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Short Take on George Lewis, Pauline Oliveros and Joelle Leandre Live in Prague

Tonight as part of the Agosto Foundation’s vs. Interpretationsymposium and festival at the NOD arts space in Prague, we heard a freely improvised performance by the trio of Pauline Oliveros (Roland V-accordion), Joëlle Léandre (double bass and voice) and George Lewis (laptop, trombone). This morning, George Lewis gave a talk on the prehistory of improvisation studies, making a case for approaching improvisation not as a study of criteria or constraint but of what he called “conditions,” which seemed to me to be a call to attend to the diversity of generative circumstances, and their intersection in historically situated performances. He was arguing, gently, against defining improvisation as such, and instead asking his audience to consider how improvising might open up possibilities for self-aware creative practice. The concert this evening was introduced by, I believe, Cynthia Plachá of the Agosto Foundation, who reiterated something Joëlle Léandre had said at a workshop this afternoon, that when you improvise “you must be prepared for the unprepared.” Both of these assertions – around the conditional or situated sharing that improvisation enacts, and around the paradoxical acuity involved in improvisational practices – informed the trio’s collaborative music-making.
They performed one 45-minute piece, recorded by Czech Radio for broadcast, which apparently Pauline Oliveros had named “Play As You Go” ahead of time, although there wasn’t any pre-planning. Joëlle Léandre’s playing had a firmness of touch and such a strikingly clear sense of line or trajectory, her tone consistently full and resonant. Pauline Oliveros’s electronified accordion shifted between foreground and background, often supplying aural textures that were by turns cohesive and disruptive, simultaneously braiding into and fraying at the trio’s combined sound-palette. George Lewis layered samples from his laptop, many of them having a certain digital brightness that he subsequently often pulled and muddied, electronic sheen mitigated by the more closely corporeal sounds of breath and lip, particularly when he used his blue (!) trombone as both a sampled sound source and as an unmodified instrument: his characteristic fierce blatt, at the few moments when he did seem to dig into his horn, was instantly recognizable. But this wasn’t a music of solos or singular voices so much as of organic reciprocity and co-creation.
There were some passing moments – when Joëlle Léandre started to sing lyrically about the slightly oppressive heat in the performance space (“It’s hot, it’s hot . . . “) or when Pauline Oliveros echoed a cough from the audience by jabbing her right hand at the accordion’s lower keys – of humour and irony, suggesting how all sonic resources, high and low, occasional and musically dense, could be repurposed into interactive soundings. The music didn’t so much progress or develop as trace its way through a loose series of temporarily sustained, situated idioms – sometimes meditative, sometimes contrarian, sometimes melodically assertive, sometimes coevally plural: layers of shifting texture, refigurings. This was a brilliantly sui generis music, and we left the concert feeling energized, enlivened and moved.

Toward an Improvisational Pedagogy 1

Over the last decade, using various undergraduate and graduate classes as provisional testing grounds, I have been trying to develop what I have come to think of as an improvisational pedagogy. By “improvisational pedagogy” I don’t just mean teaching about criticism of improvisation and the performing arts (music, theatre, dance . . .), although such work certainly forms part of what I might do. And I don’t necessarily mean teaching classes on how to improvise, although techniques derived from the hands-on practice of various forms of improvisation constitute significant elements in a nascent methodology. I mean, I think, an educational practice that engages in real time with its own cognitive, creative and critical horizons, the self-attentive work of thinking on your feet, both before and with other people.

In forthcoming posts over the next few months, I’m planning to write in better detail about what I feel are some of the significant learning outcomes of such a pedagogy – including remarks on technique and nascent methodology, on student reactions, on literacy and critical canon, and on what others in the emerging field have called “the ethics of co-creation” – but for now I want to restrict myself to laying a little personal groundwork for this field of study. I have been participating this past week, telematically, in a think-tank at Memorial University, convened by the new International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, aimed at producing a draft curriculum for a potential graduate program for the study of improvisation. Some tangible results of our discussions and our collective commitment to this process will no doubt emerge in the coming year as this program takes shape, but for the moment I want to note how apparent it became during our meetings that we needed not only to define our field but to do so in a manner that distinguishes its salient characteristics, the traits and tactics that set it apart.

This conceptual winnowing, however, is particularly challenging around the study of improvisation because of its ubiquity: a fact that makes it both essential to study and seemingly impossible to frame as an object of study. At its core, improvisation articulates a deliberate elusiveness; whatever else it does, improvisation defines itself across a vast array of social and cultural practices as a refusal of the definitive, as excess. Whatever else – to repurpose an unsettled line from the self-troubling poet Irving Layton – whatever else, improvisation is freedom. It inclines, in all of its multiple and incommensurate forms, toward “whatever else,” toward not being an “it” at all, constantly worrying at and unknitting the hard knot of that “is” in definitions such as this. It’s a modality, for me, of creative undoing.

In a 2007 lecture called “Improvising Tomorrow’s Bodies: The Politics of Transduction,” George Lewis – who for many of us has become one of the major figures in shaping the field – reflects on how

improvisation is everywhere, but it is very hard to see. That’s because improvisation is not really a philosophical Haltung for a few people living the artist’s life, but a fundamental mode of being in the world that all of us share.

Everybody improvises, all the time. But next to no one appears to attend with much care or acuity to the implications of the forms and practices of improvisation; like Lewis, and despite my privileging of aesthetic in my own teaching and writing, I don’t mean to aggrandize the role of the critic or the artist or the pedagogue in raising such reflexive awareness, but rather – through Lewis – to affirm the political necessity of such study within democratic space, within the culturally and socially managed domains of that sharing. Improvisation, Lewis asserts, “is the ubiquitous practice of everyday life, a primary method of meaning exchange in any interaction,” but that primacy remains largely unaddressed and under-scrutinized. The task, as Lewis understands it, is first of all to illuminate “the condition of improvisation,” and then to interrogate its affective and material impacts on the conduct of human life:

My overall view of improvisation, which can be described (if not defined) as exploration, discovery and response to conditions, part of a ubiquitous human practice of real-time analysis, generation, manipulation, exchange, and transformation of meaning, mediated by (among other factors) the body, history, temporality, space, memory, intention, material culture, and diverse methodologies. My claim is that improvisation is fundamental to the existence and survival of every human formation, from the individual to the community, through the postnational body to the species itself.

This is a big claim for what has been, by his own admission, a neglected and marginalized field of study, but I want to be clear that I hear his interdisciplinary sweep not as apologetics or as rhetoric, but as a genuine imperative. Improvisation names a fundamental human relationship to temporality and to historicity, and offers a distinct and crucial means – however plural and however elusive – to address who and when and where we are.

In an effort to stabilize improvisation into something like a concept, I want to invoke Michel Foucault’s reworking of the Aristotelean ἐπιστήμη or “science.” In The Order of Things, Foucault deploys the term episteme to refer to a way of knowing that pervades specific cultural or historical epochs:

In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice.

As a “field of scientificity,” an episteme doesn’t define a particular science (Latin scientia, “knowledge, a knowing; expertness”) so much as the range and limits of the truth-value of science as such: what counts and what doesn’t count as knowledge. This formulation strikes me as too inherently rigid, but in as much as improvisation both shapes and evaluates the immediate production and dissemination of knowledge in our present age, in as much as it might name historicity as such – a ubiquitous set of human relations both to and within ordinary time – it strikes me that it might be useful to think it through as one among several entwined episteme of our given moment, as a name for the enactive articulations and mobilizations of knowledge in the human present. Thinking improvisation along these lines – despite Foucault’s early and I think untenable tendency to want conceptually to reduce and to homogenize – might offer an opportunity to describe, if not to define, a finite set of modalities within an extemporaneous science, modalities of knowing less prehensile, less closed and enclosing, than we might expect,— including listening (or better, aisthesis), practicing, collaboration, intersubjectivity, reciprocity, alterity. Improvising might be better understood neither as a method nor as a discrete modality of knowledge creation, but more as a resonant network of commensurate modalities. This list a merely a starting point, and such modalities would need to be much more rigorously investigated and situated, but at least for the present such terminology may offer a means of settling on something approaching a basis for thinking through improvisation.

George E. Lewis: Afro/Eurological Collisions

Here is the text of my colloquium paper presented this morning (Saturday, 21 June 2014) at “Improvising Across Boundaries: An Unconventional Colloquium” co-curated by the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI) and Coastal Jazz, as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival. (Given the time constraints, some of the transitions are rather abrupt, but I wanted to counterpose Paolo Freire’s “critical” pedagogy with Lewis’s approach to improvisation, for example, so I just went ahead with it as a kind of provocation.)

In the nascent, polymorphous field of what we can now call Critical Studies in Improvisation, the creative work and the scholarship of George E. Lewiscontinues to play a crucial role. A justly celebrated composer and performer, he has also become a key voice, both as public intellectual and as pedagogue, in recent academic and aesthetic debates around the cultural and social roles of improvisation. His accretive, open-minded forays into the improvised emerge from what I am going to characterize as collisionsamong subject positions, methodologies and conceptual arrays associated with a diverse aggregation of thinkers and artists, of improvisers, whose practice-based research – interventions, performances, and reflections – both shapes and interrogates this field. To put it as succinctly and as abstractly as I can, improvisation tends to emerge from and to inhere in its own creative undoing, and George Lewis’s music and writing want to address and to inhabit that liminal space, that contact zone, that edge. For a few minutes today, I want to test out the trope of the collision to try to explain a little of what his work on improvisation and his improvised work undertake. How and what does his practice-based research teach us? What forms of knowledge and of knowing do his improvisations produce and collide?
         I only have space to sketch one such collision today, around what Lewis calls “ethnic and racial identifiers” in contemporary music. Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Nina Simone, among others, preferred to characterize the continuum in which they situated their playing as “Black Classical Music,” yoking their work to popular, soul, church, blues and folk lineages and streams, as well as to what gets marketed, now as it did then, under the label “jazz.” This name-change is more than merely personal preference, and more than loosely salutary. It opens up a deep wound, a problematic around reception and legitimation of racially-marked artistry, but also seeks not to heal, however provisionally, or to suture or even Band-Aid that wound, necessarily, so much as to take issue with and even to subvert such glibly remedial tactics.
In his 2004 essay“Gittin’ To Know Y’all: Improvised Music, Interculturalism, and the Racial Imagination,” Lewis refigures this collision of “Black” and “Classical” music-making by offering a provisional history of the performance of Lester Bowie’s 1969 composition “Gittin’ to know y’all” at the “Free Jazz Treffen” in Baden-Baden that December, a performance that orchestrated a form of summit meeting between “two avant-gardes”: members of Chicago’s AACM and a set of European “free jazz” musicians. Lewis demonstrates how a presumptive binary that emerges from critical stereotyping around African-American and European cultural heritage grossly mischaracterizes the conversations and negotiations that actually occur within the music, not to reconcile differences but to sound them, and to approach them creatively. What I’m provisionally calling “collision” may sound like another name for dialectic, for a conflict of artistic interest, but I’m trying to name a set of relations among practicing improvisers that is agonistic, plural and networked rather than merely antithetical.
Lewis refers at the outset of his account of Lester Bowie’s composition to an earlier essay in which he distinguishes between what he calls Eurological and Afrological “musical belief systems and behavior”; rather than reinstitute a sweeping critical binary – which, at first glance, the pair of terms might obviously seem to do – Lewis wants to theorize exemplary and particular aspects of musical logic linked not to genetic or cultural phenotypes but to situated, historically-emergent social narratives. This conceptual move, he argues, can enable both scholars and practitioners to reflect on the “possibilities for artists to move across, transgress and possibly erase borders.” In his 1996 essay, Lewis is more specific about his deliberately contingent, complementary terms:
my construction of “Afrological” and “Eurological” systems of improvisative musicality refers to social and cultural location and is theorized here as historically emergent rather than ethnically essential, thereby accounting for the reality of transcultural and transracial communication among improvisers. For example, African-American music, like any music, can be performed by a person of any “race” without losing its character as historically Afrological [. . .]. My constructions make no attempt to delineate ethnicity or race, although they are designed to ensure that the reality of the ethnic or racial component of a historically emergent sociomusical group must be faced squarely and honestly.
Lewis’s materialist distrust of abstracted binaries informs his assessment of Lester Bowie’s music and of his own. “I wanted to explore,” he says in the liner notes to the recording of “Sequel . . . (For Lester Bowie),” a composition closely linked to his essay,
this hybrid conception that allows the free flow between the two spheres with musicians that are equally at home in the so-called acoustic and so-called electronic world. This faked binary, which has sprung up over the years, has become completely useless today.
Other “faked” binaries – between composition and improvisation, between score and text, between the individual and the collective – are also refused and refigured in what Lewis here repeatedly names “hybridity.” I’m challenging that term a little here – pace Lewis himself – by insisting on “collisions” rather than hybrids because I want to reconsider how the fusion of interests implied by the trope of the hybrid might invite us to gloss over the persistent creative divergences that also emerge from this refusal; it feels a little too synthetic, in other words, a little too compliant.
Within Lewis’s conceptual frame, the Afrological is deliberately privileged, if only because Afrological improvisative practices and traditions have been consistently devalued and underrepresented, and their recovery represents a significantly politicized gesture within the cultural politics of music. Afro-diasporic musical practices connect improvisation and community building (Lewis evokes the genre of the “ring shout,” for instance, to describe collective interchange) neither accede to nor supplant the Eurological aesthetic and social genres, but to supplement, challenge, appropriate, subvert, and remake.
The individual, expressive voice of the cogent, virtuosic performer, for example, is neither accepted nor discarded in this conception, but refigured as a subject position within a dynamic network of voices. In his notes to “Sequel: A Composition for Cybernetic Improvisors (For Lester Bowie),” Lewis gestures at what he values as an :inherent instability” within improvised performances:
My experience of the people here as well as many other people is that if they do have a personal style, it’s going to take you a long time to figure it out, probably as long as it took them to create it. I see people as creating more from a sort of multiple-voiced way. And to me that’s different from personal style. I think, because of that multiple-voiced nature and the inherent instability which goes along with it that’s where interchange and these new ideas really become possible.
We need to ask ourselves if, in the recording or especially in the live performance of a Lewis composition such as “Sequel,” we can hear the situated, historically specific character of this interchange, and what this reconceptualized practice of an active and engaged audition means. (Consider the complex circumstances informing Miya Masaoka’s innovative koto playing, for example.) But I do want to insist that in the audible collisions, transitions and even transgressions among the various, unsettled instrumentalists in this recording don’t manifest conflict but what sounds to me like productive conversation – and by productive, I don’t mean politely deferential, but closely responsive, reciprocal, attentive.
There is what I’d call an improvisational pedagogy in Lewis’s work, but not a pedagogy of lectures and informatics. Instead, the kind of knowledge-production in which Lewis interests himself is the recovery of a dynamic situatedness, of an interchange, of multiplicity.  It seems to me that the radical pedagogy of Paolo Freire might provide a helpful supplement to Lewis’s music and scholarship around his agonistic sublation of cultural binaries through situated, reflexive education. “Responsibility,” Freire asserts in “Education as the Practice of Freedom,” an intervention that coincidentally appeared in 1969 around the time of Lester Bowie’s “Gittin’ to know y’all,” “Responsibility cannot be acquired intellectually, but only through experience” (16). Freire isn’t dismissing intellection – he’s engaged in it as he writes, after all – but arguing that thought needs to be coupled to practice, rather than opposed to it, if it is to have any transformative effect, any meaning:
Critical [that is, actively self-aware] transitivity is characteristic of authentically democratic regimes and corresponds to highly permeable, interrogative, restless, and dialogical forms of life . . . . (18-19)
In Lewis’s “Sequel,” and in his other compositions, performances and even lectures and essays, I hear this active permeability as a restless and audible collision of voices.
Paolo Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness. 1969. New York: Continuum, 1973. Print.

George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2008. Print.

—, “Gittin’ To Know Y’all: Improvised Music, Interculturalism, and the Racial Imagination.” Critical Studies in Improvisation 1.1 (2004). http://www.criticalimprov.com/article/view/6/14

—, “Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives.” Black Music Research Journal 16.1 (Spring, 1996): 91-122.

Possibility Abstracts: Taylor Ho Bynum, Nathaniel Mackey and Discrepancy (Abstract)

This is the abstract/proposal for a paper I am set to give at the Vs. Interpretation colloquium and festival on the improvisational arts, which is taking place in Prague in the Czech Republic on July 17-20, 2014. The colloquium is supported by the Agosto Foundation, and keynote speakers include George Lewis and Pauline Oliveros. The original theme for the colloquium had to do with “improvising across borders.” I am aiming to extend my own thinking about the intersections of improvisational practices and the poetics of listening by addressing the work of Taylor Ho Bynum and Nathaniel Mackey. So here it is:

Released in November 2013, the multi-format set of recordings of Taylor Ho Bynum’s innovative composition for improvising sextet, Navigation, both culminates and continues his fascination with the interfaces between the extemporaneous and the written, the scripted and the performative. Separate LP and compact disc versions of the work are paired with different fragments of text from poet Nathaniel Mackey’s experimental epistolary novel Bass Cathedral, a book that Ho Bynum has recently said, for him, is probably the best writing about music he has encountered. Earlier compositions by Bynum, such as his suite Madeleine Dreams, have not only used prose fiction as libretto, but more tellingly have striven to address sonically and structurally the complex and often fraught relationships between the musical and the diegetic, between sound and sense. Navigationtakes up Mackey’s own address to this interface, sounding what Mackey understands as creative discrepancy, an expressive troubling of formal and cultural boundaries. Name-checking both Sun Ra and Louis Armstrong, Mackey has noted what he calls a “play of parallel estrangements” in improvised music and in poetry, arguing that music “is prod and precedent for a recognition that the linguistic realm is also the realm of the orphan,” that is, of the limits of sense, a liminal zone of both orchestration and letting go. Ho Bynum’s recordings pick up not only on Mackey’s thorough enmeshment in jazz history, but also on his intention to pursue the expressive potential of language and of music at their textural boundaries, at moments of troubling contact between divergent worldviews, or between dissimilar social and cultural genetics. Composing using what Mackey calls m’apping – a portmanteau splice of mapping and mishap, pursuing what Mackey calls the “demiurgic rumble” of discrepancy, improvising across the gaps between careful craft and unruly noise – Ho Bynum conjures a hybrid and collaborative music that blends the complex Afrological heritages of jazz performance style (audible in Navigation’s network of gestures to Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington, to name only two key forebears) with graphic scoring techniques derived from Sylvano Bussotti or Wadada Leo Smith, among others. If improvised music, for Mackey, represents – and represents precisely – what defies descriptive capture in language, what eludes ekphrasis, then the music of Taylor Ho Bynum’s sextet aspires to invert that representational effort, to take up the discrepant aesthetic tactics of Mackey’s writing and to assess how the written (as graphē, as graphic score) can approach and test the expressive limits of making music happen. Taylor Ho Bynum’s compositions for improvisers offer exemplary instances of how to negotiate creatively the boundaries between text and sounding, and suggest a means of addressing, too, the graphic work of other composer-improvisers, including the work of Nicole Mitchell, Anthony Braxton and Barry Guy

Ex Tempore


A quick post ad hoc from my mobile to initiate things. One of the research streams from the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice research initiative is called “improvisation and pedagogy.” A symposium on music education was held at the University of Guelph a couple of weeks ago that affirms a general tendency in this research stream to focus on improvised music, particularly jazz, as a model for education, particularly around practice-based research. Other significant threads want to develop community, collective and even networked paradigms for learning and for knowledge-sharing around the kinds of work done by the AACM in Chicago beginning in the mid-1960s. (See George Lewis’s A Power Stronger Than Itself.) My own interests, particularly as a pedagogically-untrained academic, involve assessing and exploring the implications of using both musical and theatrical improvisational techniques in the classroom. What are the cultural politics and the ethics around importing such aesthetic practices into an educational setting? How can improvisation be theorized as a pedagogical practice? More to come.


Jayne Cortez passed away—went flying home—on December 28, 2012, so this small tribute comes a month or two late, but I did want to record publically my sincere admiration for and indebtedness to her poetry and her performances. There was a proper obit in The New York Times, and there have been many warm tributes, including one from critic Howard Mandel.

Karl Coulthard introducing Jayne Cortez
at the University of Guelph, September 2011
I met Jayne Cortez only once, and only recently, when she gave a keynote talk about her own work at the 2011 Guelph International Jazz Festival. She presented selected recordings she had made over the past 30 years with her band The Firespitters (whose revolving personnel often included her son, percussionist Denardo Coleman, as well as members of Ornette Coleman’s electric ensembles), and her comments focused on elaborating the chiasmic chant from the title piece of her recent Best of CD: “Find your own voice, and use it. / Use your own voice, and find it.” This sounds like advice for new performers – and it is certainly that – but the aspirational panacea of self-discovery these crossed lines offer is only part of their intention.
I have to admit that I am well trained to be suspicious of the expressive, and for better or for worse I incline toward an arch poetic technique that finds its touchstone in Martin Heidegger’s maxim, Die Sprache spricht: language speaks itself. Wimsatt and Beardsley’s affective and intentional fallacies are difficult beasts for me to shake. It can be perilous for a non-African-American like me to associate the expressive with racially marked text, and to implicitly divide it off from canonical, oblique, academically-mediated and difficult Poetry with a capital P; black identity, down that slippery slope, gathers in the emotive and the embodied, while technical linguistic prowess remains the provenance of a white cultural dominant – a racial bifurcation with which I’m not just uncomfortable but which also belies what most poetry, for me, wants to accomplish, to speak. I think George Lewis’s conceptof the Afrological – which he links principally to musical practices – is useful  to invoke here, in as much as it aims to foster dialogue (“Gittin’ to Know Y’All”) without necessarily enabling cultural or racial appropriation.
            My memory of Jayne Cortez isn’t so much her talk as of a conversation we had the next day, by chance. We were both staying at the same hotel in Guelph, and ended up riding in the same Red Car van to the Lester B. Pearson Airport in Toronto, to catch our flights home. The trip takes nearly an hour. Ms. Cortez remembered me being at her talk the previous day, and asked politely after my own poetry, which I’d read at the colloquium. We talked about emerging writers, and about her husband Melvin Edward’s sculptures, and I remember she praised William Parker’s generosity and musical vision. But most of all, what I recall is her tone and spirit; she talked with you, not to you. She, too, seemed generous and open; she smiled almost the whole time we talked. I admire her greatly that she would so happily and freely engage with somebody she’d just met and hardly knew. It was like she genuinely wanted to know about you and your inclinations, and to share hers. Respectful exchange, a crossing.
            One of my favourite pieces on her compilation CD is a duet with baritone saxophonist James Carter, an improvised blues (called “I Got the Blues,” recorded in 1994) involving, as her notes put it, “verbal call and response between the poet’s voice and the baritone saxophone sound.” Neither she nor Carter is hesitant or diffident; they know their voices. Cortez doesn’t offer any sort of phonemic sound-poetry, but sticks to the declarative, what she does best: an edgy, passionate, and fierce lyricism. Still, the piece is as much interchange as exchange; they listen and speak to – with – each other, and it is the alternately assertive and yielding textures of that conversation, as much as its content, that come to matter. Cortez says that writing a poem is a matter of getting your mouth on the paper, of expression finding its way over a page. But I think that the reverse might also be true: to find a way to sound out off the page, to make those marks speak—mouth to paper, paper to mouth. Jayne Cortez’s work, for me, offers a model of committed self-expression, a finding.