Minimalism isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you think of Sun Ra. But, if you want to see “less is more” songwriting in action, look no further than the 4 one-syllable words he selected as title and base lyrics for Space is the Place.
They flow with the music wherever they’re placed, they encompass layers of meaning and allow layers of harmonising, their diphthongs breathe in and out as the music requires and the placement of the 2 rhyming nouns gives the whole line a pleasing see-saw balance. That’s an awful lot of responsibility for 4 small words.
Luck or judgement? Well, consider some possible 4 syllable alternatives to Space+is+the+Place:
- Space is super.
- Space is a place.
- Join our space race.
Each has 4 syllables. Each contains the word space and a positive message. Do they fit the music? Try singing them while Sun Ra plays his keyboards for you. How do they feel? Better or worse than Space is the Place?
Did the alternatives work as well as the line Space is the Place? The short answer is no. The long answer is this:
- Space is super – fails because the first syllable of super must be stressed in English. It’s unavoidable. That stress pattern fixes the whole line in a static shape, unbalances it and removes its close, fluid relationship to the music. The line no longer flows with the repeated 4 note phrase, it clangs against it like a cracked church bell, every time it’s repeated. The line feels inconsequential and unfinished without its bookend rhymes of space and place. So a two-syllable word with fixed stress has no place in this line.
- Join our space race – fails because the expansive diphthongs of space and race shrink and shrivel when the two words follow each other. Space and place no longer sound ‘big’ enough to let the universe flow through them. The sentence stress naturally falls on join (as the imperative), so the line loses the equal, seesaw balance and free movement of Sun Ra’s line: Space is the place. In Sun Ra’s line, any word can take the stress but no one word must take the stress.
- Space is a place – fails because it’s a confusing statement, it’s banal and it loses the extra, positive, cool meaning of ‘is the place.’ Space is a place is not a phrase that will stick in the audience’s mind after the show’s over. It’s a boring description, not an encouragement to join Sun Ra in his earthly mission. Also, space isn’t a place in the usual sense of the word. It’s all around us. Audiences get irritated and distracted by debatable statements. Nobody could argue with Sun Ra’s line Space is the place. It’s a statement of opinion.
Sun Ra’s phrase Space is the place works perfectly as a repetitive mantra, a memorable phrase and a positive statement. It works perfectly with the music because it’s constructed of four equal one-syllable words, each one clearly demarcated by consonant sounds – sp, z, th and s.
- None of the words need a particular stress to make sense, so the line is infinitely flexible. You can put the stress on either space, is, the or place, as you like. Listen to Sun Ra at 2.27, moving the stress from word to word. He’s slightly changing the focus, but the meaning of the line encompasses the changes.
The phrase is strong enough to be used as a base for scatting. Listen after 1.00.
The airy diphthong in space and place is crucial to the success of the line. You have to pronounce the vowel sound at the centre of the words correctly, if you want to capture the generous, spacious feeling of the diphthong sound. Sun Ra’s Arkestra were able to expand and contract the diphthong at will, to give their audience a sense of both infinity and concrete reality.
Sounds create pictures in your audience’s mind. Diphthongs are a gift to a singer because you can make them breathe with the song and bend to your needs.
It’s unlikely that Sun Ra had all this planned before he created the line Space is the Place. It’s the kind of serendipity that would only become apparent once he started using it in concert and gauged its effect on his audience. The line fits his intended meaning perfectly. It fits the music perfectly.
You’ll find it hard to forget the line Space is the Place. You’ll remember it with the meaning that Sun Ra intended. You’ll hum it in the shower. That’s songwriting success.
By the way – sorry to sound repetitive, but, even if you’re not planning to go into space jazz, it’s worth getting the expansive a diphthong at the centre of space and place right. It’s a sound you’ll need to get right if you want to sing effectively in English. It pops up in songs from The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face through to Ace of Spades and beyond. Check that you’re not singing fess instead of face, or ess instead of ace. Ess means this. Fess means this. Not the meanings you wanted? Check your pronunciation if you don’t want to confuse your audience.
Space is the Place.
© Sing Better English, 2014