McElheny: ‘To listen is as important as expressing ourselves’

What possible correlation is there among poet Paul Scheerbart, architect Bruno Taut, painters Hilma af Klint and Blinky Palermo and musicians Sun Ra and Pauline Oliveros, each of them separated by generations and countries?

Josiah McElheny

Musicians Sun Ra and Pauline Oliveros “left us with a kind of permission, or perhaps even pressure, to think and act as expansively as they did” said Josiah McElheny during the final night of the 2018 Campbell Lecture Series. (Photo by Katharine Shilcutt)

Imaginary modernism. You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard the term before, said MacArthur Fellow artist and writer Josiah McElheny. “It’s a term that, with these lectures collectively, I’m trying to define.”

McElheny delivered this year’s Campbell Lecture Series in a three-night event from March 20 to 22 that incorporated audio, video and a live performance by free jazz musician Joe McPhee as a means of exploring alternative paths in the history of 20th-century art, architecture and music. John Sparagana, the Grace Christian Vietti Chair of Visual and Dramatic Arts (VADA) and professor of painting and drawing, introduced McElheny to the audience inside the Lois Chiles Studio Theater at the Moody Center for the Arts as an artist whose substantial scope — much like the wide-ranging focus of his lectures — continues to inspire.

“What made it clear to us that Josiah McElheny, an artist, would be the Campbell Lecture Series charge to present three consecutive evening lectures on a topic of broad humanistic interest is his extraordinarily generous and generative mind,” Sparagana said. “His intellectual curiosity, the awesome level of craft in his work, his consistently prolific and exacting output are, to my mind, all driven by what I find most admirable and compelling about Josiah: that he has the courage of his convictions.”

The final night of the series focused on two seemingly unrelated musicians: Sun Ra, the Alabama-born jazz composer and bandleader whose cosmic philosophy, sound and aesthetic was at its peak during his work with well-known musical collective The Arkestra beginning in the 1950s, and Houston-born Pauline Oliveros, a composer, accordionist and central figure in the development of electronic and experimental art music during the 1960s.

“The reason I wanted to speak about these two composers, musicians and philosophers together is because of how they blended politics and aesthetics and how they both thought on a cosmic and planetary scale,” McElheny said. Both took their main inspiration from seemingly opposite sources, he said, but shared the ability to move easily between cosmic realms and more earthly, practical concerns.

“In other words, their activities include irreconcilable sets of contradictions and a strangeness to us today.” And that, McElheny said, is what defines imaginary modernism: “a non-system of contradictions.”

Sun Ra, born Herman Poole Blount, was the first musician of the pair to be spotlighted that night. McElheny introduced Sun Ra’s music by playing one of his early recordings as an arranger and pianist. “Many of you may know these two figures well and how they create music that feels otherworldly,” McElheny said, “but I want to ease into it, as it were, with something seemingly more familiar, more earth-bound, in order to set the right tone.”

Soon, the theater was bathed in the ethereal sounds of Sun Ra’s arrangement of “Stranger in Paradise,” the 1953 ballad from the musical “Kismet” that’s best remembered as a syrupy-sweet Tony Bennett standard. Sun Ra’s version, arranged and recorded at home with his band The Nu Sounds in 1955, is haunting. It’s the sound of an old, wobbly Victrola record as heard from the far recesses of the solar system, deliberately scratchy and faint. It’s no longer a plaintive, love-sick plea; instead, the cosmic-minded Sun Ra enhances the celestial nature of lines such as those in the chorus: “And I ascended / Out of the common place / Into the rarest / Somewhere in space.”

“That’s iconic Sun Ra, an otherworldly being,” McElheny said. “For Sun Ra, words were everything and could mean everything; even the word ‘peace’ could mean ‘death,’” a reference to an interview from 1966 in which Sun Ra mused to fellow jazz poet and political activist John Sinclair that when the United States government spoke about “peace,” it was often a euphemistic allusion to war. After all, peace for one country and its people is often achieved at the expense of the death of many others.

Perhaps the best-known recording by Sun Ra and his Arkestra is the 1972 album “Space Is the Place,” which includes this mantra for his audience to ponder, repeated with increasing urgency and intensity: “It’s after the end of the world; don’t you know that yet?” It’s a question you can still hear every time The Arkestra plays; they’re still touring, now led by 93-year-old saxophonist Marshall Allen, who’s performed exclusively with the group since 1958. The next time they come through Houston, McElheny said, seeing The Arkestra live is a must.

“A good follow-up to a night with The Arkestra, in my opinion, would be to be in a room or space in which one of Pauline Oliveros’ sonic meditations or deep-listening works happen,” McElheny said in a transition to the second musician of the night. “Like with The Arkestra, Oliveros’ work carries on today with groups and individuals she interacted with. All of these works are built out of the same ethos: that to listen is as important as expressing ourselves.”

Oliveros, the New York Times noted when she died in 2016, was a composer who aspired to enhance sensory perception through what she called “deep listening.” She worked in the same kind of unplanned, improvisational manner as Sun Ra arranging his free jazz compositions and encouraged the use of your own human instrument: the voice, McElheny said.

As he spoke, McElheny showed slides of Oliveros’ scores, which look nothing like traditional sheet music. Instead, they resemble tessellations and arabesques, their geometric symmetry annotated with such directions as “listen,” “differ” and “blood circulation.” Another score is simply a handwritten note that begins, “Name 10 different sounds that you can play. Play 10 different sounds that you can name.”

In describing Oliveros’ famous “Tuning Mediation,” one of her deep-listening works, he explained that “you, the audience, will often be asked to make a sound — a singalong in a way — and then after a while you may be asked to try to listen not to your own voice, but to what you are hearing across the other side of the room, making you suddenly and viscerally aware of the myriad individuals present — their different sounds and tones and notes.”

“Then you might be asked to match that tone again, this time inside your own brain and body — not with your ears,” McElheny continued. “To find or imagine another tone and then share that new sound with the musical environment around you and then repeat.” The meditation will, from that point, oscillate between these two “states of listening for as long as it seems right,” McElheny said. “And magically it will all slowly fade as if it was all planned, without any signal being given. Somehow this happens as the result of the nature of how we listen, if we just try.”

The result is a piece of music that demonstrates McElheny’s belief that “the tension inherent in our differences are in fact both beautiful and energizing. It always leaves me with the feeling that this is how society at large could be, with their tolerant listening without resolution.”

In creating such wildly innovative pieces that demanded as much energy from their audience as they put into their own work, Sun Ra and Oliveros both left a legacy that’s a tribute to what they saw as an infinite universe full of ideas. Think bigger; think bolder; think on a planetary scale, but also on a human scale; listen more; give more — these are the instructions left to us by these two visionaries.

“They have left us with a kind of permission, or perhaps even pressure,” McElheny said, “to think and act as expansively as they did.” As McElheny closed, McPhee, who collaborated with Oliveros for years, took the stage. The lights shut off. The theater went dark. The clear, reedy tone of McPhee’s saxophone emerged against a backdrop of ambient noise. A string of colorful lights around his neck popped on.

For the next 20 minutes, the saxophonist led the audience through a deep-listening meditation of their own, the lights around his neck glittering through the darkness like a far-away galaxy in space. One could only feel like Sun Ra and Oliveros would have approved.

The Campbell Lecture Series was made possible by a $1 million contribution from Rice alumnus T.C. Campbell ’34, who wanted to further the study of literature and the humanities with a 20-year annual series of public lectures. Through special arrangements with the University of Chicago Press, each lecture series is later published as a book. A list of previous Campbell lecturers is online at

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.