Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Part 6 of Exclusive Interview with Irwin Chusid, Administrator for Sun Ra LLC

Christopher Eddy from Sun Ra Arkive: What is your working process with Michael Anderson and how are you approaching the remastering? What are each of your unique perspectives and roles in regards to what you are listening for and trying to achieve sonically? Also what is your signal chain? How you are transferring the tapes and what tools your are using?

Irwin Chusid, Exclusive Administrator for Sun Ra LLC: I can’t speak for Michael. I hope he consents to being interviewed about the process. 

Michael produces the transfers from source tapes. He has a battery of vintage open-reel decks with various head configurations and speeds, and he knows how to service them. I honestly don’t know what adjustments he makes to the digital files. He works alone, he’s been doing this for decades, and I’m not going to second-guess his methodology. He sends me his processed wav files, and I undertake a meticulous restoration pass. He focuses on macro, I delve into the micro. I remove transients, occasionally boost midrange or high-end a smidge, reduce noise in selected passages, shave hiss, squelch distortion, de-ess, correct momentary speed irregularities, repair dropouts, balance volume disparities, and remove spikes that will sound like vinyl clicks in the end product. This process can take hours for one track because I’m a perfectionist—which with Sun Ra recordings is a fool’s errand. They can’t be perfected. You don’t want them perfect. Making them “perfect” would strip away layers of soul. You’ve heard of “garage rock”? This is Garage Jazz.

I’ve been doing digital restoration for ten years but confess that I don’t have sophisticated ears. I’ve never owned a high-end audio system. I own cheap consumer speakers, which I rarely upgrade. My bedroom has a pair of Lafayette speakers I purchased in 1969, just out of high school. Lafayette went out of business in 1981. These speakers sound fine, but I don’t crank them because it would disturb the neighbors. Connected to my iMac, on which I do audio restoration in Adobe CS5.5, I have a pair of desktop Bose Companion 2 Series II multimedia speakers. (I had to flip one over to find the model. Fancy gear doesn’t interest me—I just want my toys to work.) I have never taken an engineering course, don’t read audiophile magazines, don’t follow trends in acoustic advances, have never attended an audio convention. As Raymond Scott once claimed about himself, I have a degree in “primitive engineering.” You could say there’s a component of voodoo in my approach, but it seems to work for restoring Sun Ra’s recordings, and it’s worked for any number of previous restoration projects, particularly a lot of vintage calypso. This lack of technical expertise notwithstanding, I’m friends with numerous engineers, and often turn to them for problem-solving. I’m the beneficiary of their sound education.

I’m not trying to horrify prospective—and skeptical—buyers. I labor exhaustively over these audio files. There’s much trial and error. Some fixes sound fake. I reject those. There’s usually a trade-off: filter out one flaw, you inadvertently filter out part of the signal you’d prefer to keep. It’s a balancing act. But in some senses, the quality of my work is best judged by what you don’t hear.

I have not used compression or reverb on any track. I want something that to my ears sounds natural, that reflects the soulful-but-not-always-optimum settings in which these performances were captured. These recordings were not made in a Miles Davis studio with a Dave Brubeck budget. 

My expectation is that I will please people like me—ordinary Joes and Josies who just love the music—and disappoint audiophiles. But that’s a small minority of Sun Ra fans, and pleasing the high-end crowd is above my pay grade. If we do please them, I feel lucky—but that might have more to do with Michael’s initial transfer process.

Christopher Eddy from Sun Ra Arkive: Well Irwin, as one of those picky audiophiles, who's never bought an album from iTunes because I want the highest quality sound possible, I can tell you that your work holds up to scrutiny and didn't disappoint me at all. I did extensive a-b testing between your new MFiT remasters and all of the previous issues of the music—from Saturn, Impulse!, Evidence, Scorpio LP reissues, etc.—and I can say the across the board, your new remasters are the best quality versions of the music released to date. There is a natural tone and acoustic realism to the new remasters that has rarely been heard from previous Sun Ra releases, many of which utilized multi-generation tapes, excessive EQ, or noise reduction to "clean up" the recordings. The end product was music that sounded distant and flat, while the new remasters sound almost three dimensional in comparison! It's a pretty stunning difference for a fan like myself who has heard these albums many, many times. I applaud you for the musical, tasteful choices you and Michael made when approaching your remastering work. For anyone interested in learning more about what Mastered For iTunes really means, here's a great primer.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Part 5 of Exclusive Interview with Irwin Chusid, Administrator for Sun Ra LLC

Christopher Eddy from Sun Ra Arkive: While working with the master tapes for the 24-bit transfers made for the new Sun Ra Mastered for iTunes (MFiT) Reissue Series, what can you tell us about the tapes themselves? What is their physical condition, and did they need baking before transfer? Are there any unique details about how the tapes are compiled, edited, mastered, and labeled?

Irwin Chusid, Administrator for Sun Ra LLC: Over the years Michael has had to replace most of the original crumbling cardboard boxes and cracked plastic reels, documenting whatever was written on the physical artifacts. In general the collection looks clean and organized.

Again, for greater detail this is a question that should be addressed to Michael. I don’t deal with the reels at all. When I’m at his place, browsing the boxes on the shelves, I marvel at the names and titles on the spines. There’s a lot more than Sun Ra in his archive. 

I do know that Michael has never baked a tape. But he makes a mean chicken stew.

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Part 4 of Exclusive Interview with Irwin Chusid, Administrator for Sun Ra LLC

Christopher Eddy from Sun Ra Arkive: The story of the Sun Ra’s master tapes is almost mythological. They were recorded in a large variety of manners—from professional studio dates to live and rehearsal recordings. There are stories of master tapes and copies of tapes spread across the world in chaos. Michael Anderson was Sun Ra’s self-appointed archivist shortly after he joined the band in the late 1970s, and I know he has spent years trying to bring order and honor to the chaos. What can you tell us about the official archive and the physical state and breadth of the collection?

Irwin Chusid, Administrator for Sun Ra LLC: With due deference to Michael, the status of the tapes is a topic I would prefer that he address publicly—if he’s inclined. I’d simply say that, considering the difficult life circumstances and severe financial strain he faces on a daily basis, Michael is doing the best he can. He works constantly. He needs an assistant, but can’t afford to pay one. He has had offers from academic settings and professional archives who are willing to accept custody of the tapes. But to Michael, this is unacceptable because he would lose immediate access to the reels and relinquish control of the collection. He has ambitious plans, but no capital to pursue them. 

We do have an agreement in place that if anything happens to Michael, I can take legal possession of the tapes and hold them for safekeeping. My impulse would be to get those tapes into a professional, non-profit archive, knowing that the inherent rights in the recordings and compositions would be retained by Sun Ra LLC. 

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Sun Ra Arkestra Angels and Demons at Play Side A Master Tape Box.
Sun Ra Arkestra Angels and Demons at Play Side A Master Tape Box.
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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Part 3 of Exclusive Interview with Irwin Chusid, Administrator for Sun Ra LLC

Christopher Eddy from Sun Ra Arkive: The history of Sun Ra, Alton Abraham and Saturn Research’s business dealings is a long a convoluted one, with an endless trail of agreements, infringements, and disarray. It appears that many of these problems persist. How do you intend to “organize the organization”? 

Irwin Chusid, Administrator for Sun Ra LLC: I undertook representation of Sun Ra LLC—the heirs who lawfully own the recordings and publishing (Enterplanetary Koncepts, a BMI company)—in December 2013, but it was not a management or administrative position per se. It provided me with authority to make inquiries, request documents, and challenge alleged malefactors. In late July 2014, we formalized the arrangement with a more detailed agreement that expands my authorities and makes me the de facto administrator. 

One of the first things I did early on was to forge an alliance between the LLC as rights owners and Michael, who has custody of countless archival session tapes. The LLC owns the rights—I’ve conclusively established chain-of-title from Sun Ra’s death thru several intra-family transfers of his assets, but always with the same principals. There were legal, financial, and geographic reasons why the assets went from conservatorship to estate, to Alabama-based ‘S’ corporation, and finally to Georgia-based LLC. There are no gaps. 

Michael, who played drums for Sun Ra and lived at Saturn House during the 1970s, was Sun Ra’s designated tape librarian. Michael has devoted his life to the safekeeping of those reels and the historic sounds embedded on magnetic plastic film. He’s compiled a meticulous database of what’s on the tapes. He’s very protective of this collection and has a spiritual connection to the music. He doesn’t have a “job”—he has a commitment. There’s no way this material could be commercially developed without Michael’s involvement. He is irreplaceable because he doesn’t just know the music and the contents of tapes—he knows the history of Sun Ra and the various members of the Arkestra. He can put everything in context, including people who have been involved with the catalog over the years but aren’t directly connected to Sun Ra or the Arkestra. Some of this history is documented on paper, some is in his computers, and a lot of it is in his head. I love Michael for who he is and what he does. But I worry about him—his health, his moods wings, his ability to pay the rent. He has become extremely reclusive. 

There has long been a tacit understanding between the family and Michael, each acknowledging the other’s involvement and role, neither interfering with the other, but with little communication and no coordinated effort to run a business. It was obvious to me that these two sides were dependent on each other, and each had an essential role. Business and art. When ownership rights are disrespected or threatened from outside, both sides need to cooperate to protect the realm. Hence, the new alliance. We now have a team with coordinated goals. 

And just to clarify one common misunderstanding: there is no “Sun Ra estate.” There was, but it was closed in 1999 and the executrix, Marie Holston (a niece), was discharged. The estate was replaced by Sun Ra, Inc., with Jenkins as managing director. That ‘S’ corporation was dissolved in 2005 and replaced by Sun Ra LLC, again with Jenkins in charge. Same family principals in each case, with heirs replacing decedents.

Alton Abraham tried twice in court during the 1990s to claim administrative rights over the estate. However, he couldn’t produce a single document proving an active business partnership with Sun Ra at the time of the latter’s death. Judicial decrees were issued denying his claims. That said, anyone who knows the history of Sun Ra acknowledges that without Alton Abraham, the world might never have known about Sun Ra, whose career might not have progressed beyond the strip clubs of Calumet City. They, too, were a team, dependent on each other, with complementary skills. But strong personalities often clash. They went thru a nasty professional divorce, and Sunny ended up owning the store. It was, after all, his music.

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Michael Anderson and Irwin Chusid, September 2013.



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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Part 2 of Exclusive Interview with Irwin Chusid, Administrator for Sun Ra LLC

Christopher Eddy from Sun Ra Arkive: From the perspective of Outsider art, you really couldn’t have chosen a figure more “outside” than Sun Ra. From your perspective as an expert on Outsider art, where do think Sun Ra’s place and role is in that lineage?

Irwin Chusid, Administrator for Sun Ra LLC: As with the most significant outsider artists, Sun Ra is sui generis. He has the one quality you can’t fake: identity. He didn’t blaze a path for other musicians, because no one could replicate his intuitive gifts, his eccentricities, his style. There may be other artists you’d “like” if you “like” Sun Ra, but there is no one LIKE Sun Ra. You, Christopher, once referred to Sunny’s legacy as a “deep, creative well.” Richard Segan said that “Sun Ra is the most advanced musician we have ever had on this planet.” I can’t speak in absolutes, but his catalog spans the spectrum and defies simple distillation. It’s challenging to absorb everything. I’ve occasionally joked that “with Sun Ra’s music, there’s something for everyone to hate.” In the whole of his recorded output, you get everything but consistency and predictability. There’s sweet melodies you could play at wedding receptions, and confrontational noise-art that could spark fisticuffs. He covers Gershwin with panache, then brutally assaults his keyboard. No wonder NRBQ's Terry Adams is a fan.