upper waypoint

Sun Ra and Kronos Quartet Collide in the Spaceways

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

A Black man in a glittery headpiece and shoulder sash tilts his head back, facing right, seen in profile
Sun Ra performing at The Venue in London on July 27, 1982.  (David Corio/Redferns)

“The outer space beings are my brothers. They sent me here.”

So spoke the composer and pianist Sun Ra, who famously claimed to have traveled from Saturn to bring a message of peace and love to Earth. Having first emerged in the Chicago jazz scene of the 1940s, Ra swiftly gained notoriety for his self-created sci-fi mythology, theatrical live shows and experimental musical instincts. Often in resplendent headgear suggestive of an Egyptian god, Ra was as gifted at writing indelible melodies (“Outer Spaceways Incorporated,” “Space is the Place”) as leading his “Arkestra” in freakouts like “Atlantis” and “The Magic City.”

Sooner or later, a composer with such an illustrious and eccentric career will cross paths with the Kronos Quartet. Ra died in 1993, and never collaborated with the quartet during his lifetime. But his music fits perfectly with the avant-garde repertoire of the long-running San Francisco ensemble.

A Kronos Quartet performance in Guadalajara, Mexico. (Nación Imago)

“He feels like part of our posse of composers,” says founding Kronos member and first violinist David Harrington. “It feels very natural to be a part of his music and to create new limbs in the tree of our work. If he were around today, he would be in a Kronos rehearsal without any question, or we would be in a Sun Ra rehearsal without question.”

Ra’s compositions and Kronos’s strings form the core of Outer Spaceways Incorporated: Kronos Quartet & Friends Meet Sun Ra, a collaboration with a host of guests from throughout the spectra of jazz, new music, and even EDM. The album includes interpretations of Ra’s compositions, pieces inspired by Ra written by other composers, and new works that use samples of Ra’s original recordings provided by Ra’s archivist, the outré-music scholar Irwin Chusid.


The project was organized by John Carlin, founder of Red Hot, a New York-based nonprofit founded in 1990 known for organizing high-profile tribute albums to raise awareness of issues such as AIDS and climate change. This is Carlin’s fourth album honoring Ra, and the only one entirely in collaboration with Kronos, who first worked with Red Hot on the 2009 compilation Dark Was the Night.

“David [Harrington] and I had a very particular agenda, which was to make sure that Sun Ra was thought of as a significant 20th century American composer,” says Carlin.

Carlin believes Ra’s emphasis on “the collective” rather than individual ego is one of the most important qualities in his work. As such, Carlin and the Quartet tapped a vast swath of collaborators from across the left-field music world to appear on the album.

A composite image of a man, seen from behind, walking into the galaxy of stars and nebulae
Cover art for ‘Outer Spaceways Incorporated: Kronos Quartet & Friends Meet Sun Ra.’ (Red Hot)

Marshall Allen, the saxophonist who at the age of 100 continues to lead Ra’s Arkestra with vigor and enthusiasm, appears. So do art-music legends Laurie Anderson and Terry Riley; electronic producers Jlin and RP Boo from the Chicago area’s highly experimental footwork scene; and Laraaji, who released some of the earliest ambient recordings in the 1970s and early 1980s both solo and in collaboration with Brian Eno.

Laraaji, who shared a bill with the Arkestra at Children’s Fairyland in Oakland last year, had the chance to see Sun Ra perform twice in the early 1980s.

“The dancers and the musicians all wore very bright, resplendent, cosmic-centric outfits,” the New York-based composer recalls. “And the music was nothing I could hum. It relaxed me from the rather straight, rigid Western compositional space that I had been educated in.”

Laraaji, like most of the album’s participants, did not work directly in person with the quartet. Rather, he sent his own remix of the Sun Ra track “Daddy’s Gonna Tell You No Lie” to Red Hot, who then sent it to the Quartet for further overdubbing.

The release, which also features Bay Area-based experimentalists Victoria Shen and Zachary James Watkins, comes at a transitional time for the quartet. Violinist John Sherba and violist Hank Dutt, the two other original members besides Harrington, will retire at the end of this month. The quartet has more albums recorded featuring the two departing members, so Outer Spaceways Incorporated is not their final album together.

This year’s installment of the quartet’s annual Kronos Festival will, however, represent Sherba and Dutt’s final performances with the group. In addition to several pieces from Outer Spaceways Incorporated, the program features works from new-music royalty like Riley, Philip Glass and Yoko Ono, plus collaborations with artists like Chinese pipa player Wu Man and Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq.

Kronos Quartet perform at the Musical instrument Museum in Phoenix, Ariz. in 2020. (Musical Instrument Museum)

Meanwhile, Harrington and cellist Paul Wiancko have been hard at work bringing the two new members, violinist Gabriela Díaz and violist Ayane Kozasa, on board. Rehearsals will continue through the summer and into the fall before the quartet resumes performing.

While a gig with one of America’s most prestigious musical ensembles is no easy task, Harrington says the two new recruits are more than a match for the challenge.

“It’s not a matter of bringing them up to speed,” says Harrington. “It’s a matter of keeping up with them.”

‘Outer Spaceways Incorporated: Kronos Quartet & Friends Meet Sun Ra’ will be released on June 21. Details here.

This year’s Kronos Festival runs four nights, June 20–23, at SFJAZZ in San Francisco. Details here.

lower waypoint
next waypoint