George Lewis talks Muhal Richard Abrams, AACM, and Improv

George Lewis - Muhal Richard Abrams

Muhal Richard Abrams, with George Lewis
Pi Records : 2011

MRA, piano; GL, trombone, laptop.

Muhal Richard Abrams, with Fred Anderson
Pi Records : 2011

MRA, piano; FA, tenor saxophone.

We’re continuing our exploration of the work of the remarkable composer, trombonist, and electronic musician George Lewis. Last week, he shared revelations about his classic 1979 album, Homage to Charles Parker. Now we’re focusing on a newly released project, a duo album with Muhal Richard Abrams entitled SoundDance.

Lewis first grabbed the attention of the jazz world in the mid-1970s with his virtuosic trombone playing with Anthony Braxton. He went on to record a number of albums that combined his interests in jazz, classical composition, and electronics. He’s the recipient of the MacArthur ‘Genius’ grant and author of the essential book A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music.

SoundDance is a double CD featuring Abrams performing duets with Lewis on one disc and the late great saxophonist Fred Anderson on the other. Recently released by Pi Records, it’s one of the year’s most significant albums, and they’ve agreed to let us share excerpts from both discs. Note that this is likely Fred Anderson’s last recording, especially poignant considering that Muhal paid tribute to him at last year’s Vision Festival mere hours after his passing.

George was kind enough to offer insights about SoundDance, the AACM, and his upcoming projects. Throughout the email interview, he was generous with his answers while also keeping us on our toes. “A version of the same question as before takes a curious turn,” he noted at one point. “Sounds sort of generic—perhaps designed for someone else?” Read on below!

How has your musical relationship with Muhal Richard Abrams evolved over the years?

Perhaps the best answer to that would be the most succinct. I began as Muhal’s student, although he never liked using that word, and I continue to learn from him. If you’re smart, you just sit there and absorb as much as you can. In fact, that’s a good heuristic to deploy in most situations, but I believe this was something I learned about from Muhal.

Prior to the concert, did you and Muhal discuss any specific aims for the SoundDance piece?

No. The piece is live and improvised. I personally spent a fair amount of time preparing sound files and performance approaches, but of course one cannot and should not attempt to account for every contingency in a performance of improvised music, since to eliminate those would be to destroy a large part of the sound; in other words, the contingencies, thinking, puzzles, blockages, conundrums, paradoxes and breakthroughs are embedded in the sound that audience and performers encounter at about the same moment. As I hear it, notes, timbres, melodies, durations, and the rest are carriers for a more complex symbolic signal that includes these higher-level elements that we all experience each day of our lives. Once musicians, critics, and audiences learn to understand this higher signal, the pleasures that result will allow listening to improvised music to be understood as a most elementally human form of interaction.

Are there any favorite parts of this performance? Any particular moment(s) that you can break down for our readers?

In view of what I just said, that would be telling—or rather, mis-leading.

We enjoyed your recent Columbia University lecture on improvisation. Do you bring different mindsets to your performances — do you have an “academic head” and an “improviser’s head”?

The topic of improvisation as a way of life comes from the graduate seminar I taught at the University of Chicago in Fall 2010 with the philosopher Arnold I. Davidson, who is extremely musically experienced and thinks in innovative ways about sound, meaning, intelligibility, and other crucial issues one encounters in thinking about improvisation. The title itself is a gloss on Pierre Hadot’s book, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Hadot argued that ancient philosophy should not be viewed simply as a system of abstract discourses, but as a set of practices or “spiritual exercises” that aim at individual and social transformation.  So right away, you can see the connection with how musicians see improvisation. Arnold worked closely with Hadot and Foucault, and could be the first philosopher to explore the connections between the notion of spiritual exercises and the ways in which 20th century musical improvisors have contextualized their sounds and practices.

The Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University hosted Arnold in 2008 for a philosopher’s roundtable on improvisation, and we spoke at the American Academy in Rome in May 2010, and at the University’s Gleacher Center in October 2010.  If you want to talk to a scholar who really knows and loves improvised music at a very profound level, you should blog him.  His most recent talk, for example, was “Exercices spirituels, improvisation et perfectionnisme moral: à propos de Sonny Rollins. Working with Arnold has been one of the most salutary experiences I’ve had in recent years, and my new recording on Tzadik, Les Exercices Spirituels, is dedicated to him.

In terms of “heads,” the Hydra is my role model, albeit without the malevolence.  Two heads are better than one, but probably not enough for me, and the academic/improviser binary isn’t part of my experience.

Any thoughts on the current state of the AACM?

As far as I can see, the AACM in Chicago is continuing to produce very interesting people. For instance, it’s just been announced that Nicole Mitchell is this year’s winner of the Alpert Award in the Arts in Music.

The New York AACM Chapter continues to hold its extraordinarily diverse concert series. Muhal, Henry Threadgill, Amina Claudine Myers and others continue to astonish with sheer fecundity, and Matana Roberts and Reggie Nicholson are doing great work.

Were you pleased with the reception of your book A Power Stronger Than Itself — from musicians, AACM members, general readers?

The most gratifying responses to the book have been from musicians. I think a lot of people in our generation—people born in the 1950s and 1960s–felt that they hadn’t read any detailed representation of our ideas and contributions before. Also, the book is heavy (literally, 600+ pages), and in an age when you have to pay $50 to check a bag, I’m particularly gratified when I hear that musicians are taking the book along on the road. If the musicians didn’t appreciate it, it would be a failure as far as I’m concerned. Benoit Delbecq sent me a picture of himself reading it on the train—a very evocative and authentic image of the road experience of our time. I loved that.

Also, the book seems to have achieved a very diverse audience. It won the American Book Award in 2009, which gave me a chance to thank my freshman English professor, Houston Baker, whose book also won that year. Having Ishmael Reed present me with an award meant a lot.

Any upcoming projects you want to share with our readers?

I’m spending most of my time these days on two projects. First, I’m composing quite a bit these days.  There are so many incredible new music groups around the country now. At Brown University this past April, Les Exercices Spirituels was given a wonderful performance by Dinosaur Annex of Boston, and a new piece, “Anthem,” was just performed by Wet Ink in April. They’re going to play it again at the ISSUE Project Room in Brooklyn on June 10. I’m writing a large-form chamber ensemble piece for the International Contemporary Ensemble, to be premiered in New York in November 2011.  I’m also working on a piece for Talea.

The second project is the two-volume Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, to be published in 2012 and 2013 by Oxford University Press. I’m working on this with Benjamin Piekut, soon to be at Cornell, who has just written an extraordinary book on experimental music with case studies of Bill Dixon, Henry Flynt, Charlotte Moorman, and the infamous 1964 New York Philharmonic performance of John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis.

The Oxford volumes are intended to explore both musical and non-musical ways in which improvisation functions in culture. We’ll have contributions from about 75-80 scholars in the fields of (alphabetically) architecture, anthropology, art history, classics, computer science, cognitive science, cultural studies, dance, economics, education, ethnomusicology, film, gender and sexuality studies, history, linguistics, literary theory, musicology, neuroscience, new media, organizational science, performance studies, philosophy, popular music studies, psychology, science and technology studies, sociology, sound art, theology, urban studies, among others.

The idea is for these volumes to serve as both reference and starting point for a new and radically interdisciplinary field.  I just wish that Derek were around to read it.  He must have found it ironic, given his distrust of academia, that his book on improvisation is perhaps the most widely cited on the subject in the past twenty years.

Finally, I’ve had and continue to be blessed with amazing graduate students in composition and musicology at Columbia and elsewhere—winning awards, getting major academic positions, publishing books, composing important pieces, and generally being full of new ideas. These are the things that make academia worthwhile—creating an atmosphere, like the AACM.


If you are a fan of this music, you should already own a copy of A Power Stronger than Itself, as well as SoundDance, and Homage to Charles Parker. If you don’t…what are you waiting for?

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