Site of Formation 1924

Marshall Allen and the Creation of a New World

Jessie Cox

1924 was a year that redrew humanity’s sense of everything, creating the possibility for new possibilities, a past that can, if taken as a present, rejuvenate. The importance of such a rebirth of possibilities—of the redrawing of the boundaries between impossible and possible—lies in the fact that it allows for other ways of being and for the marginalized to become not only part of the discourse but essential to it. This can only happen if there is another space, another canvas, than the one that deems them as less than real. 

One reason why 1924 is important for the creation of new possibilities is that it was the year that Marshall Allen—an indispensable part of Sun Ra’s band since 1958 and now, after Sun Ra’s passing, the leader of the Arkestra—was born. While showing a video of Marshall Allen’s saxophone acrobatics to some of my students—sonic luminescent virtuoso space-travel—the creation of new possible possibilities that first drew myself to his work became apparent (again). Listening to Marshall Allen’s musical creations is how I imagine it must have felt when in 1924 Edwin Hubble discovered that there were multiple other galaxies—that ours isn’t the only one—in a way giving birth to the universe as we know it today (the second reason 1924 was an important year). 

Confirmation of the view that spiral nebulae, which appear in the heavens as whirling clouds are in reality distant stellar systems, or ‘island universes’ . . . The number of spiral nebulae, the observatory officials have reported to the institution, is very great, amounting to hundreds of thousands, and their apparent sizes range from small objects, almost star-like in character, to the great nebula in Andromeda . . .1

This description of Hubble’s discovery by the New York Times makes evident just how world-changing it was. Until that moment, society thought that there was only one galaxy, ours, and that all the other stuff was part of that one galaxy. By noticing just how far away these celestial objects are from planet Earth, Hubble recognized that these must be other galaxies, and so the universe’s magnitude took on a completely different meaning—and so did our place within it. 

Musically speaking and otherwise, Marshall Allen’s work can be likened to this astronomical discovery. Suddenly everything is changed, dislocated—one has to redraw the wholeness of the universe because the old coordinate system does not have space for these possibilities that were once impossibilities. What effect does it have on humanity when we suddenly see that there are possibilities outside of our concept of the entirety of space ; possibilities that change, by their very existence, our notion of us and all ?

A simple and effective way to attune ourselves to how this redrawing of the all is enacted in Allen’s work is to focus on the musical instrument as well as his relationality to it. A musical instrument is like a universe. It has its own sound or, more specifically, a sound that the listener expects. An instrument is also a technology, which means that there is a specific way to play it related to how it is built which, in turn, is related again to the idea of how it sounds, since the instrument builder, and instrument performer, have to imagine a sound during their creative processes. For example, the modern fingering systems for woodwinds, with buttons that allow it to cover holes out of reach for a human hand, create a completely different sound, and sound-ideal (as well as technique), than a recorder where every hole on the instrument has to be reachable with a human hand. 

These components of the instrument are then further entangled with history, economics, other instruments and tools, philosophy, physics and acoustics, etc. An economic example would be how the timbre of jazz came about. The reason that marching band instruments were so often used in the early days of this music is because they were, at the time of Emancipation, the cheapest instruments around, and most newly emancipated slaves did not have a lot of economic power. Furthermore, during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s/30s, more African-American families achieved middle-class status, which allowed for the incorporation of the piano—a symbol of that middle-class status—into jazz, creating the Harlem stride. 

Of course, this is a simplified account of the creation of music and musical instruments. It is self-evident that there are a multitude of factors and agents involved with the development of all music and musical instruments. But these examples illuminate that almost all aspects that make up the musical instrument are confined to (or have to resist) the space it is thought to be within, or what society wants it to be. Furthermore, it becomes apparent the degree to which musical instruments and their sounds are political. This is nothing new to many jazz musicians since the music of African Americans—from the music of the slaves to early New Orleans jazz, free jazz, all the way to hip-hop—has often been referred to as noise by white American society throughout its history. The consequences of somebody’s sound being heard as noise and not listened to as music are drastic and reach far beyond what is normatively considered music. In the same manner, a musical instrument and its associated so-called proper technique also encodes the dominant culture’s values, through its attempts to reinforce itself and justify its dominance. Conclusively, the saxophone (and concomitantly also the saxophonist) is a point of assemblage, of convergence, of an entanglement of history, economy, aesthetics, and more.

Through saxophone playing, Marshall Allen defies any previous conception of the saxophone and the saxophonist, and of its entangled components. Via this act he is not only reassessing the musical universe but everything itself. His playing, therefore, has the same effect on society’s change in positioning of self, other, and environment as Hubble’s discovery that there are many more galaxies in space than ours. The movement of his right hand over the keys reminds one at times of fast, animal-derived kung-fu hand gestures or the delicate brush stroke of a calligrapher, redrawing the size of the keys and of his fingers at the same time. This morphological rescaling helps create, or simply is, his stellar-like sound—stratospherically high musical lines with rhythmic punctuations that could be compared to the patterning of the distribution of light-dots on a deep-space-image. 

Marshall Allen’s body and spirit (his breath) interact with the alto saxophone complex, with what is supposed to have been. Note that we can understand the resultant sonic output from these multifaceted interactions as not only peaceful (or resonating) but at times also violent (or non-conformal). Most importantly this musical respacing changes how society (or at the very least the community around the music) looks at itself, history (“alter-destiny” and/or “my-story” to use Sun Ra’s words), economics, culture, etc. The saxophone’s fingering-system metamorphoses and its encoded memories and functionalities are changed (hacked). Economic value is taken and redefined because of the “misuse” of the musical instrument ; its use value—creating musical sounds—as well as its exchange value is questioned, redefined, and reclaimed. Value and meaning are reassigned according to other laws, laws that are related to the uniqueness of the specific instruments’ (acoustic) errors (which, through Allen’s repurposing, are not errors anymore). This changes what is valued but also who/what does the valuing and how its value is justified (i.e. its network)—an act of re-networking, re-programming, and re-coding.

The musical approach taken by Marshall Allen could be thought of as utilizing what are called extended techniques amongst today’s music experts, but I’d argue that this concept is incongruent with his approach. The extended technique idea relates to a smaller, or different, universe (space), analogous to how our physical universe was seen pre-1924. Allen’s playing, as described earlier, moves on another set of dimensional coordinates, meaning that the way these sounds and movements are listened to, and how they are conceptualized/conceptualizable, is fundamentally different than extended techniques, and cannot be seen as something disruptive, unwanted, or as an extension of traditional techniques alone (although it is also a music of resistance).2 Most importantly, it reshapes the boundaries of the universe by redefining what is to be seen as the extended and fundamental, changing the points of reference/relation. In this sense one cannot speak of extended techniques ; these technical reimaginings have to be named, and concomitantly, theorized, in another manner.

“We call it space music. Call it whatever you like, but it’s space. It’s dealing with, (not these earthly things) those things that we don’t know.” 3 Marshall Allen’s naming and description of his music clarifies the importance of his musical approach. This music that allows for new possible possibilities can displace our earthly worries and make us aware of the vastness and revitalizing force of hearing new possibilities for our existence. It’s of utmost importance for a society to be able to re-imagine what could be because it changes what is, it allows for the creation of other values and meanings, and for the redefinition of oneself. Music, especially Marshall Allen’s music, affords this rehearing. 

The political implications of this musicking is of great value as well ; the repurposing of history and economy via the musical instrument is itself an act of redefinition and possibility-space creation. Marshall Allen’s (and Sun Ra and the Arkestra’s) music is a space that has places for people and ways of being that wouldn’t be allowed, or possible, in the other worlds they found (find) around them. This repurposing proposes a possible solution to the (Marxist) alienation created by not being able to identify with one’s environment and creations (not in the sense of anti-alienation but maybe a post-alienation, where post can be conceived of as, on the basis of Afrofuturism/science-fiction, a different future as present and past). Through music-making, Marshall Allen, Sun Ra, and the Arkestra created a historical, economical, cultural, and societal space that was different to the situation they faced as African Americans in 20th-century America ; and in this same manner this music, and the further pursuit of such ways of musical thinking, can allow us also today to reclaim our own space of existence—reclaiming agency over one’s self. As Marshall Allen explains : “You want a better world. You create a better world.” 4

1 Sharov, Alexander and Novikov, Igor. 1993. Edwin Hubble, The Discoverer of the Big Bang Universe. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

2 For a more detailed account of the complex relationalities that Black musical practices have to the European aesthetic ideals : Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The Black Atlantic. London and New York : Verso.

3 Allen, Marshall. 2019. “Out There A Minute With Marshall Allen.” PWPvideo. May 23, 2019. Audio, 5:02. https://www.youtube.com/watch ?v=GdTR-fiLfwQ

4 Ibid., 6:23.

Marshall Allen and the Creation of a New World