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Linguistic creativity in a documentary about Sun Ra

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Thursday, 22 May 2014, 21:25

(This is an adapted version of a posting on my blog at http://patrickdandrews.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/creative-language-use-in-documentary.html )

I  recently came across the Sun Ra documentary "A Joyful Noise".  It seemed an interesting time to see it as it provides examples of language use that are creative just as students on E301 (The Art of English) are thinking about creativity in spoken language in preparation for an assignment.  It also allowed me to think about my interests in creativity in jazz and language and how they might intersect.

 

It is, to some extent a companion piece to my posting about creative language in a football podcast .  Here are some initial thoughts about creative uses of language in this documentary.  These suggest that there is a great deal of overlap between the ways that he presents himself musically, visually and through his use of language.

 

It is worth providing some contextual information about Sun Ra as this seems to affect the content and the style of what he says in the film.  He was born Herman Blount but claimed to have come from Saturn (Cook and Morton 2008) and this is presumably where the name comes from.  As a result, many of his compositions have a space theme with titles like "Saturn" and "Space is the Place".  There is also an interest in ancient Egypt (and this perhaps reflects the Ra part of the name) as can be seen from the film and song titles like "Sunset on the River Nile".  The film also gives a flavour of his music with the mixture of avant garde and rather traditional styles.

 

There is stylised repetition throughout much of the documentary and this occurs in short extracts but also at the level of the whole film.  In terms of repetition at a local level, there is an example after about 5 minutes.  Here, there is a call and response passage where Sun Ra speaks with his group repeating what he has said (e.g "I have many names" "many names").  This is a rather unusual version of how repetition can be used creatively as part of pattern forming (Carter 2004).  He also repeats "I have many names" like the poetic repetitions of many poems.There is thus a kind of foregrounding due to grammatical and semantic parallelism (Maybin and Pearce 2006).  This foregrounding seems to have the effect of making the viewer think about the importance of names.  The names seem to be presenting a particular identity and the identity seems to be presented as complex because the names are varied and unusual.

 His asserted identity as a complex and enigmatic man is reinforced by a pun.  He says "Some call me Mr Ra.  Others call me Mister E".  This seems to also refer to "mystery" and this seems to be more obvious in the way that his band members repeat the word.  Here the pun seems to reinforce the enigmatic image presented by his name, the music, the clothes.  It seems that here the language used is working in conjunction with other aspects of how he presents himself.  This seems to have parallels to Eckert and McConnell-Ginet’s (1999 in McCrae and Swann 2006) observations about how language use combines with other features to present identity. 

 He again uses a pun at about 11.15 minutes.  He makes the link between history and his story.  His story is also contrasted with my story. It is possible that this is related to his identity as a "Black American" musician (Cook and Morton (2008) refer to this in their discussion of his supposed origins) and the ways that much history taught in schools does not reflect the history that is relevant to his life.  This identification with Black America reappears at about 19 and a half minutes when he comments that he sees "The White House" but does not see "The Black House".

The theme of history/his story is repeated at the end.  He consciously repeats "They say that history repeats itself, they say that history repeats itself, repeats itself.  But history is his story.  It's not my story.  What's your story?"  Interestingly, this rather artfully repetitive language comes just after an infectiously repetitive tune.  These repetitions of themes throughout the documentary perhaps seem to reflect the ways that musical themes are used to provide structure to music.

At around 17 minutes, it is the Egyptian interest that comes to the fore and there is again a particular use of repetition.  He sets up one idea before giving a different perspective as he says "Somehow ancient Egypt is thought of as a kingdom of bondage but it would be better to say the kingdom of discipline".  This seems interesting in several ways.  One is that it reminds us that politicians and PR consultants can use euphemisms to show unpleasant details in a more favourable light.  Secondly, one of his most famous compositions is called "Discipline" so it raises the possibility that this is the discipline being referred to.

There is also a metaphor (Cameron 2006) when he says that the" stones speak through vibrations of beauty".  Although many metaphors can be stale, this one does not seem to be and seems to be part of the general language play of his comments (Cook 2006).  This language play becomes more apparent when he plays with "ocracy" endings (around 23:30).  Mythocracy seems to be a neologism.  Interestingly this is followed by some very "free" music.  Both the word and the music seem to have a schema refreshing role.

There are intertextual elements (Maybin and Pearce 2006) as he says "We hold these myths to be potential, they hold their truths to be self evident but our myth is not self evident because it is a mystery. I am not part of history, I'm more a part of the mystery, which is my story."  Here he seems to be referring to the Declaration of Independence and his own punning of "mystery/my story". So, the references refer back to a knowledge that he assumes the audience has as well as what they have seen earlier in the film.

These are just some initial observations on how the language used in this film have a relationship with the musical and visual elements.  Sun Ra seems to use language to reflect the identity he has created for himself.  Much of the language seems to refresh the schemata of the viewers/listeners.  There also seem to be parallels between the use of language and the music he plays with references to the past but also to the new (as in the coining of new forms such as "mythocracy").  There are repetitions and revoicings of words and ideas that also seem to reflect the way that jazz tends to work through musicians improvising around themes.

References:

Cameron L (2006) "Metaphor in Everyday Language" in Maybin J and Swann J (eds) The Art of English: Literary Creativity Basingstoke: Palgrave

Carter R (2004) Language and Creativity: The Art of Common Talk Abingdon: Routledge.

Cook G (2006) "Why play with language" in Maybin J and Swann J (eds) The Art of English: Everyday Creativity Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Cook R and Morton B (2008) The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings (Ninth Edition) London: Penguin.

McCrae S and Swann J (2006 "Putting on the Style" in Maybin J and Swann J (eds) The Art of English: Everyday Creativity Basingstoke: Palgrave

Maybin J and Pearce (2006) "Literature and Creativity in English" in Goodman S and O'Halloran K The Art of English: Literary Creativity Basingstoke: Palgrave

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