no air, no light, no sound, no life, no death, nothing. There’s five billion people on this planet, all out of tune. I’ve got to raise their consciousness, tell them about the wonderful potential to bypass death.”

Szwed, 1998

I’ve never been a big fan of Sun Ra’s music but was prompted to write about him for

Van Gogh, Self Portrait

several reasons.  One is to reiterate an observation I made in an earlier post (Waikiki, Dylan, Zen and the Spanking Monk) about the thin line that exists between madness creative genius and spirituality.  In that post I pointed out the problems in using such terms when talking about creative people, whether ourselves or others.

Secondly, his case seems to nicely illustrate what I have been writing about in the past few posts; namely “aliens”.  While I don’t believe Sun Ra came from Saturn or was teleported by aliens, he does seem to be someone who has consciously and adopted the position of  an extreme “alien” in society to support his creativity and spirituality.

Finally, I recently found myself influenced by a “close encounter” that I had with Sun Ra back in the mid 1980s, when he and I both lived in the Philadelphia area.  A friend and I attended a Sun Ra concert where I witnessed something that became the inspirational seed for one of my music videos.  I’ll tell the story and show the video in the next post. Peace!

ALIEN PRACTICE/ZEN PRACTICE

 

ARTIST MARIKO MORI TOURED THE WORLD IN ZEN ALIEN POD

The MonA LIENa

(Results of the “Caption Challenge” are found at the end of this post).

In the last post, “The Inner-Alien and Creativity”, I reviewed evidence from Lehrer’s book Imagine suggesting that being a non-expert in a particular field or endeavor can actually make one more creative.  It is not much of a jump from this discussion of what Lehrer called “outsiders” to the quote below from Zen Master, Shunryn Suzuki.

The non-dual approach of Zen requires that we be able to maintain multiple perspectives on any problem, whether artistic, scientific or our own life-problems. This means constantly putting oneself into the unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations.

This requires practice.

Research suggests that living in a foreign culture can foster creativity but I would suggest that meditation can serve the same purpose.   A key skill learned in  Zen meditation is to  constantly interrupt the habitual stream of thoughts that occupy our consciousness most of the time.  These streams of thought make things familiar and provide us with a familiar sense of who we are.

 

When we plunge into the unfamiliar, we experience discomfort at times but also the exhilaration of greater adaptability and responsibility.  This is how one becomes “refreshed”, “alive” and “awake”.

 

 

 

 

 

Through practice, one will find him or herself becoming more non-reactive, more flexible or open.  And so more creative in responding to daily “problems” as they arise.

This “inner alien” is available to us all but it does require being willing to constantly explore your “inner space” and to accept  that the “inner alien” is truely a part of who you are.

Caption Challenge Results

Listed below, in the order received, are the creative responses to this caption-less image I found online.

 

1. Oh good! More potential converts.

2. OK, OK, I’ll be your leader already!

3. Skewered or nailed, we’re all in jail.

4. Oh Lord, you misunderstood. I prayed for a 100 Gs for the Rectory, not a 100 E.T.s to hector me.

5. How can I tell the truth if you all look Alien to me

6. Ok, maybe now is the time to reconsider the ban on birth control

7. STOP! Just maybe “The Pope” needs to be “EXORCISED” from this normal group of Aliens…

8. Heavenly host at a Papal roast.

Thanks for Your Participation!

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE “INNER ALIEN” AND CREATIVITY

CREATE A CAPTION FOR THIS IMAGE. PLEASE SCROLL DOWN TO SURVEY BOX BELOW.

Despite a lack of natural ability, I did have the one element necessary to all early creativity: naïveté’, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do.     Steve Martin, Born Standing Up

In my previous post (Aliens from Inner Space), I suggest that the term “alien” refers to whoever or whatever appears to be strange, foreign or different from oneself.  Generally, we do not want to be “alien” or “alienated” but the fact is that we all, at times, experience the discomfort and awkwardness of being a stranger in a strange land.  The concept of  “inner alien” is simply a metaphor that calls attention to that fact and to the positive possibility of such experiences.

Steve Martin's "Wild and Crazy Guy"

Lehrer (Imagine: How Creativity Works) begins his Chapter called “The Outsider” with this quote from Steve Martin’s book Born Standing Up.  The chapter provides numerous cases where someone outside a field of knowledge is more successful at solving problems in the field than the so-called experts and where people having an interest in but no past knowledge about a problem come up with the most creative solutions.  This is why young people often appear to be more creative than old folks.  But, Dean Simonton, a psychologist studying creativity says that getting older does not inevitably lead to a loss of creativity. Lehrer quotes him as saying:

If you can keep finding new challenges, then you can think like a young person even when you’re old and gray.

Waikiki Creativity QuestLehrer also refers to considerable evidence that living in foreign cultures and being bilingual can stimulate creativity.  Such experiences, says Lehrer ….”endows the traveler with a valuable open-mindedness, making it easier for him or her to realize that a single thing can have multiple meanings (p. 129). Lehrer ends this chapter with the following observation:

Knowledge can be a subtle curse. when we learn about the world, we also learn all the reason why the world cannot be changed…….We become numb to the possibilities of something new.  In fact, the only way to remain creative over time–not to be undone by our expertise–is to experiment with ignorance, to stare at things we don’t fully understand.  (p. 135)

To cultivate the “inner alien” takes courage as you must always catch yourself getting comfortable and consciously take risks by immersing yourself in situations that seem challenging.  I would suggest that artists, and anyone else who want to foster and maintain creativity, must make this process an integral part of their “practice”.  In the next post I will suggest that this is the main ingredient of any “spiritual practice. PLEASE

SCROLL DOWN FOR CAPTION CONTEST.

 

 

 

 

 

ALIENS FROM INNER SPACE

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about “aliens” recently.  Primarily because my brother Jim and I, who comprise the “band” called Shrink Wrap, were asked to play at an opening of an exhibition at the Oceanside Museum of Art called “Beneath Alien Seas”.  The exhibit consisted of “Light Sculptures created by William Leslie, in collaboration with Alessandra Colfi and Nathan Harrenstein.  Since it is hard to describe these beautiful and mysterious pieces in words, I’ve included a short video of clips and stills taken at the Opening.

I suggest you check out the video before reading on.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3V7o07bN2Q&feature=c4-overview&list=UUVRR6l491Aafe34H23PwdNA

After we played for the Opening, my brother wrote on his facebook page:

      

       This was the first time I can remember being

       asked to be as “out there” as possible.

       “Alieness” accomplished (I think) and great fun playing for

       such a progressive crowd.

This was the first gig we had played in a long time where we both felt completely free to play the “weird” music that we both enjoy. We don’t play together often but coming together to create music is how we have been bonding together as brothers for many years.

Like many kids with no siblings, I had an imaginary playmate, who I called “Jim”.  So, when my brother came into the world, when I was 5, my parents decided to named him after my “playmate”.  I think for most kids at that age, the sudden appearance of a sibling seems pretty incomprehensible and miraculous.  This was all the more the case for me as it seemed that I, somehow, had something to do with the Jim’s manifestation (perhaps my first “ego trip”).

As a toddler, Jim slept in a crib like that pictured above, with bars all around and wheels on the legs. Whenever he woke up, Jim used to grab onto the bars and shake the bed furiously, like a disgruntled prisoner hoping to shake loose the bars of his cell.  If you read my brother’s posts on Face Book, you will see that things have not changed much.

My first memory of my brother is being awaken in the middle of the night by the sound of Jim’s shaking  crib.  Not being fully awake, I opened my eyes and saw him moving the crib  across the wooden floor, inching closer and closer with every violent shake.  In my memory, he had sort of maniacal grin and bright gleaming eyes.  Peering through the bars of the crib he looked like something from “elsewhere”.  He was from “elsewhere” but it turned out that he just wanted to play with someone in the middle of the night.

 

Before we took up instruments, our play together usually consisted of  putting on shows for the family or friends.  This flair for the dramatic was perfected in capers designed to torture a long series of babysitters.

Having materialized my own personal playmate out of my imagination, it was only natural that I directed these events. I was the schemer and instigator and poor Jim, always the “team player,” would carry out my plots and usually get the blame when caught.  Our most famous caper was when I talked him into letting me tie a rope around him and lower him from an upper story window.  I don’t recall how I secured him, but Jim managed to swing back and forth in front of the large picture window in the living room below where the sitter was watching TV.  I imagined him looking like Mary Martin flying across the stage in the play Peter Pan, but to our elderly babysitter it was a reason to retire from the babysitting business.

 

When Jim and I periodically come together as Shrink Wrap,  weirdness usually ensues, and so it was extremely gratifying to be able to draw upon our “inner aliens” and feel that we fit right in at the “Under Alien Seas” event.  As you can see from his design for the cover of a Shrink Wrap CD, my brother’s “inner alien” is not far beneath the surface.

http://www.amazon.com/Neural-Connection-James-Wilson/dp/B00009V3L0

The term “alien” refers to whoever or whatever appears to be strange, foreign or different from oneself.  In my last post, I mentioned that Theolonious Monk was part of a subculture that valued being “far out”.  We all have stories about hearing music or a musician when we were young that had a life-changing effect on our lives.  Monk was one of those musicians.  When I was 10 or 11, I often listened to  a crystal radio set that I had build in bed under the covers.  The set was able to pick up stations from an incredible distance away.  One station I listened to was WLAC (I think) in NashvilleTennessee, where I first heard blues and what was, at the time, called “race music”.  I also recall hearing Monk on a station that played jazz and probably was located in Cleveland.  Hearing any jazz at that time was a novel experience but when I heard the melancholy yet joyously weird sounds of Monk, I realized for the first time that there was a whole other world “out there” beyond the boundaries of Fremont, Ohio that  needed to be explored.

In the next post, I’ll explore the importance of deveoping our “inner alien” in the practice of Art and Zen. By the way, do you know who is posing in the photo below?  Another Brother from Another Planet?  Maybe.  I’ll reveal his identity as I further explore the realm of “inner space” in upcoming posts.