In conversation with george lewis, pt. 2
By Ted Panken
Jazz .com's Ted Panken sat down this past summer for two extended interviews with composer/trombonist/scholar George Lewis. Their conversations centered around Lewis' 2008 book, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music [University of Chicago Press], the history of the AACM, and Lewis own work in the areas of jazz and experimental musics. This is Part 2 of the two-part article. For Part 1, click here.
Another narrative strand in the book is the notion of overcoming strictures of race in a very specific way.
Well, there is a reason why the book was subtitled, The AACM and American Experimental Music. American experimental music, historiographically, is white. That means that we are looking at a large number of scholars, journalists, producers, who have been instrumental in constructing this whiteness-based discourse network that, if you come into it and youíre not white, you have an issue with. Somehow, that network, which is implicitly race-imbued, had to be changed, extended, destroyed, transformed. Race doesnít come up as a factor until you test the limits. Then, when you test the limits, you are often accused of injecting race into it, when, in fact, the racial consensus is already present. But to make it explicit seems to be the fate of artists of color. The problem there is that the process in itself is anti-dynamic. Somehow, you have to be the one who brings race to every situation. The artist-of-color has to be the person that represents. Or you have to somehow be on the lookout for situations that the others arenít really thinking about. That becomes a drain on your energy as a creative person. You can also recycle it and use it creatively. But it does become a bit of an annoyance when maybe youíd rather be thinking about something else at that time, but you donít have the liberty to do so. Weíre not in the post-racial place yet. I donít see that.
You could say that there are strictures of race, but the same strictures can also be used to enable. I always look not to eliminate race, which is impossible, but to atomize and multiply the racial dynamic. 'Well, letís get a lot of races in there. Letís not just have one or two.' You know, the usual back-and-forth between black and white thatís defined a lot of historiography in the history of the United States. Letís not have that. Letís see if we can mix it up.
Letís see if we can create previously paradoxical constructions, like "black experimentalism," which was Ronald Radanoís construction. Very important. One of the more important things in his book on Anthony Braxton was how he managed to identify that. My contribution to that discourse was to expand it beyond the individual, which is to say, rather than regard Anthony Braxton as being the pivotal figure, to see a whole community of people standing around him. He has antecedents. Not just distant antecedents like Duke Ellington, but immediate antecedents in the community who taught him and who prepared the ground for him. Anthony Braxton was not the only person in 1968 listening to Stockhausen on the South Side of Chicago. He was not the only person who knew who John Cage was. Joseph Jarman played with John Cage in 1965 when Braxton was in the Army. What are you going to do with that? At a certain point, we have to bring these things out. We have to ask ourselves: What does that mean? How does that contribute to the narrative of experimentalism? Is it just some background curio that weíve identified, or is there a larger, deeper implication?
I just wrote a long piece on the black Fluxus musician, Ben Patterson, for a catalogue on a show heís having next year at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston. In a way, just by being Ben Patterson, he brings race to Fluxus. Now, at the risk of being a bit uncharitable, I would say that his Fluxus colleagues handled that somewhat poorly. Certainly, individuals in the private transcript probably have a different reality, but the public transcript doesnít handle it very well at all. Itís part and parcel with the way the experimental music community and the scholarly community that writes on experimental music approaches race, where no one thought to ask, 'what does it really mean to have a black person in Fluxus?' If you say it means nothing, thatís ridiculous. The guy himself wrote that he wanted to be the first Afro-American to play in a symphony orchestra, but he couldnít do it, he couldnít get a gig, so he went to Canada and actually got gigs, straight out of college, playing double bass in symphony orchestras. Then he gets over to Germany and suddenly meets up with Mary Bauermeister and all these people, and suddenly his world is changed aroundóand he even steps to the front and starts making very important, lasting contributions. His colleagues (on this, Iím going to give them full credit) recognize his achievements. Thereís no narrative that you can find coming from the Fluxus colleagues that doesnít mention Ben Patterson. He is not erased from that at all. He is a central figure. But, when we get to the writing on the Fluxus movement by the scholars and historians, he starts to recede more and more and more.
So I found myself thinking, when I was writing this article: 'Is this the first time anybody has written a scholarly article on Ben Patterson?' Heís born in 1934. Is this the first time? It seems kind of odd. Not to say that one has to be as famous as Nam June Paik or something, but still, it just seemed off.
Now, Ben Patterson has little or no connection with the jazz world that one can see from the public record. He grew up listening to opera and so on. But he does have a connection with African-American music. After Fluxus, he was with the Symphony of the New World as general manager. I think he worked with Dance Theater of Harlem. He also did many things connected with African-American composers. So heís not disconnected from that world, and heís not disconnected from models of race. But often, when commentators try to examine his work in terms of race, they betray their own naÔvetť about the current state of theorizing on race. Thatís another problem with the scholarship, that because they spend so much time ignoring race, they donít know whoís doing good workópeople like Achille Mbembe and Cheryl Harris.
Anyway, thereís a lot to say about race. But my real issue is to try to take my place among the scholars. When you write these scholarly articles, they send them out anonymously, and they get reviewed, the reviews come back and you read them, and they ask you to incorporate what they said into your visions. One person said, 'Well, this would be a good article just because of the person whoís writing it.' I said, 'No, thatís not enough; it canít be that.' It has to be good regardless of the person. I have to bring my experience into the book, but its authority canít be derived from those outside factorsóthat somehow we read this book because, and only because of this individual who is posing as an authority, and he was there, and so we have to take his claim seriously. Thatís the problem with a lot of writing these days.
You do make it clear in the text, however, that it would not have been written had the project not been undertaken by someone who, as you put it before, was somehow an insider, with whom people hadnít played or who people didnít know.
But that happens in any ethnographic enterprise. If people donít trust you, youíll get a different response. Thatís why the ethnographers, the ethnomusicologists, the anthropologists live with people for a long time. They have to earn the peopleís trust, people have to know theyíre not going to be betrayed, and so on. Even with me, there were those questions, and in a way, itís more acute because of being an insider.
One of the things that I discovered about so-called Ďauthorityí is theyíre often wrong. Or people who said they were there at a certain point, who werenít actually there, or gave completely bogus interpretations of what they found there. At a certain point, itís not whether you were there thatís important. Also, I wasnít there for a lot of it. I was an insider for my generation, but not for the ones before and not for the ones after. So for those people, I am coming in as an ethnographer or an historian, trying to interpret. So I have to uphold some kinds of standards, and also I have to bring some analytic muscle to the table. Otherwise, you know, itís a great book by somebody who was there. I want people to say, 'I donít care if George Lewis was this guy or not; heís wrong about this-and-this-and-this, and hereís why.' Thatís real dialogue at that point, instead of someone you canít question because they played with Bird and knew what Bird was doing, despite the fact theyíd forgotten a lot of what Bird was doing. Someone who didnít forget, who read and talked to a lot of people might be in a better position to talk about what Bird was doing.
Was a process of self-discovery involved in writing the book?
My joke about the book is itís just like Alex Haley trying to look for Kunta Kinte. Yeah, sure, you discover a lot about yourself. There are things you took for granted that turned out to be rooted in some specific historical moment. The whole facing-the-East thing. If you ask someone, 'Why do we face the East?'ó'I donít know, we just do it.' Now, people who care to know have some understanding of when that practice arose and why it did.
Thatís one simple example. But to go a little deeper: What I found out about the people who did this work enabled me to go a lot deeper into my own creative work. I felt better about it afterwards. Some people say, 'Born too soon,' 'born too late,' all the great stuff has already been done, all the innovation already happened. I no longer feel that way. I discovered that way, a bunch of people were doing great work even after Muhal and those people. People like Nicole Mitchell are doing great work right now. So there isnít this sense, which I often heard when discussing the book, of 'What is the AACM doing now?' or next trend to come out of the AACM. Iím not a trend-spotter. My response is, 'Well, whatís Napoleon doing now?' Well, nothing. Heís dead. But people are still writing about him. The ideas have an impact---the way in which all that activity changed France and stretched all around the world. The way Haiti was affected. It means that his work still has an impact. If the AACM stopped functioning tomorrow, the achievements remain. But in fact it hasnít stopped functioning.
A lot of things happened while I was writing this book that had a lot of impact. The MacArthur award. That was sort of huge, because besides being an encouragement to write the book (thatís how I took it; you donít know why you get these things), I also took it as a validation for what I was doing. Somehow, there was an increased sense of freedom connected with it, and the sense that I should try to be more focused, and gradually to weed out the things that werenít at the center of my interests. Thatís very painful, because certain people you performed with, you may not perform with in the future. Or, people believe youíre just like them, and youíre really not like them at all, or you share some small point of commonality but itís not enough for youóitís enough for them. The fear that generates in people. Iíve had to experience that as I was doing this.
Another ongoing trope of A Power Stronger Than Itself is the notion of hybridity, which you embody in the intertwining narratives and diverse strategies deployed in constructing the different chapters, not least the conclusion, in which you set up an imaginary dialogue amongst the various AACM members. Were you writing towards that denouement?
I donít remember how that came about. I do remember it being the chapter I had the most ethical problems with. In the book I wrote about those ethical problems with the idea of taking the voices from people who hadnít talked to each other, probably from the same community, but arbitrarily so, and some of them people who were no longer alive, and bringing them into juxtaposition. Itís the idea that somehow youíre already orchestrating these into the narrative by weaving together quotations without giving everything they said. When I wrote the chapter, I read what I said to a couple of people and said, 'Is this something you can really do in a book of this kind?'ówhich finally is a work of scholarship. If itís a different kind of work, if itís fiction or whatever, you can do it. But with this, it was like writing fiction at the end of the book. It was a little scary. So Iím still not sure how I came to the idea this should be done.
The function of that chapter is to reconnect the AACM with the future, which will be connected with a dialogue confronting issues that still arenít resolved. The book does not end with everything tied up in a bow. It ends with more questions. With places to go. With some vistas that are not a modernist quest for perfectionism, but a kind of postmodern uncertainty with a multiplicity of voices that ends up being a heterophony. But I canít remember how it came to be. Somehow it just seemed the thing to do.
For me, writing words gives you the same feeling as writing music. Iím sitting there, writing this thing, working the way I work, which is I have a bunch of stuff on the floor around me, either conceptually or in reality, and I pick this one up and see. No, thatís not going to fit. Oh, this one over here ... I used to make fun of Michel Portal in my mind (in fact, everybody did), because youíd go to rehearsals with Michel, and heíd bring in this huge bag of music. Michel is a genius musically, so he can pick a piece of musicóI donít care what clef itís in, anythingóand pick up his clarinet and play some of it. Heíll pick it up, play two or three notes, and say, ďNon. Pas Áa.Ē Put it back in the box. 'What are we going to play?' I think it was his way of assembling something that worked for him. My way of writing is kind of like that. It gets very intense, very emotional, especially when you start to see how the story (which is what Iím calling this piece of scholarship) is working. I guess this is the same feeling I get from composing. From composing more than playing, I think.
How much time do you get these days to devote to composition, and how much of your compositional work these days is what David Behrman dubbed interspecies, that is, between software-electronics and humans?
I was talking to somebody who said, 'You arenít really like a bandleader type person.' I said, 'Well, thatís right; Iím not a bandleader type person.' I mean, Iíll lead the band if no one else is around. But Iíve come to the stage now (and this is probably the turbulence I was talking about earlier) where I donít want to sit in the band either. I find the most comfortable place for me is in the audience, listening to my composition getting played. Thatís been true for a number of years. I donít often get to do that. Itís like with the book. Itís done. Itís out there. I canít come to your house and read it to you. So Iím more like the composer type.
Now, in the field Iíve had at least a major role in for years, the jazz field, thatís not a regular thing. Jazz is about improvisers. Which is why Iíve been fortunate that I no longer have to put all my eggs into any one basket. That was another thing, that the MacArthur grant, in my case, sort of rewarded mobility and multiplicity. When they were talking about what I did, they couldnít say 'this person is a physicist' or 'this person is a composer.' They had to say these multiple things, and it became very diffuse, and no one could figure it out. Which is great for me, because this means I get to intervene in all kinds of fields.
Look, for example, at Blood on the Fields by Wynton Marsalis: First of all, thereís a lot of talk about Wynton Marsalis being this conservative, or whatever, who recreate this and that. Well, what is Blood on the Fields recreating? He may be referencing a lot of stuff. Thatís different. But what Iíd like to concentrate on is that, on the one hand, the composition is for the standard jazz ensemble, and operates in a way that you canít really play the music unless youíve trained in various traditional notions of jazz playing, but, on the other hand, it calls for a type of jazz player who is in extremely short supply, despite all the talk. Most of that music is unplayable by most people who play jazz. Itís too hard. Listen to it sometime. It took massive numbers of rehearsals. See, if you have a piece for classical ensemble, you can write as many septuplets and superduperuplets as you like, and some graduate student will sit up there and read the stew out of it. You canít do that in a jazz band. It wonít get played. Canít do it. So thereís a limit on the kinds of complexity you can write.
What Marsalis was doing was pushing that envelope in the jazz arena. In order to push the envelope successfully, they had to create an ensemble that could do it. So that had to be done by the media corporations that support Lincoln Centerís jazz program. They had already done it for classical music. They have done it since the Ď50s. I mean, Leonard Bernsteinís crew didnít have any problem playing hard music. Iíd like to be able to write without regard to who is going to play this; I write what I want, then we bring it to people, and whatever they get out of it, they get. Because somebody is going to come along one day and really be able to do the written part.
Now, as to the playing part ... See, thatís the key to the Marsalis thing, is you get people who actually are high-level interpreters of the written stuff but are also high-level players in a number of jazz idioms. Thatís a new kind of musician. The paradox is that you started to see that new kind of musician first in the AACM. A Braxton type. Creative Orchestra Music is as difficult as Blood on the Fields. Some parts are more difficult. The music is of a totally different order in terms of whatís possible. The people who were trained in standard jazz were the ones who had the roughest time with the music. As I discuss in the book, that was a landmark recording for a number of reasons.
At the session were all these people from diverse worlds. There was the studio world with Seldon Powell, a great alto saxophonist, and Jon Faddis playing piccolo trumpet, and then there were people like Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum and Garrett List, and then Braxtonís quartet colleaguesóBarry Altschul, Dave Hollandóand an AACM groupóMuhal Richard Abrams, Leo Smith. There was always this thing in the jazz world about inside and outside, free and not-free, and the story was that the so-called 'free' players, whatever that means, couldnít play regular music, whatever 'regular music' means. So there was all this difficult written music, and the thing was that the people who were not the 'not-free' jazzers were having a hard time with it because it had stuff in it like quintuplets, or wider intervals, stuff that you normally don't encounter in jazz bands. But AACM people had been writing that kind of stuff for years, and had taught themselves to play it. So in the end, it was a reversal of the expected situation, because the people who were the so-called 'experienced' readers were the ones who were falling behind a little bit. But in the end, everybody caught up, and what you hear is this incredible thing.
With Braxtonís quartet, it got to the stage where we really didnít have to rehearse the music. Braxton would write music every day. If we were on tour, he would go in a hotel room, he would write this music every day, and you knew not to call him or knock on his door while he was doing this. At a certain point, he would emerge with a few pieces of paper, and then we would look at them and sing them, and then go on the stage and play themóand that would be it.
After a while, you began to understand the system, and, at least when I was doing it, you didnít have to know heavy mathematics, or look at diagrams. All the stuff that I think people asked about basically was written fairly prosaically on regular note paper, and you just had to read it. Then once you knew how Anthony thought and what his ideas were ... It was amazing to me that he could do this. But then I learned how to do it, too. You could just go in and read the music, and sort of sing it, and then pretty soon youíre on stage playing it, and that would be it. It would work out.
Anthony and I did a curious duo at Donaueschingen that was subsequently issued by Hat Art; Anthony always wanted to confront people with the consequences of genre transgression. Donaueschingen has a very curious history with jazz, which is that it was introduced in the early Ď50s. Then they brought in the Modern Jazz Quartet, which was performing in the same year as the premiere of Stravinskyís 'Agon.' People just went nuts over the Modern Jazz Quartet and didnít think so much of Stravinsky. So basically, the headline in the newspaper was 'King Jazz Defeats King Twelve Tone.' That was it. Jazz was banned for the next ten years from Donaueschingen. They asked the director about it ... This is stuff you donít really get to unless you read in arcane German archives and stuff. They asked the director, Heinrich Strobel, what was the reason for banning jazz. He said, 'We didnít want the things we love to overshadow things we were really interested in.' [LAUGHS] Which is pretty direct. So on this Donaueschingen duo, Anthony wanted to play 'Donna Lee,' because Donaueschingen is known one of those places which disdains jazz, and the so-called 'new music' people get the bulk of the infrastructure and so onóhe wanted make that point about genre transgression.
Now, I think the same year we finally got a gig at the Newport Jazz Festival. This is great! So everyoneís going, 'Well, weíre going to play our normal repertoire.' Then a day or two before the concert, Anthony comes in with this 50-page, completely notated composition and says, 'Hereís what weíre going to play.' There was no 'Donna Lee' on that concert. So once again, people were expecting X and they get Y. Thatís sort of the AACM idea, which is basically weíre playing music, and people who love music should be receptive, and not only receptive on one channel, but all channels.
You canít create a new kind of music without individual transformations. Individuals have to change. They have to transform, they have to develop, they have to reinvent themselves, they have to do the self-fashioning, as they call it in the scholarly literatureóor perform a spiritual exercise. So this was the real innovation of that, but the curious thing is that the AACM was the logical precursor of that kind of innovation.
What you have now, even in the classical world, are individually brilliant performers who can do this kind of code-switching. The more of those kinds of code-switchers you get, it will change whatís possible, and you will see new kinds of music based on this kind of code-switching. You already see it. But the code-switching has to go a lot further, which means that even the people in a group like Marsalisí have to do even more kinds of music, not just the jazz music and not just classical music before 1950, and not just Western music. Thereís a huge responsibility there for people who perform or compose.
So thatís how I look at what Iím trying to do nowadays. On the one hand, I donít want people to be put off by the music and find it impossible to play. I want them to be able to find themselves in the music. A case in point is this Fred Anderson piece I wrote for the Great Black Music Ensemble that I mentioned before. Again, the commission was to write an arrangement of some piece by Fred Anderson, and I decided to orchestrate some of Fredís improvisations. Itís not like Supersax, though that was coolónot that kind of homophony. I wanted more of a contrapuntal thing. It was like when Zita Carno transcribed 'Giant Steps' and Coltrane looked at it and said, 'I canít play this.' I looked at Fredís solo and said, 'well, I could practice this for 20 years; Iím not going to get it. So I could give that to somebody else, but theyíre not going to get it. But how do I use the transcription?'
So I hit on breaking it up into little pieces. You can play five notes of it. If heís playing ... [SINGS FAST QUINTUPLET], and you have one person who goes, [DUPLET], and another person goes, [DUPLET], [ONE NOTE], [TRIPLET]. So they play their little five-note fragment, and it ends up sounding kind of wild, but in the end, you can trace the whole sweep of Fredís music. It was pretty faithful to Fredís timing. I stretched out very few partsóa couple of repetitions. But basically, itís what was on the record, except that itís orchestrated for all of these horns and violins and cellos and stuff.
I would love to do that also in the contemporary classical arena, because these musicians are trained differently, they have a different bodily soundóin other words, their bodies are trained differently. They reproduce that history. So it would be great for me to conceptually migrate what Fred did to that arena. And it would probably be very easy to take this piece and re-conceive it for orchestra. Those are the kinds of things that are exciting me.
Are you doing much less work now with software-generated improvising-composing? Are there new iterations of Voyager?
I think that work has hit a plateau for a while, while I work on something else. Iím not quite sure why. That work got pretty far. I feel comfortable with it. In a way, itís like settled technology. It was like The Spirit of St. Louis was one thing, and now we have these things taking place fifty times a day. So for me, to have a little piano sitting on my laptop that I can pull out, hook up, and play for about thirty minutes, and create a concert with it, or to let it go and play a concert by itselfóto me, thatís settled technology.
Right now, I can see what will be required for the next mile of doing that. Better instrumental recognition. There are computers that can listen to music and tell you what the genre is. You turn the radio to a station and they listen and say, 'Well, thatís X, Y and Z.' Or sometimes they get stuck. They report several genres. Thatís very cool, too.
But I donít necessarily want to get stuck now in creating new technologies. I already created a new technology. Iíd like to try to bring those ideas that came out of the technology to other spheres of the compositional and listening experience. Thatís why Iím not working on it as much.
Can you describe in a relatively synoptic way the gestation and evolution of Voyager?
Iíve been doing computer music since 1979, and the goal has always been the same (although the techniques became more advanced and certainly the computers are better), which is to create situations where software-driven musical systems are in improvised interaction with human improvisers. Itís a cousin of the piece called 'Rainbow Family' that I made at IRCAM in 1984. That was a networked piece. That is to say, there were three microcomputers, all controlling three of the earliest generation of MIDI synthesizers; that is, the Yamaha DX-7. There were four improvisersóJoelle Leandre, the bassist; Derek Bailey, the guitarist; Douglas Ewart, who played bass clarinet; and Steve Lacy, who played soprano saxophone. I think we did three evenings of performances of free improvised music with computers in the large space at IRCAM. The beginnings of Voyager were there.
The next stage of Voyager was really is where it almost became something you could call Voyager. In 1985, I went to STEIM, the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music, in Amsterdam. Around Ď87, the idea was to extend the networking idea. This time, instead of having three computers, we had ten, and each one controlled sort of eight voices. The idea was always to have an orchestral conception. So this was sort of a virtual orchestra of 80 voices that was done at the International Computer Music Conference in 1987. I would call that piece a spectacular failure, because the computers we were using were underpowered. But the architecture that was put on each computer is the same basic architecture that is used for Voyager now. Computers went through a period of very rapid developmental change, and got to the stage where they could execute the ideas I had in my head.
Were the ideas related specifically to the technology of computing, or was it a transduction of your own musical ideas as they had previously developed?
I think you always do any kind of music or composing from your own view of music and the world. The idea of it being non-hierarchical is extremely important. That is to say that the computers arenít controlled by the musicians. The process of analyzing and making decisions about the music are shared between the people and the computers. Thatís been my take right from the beginning.
When was the last major iteration of Voyager constructed?
Iíd say around Ď94 or Ď95, the technology began to be kind of settled for me. That is to say, I concentrated less on creating new versions and more on performing with the existing versions, and then creating performances and trying to work with different collaborators. Roscoe Mitchell, Evan Parker, and Miya Masaoka are three of the interesting collaborators that stand out.
Who canít play with Voyager?
Thatís kind of a murky thing. My notion of improvisation is that a good improviser manifests an awareness of the situation, and can transform that awareness into many possible different directions in which he or she might go. I tend to make those adjustments, and I would think that anyone thinking along those lines could have a good experience in playing with Voyager. Although, at the same time, Voyager has a pretty strongly typed aesthetic [LAUGHS], and some people might not agree with that, and those people might have a hard time.
How does Voyager embody a strongly typed aesthetic?
There is the question of multi-dominance, which means that a lot of things are happening at the same time, that different elements in this total sound are vying for the foregroundóin fact, the notion of foreground and background starts to disappear. These many different foregrounds that are vying for attention are not necessarily in any kind of arithmetic correlation rhythmically. They could be very diverse, and the groupings can change all the time. There is a lot of informationórapid changes in timbre, multiple meters, multiple keys, multiple tonalities. People might have a hard time locking in on what they would like to approach.
But the major thing that might cause dislocation for people who collaborate with me in making the performances usually comes when they assume that they should be in charge of the experienceóthat is to say, that they should play something and the computer should do what they say. I think those people will always be disappointed in working with me. Because I treat the computeróat least mineóthe same as I treat anybody else. I donít want to be in charge and I donít want anyone else to be in charge. Iíd like to see things be negotiated. And the process of negotiating through sound is fundamental to my way of looking at improvisation.
By a strongly typed aesthetic, I mean an aesthetic of negotiation and sonic signaling, and an absence of hierarchy. Thatís especially in the computer environment, because of the way computers have been sold to us, as something that at last we control; even if we have no control over any other aspect of our lives, at least we can control this computer as the sort of new slave or whatever. I just donít think that way, at least in terms of the software that I make for musical purposes.
What is the level of your intervention with the program in preparing for any specific encounter?
Well, since it became kind of settled, I donít intervene. I just set it up and start it, and when the piece is over, I turn it off. In one of John Corbettís books, Extended Play, Jon Rose talked about his Voyager experience, and he said something that helped me learn something fundamental. John said something to the effect that I was interested in the process, but not in the sound. Thatís sort of an extreme version of Process versus Result. Of course, as an improviser, Iím interested in both the process and the result. Now, Johnís notion of sound seemed to be mostly related to the standard sort of post-Cage morphologiesótimbre, loudness, pitch, silence, and so on. My notion of sound comes more from the Charlie Parker remark that music is your thoughts, your wisdomóif you donít live it, it wonít come out of your horn. That notion of sound is more related to assumptions of personality and agency. In other words, what musician-improvisers call Ďgetting your own sound.í
So sound becomes very personal. I think John was identifying that with process. But that has to be carefully constructed, and finally that construction is a sort of a meta-aesthetic in which you think about Voyager, or any computer system, as the articulation of sound that has a background in community and history and personal experience.
Iím interested in how that notion applies to what the computer actually produces. Does the computer take into account past decisions? Does the computer itself have a personal history, an emotional history as a context for the sound it generates?
You know, itís very interesting. I built something that allowed the system to recover things that have been done before and reintroduce them into the space. That was fantastically unsuccessful. You donít want to aestheticize form. You donít want to aestheticize experience. What youíd like to do is have the software embody the nature of experience, to the extent youíre able to do that. The reason why the whole business of reintroducing things into the space was so unsuccessful is mainly because when you reintroduce them into the space, youíre taking something that you stole from the past and reintroducing it at a different point in history, and often it just doesnít fit.
Itís sort of like beginning beboppers who have practiced some lick at home for a year, and then bring it to the gig and never get a chance to play it. If theyíre smart, they never get a chance to play it, because the situation is so totally different, and if theyíre not so smart, they play it anyway even though it doesnít fit. I decided not to do it that way, and to go with a greater immediacy in the systemís responses to things, so that it contextualizes the immediate situation in deciding on its response. Also, as the immediate situation changes, itís constantly adapting. So there is an embedded sense of history there, but itís not a sort of arbitrary parsing of an historical moment.
So no licks are contained in the computerís vocabulary. Or thatís not a good way of putting it ...
Oh, thatís fine. Because actually, in fact, I used to compose licks when I first started. I thought that was the way you did it. Iíd been reading all these books from so-called scientists on what they thought jazz playing was, and they said it was just a bunch of licks thrown together. I said, 'Well, that doesnít sound right, but let me try it anyway.' So I tried it, and I realized that I can make an algorithm that does this. I donít have to make up pre-stored licks. I just hated it when I heard Lick #42 coming out of the machine.
The thing is that, even though you construct the algorithms that produce these things, the algorithms themselves are like meta-licks anyway. So basically, after a certain while, every so often I would hear the Philip Glass moment, or what I used to call the Keith Jarrett moment, or the blues moment. But these moments arenít programmed into the machine in any way. Theyíre just the outcome of the process that at some point will produce these things.
What are the first principles by which the computerís vocabulary and syntax are constructed? What are the parameters?
Basically, Voyager is quite Cartesian, just like the trombone is. With trombone, you have the X-axis (thatís your slide going out and in) and the Y-axis (thatís the lips playing pitches up and down). So you can plot a so-called fingering chart of the trombone as basically an XY coordinate system. Thatís basically the same way Voyager works. Letís say the X-axis are a set of 64 individual voices, or positions, as you would call themóPosition 1, Position 2, Position 3, up to Position 64. There are 64 voices. Or there are as many voices as you can get together, but nominally for me, itís 64. Then the Y-axis has the sets of things that it can do in terms of playing music. Those usually tend to be very simple things, like the duration of a so-called note, and that would have two parts; basically, the duration of onsets from one note to the next, and then the duration of whatever silence happens between one note and the next. And then there is the question of what scale each voice is going to use, and there are a couple of hundred of those, and these are microtonal. Then thereís a question of what transposition that scale is going to be using. That is also microtonal, so in the first voice you have a C-major scale, and in the second voice you have a C-major transposed up 10 or 5 cents, and so on. So you have a possibility of doing a lot of pretty complicated things along those lines. Thereís also the question of things like the melody algorithm. Those are very simple things, step-wise things or skips or various ... They are sort of like waveform generators, so that the melodies get mapped onto waveforms.
Thatís the output side. Then thereís the input side, where you have to look for those elements, or things like them, in the MIDI stream. This stream of MIDI comes in from a pitch detection machine, and the software finds out whether what itís detecting really is a pitch, and then, if it is satisfied that it is, it will write that down, and then do things like record how many simultaneous pitches are sounding at the same time, whether the pitch is on, whether it was used. It has to keep a record of the last few pitches. Then it has to decide how short or how long the silence was between the pitches. From those processes, it generates a lot of rhythmic information. Then it has to take in a lot of information regarding whether the person is active or hardly playing at all.
These are the kind of things you have to know at a minimum in order to have a system that plays with you. What gets built up is a representation of whatís going on outside at any given time, and the system uses that representation to compose a response.
One other important element is that the response can be of three basic kinds. First, it tries to follow pretty carefully what youíre doing. So if youíre playing high notes, it will play high notes, and so on. Second, it will try to sort of oppose what you do. So if youíre playing fast, it will play slow, or something like thatóa contrasting mode. The third modeówhich is kind of the critical one, it turns outóis that it completely ignores you, and that it just does what it wants. In fact, that turns out to be the critical moment, because thatís where difference is asserted. In other words, thatís where we find out that the computer really is asserting 'a personality,' when itís very clear that itís not paying attention or that itís deliberately ignoring you. It paid attention to you in the past, so why is it ignoring you now? Well, thatís where the psychological transmission of a notion of difference comes through.
Thereís a fourth mode, too. When youíre not playing, it just makes the music up by itself, based on those parameters we were just talking about. So you donít have to really be there. Thatís very good, because it means I donít have to play all the time. It also means that the computer doesnít have to play all the time. The problem with computer pieces is that the computer is always the star and the people always have to worship the computer, and what it does, and you have to worry about whether itís working or not working. In a group setting, thatís quite off-putting for the other musicians. I got tired of that, and I wanted to make things equal, so that you could say, "Well, I feel like playing now," and if I donít feel like playing now, the computer will just take it for a while. Or maybe it wonít feel like playing, and I have to take it. In a group thatís practicing self-orchestration, this means that many different ensembles can form, with and without the computer. These kinds of exchanges are fundamental to the experience, and to the composition.
Could we talk about your early interest in electronic music, how the notion of improvising software first gestated for you?
In high school, we had a cool librarian who brought us his electronic music records. I didnít understand them. University of Illinois, Scott Wyatt, and people like that. . I didnít know what they were doing. But still, it had impact. Muhal, of course, really likes technology, so he had an idea that we should investigate it. There was a guy at Governorsí State University, Richard McCreary, who came out of University of Iowa, that whole scene that produced a lot of interesting new music peopleóbut he was an African-American guy, which is a little different right away. He was very knowledgeable, and he had built an electronic music studio. That was what you did in those days. You got your Ph.D or DMA, and then you were fruitful and multiplied, so you would establish your electronic music studio wherever you could. That was your thing. Youíd get a gig and convince them to spend a carload of money. So he got a gig at Governorís State, and they bought a huge ARP 2500 system. We were going there twice a week, and learning on that stuffólearning about remote control and so on.
A lot of what we learned came from recordings. I remember in one class, I think Muhal brought in a Morton Subotnick record, probably The Wild Bull, which was fascinating. There was a great record store in Chicago called Rose Records, on Wabash Avenue, and somebody there was buying ... I bought Phil Glass, Music With Changing Parts, Steve Reich, the stuff that David Behrman produced for Columbiaófor example, the Nancarrow thing that David produced for them. This was all pulling it out of the hat. I had no idea who these people are. First of all, thereís no book about them. I didnít learn about who they were until I got to New York between Ď75 and Ď77.
But around Ď77, I went out to Mills College. I just found a really cool picture of Jacques Bekaert, the Belgian journalist-composer who brought me out there, and Frederic Rzewski. Somehow, we were all sitting there. Blue Gene Tyranny was at Mills, Maggi Payne was still there, John Bischoff was there, David was there ... I think I was staying in Davidís house. David was working with these young people on software stuff. So they had hooked up a network of little microcomputers that they were using. Of course, California was already great. So I was sitting there in California, listening to this weird electronic music being generated in real time by these four computers, and I was thinking 'this sounds like Quadrisect,' which was a group we had with Mwata Bowden and Douglas Ewart and James Johnson, this improvisational wind quartet. But a computerís doing it. This sounds like something I could probably do.
So in a way, the model was to get these computers to sound like what Quadrisect was doing. From my standpoint, this was my proof of concept, seeing Jim Horton, who has passed away; Rich Gold, who has gone as well; and David and Johnóthey had these four KIM-1 computers hooked up, and were doing stuff that was making music automatically. It really jump-started my whole interest in computer music. After that, I had to get a computer. That was it! Got to get me one of these! But getting a computer then, of course, was not like getting a computer now. There were no real books. You had to teach yourself. It was like you had to have a community around you who was thinking about these things. You just could not go off in a room and do it. Autodidacticism. You had to be part of a community. They were all autodidacts, too. They didnít go to computer music school. There was no computer music school to do this kind of live stuff. They just got a computer and started.
I hesitate to call David a father figure. But Iíll say he was the most avuncular person out there, and you could call him if you had any kind of problem in hardware or software. If he didnít have the answer, which he usually did, heíd have something reassuring to say. When I got my Keyboard Input Module, it came with these enormous books. They were made for engineers. Artists were trying to figure these things out, and I didnít really have a technical backgroundóand really, none of us did. So we kind of taught ourselves. You couldnít go to the store and buy a book. There was no Barnes & Noble and there was no Windows and there was no Macintosh, and there was no MS-DOS, in fact, and you could not go out and buy a book that said how to use Word-5, because there was no Word 5óor not even Word 1. So we were reading these books, and I read the book the first time, and I didnít understand anything. I was despairing. How am I going to make music with this thing if I canít even turn it on; I donít even understand how it works. I called David. He says, 'Well, I had to read the book eight times.' I thought, well, hereís a guy who went to Columbia, he went to Harvard, and he had to read the book eight times. Well, let me try to read it again and see if I understand anything. Things like that really help you, when there are people around like Ron Kuivila or Paul DeMarinis or Frankie Mann. There was this community of people who were doing things.
The recent recordings Streaming [Pi], which is your improvising trio with Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell, and also Transatlantic Visions with Joelle Leandre [Rogue Art], remind us that before you were an electronic music composer or an educator, you were making your name as a trombonist, and imprinted your tonal personality on the world through that medium. Even you yourself cite in A Power Stronger Than Itself a criticís remark after he heard one of your recordings that no one is going to be able to think about the trombone the same way.
OK. I didnít want to put that in there, but it had to be ...
Well, it is what it is. It happened. You made the recordings with Braxton that are still unique in the annals. But then also you played in Count Basieís trombone section, and you played in the Ď80s with Gil Evans and in the Ď80s and Ď90s with Steve Lacy, and you recorded with Sam Rivers, and you played with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band, and played with all the AACM groups and many other situations, not to mention the encounters with the various European free improvisers. Now, it seems to me that in the last number of years youíve at least publicly pooh-poohed the trombone and your instrumentalism. How does the trombone relate to your notion of yourself as a musician nowadays?
A lot of that I do just to destabilize comfortable assumptions. You know, Number 6: ďI am not a number, I am a person.Ē When I set up the Great Black Music Ensemble concerts for six evenings of compositions, people said I should take two of the evenings because Iíd set up the gig. Then people kept saying, 'Well, are you going to play on our pieces?' Iíd sort of taken it for granted that I would play on the pieces, and Iíd contribute in any way that I could. But I didnít know what I was going to do with anybodyís piece. So people would say, 'Well, you take a solo here,' and it would be interesting because Iím sitting, thinking, 'I havenít done this kind of thing for a long time, like take a solo on somebodyís thing.' I felt good about it, but it seemed a little distanced from where Iíve been headed over the past few years.
The trombone, when it started, functioned for me like the computer did later, and like the computer is doing right now more generally, which is that itís a point of translation. Itís a meeting point. Itís a place where people can exchange narratives. Itís a site for new work to happen. It takes you places and you meet people who you donít ordinarily get in touch with. Itís a tool of communication across genres, across languagesóall these things that the trombone was doing.
Now I feel thatís kind of substantially achieved for me. So what is the future of the trombone, at least in my work? Iím not really sure. For people who think of it as kind of the centerpiece of my work, I think if that were true twenty years ago, it certainly isnít true now. I find myself working harder on a lot of other things, and also I donít find the need to do anything other than whatís right in the center of my interests. After Perugia and after China, I went to Lisbon, and we did our electro-acoustic octet there. In many ways, I had the trombone there as a kind of symbol. Itís a symbol of maybe my past, or maybe itís a symbol of a certain historical moment that occurred that I can still tap into when I went. But it is an electro-acoustic octet, and I spend most of my time in it doing live sampling or mixing found sounds.
This particular piece was done at an outdoor arena, where I think only the jazz people play. Certainly, I think part of the reason why nobody else plays there is because theyíre in the flight path, and every ten minutes a big jet comes overhead, and that means 7 to 10 crossings in a 70-minute performance. For most music thatís played there, thatís a distraction, or at least a minor one. But not for us, because I got to Lisbon a couple of days early, and I sat in the theater and recorded jets for hours, then I went into my little laptop and modified the jets, added more bass, changed it around a bit, and then played them back on the gig. Whenever they had their jets, I had my jetsóand my jets could actually be louder than theirs. We incorporated the jets into the performance in a way that Iíve never been able to do before. I felt really great about that. The trombone was sort of there, and the trombone can kind of sound like a jet, too.
In this group almost everyone plays some kind of acoustic instrument. Miya plays the koto. Guillermo Brown plays the drums. Ulrich Mueller plays electric guitar, which kind of counts, then Siegfried Roessert plays the bass, and then youíve got a couple of othersóMutamassik is in there, and sheís playing a turntable, which is kind of acoustic, then on electronics weíve got Kaffe Matthews, who used to play ... Kaffe, in a way, is kind of our role model. In classical music before 1980, there was the trope of the former jazz musician. A lot of people from that generation, Harold Budd, La Monte Young, or for that matter, Terry Riley or Steve Reich ... Minimalism was full of former jazz musicians. In a way, they have different attitudes towards it, but for them, itís clearly a part of their past.
Now, Anthony Braxton could also be considered a former jazz musician, but you wonít see that trope applied to him. But itís very easy ...
Now, Braxton has recorded numerous in-the-tradition sorts of albums. Theyíre out there. So Ďformer jazz musicianí wouldnít apply quite so ...
Well, thatís the jazz one-drop rule talking, Ted. Heíll probably continue to do thatówhy not? Heíll probably continue to do that. Itís sort of interesting. I havenít done it ... Anyway, all you have to do is just do your work. But I can talk about myself. Am I a former jazz musician? Iím not really sure. A former jazz musician who runs the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. Does that work? Is that a contradiction in terms? Is that a dangerous problem for New York music? I have no idea. But I think there are some people who really hate the idea of that and would like to see me leave. I get these interviews where people say, 'Your music is difficult' and all that kind of thing. I say, 'No, actually lots of people like it, and for them my music isnít difficult.'
Most people didnít play with Count Basie or Thad Jones or Gil Evans or Steve Lacy.
Thatís what I mean by 'former,' because all those people you mentioned, first of all, are dead, and Iím not playing with them any more, and Iím not playing with their successors. So at a certain stage, that is something that was part of a venerable and storied past, which is very important in the same way that La Monte never tires of discussing his high school experience with Eric Dolphyóbut it was in high school.
Yours wasnít a high school experience. Yours was on a level that actually changed the way people conceptualized the trombone.
Well, thatís great.
You know thatís true.
Whether itís true or not, what do you do next? Whatís your encore? Do you continue to do that? Do you continue to try again? Perhaps you say, 'Maybe Iíll do something else now.' There are so many people in this creative world ... I think Vinko Globokar still plays the trombone. But a lot of people gave it up, and thatís ok, too.
Would you be willing to talk about the approach you developed as a trombonist?
Florid. A lot of notes and a lot of sound and a lot of chaos, and itís saxophonic. Itís like what I heard Johnny Griffin do or John Coltrane do, or people like thatóthose very florid saxophone players. Thatís the music I studied and tried to emulate as a means of developing. That turned out to be pretty good, because if you can partially succeed, you learn a lot about how to get around and do things. In a way, Anthony Braxtonís music was a kind of music I had been kind of preparing for anyway because of these other studies. You listen to these records of trombone players, and at the fastest tempos theyíre always playing in half-time. I didnít want to be that person. [LAUGHS] So I was drawn more to the Curtis Fullers and Frank Rosolinos, those kind of florid people. J.J. Johnson was doing it, too, but it reminded me of Hindemithís Trombone Concerto. I didnít hear that personally. I never really heard it. Now, there are people who have, like Steve Turre. Not for me. No.
Then the thing was, there were so many other people outside of jazz playing trombone in the Ď70s, the Ď80s, the Ď60s even, with Stuart Dempster and Globokar being prime movers of that. So listening to that, you just develop other viewpoints.
But in terms of the improvisational style, the problem with it was that being florid and playing a lot of notes only works in certain musical situations, and if you want to do something else, you have to stop doing it. If you want to work more with sounds, if you want to work with delicacy, or if you want to work with certain kinds of extremes of range, or if you want to really improvise as distinct from developing a personal style, then you have to really question everything about what you were doing. At the point you start to question yourself and really start doing these things, all of a sudden, there is your past that you have to confront, and either you have to play with new people ... I could see why people who have bands get rid of people who play in the bands, because then that forces them into new areas. So you have to confront new ways of making music that are the complete opposite of how you thought about playing. The kind of florid, Coltrane-influenced thing just didnít work with John Oswald or Zorn or with Roscoe Mitchell and Leo Smith. It just doesnít work. You canít do it. Itís too many notes, or something. After a while, the desire just faded.
In a conversation we had in 2006, you said that you tended 'to listen to not the cool sounds that are being made or the extended techniques on the instruments but the kinds of meta-narratives that are being exchanged through the improvisations.' 'What are they really talking about?' you said. Itís always seemed to me that you find ways to creative narrative strategies within any situation in which you find yourself. If itís free improvising with Evan Parker or Derek Bailey, or with Joelle Leandre on Transatlantic Visions, thereís a form to the solo that transcends the techniques. You once stated that in an encounter between equals, you have to bring something of where you come from. Would this imply that thereís something fundamental about that notion of storytelling and narrative to your core sense of self as a musician?
No. You see, this is where more of that turbulence comes in. Iím tired of storytelling.
Your interest was so strong in the early Ď90s, when you did recordings like Changing With the Times [New World Countercurrents] and Endless Shout [Tzadik].
Yes, because that was the thing. I wanted to do that, and that was important. Creating a kind of radio play, a mystery theater that people could listen to late at night before they went to sleep. Like rap. There were poets and actors, verbal monologues. But now, the idea of people telling stories with instruments has become kind of a cliche in music.Then the other thing is, thereís so much non-linearity in the world. Linear narratives often donít touch people in the same way, because theyíre not experiencing it in their daily lives. Then there are the ones that want the linear narrative in order to make them feel good in a changing world. Like their head is under the blanket or something.
Then there are the people who really want the linear narrative as a marker of what it means to be African-American. Those people probably havenít read Mumbo-Jumbo, or Leon Forrest, or Nathaniel Mackeyóthese kinds of people. Or even Toni Morrison's Jazz. You realize that storytelling can be a hindrance. Then you have to figure out: Do we really need call-and-response now? Maybe we donít. So in this electro-acoustic octet, we have certain ground rules I made up. One is, you donít have to take every utterance as a call that needs response. Just donít respond. Let it sit there and let it develop itself. Don't chime in. Let's see where it goes.
One musician told me that when he started playing with Roscoe Mitchell, he was directed quite explicitly to form his own ideas, and not play Roscoeís ideas back to him.
Iím sure I can just guess what he had to respond to. He probably started out where Roscoe did something and he did something kind of like that, and Roscoe got angry because that kind of simplistic imitation reduces the mobility of the music. Yeah, thatís a part of it. Then, Iíve played with Roscoe a lot, and this is whatís lovely about doing that. But for another viewpoint on that, itís more, in my case, that not doing anything is also an idea. Just donít make a sound. Just listen. Thatís one idea, is to let your sound hang in the air. So what you get by doing that methodologically is, in a larger group, you donít get everyone playing at once. So suddenly, it opens up the space for stuff that Phil Jackson talks about in the Sacred Hoops book, where he talks about the triangle offense, you have to pass the ball around, one person canít dominate, all those kinds of things. What heís describing is an improvised encounter that results in a basketball game.
Of course, Phil Jackson requires a superstar to make it work.
Well, thatís the thing. You also have to have a superstar in order to win. But you always have to have that in sports. But then the thing is, the superstar also has to pay attention to the system, and they donít win if they donít. Thatís what the superstars learn. So the thing is that if you are inclined to be a superstar in the music area, maybe itís better if you donít. In the electro-acoustic band, if someone plays some lick, some material, it just sits there for a long time. It might just be there by itself. Then suddenly, all of a sudden, everybody detects, hey, thereís a change. Youíre playing double-dutch, and the rope is going, youíre trying to get in, and youíre just moving with the music, moving with the rope, but youíre not actually doing anything. At a certain point, you feel, "Aha, hereís my moment and I can jump in." Itís a bit like that. So if everyone is doing that, theyíre sensitive to the opportunity, not to play, but to let someone else play ... You pass the ball. When that happens, then you get all this multiplicity. What that also means is it completely runs counter to the sort of florid Coltrane moment. Iíd guess that someone like Coltrane or Parker couldnít play in a group like this, or theyíd have to radically change what they did. Which Iím sure they could do, because the investigative mind is there to hear whatís going on. Thereís nothing I love more than these records where Coltrane is playing a million notes for like 30 minutes. I used to go nuts. I could listen to that stuff for hours, even days on end---still do. But Iíll never do it again. Itís not going to happen. Because we donít live that now.
Well, Coltrane also is trapped in time for us. He didnít have a chance to grow older and develop.
Well, thatís also true. But we do have these people who are keepers of the flame. I guess I could be that person. But then you lose the possibility of ... I listened to a Radu Malfetti-Taku Sugimoto duo on this Improvised Music From Japan CD, and a lot of times almost nothing is happening. I understood how for a person like Radu, who came out of the free jazz thing, that was super-liberation. So I just want to feel that free to renounce that part of it. Thatís not to say, 'Well, thatís all BS, what I did back there,' but more to say, 'Well, you canít keep doing it in the current environment.' That may mean that the trombone, like any composer ... you donít use the same instrument in every situation. Just because you happen to play it doesnít change that methodological reality.
In Richard Teitelbaumís piece 'Golem,' you were given the job generating the Golemís ...
He said I was the Rabbi. It was my job to bring the Golem to life.
And I saw you do almost literally do that in a concert at the Jewish Museum.
Oh, that was a good concert. We even upstaged Menachem Zur, who is an excellent composer.
Youíve also developed a software language that brings inanimate circuits to life, so to speak. You once responded to something I was saying, 'that sounds suspiciously like language,' and I said, 'Is music language?' and you said, 'I donít think so.' Is music analogous to language in any way?
I sure hope not. Ingrid Monson wrote a great book, Saying Something. She took the music-and-language premise and worked with it in a way that implies that music isnít a language any more. In other words, weíre not looking for a one-to-one correspondence. Itís a much more sophisticated view of language, which leads to a more sophisticated view of how communication takes place. We are pleased to say that any time communication takes place, it takes place on the basis of language. But thatís not really what happens. Communication takes place all the time without language. In a way, thatís the joy of music. Itís a non-linguistic medium, at the very least. When I hear people talk about their musical language, even somebody cool, like Messaien, I think, 'ok, this is great to have your musical language, but I wonder ... maybe early humans sounded more interesting than most peopleís musical languages.' I have no idea, no way of knowing that. But how did those people communicate their desires, their goals, their needs, without this highly developed thing that we like to think of as language? How did that happen?
Weíre faced with that situation every day as improvisers, and to the extent we have a fixed language, we can pretty much say fixed things. We have a set of things we can say and no more, because itís not really that extensible. The music/language analogy breaks down at so many points, that once you get rid of it, youíre much freer to think about sound, the ways in which sound can signify and how many contexts it can signify in, that spoken language or written language really cannot match. This is the reason why we have such problems describing music. We donít have problems describing things that are in the same medium. Someone says, 'Well, what does Obama talk about?' You can tell him. You use one language. You can tell him in a different language. You can tell him in French. You can tell him in German. It doesnít matter. Theyíre all variants of the same thing. But you canít really tell them in music in the same way.
Now, some people would take issue with you, and say, 'Of course you can,' and maybe somebody will talk about drum language in Africa or whatever theyíre talking about. But Iím still going to hold to the idea that music is a fundamentally different animal, and the reason why we have it around and why itís important is because it needs to be a fundamentally different animal. But on the other hand, you have opera, which is fantastic. So what do you about that? Itís just too complicated to get into.
As the final question, or perhaps the beginning of the final question, this notion of discarding your vocabularies, continually shedding your skin, the rebirth trope that youíve referenced several times, reimagining who you are ... Why is it important to do that? Is it actually, in truth, possible to do that?
Well, I think itís possible. I think Iíve managed to kind of do it. The problem is the goalposts keep moving. You have to keep doing it, and once you set yourself on that path, you canít stop. If you donít keep doing it, then youíll feel poorly, because youíve set yourself up now, and you say, 'Well, Iíve stopped now. All that stuff about reinventing yourself, we donít do that any more. Iím happy with where we are now.' That could be a conscious response to new conditions.
I donít know when I started to first think about improvisation as depending for its impact upon circumstance, as somebody who really is trying at every moment to be open and let himself or herself become transformed by conditions and situations, where you are learning, preparing yourself to encounter the world and other people, and trying to cultivate a sense that you are going to be, if not ready, at least willing to engage fundamental difference. That has to be something that you kind of cultivate.
Now, Iím talking about fundamental difference. I am not talking about someday going around the world and playing with somebody from this tradition or that tradition and the other tradition. Thatís not quite fundamental, because youíve got some tradition to deal with. Fundamental change can happen within traditions, or within socio-musical aggregates. Fundamental difference can occur through two individuals who are both invested there. So what you would have to do in those cases is to find in yourself the motivation to do it. Tony Robbins was in San Diego the whole time I was there, and heís probably still there. I think he talks about some of these ideas about you have to transform yourself, and it all depends on you, and itís your ideas that count, your view of yourself, and so on, that really matters. I'm not a follower, but that's just one example.
A very American world-view.
To that extent, yes, itís very American, and I canít say I disagree with it; thereís some tangent there that I feel I can tap into. But I have mainly found in my own work that the biggest impediment to change was my fear of maybe what other people would think. Itís all chimerical, but I still have this ridiculous fear about it. It came out in Perugia. It was like, ĎOk, Iím going to get up here in front of all these people, Iím going to be conducting, and thatís all Iím going to do, and theyíre just going to see my ass. Iím not going to be playing anything on the trombone. Maybe I should just play a little bit at the beginning, so I can get it out of the way.' Now, youíre not really being true to what you think at that moment. Youíre getting stuck in some imagined view of yourself, some imagined community that you have been with in the past. Itís not irrational to think this way, because people come up and tell you this. 'I wish youíd play the trombone more' or 'stop all that computer shit'óall these kinds of things. When I was in my thirties and forties, I would be very influenced by these things. But now Iím 57, and Iím just inclined to politely not pay attention to that.
So weíre still talking about the trombone. It was a great thing, and the nice thing about ... Well, Iíll put it another way. Actually, itís a deep-seated fear that I wouldnít have anything to fall back on. They try to tell you, 'Music is great, but you should get a degree in something, so you have something to fall back on.' Well, for me, the trombone is something I can always fall back on. But if I do that, that sort of cheapens it. I donít want the book to stand or fall on how well I play the trombone. That has nothing to do with it. If the book is only good because the guy plays the trombone, thatís not any good. Or the computer music is only good because the guy plays the trombone. What does that have to do with anything? Is the computer music any good or isnít it? Did the person spend the time? Did they do the work? Are they familiar with the tenets of things? Is it working?
The answer to that is, 'Well, the guy plays a mean trombone.' Thatís not an answer. Or the thing that happens where your computer crashes and they say, 'Well, you could always play the trombone.' I say, 'Well, no, not any more.' 'Why not?' 'Well, I didnít bring it, for one thing.' In other words, you just say to yourself that youíre going to stand or fall with what youíre doing now, and youíre going to have enough confidence and faith in yourself, and youíre going to do your best to enter this new medium without any convenient exits.
So if I might borrow your nomenclature, the trombone is one component of a multidominant personality that might be less dominant at one moment, and might be more dominant at another? Is that a possible metaphor, that the multidominance that you encoded into the computer is functioning within you?
Yes, you can say that, sure. Maybe theyíre not competing. They should nominally coexist, and that one comes out according to need. If you just stick to that, then maybe you avoid a lot of problems that would come out for some other reasonófear, ego, or whatever.
Ted Panken spoke with George Lewis on July 15, 2009, in Perugia, and on August 8, 2009, in Manhattan.