Exit Music I
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #372, 20 July 2002. Damian on the road in Hanover NH at Dartmouth College, also with guest co-host Eric Lyon. Listen to the interview (RealAudio) from the original broadcast [13:40–1:52:17].
George Lewis’s homepage on the Columbia University website: http://music.columbia.edu/people/bios/user/glewis
Following an introduction by Kalvos & Damian, we listen to Airplane by George Lewis [17:40–27:50]. More information about a workshop on improvisation attended by Damian then precedes the interview, which commences at 31:07.
[Damian] This is Kalvos & Damian on the road at the prestigious Dartmouth College. We are talking to George Lewis, who is an extraordinary trombonist and improviser.
[Eric Lyon] There is one thing that was really striking me, during the almost three hours of the improvisation workshop that you gave. It was compelling for me as an audience member, but it was obviously much more compelling for the people who were participating in it. I was also thinking, certainly knowing about our undergraduates — there were some people from Dartmouth College and then also from Goddard — that what was happening there was both something that very much value that happens both in music-making and in teaching. It really seemed to me like you were giving them an experience that they’d never had before. Or really intensely focussing them, in a way that — you know maybe they had played together before but hadn’t thought about it, and as the class went on and people were playing it really seemed to accumulate in terms of the sensitivity with which people were relating to each other. But the thing that really struck me most about that — besides the fact that it was completely successful — was that it seemed to be extremely deliberate. It seemed to me like you were a master teacher, you knew exactly what you were doing and that was really inspiring for me to watch.
[D] Before George remarks to that I should just say that it started off with George assigning three-minute or four-minute solos to any one of eleven or twelve instrumentalists. I don’t know if they were anticipating that, they were on the spot and each one came through in a different form. He started with the percussionist and it was persona coming out, in a way, and it worked. I thought it was really very interesting the way each person responded to what you asked them to do.
[George Lewis] Well, it’s kind of like the beginning of the standard 210-B class, which was written about in that Arcana article which I wrote for John Zorn’s book, the edited volume. That was kind of like 201-B, first day, we find out who people are. What it comes down to, is what you have with this improvised music — despite all the attempts to corral it into this or that ethnically-bound tradition — is a sort of world-wide network of people who are bringing completely different histories to the table. Any kind of method of teaching so-called Free Improvisation has to recognize that first of all, one thing that you are not free of is the histories of the people involved; you’ve got to account for that. So you have to account for it not by insisting that everyone buy into a particular ideology that comes from I don’t know where, wherever it should come from, you see all kinds of different examples of where people think the dominant way of thinking should come. Rather than that, as I told them in the meeting, I can ask you your name and where you come from, and what your musical experiences have been, but if you start playing I’ll hear that anyway. So they just start playing and then we’ll hear it and then we’ll put things on the table and if I can be helpful, I’ll try to be helpful. But I’ll try to be helpful without saying “Do more of this, do lots of that,” you know, your own personal prescriptions how to fix their music. I think more in the sense of asking them to consider certain issues, and maybe reference points to musics they probably haven’t heard (because you can hear that too), I didn’t think it was a big stretch to ask the Gagaku question, because you could kind of hear that.
Basically you start to find that a lot of pedagogies tend to de-authorize people from different experiences, and your job is to re-authorize that experience. That’s what happens in the class and that’s what I will work on for a number of years, in terms of improvisation. The long, rambling preamble about the social issues was designed to initiate people into the possibility that improvising might mean more than just personal expression, it might mean more than just “being yourself” and being “free”. There are lots of meanings in play, and so to give them an idea what some of those meanings might be, you have to press upon them that the play of meanings can have very direct consequences for how they live in a creative world.
[D] I thought it was important that you told them right off, as you said, improvisation is not a heroic act performed by supermusicians, it’s just an indication of someone’s everyday life, how they might be communicating, and it’s just an expression of that and a continuation of that, and I thought that was really accurate, too.
[GL] I hope it’s accurate, it’s certainly not how I was brought up, but I sort of came to that understanding. And I came to that understanding in a funny way. I read the book Chambers, which is Douglas Simon and Alvin Lucier having a chat and they’re talking about this piece Vespers, which I’ve always thought was great, and it was very important piece for me and my upbringing in music. I came across it and then I read the book and I read all this stuff from Alvin about how it was not about improvisation. He gave an example of people who thought that it was, which was a group of (I guess) conservatory students in some country that started playing stupid little figures with little sonar dolphins which you use to play the piece and ignored the task of echo location. But the task of echo location itself was the real improvisation. The misconception about what improvisation was shared by both Alvin and the students he was criticizing. That is that there was some notion of personal egoistic expression involved necessarily in doing this sort of thing, in doing improvised music. On the one hand, they were being criticized for doing something and it all seemed to come from a dominant culture that had a particular view of improvisation which was not shared by their culture, or certainly not the one I came up in. But as I encountered this other canonical conventional wisdom, coming from let’s say so-called classical music about improvisation, I began to see that a lot of those boundaries that were being set up compo-improv were only meaningful in that world, they weren’t meaningful in other worlds. Certainly not in the world of the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians]. In the AACM it seemed that people were looking for hybrid strategies that combined, re-contextualised, collaged and also made ironic both of these so-called important strains of music-making.
Ultimately, after several years of doing this I had a nice conversation with Alvin and said “Look, I have a new theory about your piece.” [Laughter] My theory is that actually Vespers is the purest form of improvisation, because it at once eschews the heroic aspect of it — which I’m sure you all were against at the time, being of a later generation than me, about 20 years older — and at the same time puts people in a space where they have nothing else to do but listen and respond to conditions, and to be aware, and to think and to discover, which is really all that I can see as being the important part of improvisation, is the part that we relate to in everyday life. Then you start to see that there are other everyday life texts that are important. For example, Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is a book about improvisation. Another interesting book about improvisation is the basketball coach Phil Jackson’s book Sacred Hoops, which is basically based on the Tex Winter book, Triple Post Offense, which is about the triangle office in basketball, which is a setup for improvisation that depends upon awareness and notions of relative positioning and so on. It calls upon you to respond to conditions and to be aware and to work with other people and to think about notions of collectivity. There are lots of other books but those are just two examples from outside of the nominal field. It might be that the study of improvisation is still in its infancy in many ways. I think that a lot of getting this field of study to grow up is to free it from a lot of the ideologies that have bound it up, these tendentiously posed and ethnic particularisms, or culture nationalisms of different kinds. Just sort of get rid of that while at the same time recognizing that people are going to bring their own national and personal histories to the space and you let those come in. You don’t say “Well, ok, we can have everything in here except Swing.” [Laughter] You don’t need to say that, you don’t need to define these others in order to legitimize yourself, you can have everybody to be another or have everyone be somehow who they are, and multiple identities and shifting identities and cross-identities can get created during the improvisation.
We listen to Bridges by George Lewis, text written and performed by Jerome Rotherberg, speaker [42:48–46:52]. Published on Changing With the Times, New World Records [CD 80434-2].
[EL] Given that view of improvisation as essentially one of increased awareness and interpersonal sensitivity, what is your view of the role of recording, documentation of it? Both the desire for improvisers to make documents and the desire of other listeners — who are sometimes the same people — to listen to these things afterwards. What is your view of the role of it as a sort of system of thinking about the music?
[GL] I kind of look at it as people listen and they get ideas, and they take pleasure in listening. I mean, that seems like enough. [Laughter] People are making these things also because — I mean I’m talking about the stuff I do when making the recordings — I think that there are people in the world who have need for these recordings. Just as with any music, people are deploying these recordings as part of their identity kit. So it’s who they are, it has something to do with what they are listening to. And they fold those sounds in their definition of themselves into their idea about the communities with which they are in dialogue, in which they are situated. Also, people like listening, so it’s kind of pleasure for them; I like listening to these things too. But there’s something else behind the question, and I don’t quite get it.
[EL] What I’m trying to get at is, is there an element of professionalism that’s projected through recordings that’s very different than the sense that you were projecting in your master class as this being something that people should be encouraged to embrace as part of their lives?
[GL] I don’t see how recordings are different from that, can you explain it to me?
[EL] If a recording is presented as being put out by this authority, requiring special rooms and equipment, distribution and things like that, the person who is able to put this recording out might be somewhat different, there might be some space between that and somebody who would just be maybe an amateur, or consider themselves that way.
[GL] Most people are putting out their own recordings these days, anyone can do it. If you happen to get a big company to put your stuff out — not many people do — good for you. And if that company or you decide to trade upon an identity of being a heroic Super-musician, well we’ve all seen it in all fields of music, it seems to me. People do it for you even if you don’t want to do it; you might find yourself being lionized even if you don’t want to. The same moment that Jerry Garcia speaks on the Derek Bailey [and] Jeremy Marr film on improvisation about it being an anti-authoritarian activity there are thousands of fans that are only to happy to accord him the status of Super-musician. These things kind of co-exist and the model-modal way of dealing with it really doesn’t account for all the complexity of how these things are regarded.
From my standpoint, I think recordings encourage people to create community. Some recordings are liked better than others… There is a whole super-structure outside of our personal lives which we have to deal with as part of the dialogue. There are these magazines like The Wire, Signal To Noise, that look at this music and people who are doing it as part of their professional lives, and I don’t see the incompatibility between the professional life and the notion of responding to conditions of… professional life might be a part of the conditions in which you are responding. Certainly these magazines — which have their particular policies towards what they find important and who they denigrate — are part of the conditions of the space. I think that it is hard to ignore that.
I don’t think that anything that I was saying leads us to a pastoral period in which we ignore conditions under which people live and grow. I thought you were talking about another thing — that had been settled — about how the recording of the thing is somehow really a distortion of the immediacy of the moment.
[EL] Oh no…
[GL] No, you weren’t dealing with that, right, because it didn’t seem like that was a very fruitful line of questioning…
[D] It’s at least instructive to hear what happens at that particular moment as a documentation.
[GL] Yeah, and then the documentation takes on a life of its own. Ultimately, some recordings I have listened to so much that they may have been documentation of a particular moment but at the same time, I can’t hear them any other way because I wasn’t there… or oddly, I might have been there and heard it differently because of having been there and then hearing the recorded version — sometimes at a very long remove. For example, recordings come out several years after you did the concert or whatever it was. I was in the peculiar position of listening to a recording of a duo with Anthony Braxton that was from Donaueschingen. We were listening to this thing and then all of a sudden … it came out in ’94 and we made it in ’76, so this was quite a long gap here! I hadn’t had any contact with this tape, this was my first time hearing it. I’m listening to it and all of a sudden, I’m thinking, “Wow, I know what’s going to happen here,” talk about déjà-vu experiences! It was like you knew what was going to happen… and it happened. It was scary, does this mean that everything we’ve ever played is imprinted in our little brains, and all it takes is some sort of post-hypnotic suggestion to bring it to the surface? And this music was actually making me into a version of the Manchurian Candidate? It was very weird! [Laughter] Anyway, I guess recording is a very complex subject.
[D] Earlier you had mentioned the AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). Can you tell us a little bit about that and how did you get into that?
[GL] The AACM started in 1965. I’m trying to finish my book on it, so it means that at this point I look at it much more carefully than I did at the time that I joined, in ’71. I’ve started to reflect upon what it’s done. They taped their early meetings, I think that there was some idea about the paperless office and they wouldn’t have to have paper minutes because they had these tapes. As a result, they found out that you couldn’t tell who was on the tape unless people were told to say their name before they were on the tape. So the tapes are very detailed, we sort of know who said what… And it’s a wonderful thing, because you start to see how the thought processes evolved, and you start to see how differently these musicians were actually behaving from the way they were said to behave in various reports about the AACM. And what their goals were very different than what they said their goals were. Normally it’s said that their goals were the revision or promotion of Free Jazz or something like that, and as far as I can tell — I’ve listened to hours and hours of tape — the word “jazz” hardly appears. You also start to see that is was a group of avant-garde people but in fact there were people from all kinds of music that were represented at the beginning of it. They just tried to bring together a lot of musicians to think about issues related to how they could create an environment, create atmosphere…
You have to remember that what’s happening in 1965, ’64 ’63, there were bombings of churches, we’re just coming out of McCarthyism, the Vietnam War is getting started, there are riots in various American cities, there is massive discrimination against African-Americans, there has been a huge history of exploitation in the music business — particularly with Black Music — and so these musicians are responding to this. They’re seeing that as the communities are deteriorating, as the work opportunities for musicians are diminishing — particularly for African-American musicians… And also people who were interested in methodological mobility were being shunted off into these single environments, in other words, the propaganda about the jazz club as being the ideal spot for all black musicians and you see it today, in let’s say in the Wynton Marsalis thing, where Wynton Marsalis is supposed to be a Classical musician — and a Jazz musician — but he has nothing to say about Classical music at all. He doesn’t have an opinion about the future of it or what Classical musicians should be doing or anything, but he has a lot to say about black musicians. So black people were supposed to be Jazz and someone who doesn’t end-run around him, someone who helped let’s say Ornette Coleman do an end-run-around, such as the St. John [Roppo?], pays the price for that.
So, what I’m saying is that in that atmosphere of extreme channelling, people have to take on the idea of doing things for themselves. They present their own concerts, they do their own publicity, they organize the spaces, in other words creating an environment that would allow them to present their music in the way that they thought it should be presented, and that seemed to be what it was generally about. They didn’t seem to make any ideological… there was no litmus test about genre or style, they had people from all over. A lot of them you know, they were part of Sun Ra’s band or they played in Earth, Wind and Fire or they played with Eddie Harris on Exodus [In Jazz], it was very diverse! You start to see that after a while, the people that started what would become what we know as the AACM today developed a kind of more or less black experimentalism, but it was always in touch with other kinds of experimentalisms, you start to see that people were open to… The AACM ended up in the late 70s problematizing the all-white notion of American experimentalism and did it really by challenging the core notions of venues and infrastructure that informed that field. That is to say… if you’re looking at a composite notion of American experimentalism you can’t leave out Charlie Parker, it’s ridiculous. But virtually all the press reception, all the critical literature up until recently sort of looks at it in this way. There is this implicit racialization of the space in which really race disappears because it’s made to disappear. Usually when you read a book like, let’s say New Directions in Music, if they talk about black people at all they’re usually all on the same page. [Laughter] You can check that out if you want, but there’s lots of examples.
The people in the AACM were aware of these things, they were very savvy about the media, they wanted to make reform in a very wide-ranging way. I think that was really what it was about. Once you started thinking about challenging the ways in which music is transmitted and received, challenging notions about reception, challenging notions about method — what kinds of things are you allowed or authorized to do — and challenging the notion that black musicians should be channelled into this or that area, that becomes very important. And it wasn’t just one person, it wasn’t only one person; a lot of it centres upon the importance of Anthony Braxton but it was a general challenge and I think you can find it across the board: Roscoe Mitchell, Walter [Dateman?], Henry Threadgill, The Art Ensemble [of Chicago] people, Joseph Jarman… I’m just thinking of people off the top of my head but it’s a very long list of people who made their own challenge to these things. So the challenge continues because the need for it continues.
We listen to The Lion’s Sin by George Lewis, performed by Miya Masaoka, koto [1:00:42–1:04:45]. Published on The Usual Turmoil, Music and Arts [CD 1023].
[GL] So, you asked me what it was about, and that’s kind of intellectual, now you ask me how I got into it. Well, you know, I met those people by accident. I knew about it, but I didn’t know much. They were rehearsing near my house.
[D] Where was this?
[GL] South side of Chicago, you know, that’s the black community. The AACM came out of the black community, everyone who started it was a working class person, from basically the poorer, or poorest, stratum of society. There were no Yalees, none of that, no visitors to fancy music camps, no Philharmonic tickets. So, basically, people came from the black working class. The black working class in Chicago was confined to a Bantustan of a few miles in circumference, a few square miles area, and everything happened there. If you were Black, that’s where you lived, period. And that was still going on when I met them in the 70s. Chicago being one of the cities which is even now called hyper-segregated by the sociologists. So I just passed by and I saw a bunch of people playing and I went in and said “Well, hey can I play with you guys,” and they said “No,” [Laughter] but then they said “No, we’re kidding you can play.” They invited me to play and that was it, I kept getting invited to play.
Then they invited me into the school, which was a school for the production of composers — the sort of thing you saw today in the class on improvisation, they had never had that. They had classes in composition every Saturday at 9 a.m., you had to go. You had Muhal Richard Abrams or Wallace McMillan or somebody. Everyone started the same way. You started with this musical composition method which Muhal had derived from Joseph Schillinger, which seemed to be useful for a lot of people: Earle Brown, B.B. King, who else used it? Someone told me that Glen Miller had courses with Schillinger. And the guy, who was it, [Charles Depney?] who did all those doo-wop things? He was a Schillinger guy. So, it was very diverse and seemed to be non-denominational.
You would learn something abstracted from that, like a cantus firmus, and your first assignment was to go and make a composition out of that. And you would do that and you would keep making more and more complex compositions and they would show you more about things, and then there were people who would play your music or there were people who would play it themselves. As I found out from my research, they had been planning that for years, and the plan had always been to create composers. What Muhal’s idea of the organization was, and the others that started it — [Philip Corran?] who played in Sun Ra’s band until ’61, Steve McCall, drummer and [Jeremy Christian?], pianist — was: “We need to have an organization to get people to write original compositions. That’s what we want people to do, and that’s what we want to do. If we’re going to have a school to do that, we’re going to need to train some people to become teachers,” and so they did that. Every Saturday we would have these classes for members of the organization and they trained them to teach, and then in ’68 they started the school. In ’71… I think that was the best music school I ever went to.
Anyways, that’s long-winded but that’s basically it. My association with it is on-going. There have been generations of people there at the AACM, so at this point, 2002, three years away from 40 years of it, the youngest people in it are in their 20s. You have people like Jeff Parker, the guy that plays in Tortoise and Isotope 217, there are those kinds of people in there, they’re sort of the younger group, 28 or 29. And then there are people in their 70s like Muhal, Fred Anderson and Ajaramu. And then there is the kind of people like me, who are approaching 50. Generational shift is an important issue which we probably shouldn’t talk about too much. But any time you have an institution that’s grass-roots, self-generated, lasts as long as the AACM, you’re going to have different notions of what that means based on who comes, and when generations shift. We’ve had to deal with that as an on-going thing. Writing this book has been fascinating, because you start to see is that, first of all, the organization had this huge international impact, it was amazing for a group of people who had started from zero and had no money and were charging a dollar a week for dues, and a lot of people couldn’t pay that. There wasn’t anybody who came by to start all tomorrow’s parties. It’s amazing, isn’t it? Guys with that kind of money coming into the music scene, it’s like Wal-Mart showing up in your local community. [Laughter] I love it, you start to see extreme under-capitalization of the range of capitalization possibilities. I wanted to go in that line of reasoning but I probably shouldn’t, you guys can talk about something else.
[D] One of the people in the class today I thought asked an interesting question. He asked if you encountered the same sort of improvisational blocks or ideas when you do classes in different parts of the country.
[GL] He was saying “When improvisers get together, do you encounter different patterns?” The answer to that was “yes,” and the question is well, why was that a bad thing? There is a discourse which holds that improvisation is nothing more than the repetition of pre-stored patterns. It’s funny, there are these interesting cognitive scientists, [like] Philip Johnson Laird who talks about that, he calls that the “Motif Theory.” And you sort of trace that, different people have brought the Motif Theory, it’s just a bunch of things you stream together, they’re kind of all pre-stored, and so-on. This guy’s point was “Well, somebody has to invent those motifs so that they can be repeated.” At a certain point he is trying to deal with the notion of originality there. But beyond that — I guess I don’t remember how I responded but I’m going to respond again and it’s probably going to be the same — patterns are kind of how you recognize people. Everyone has a peculiar signature, and this is how you know that it’s you and not somebody else. Years of knowing particular people, and they act in certain ways, and unless our loved ones find it annoying, we’re not called upon to transcend that in every moment. People say “It’s your strength and it’s your weakness,” whatever the thing is you’re coming up with; some characteristic of your life is either your strength or your weakness. In that sense, it’s both, of course. People are trying to strive to exceed what they have done in the past, to try something different, to move beyond what they know… because they know their personalities very well, these improvisers, they’ve been familiar with them for a long time, they spend a lot of time reflecting on their methods. And they hear when they’re falling back on things, and every creative artist, musician hears that — regardless of method — hears that and tries to go beyond. It’s something that you work with, and it’s at once a part of your personality and it’s also something you have to try to go beyond and expand, and I think that’s the way people look at it. I think I gave the example where there are similar motives in three different pieces of Stravinsky: you got Firebird, you got Petruschku you got the Rite of Spring, and you see the same motive in all of them. It’s not the Hauptmotif, but when you hear it in all three, that’s part of what it means to be Stravinsky, you hear this thing at this time, later he changes and does something else. But the ideas is that every piece is not totally new, there are histories involved and the history of the individual is very important and people do bring their histories into the space, and it has to be reckoned with, and any creative artist is going to do this. At the same time, they don’t want to be bound by that history.
That’s a question you hear a lot, but he was asking it from a different vantage point, he wanted to know, “Could we have a pattern, please?” [Laughter] “Because I don’t hear any patterns in this music.” But I guess I was trying to point out that maybe he should listen harder. And secondly, that the patterns that are produced will be partially things that you need to survive, part of the definition of who you are, which you are constantly trying, in a sense, to problematize, because you don’t want to fix yourself.
[EL] Well, you did discuss a couple of clichés — unreflected ones — and that was the only part where I remember explicit intervention, a murmur into it as possibly indicating fear of coming out with some kind of statement…
[D] The artefact of fear.
[EL] Yeah, and the idea of an overall form where you just kind of graaaaadually work your way up and then you build to a big climax and then I think you said…
[GL] It falls off. Boom.
[EL] Yeah, and then said “Well maybe there are some other ways for things to happen.” At a different point, where another student was complaining about lack of structure in some of his other experiences, you made the interesting point that these structures are emergent. I think what was interesting to me, especially as a kind of a musical activity that involves the collaboration of many people all at the same time, is that that structure now emerges from the group rather than one person imposing it. And in fact your going out of your way saying “Don’t feel that you have to be the one person who’s going to give all the rest of us structure,” I thought that was really interesting and nice.
We listen to Unison, 3rd movement of Signifying Riffs by George Lewis, performed by Meridian String Quartet [1:17:15–1:25:50]. Interview resumes at 1:30:22.
[GL] That’s a kind of a Voyager point of view. I’ve always wanted to have this kind of massively multichannel computer music piece ever since I talked to Joel Ryan. He was talking about having different rhythms going on at the same time, and they didn’t have to be really metrically together, they could be in their own space. At a certain point, structure emerges from a lot of little parts that come together. A lot of pieces that are made in the mid-70s — the Shadow Graph series, especially number 5 — are based in versions of Voyager for instruments. It’s kind of funny, usually you try it in reverse, you try out the thing with computers first and then you try it out with people. but in my case, since there was no money to buy a computer, you try it out with people first [laughter] and then the ideas about emergence come out and computer programmes that improvise, so to speak, and create these structures. And these structures tend to emerge from the interaction itself.
Computer music was what really prompted me to think introspectively about improvisation, because I had to answer all the questions about what do you get out of playing with computer that’s different than playing with a person, in a pejorative way, or why is what’s coming out of the computer better than playing with a person, you have to go through all that. What putting that piece out there encourages is a kind of a critical attitude toward improvisation. An attitude of investigation, an attitude of critique and a notion that you’re trying to discover what you can say about the process of improvisation. The computer domain of course doesn’t exhaust all the possibilities, but I tend to make pieces in order to talk about something else. If someone says, “Well you can make another piece,” but that’s not just making a new set of sounds, it means making a new set of things that are important enough to discuss. In terms of doing composed music (which I do a lot of these days), there always has to be some other text there; it’s not a spoken text, but it is there, it is the reason for doing the piece. For me, the reason has to be an encounter with some kind of issue where I’m trying to explore that issue through the medium of sound. In the case of the computer music pieces it’s through the medium of interaction in some way.
So that leads me into all kinds of areas where you start to see the interaction in improvisation — the interactivity in improvisation, the kind of activity that we hear about today, let’s say the so-called cyber-arts in improvisation — interactivity tends to become a kind of ex-nominated term for improvisation. That is to say we talk about interactivity, we talk about mutable identities, we talk about people making encounters. The word “improvisation” never appears, but what is being described is improvisation. It’s similar to how Sterling Stuckey looked at Moby Dick or Dickens’ American Story as a description of how black people make music that sound like the way people describe Jazz now, so there’s a proto-notion of Jazz. Similarly, in the discourse of interactivity there does seem to be an unnamed notion of improvisation that’s embedded in the discourse. I guess my theory about the reason why it doesn’t come out, and that we just can’t say “well, we’re improvising here,” that there is improvisation in there, is that there has been the notion in certain cultures, including the ones that dominated in the production of these cyber-discourses, that improvisation is somehow either not being talked about or is in some way problematic, to the extent to which those discourses borrow from other discourses coming from the dominant cultures that deal with the arts and music… they’re going to borrow also the looking askance at improvisation.
I guess one of the things I wanted to do is to turn back that discourse a little bit back towards the encounter with improvisation as part of what it means to study interactivity and to see what that would produce. I’m just starting with that, it’s a new experiment with discourse. Maybe it’s going to a different place in that field, but since you made a statement rather than a question, I felt I could move ahead and talk about another issue of concern.
[EL] There are a couple of things that came up. I’m wondering, specifically in the cyber arts world or that way of looking at things, if the resistance to the term “improvisation” is because it’s perceived primarily as a human activity, whereas they may be more interested in focussing on something that has a machine aspect to it and may be interested in either an inhuman or post-human kind of discourse.
[GL] I guess in terms of my work, I don’t see… I mean if we’re talking about a post-human notion of identity, I don’t see where improvisation is excluded from that, I think my work with computers tends to make that plain. [General laughter] You know, we’re back to the heroic when we bring that back in. A lot of the pieces that I see tend to be very concerned with humanity. Their virtual reality seems to point back to the notion of body and how the body could be reconfigured — all the talk of cyborgs — and integration of people and machines in some way, the problematization of the divide. So, if all of a sudden we’re going to insist on this unified, autonomous notion of what it means to be human, there’s kind of an intellectual problem there, I think. I wouldn’t want to base the move to not discuss improvisation there, because now it seems to be incompatible with the questioning of an autonomous notion of unified subjectivity. I don’t think that’s what’s being claimed. I think the issue lies somewhere else. I would say more that the absence of certain discourses, the absence of certain cultural nationalisms from the discourse, leads me to the perception that there really aren’t a lot of people working in the area who really have improvisation as a background. So in a sense they’re unable to discuss it. That points to a certain limitation in the scope of the discussion. And so I guess that what happens is as your field becomes more multicultural, so to speak, other discourses come into play that didn’t come into play before. You start to find that a lot of the art pieces that come out, a lot of the theoretical and critical discourses tends to lock out certain definitions of humanity or certain cultures, or tend not to regard them, or tend to take on a certain universalizing tone.
I think that in terms of New Media, it has the same problem as contemporary music in theorizing race. They’re better at theorizing gender [than race], I think, although that’s sort of poor. In contemporary music there is a refusal to theorize race, and I think in New Media there is a hope that we won’t have to do it anytime soon.
[EL] I’d like to bring up one other point that came up. It seems to me that Voyager itself is maybe a special case, — maybe not — in being able to be clearly an improvisation but also, as you say, there’s no way you could exclude it from the whole world of cyber. But on the other hand, there is another element too, which is what seems to me to make it a really successful piece: the aspect of mysterious.
[GL laughter] Is it really mysterious?
[EL] Well, I mean not just last night, but this is something that strangely enough, my counterpoint class we found a lot to talk about that seemed related to Fuxian 16th-century style counterpoint. One thing that a number of the students brought up immediately was “How did that happen?” and “Were these behaviours programmed in?” and when I said “No, in fact, they’re not,” their jaws dropped.
[GL] Especially when I played that very romantic 19th-century cadenza, which I…
[EL] Which you didn’t understand.
[GL] Well, I understood it, I mean I can tell you how it came up, but I didn’t expect it to. I didn’t see it as being out of the realm of possibilities. Not because I programmed it, but because I’ve had the experience of performing with it.
[EL] The other part of it is, it seems to me that maybe if there was one thing that separates people from machines, it’s just that mysterious element, where you think you know somebody and then they just do something that you would never have expected, that is maybe even impossible to trace somehow, that there’s some quantum element… and to be able to get that into the piece, into the programme, seems to me to be a remarkably successful work of modelling.
[GL] I don’t know if it’s modelling, it probably is, but let me give an alternative idea. Voyager looks kind of tiny because I designed it to be tiny because I don’t get a lot of help. So basically, an extremely complex thing that fits in a very small space. People ask me to send the source code and I don’t like sending it out, because first of all, it’s 180 pages. Secondly, it’s written in this very arcane language, Forth. The other thing about it is that there are just lots of little bits in it. What ends up happening is that there is a certain amount of mystery there but it’s sufficiently complicated, or complex, so that it develops a personality. And the personality has a lot of facets, including some facets that I don’t hear very often, but which are possible. [Laughter] You could create them manually if you could turn off all the things that prevent you from controlling it… if you could find all of them, and it takes awhile to find all of them. But there is no central switch where you can just turn off all the automatic or autonomic functions, they’re all embedded everywhere in the piece. It’s possibly bad coding on my part as a computer programmer. But the bad coding, that’s another area. I’ll say this: once something gets sufficiently complicated, what becomes predictable is not the sounds it makes, but the context in which it makes them. What becomes predictable are notions of timing; I feel that if I’m playing with it — not because I programmed it, but because I’ve played with it — I sort of know when certain things are going to happen, or when it’s going to make certain kinds of changes, or if it’s preparing to do something. I have a good sense of that, and that’s something that I think I share with a lot of people that I play with.
The other thing about Voyager is that’s it’s complicated enough to be autonomous, in the sense that there is no need for me to be there for it to make music.
We listen to Voyager for Seven by George Lewis [1:44:52–1:52:17]. Published on Audiology: Total Music Meeting 2001, Free Music Production [CD ALL002].
[The very last bit of the interview is absent due to technical difficulties.]
Transcription by shirling & neueweise, January 2009.