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.