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George Lewis: Mobility Agenda

George Lewis
George Lewis

Reposing after an espresso at a sidewalk table on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive, George Lewis summarizes his strategy in evading what he calls the “culture police” for the past quarter-century:

“I ignore them!”

The trombonist/composer/interactive computer-software engineer/sound-installation designer/educator/scholar/historian then launches a joyous, throw-back-your-head, open-throated sonic boom of a laugh, lasting longer than seems humanly possible. Not only do the patrons at adjacent tables do a double take, but a passenger in a passing car, a bicyclist and a dog do as well.

By ignoring preconceptions of African-American creativity and intellectualism, of which the “if you’re black, then Lincoln Center is your boss” syndrome is but a recent wrinkle, Lewis has moved freely between IRCAM (the Parisian musical-acoustic research center house that Pierre Boulez built) and Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge; between his own music, which employs everything from complex “Pan-European” notation to asynchronous MIDI controllers, and colleagues’ projects, like the Steve Lacy quintet that helped kick off this year’s Vancouver Jazz Festival; and between his community building as professor of music in the University of California at San Diego’s (UCSD) critical studies/experimental practices program, and the more solitary pursuit of writing the forthcoming Power Stronger Than Itself: The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians for the University of Chicago Press.

“You have to ignore a lot of things to have the mobility required to be an experimental artist,” says Lewis, who established his own mobility immediately upon arrival on the international scene in 1976. In a span of months, he toured with the Count Basie Orchestra, joined Anthony Braxton’s fabled quartet and recorded th e recently reissued Solo Trombone Album for Sackville.

The Sackville CD is a fine starting point for mapping Lewis’ mobility, as it includes inspired takes on blues, jazz balladry and a crucial first step in integrating technology into his work: “Starburst,” a bracing, 20-minute composition, realized through overdubbing three complex parts.

Technology took on an increasing role in Lewis’ music, beginning with the electronic drones of late ’70s albums like Homage to Charles Parker (Black Saint), and continuing with his original interactive software on ’93’s Voyager (Avant), and the use of text samples on 2000’s Endless Shout (Tzadik). While this caused some culture-police agents to question his Great Black Music bona fides, Lewis’ immersion in technology nevertheless facilitated his transit into international computer music and electroacoustic circles rarely accessed by African-Americans. Other doors opened for Lewis through his early encounters with Derek Bailey, Misha Mengelberg and other principals of the European free-improvisation scene.

Subsequently, Lewis has flourished in musical areas once thought to be mutually exclusive, making mobility integral to his aesthetic. Mobility is perhaps the most important tool Lewis has used to galvanize UCSD, and the Left Coast as a whole. Just in the limited arena of recordings, Lewis’ mobility has contributed to one of the year’s more rewarding albums, The Shadowgraph Series: Compositions for Creative Orchestra (Spool).

The album fills in two glaring discographical gaps: It is the first recording devoted exclusively to Lewis’ orchestra music, and it contains first recordings of pieces from Lewis’ “Shadowgraph” series of composition from the ’70s; more importantly, it documents Lewis’ ongoing work with Vancouver’s NOW Orchestra, which Lewis considers to be “one of the finest large creative ensembles active in the last 20 years.” Throughout the bracing program, which ranges from pore-opening Latin grooves to ear-twisting realizations of graphic notation, the Vancouverites hand in strong individual contributions, confirming what Lewis calls their ability “to code switch, to work back and forth between the scores and their own improvisational approaches without getting stuck.”

Even though Lewis’ teaching, scholarship and participation in collaborative public-art installations are well under the radar of a recorded-media-driven press, they are arguably more essential to understanding Lewis at this juncture than even a likely year’s-best-list item like The Shadowgraph Series. As Lewis talks at length about specific multimedia aspects of his work, the underlying issues of all these activities are so finely meshed, that talking about one quickly brings them all into the mix. Additionally, regardless of his starting point, Lewis evokes the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) paradigm in short order. His erudite scholarly postulations and strategies for student empowerment flow directly from the AACM’s inclusive African-American perspective and its aversion to labels. Lewis cites early AACM events as a foundation for his cross-platform work with artists from other fields.

But Lewis’ articulation of a mobility agenda is ultimately born of his own diverse interests.

“A lot of this mobility talk comes out of scholarship, but the scholarship is related to life experience,” Lewis reflects. “Basically, I got involved in writing through being a professor at UCSD, and realizing that a lot of students coming through our interdisciplinary program, Critical Studies and Experimental Practices [CSEP], within the music department, really needed a field in which they could talk about their concerns. They are crossing so many boundaries-they come out of music, they’re open to collaboration, performance, composition, installation and technological work. They’re seriously confronting cultural issues of race, gender and so on. There didn’t seem to be a place within traditional music scholarship to address that.”

Lewis is dismayed that much of the scholarly literature on improvisation and related issues driving the work at CSEP is “written from a strict ethnomusicological perspective, which is so narrow.” Instead, Lewis employs a broader cultural approach in essays like “Too Many Notes: Computers, Complexity and Culture in Voyager” (Leonardo Music Journal 10; 2000), by citing visual artists like Africobra arts movement leader Jeff Donaldson, and against-the-grain scholars like anthropologist and improvising cellist Georgina Born, among others.

Lewis claims that the shortcoming of most of the current literature stems from the presumption “that you have to have a focus, which implies that all this interdisciplinary activity is not focused. What we’re focusing on is getting as large a handle on the situation as possible. And that’s a mobility issue. The real focus is accounting for as many different stories and perspectives as you can. What you run up against is what people in the AACM were responding to when they said they don’t like to be labeled. People want to be free to work in any media, work across media and to address the entire spectrum of creativity they are involved in. That’s why within the AACM you find computer music, performance art and various approaches that are outside a specific style. So, what do you do with that? What you start to find is that words like ‘tradition’ are very important, but when they are used for cultural policing, then mobility is reduced. That’s where we start thinking that we don’t have to pay attention to the cultural police.”

Lewis has repeatedly encountered many of these issues in writing Power Stronger Than Itself, reinforcing his conviction that the AACM “is the source of the mobility discourse. Nobody in the AACM really talked about what you should be doing,” says Lewis, who conducted nearly 100 interviews and pored over both the voluminous AACM archives and the Darmstadt Jazz Institute’s renowned collection of jazz periodicals. “There wasn’t any particular dogma. And, even if someone tried to impose a litmus test, they would be in dialogue with people who felt free to ignore them. As a composite unit, there was no way to impose a unitary style or ideology in the AACM. This was encapsulated by a comment by Joseph Jarman, who was confronted with a comparison between the AACM and Sun Ra’s Arkestra: In Sun Ra’s group, Sun Ra can say and do, but in the AACM, everyone can say and do. When you take that approach into the academic environment, I see it as my responsibility to make sure that the students have mobility.”

Mobility is not instantaneously attained, Lewis cautions. It requires carefully laid foundations, the first being the atmosphere that promotes mobility. “One of the things you hear about on the tapes of the early AACM meetings is the creation of atmosphere,” Lewis relates. “That’s a critical issue you see right in their development of purposes in their first meeting on May 8, 1965. You can see the sensibility of the organization, and how important the notion of atmosphere was to them, an atmosphere in which people would be nurtured to do what they want, rather than develop a course in which they learned a specific set of principles which they would then regurgitate throughout the remainder of their creative lives. Instead, they asked, ‘What is it that you want to do?’ which is essentially what we asked students in the CSEP program. That’s a question that may take someone a couple of years to answer. They do figure it out because the environment makes them think for themselves. The AACM had very subtle ways to make you develop your own ideas and dialogue with others about theirs. So, it’s about creating individuality within an academic situation.”

The other prerequisite is diversity-Lewis tends to use the word “heterogeneity.”

Lewis contends that heterogeneity is “a central part of a mobility agenda. As a student of mine pointed out in a really great paper, heterogeneity is at play even within Pan-Africanism. He uses the collaboration between Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo as an example of the heterogeneity within African Diaspora musical practices. Accepting this heterogeneity means that you’re not really worried that someone is different than you. That’s strength. You exploit the strength that comes from artistic differences. Dealing with difference is really the critical issue. Dealing with differences is essentially dealing with a community, another important AACM agenda item.”

Encountering heterogeneity is “why I find public-art installations so stimulating,” Lewis says. “I was recently part of a group of artists, including Quincy Troupe, who descended upon the San Diego Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant. Sewage, right? It’s an industrial plant that’s on the beach, so there’s seals and seagulls and beautiful skies and the ocean surrounding this plant that processes the whole city’s sewage, 24 hours a day. There’s a landscape architect, a poet, a painter and we’re all trying to figure out how to deal with the plant. My contribution took the metaphor of the information kiosk to create an interactive, multiscreen, video/sound installation. You sit on a low stool in front of three video screens and a set of speakers and do a virtual tour of the plant that places you at times in an intimate, but not too intimate, connection with waste. People can wave their hands back and forth and hear some of Quincy Troupe’s epic poem about Point Loma, the nature of sewage and where it all goes; you also hear water images from the poetry of Basho and Joyce, some of my old pieces, samples of sea gulls, Anthony Braxton’s contrabass clarinet and the old record Yankees that I did with Derek Bailey and John Zorn.

“You can really use this type of piece to engage the public,” Lewis says. “It’s the first thing visitors see on the daily tour of the plant. At the same time, it’s not one of those pie chart touch screens showing liters of doo-doo per hour. If you’re talking about mobility, you’re also talking about the work being received in different spheres, too. People can get interested in this type of work without knowing or caring that I play the trombone. The bigger issue, then, is to bring all these people together in an intervention situation, to make people think about the environment, and at the same time, present a complex view of the plan as a human organism, as a cow with multiple stomachs, by a group of people who view themselves as the thin blue line. The reality is that if something serious breaks down there, it’s backing up in your bathroom within hours.

“I’m becoming more of an event maker than a composer,” Lewis emphasizes. “Some of the projects involve me performing, some of them don’t. In the traditional composing arena, I’m working with people trained in Pan-European, high-culture music techniques who play very complex music but don’t really improvise. Coming from an African-American perspective, I’m looking to take that perspective into arenas where [it is] generally absent, but that doesn’t mean I’m trying to get classical musicians to swing; it’s more about getting what you want to happen through notation. I also try to engage hip-hop culture and connect that dot with a lot of others, like electronica and ambient. And, this isn’t something new, when you think of those early records with Douglas Ewart on Black Saint, where we had long electronic drones. Now that’s called ‘nubient.’ Wow. But the people doing this now-I really like what Graham Haynes is doing for a number of reasons-have the same mobility problem I had then, of someone trying to be policed and told they shouldn’t be doing it. The cultural police should be ignored; not ignored in the sense that you don’t know what they are about, but in terms of developing creative strategies to get around it or break it up and smash it. I can’t smash it. All I can do is have the work-whether it’s performance, composition, installation, scholarship-articulate that goal. If you can smash it, great; it will help us all out.”

With that, Lewis laughs boisterously.

Listening Pleasures

John Coltrane “Naima” from Live at the Village Vanguard Again! (Impulse!)

Steve Coleman Genesis & the Opening of the Way (RCA)

Greg Osby Banned in New York (Blue Note)

Jon Jang/Jiebing Chen/Max Roach Beijing Trio (Asian Improv)

Sam Rivers Rivbea All-Star Orchestra Inspiration and Culmination (RCA)

Roscoe Mitchell The Flow of Things (Black Saint)


George Lewis uses an open wrap Bach 42G with either a Schilke 53 or a Bach 4G mouthpiece. His computers of choice are Macintosh G4s and iMACs. He uses Finale scoring software and Microsoft Word.

Originally Published