TP: We've been listening to two selections from a recent release on the New World Counter Currents series by George Lewis. GL: Is this the Counter-Currents series? I don't think so. I was rejected for the Counter-Currents series. Can we put that on the air? They said it wasn't jazzy enough to be on the Counter-Currents series. So this got on whatever the regular series is. It got on that instead!
TP: At any rate, it is on New World Records, and indeed, the title of the CD is Changing With The Times, and there are six, as the liner note says, "conversation pieces for which George Lewis has assembled a diverse collection of musicians, poets and story-tellers into an organic narrative mode to signify in style and content on his personal odyssey through the contradictions and ambiguities of being black in a non-contradictory social universe -- America."
Much of the music, George, was written many years ago, but hadn't been previously recorded. Talk a bit about the ideas in assembling the pieces and the personalities who comprise this CD.GL: Well, this record comes, in a way, from when I changed periods and went to California and became a music professor.
TP: When was that exactly? GL: In '91, the University of California at San Diego. Quincy Troupe, whose poetry you heard first, is a professor there in literature, as is Jerry Rothenberg, who we just heard. So it seemed at a certain point like a collaboration would be a good idea. Mary Oliver was a Ph.D student at the time, the violinist. Peter Gonzalez was an undergraduate percussionist. So it was recorded at the studio there.
So there was all this talent floating around, you know, this university, and I kind of find it fascinating. Also, when I brought my father out, it occurred to me that this would be the moment to maybe do something that we had talked about doing for a long time, which was to take aspects of his narrative, the story of his life, and make something of it in terms of music.
So that's sort of the field in which this takes place.
When you talk about the music and the text, I guess I don't look at it as text with music, since we did try to integrate them. On the other hand, there is an aspect of arrangement about this, in that the pieces . . . The piece we just heard, the piece for two pianos and trombone, was written in 1980 for Ursula Oppens and Frederic Rzewski and I to play. We played it a few times, and then it kind of sat around until I decided that it needed something extra, and I couldn't figure out what it was. Then Jerry Rothenberg showed me these "Dadagrams," and that seemed to fit very well.
Then for the middle section we were looking for something, and then he came up with this poem called "The Chicago Poem" -- this is the slow section. The thing about that is that I've looked at the first few lines, when he starts talking about Amsterdam, Paris and Chicago -- and that kind of sums me up in a nutshell, sums up the last 15 years of my life. I said, "We'll do this one." [Laughs]
Then later it turns out that . . . The whole record has a kind of theme about it. The themes are history and remembrance, camaraderie, brotherhood, these sorts of issues. Personal friendships and the elaborations of them, how they develop and change and grow. Family. That's what "The Chicago Poem" talks about, and that's what Quincy's poem is also talking about, and that's what Changing With The Times discusses.
So that the odyssey of being black is only one of the situations. But the odyssey of being black, though, of course, can include all of those other things -- and it does!
TP: To be specific about the pieces, the first selection heard at the top of the program was Quincy Troupe's poem, "The View From Skates In Berkeley," and the second, which is a three-part composition, is called "Chicago Dadagram."
George Lewis performed some of these pieces, if not all of them, a few years ago at the Kitchen, and you were using interactive imagery as well. Have you been performing these in concert situations?GL: Well, actually what got performed was a different piece, and that piece was called "The Empty Chair." I'm trying to remember what year . . . That's '89 now.
I've been trying to figure out how to use the technologies that I have developed, and to expand and recontextualize them. That's been the focus. I've found that I wanted to have the pieces talk about something. I just didn't want them to be formalist abstractions, and I didn't necessarily want to appropriate gestures from contemporary music, or rap, or rock 'n' roll, or anything in a stylistic way. I wanted to integrate them with things that I felt comfortable with personally.
"The Empty Chair" was an experiment in sort of multi-perspectival interactive theater, really. Bernard Mixon, who we'll hear later on Changing With The Times, who is an actor and singer, played the lead role. He was a prisoner in this piece, but no one was quite clear as to why he was a prisoner, so there was a Kafkaesque aspect. But then, finally, we know, despite all the denials why . . . his own denial and the denials he describes of others as to why it's happened.
So since maybe many people didn't that see that piece, all I can say is that there were two kinds of computer-generated video, and that these videos were interactive with the music in real time. One was animation, and that was done by Don Ritter with his own personal Omega system. The other one was done by Ray Edgar, and that was a transformation-based video, live cameras, mixing and adding various kinds of synthesized imagery to it. And these were responding to the music and to the speech that Bernard was doing. Douglas Ewart was playing also.
We were sitting in the back, operating the computers, but really, there isn't much to operate. You just turn them on and let them go, because they are listening anyway. So you don't have to really direct them. I guess when we get around to playing a little computer music, we can talk about that more. But the idea is that basically is that the computer . . . If you have a large enough collection of details about your representation of music, you can trust that, because it represents your ideas of music that you were hearing in another form. So I don't have any problems with letting the things run, if they're making a contribution. I mean, if they're making a contribution that's mutable, according to what's going on at the moment. If they're just running like a tape, I guess I'm not too excited by that. It doesn't fit in my music. I'm improvising and I want to hear things move and change, and I want to hear the results of my action in the environment that we're creating. The tapes and sequences just don't do that.
So following in the footsteps of people like David Behrman in particular, I've wanted to have these things go on. And I've been fairly extreme about it, maybe very extreme about it, to the point where there isn't anything that's sequenced in advance or anything.
So in sum, it comes down to that this record, Changing With The Times, is an attempt to refine those ideas about theater and to sort of have a radio- play. You'll see that when we play this. My dream was (and of course, I think it will never happen) that it will get played on NPR at two o'clock in the morning, and someone will say, "Ooh, how nice, what a nice voice," and they sort of drift off to sleep listening to this bedtime story, this ironic bedtime story of my father, who is talking about his grandfather, and the good old days which weren't really all that good, and it seeps into people's consciousnesses, sort of like the old-time shows, like "The Shadow," but talking about something personal.
The thing about "The Shadow" or any of those old-time radio things was that you could decide what the Shadow was. I mean, back in those days, the Shadow could be anything you wanted it to be. You could make up the imagery yourself. And that's the sort of thing I wanted to happen here. But I think because of what's being talked about, that might be more difficult. The radio plays that I hear tend to be a bit Gothic.
TP: Let's talk about the details of the performance. George Lewis plays, of course, on trombone; Douglas Ewart, woodwinds, saxophone and percussion; Mary Oliver, violin and viola; Peter Gonzales, percussion; Jeannie Cheatham, piano and organ; and Bernard Mixon, singing and speaking voice. The narrative is by George Lewis's father.
Was this written specifically for the purposes of this performance, or was this something he'd written that you wanted to recontextualize?GL: He wrote it because he is retired from the post office. He worked there for far too long. And when he retired, he had to have something to do. The class was a writing class, because having never, I think, really gone to school, or at least not very much . . . I mean, in the text he keeps talking about all the times he dropped out, which leads me to suspect he never really got to go in the first place. So the idea was that he wrote this thing in order to pass this class. And the person teaching the class was smart enough to first give them a copy of The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, basically a slave narrative, and making that context for them, making the connection within their own situations, and of course, implying that you could be writing your own slave narrative right here and now, in the 20th Century. So that's what they did. They sort of wrote their own slave narratives.
And his was sort of ironic and sort of funny, and minimized things that were really terrible. It sort of expressed to me something that we don't get to. . . You know, there are things that used to go on in that way, like the Federal Writers Project. But I wanted to have that be not a piece of documentation, but an art piece more than a documentation of something that went on. Who knows how much of it is even true? -- as Paul Carter Harrison points out in the liner notes. I mean, it doesn't really matter. There is an aspect of the Trickster or the Toaster about it.
So that was the basic focus of that.
TP: Is your father a native Chicagoan? GL: Yeah, he is. He's a native. But the story is mostly about North Carolina, which is where he was brought up. So he was part of the Grand Migration, you see. It's important to state that, because that's really . . . A theme in the piece is that if anyone has ever read a book like Nicholas Lemann's The Promised Land, or if you read the writings of St. Clair Drake I think it is, or there's lots of other documentation on these successive waves of African-Americans coming up from the South to what they thought was really a better life. And really, what it amounted to was like another country. Like, it was internal immigration, really, in the same sense as what we have now. It was just El Norte, just another version of that.
So there are lots of stories like this. In fact, I think this is really one of the main stories for me in the 21st Century; one of the main themes in art will be this notion of location. It is now, and I think it's going to grow and deepen in intensity, because so many people are displaced now. And even people who have lived in a certain place all their lives are starting to feel displaced because of their situation. The dislocation is enormous. The implication of that . . . I feel as though I'd like to explore that. That's one part of it.
[Music: "Changing With The Times"]
GL: This piece really takes a bleak look at a lot of the music that my father held dear. In other words, it's not an attempt to imitate or recreate these things. It's an attempt to integrate other things in with it. You notice at a certain point we're hearing microtonal things that really don't fit in with the traditional framework of the blues, although with the expanded notion of African creativity that the AACM, let's say, was into -- but certainly I didn't see any contradiction there. But I didn't really feel the need to do anything in terms of trying to make this . . . well, to make it anything other than . . . It's not supposed to be a period piece, really.
But I did have to put his words in the context of the music he was listening to at the time, and the music he grew up with. And it's done in the spirit of love, really.
Jeannie Cheatham I think really is the real star of this thing, if I can think of someone who really underpins everything about this record. She plays in every conceivable style. She can play classical music, contemporary music, she's playing the blues and the boogie; she wrote this boogie-woogie tune we're playing at one point. She's playing this strange organ in this sort of quasi-fight scene. So she's really tremendous on this thing.
But it's meant to be ironic. We didn't have a drum set as such, or a bass player. You know, we could have had a bass player going boom-boom- boom, and had it be very much more idiomatic, but that really wasn't the point of it. In order to look at this period, to look at the issues, we needed to take a little distance from it, and come in at not the expected angle.
TP: Is this all music that's part of your early musical experience? GL: Oh yes, very much so. Yes. But you know, the thing is that you have to continually reevaluate these things. I find that now I look back on it as something that I learned because it was just there in the community, not something you really studied. It was just sort of there in the community. But now, having to study it a little bit in order to make the record, and having to sort of understand it and try and take it in a different context, you sort of start to see connections you didn't see before. I'm not sure I can express what those connections are.
TP: Let me ask you another question related to your earlier years in the music? Was your father influential in your taking up music, or being a trombonist? Or what were those factors? GL: Oh yeah, yeah. You know, this happens a lot, I've found out. You talk to any number of musicians, composers, artists whose parents told them to do something, to take up the arts or to take up an instrument -- and it's always for the same reasons. It's always for popularity. They are so concerned about their kids being popular. Do they get along with the other kids? I guess one of those old sociologists like David Riesman can have a field day with this.
Anyway, his take on it was, "Yes, you'll make some friends and you should take up an instrument." And I said, "Well, fine, but what instrument do I take up?" He said, "Well, anything but the trumpet, because the trumpet ruins your lips," and he had these pictures of Louis Armstrong to prove that the trumpet ruins your lips. I said, "Okay, we'll just go to the store and we'll see" -- because they were having kind of a fair; you could go and look at these things. So I looked, and I don't really remember, but all I remember was, "I think we should take this one." That was the trombone. I mean, it was bigger than the others, and it looked pretty good, and I said, "Let's have this one."
I mean, I love those romantic tales about someone who always wanted to be a trombone player, and who had listened to it since they were a kid, and they really saw somebody play, and they knew that's what they wanted to do . . .
TP: Or the school band director said, "You have to play trombone because I'm losing mine, and you have to come in play this," and that's why they played it . . . GL: Right. It's usually much more a question of need. None of this exciting, terribly romantic, "Oh, I just had to do it; it was my destiny -- I saw my destiny before me." It wasn't like that.
TP: But apparently you felt an affinity for it. GL: I suppose so. But I remember also throwing it against the wall in disgust at not being able to play the damn thing. I mean, it's not so easy. One of my tasks at school was to try to figure out how we can get trombonists to learn how to play a little faster. Because by the time the trombonists sound pretty good, the electric guitarists have gone on to fame and fortune, and really some of them have probably even like killed themselves by this time. But it's very much a much faster learning curve on some of the instruments than on others -- and the trombone is one of the slower ones.
TP: Who were some of the influences that got you involved in jazz and improvising on the trombone? Were you listening to other trombone players? Were you adapting the instrument to musical ideas that you were hearing elsewhere? How did that all come about? GL: Hmm, what was that all about . . . ? Oh, I remember. Okay, it was "The Pink Panther." We were playing "The Pink Panther" in the concert band.
TP: Where? GL: The Lab School at the University of Chicago. We were playing "The Pink Panther." I thought I recognized it. They had this thing that you were supposed to play, this sort of written solo on it, and I decided I didn't want to play that, that I could just play something; I didn't like it, for whatever reason, and being 11 years old, I thought I had the right to say what I thought. [laughs] So instead of playing the thing that was written out, I played this other thing. And the director stopped the band and said, "Well, what was that?" I said, "Well, I thought I would improvise something there." It was weird. No one said, "Hey, look, here's how you do it" or whatever. They just said, "Do it again the next time." So that was it. I got to improvise my "Pink Panther" solo.
So maybe that was it for me, and then later learning things in the school jazz bands and all that. Because they didn't really have a school jazz band, so if you wanted to play anything that sounded like jazz, you had to do it on "The Pink Panther."
TP: There was an educator at the Lab School named Frank Tirro, I believe. GL: But I wasn't in that band then. The 11-year-olds weren't in that. That was a high school thing! So when I got to the high school . . . They should have these things right at the beginning. Like, Kidd Jordan has five-year- olds playing jazz compositions down in New Orleans, so it's certainly possible to do this at any age.
But later, certainly Frank Tirro was a major influence in that way, and Dean Hay also -- who were both teaching there at that time. Frank has the book now, an expanded version of his jazz book. And Dean is playing trombone again. He went into computers for a while, which I found ironically interesting, but I think he's back to playing now.
In terms of, like, adapting the materials, the music that was around the house, there was an old Lester Young record -- I remember trying to understand and play with that. There were a few Johnny Griffin records and there were a few Miles Davis records. And then I started buying all these Coltrane records. I'd say that in terms of my own investigations on a personal basis. . . Also, there was a wonderful librarian, Mr. Poole, who had Charlie Parker records, and there were also records of the electronic music going on at the University of Illinois. So I'd say those things were probably the most influential on me in terms of trying to learn how to play anything, in this sort of non-formal way. Because after a while, I just stopped taking lessons. It just seemed like, well, anyone who would get up there and play "The Pink Panther," you know, in the wrong way wasn't likely to be sitting in there and taking lessons for such a long time. So I stopped doing it. So it was always more of a personal investigation. I'm kind of used to it now.
TP: You've developed an incredibly broad vocabulary of ways of expressing yourself on the trombone. So it began through those investigations. GL: I'd say it began there, but basically the AACM was the key to a kind of mental and personal expansion and development. My view of improvisation is basically that personality development is an important part of it. And one of the ways is, of course, that you have to have information, and you have to have a framework also for presenting that information, and for understanding it, and for making sense of it. I didn't really have that when I met Muhal, and Mitchell, and Jarman, and Douglas Ewart, and people like that; and I think they helped me get it, helped me understand things about life, and made you listen to things.
We were talking the other day; it was very funny . . . You see, I used to have this thing for Twinkies. At a certain point I remember bringing the Twinkies into the AACM meeting, and they said, "You can't come in here with those Twinkies." [LAUGHS] They were serious! I had to throw the Twinkies away. So little things like that.
See, that's what I mean by sort of just personality development. They were concerned about just not about what you were playing, but also about what you were eating, what you were thinking, what you were reading, what you were listening to -- the whole business. So that was a critical passage. Then at a certain point, that prepares you for other things, certainly for listening to other things that are out there. I mean, the European improvisers or the downtown improvisers or the people writing, as Anthony calls it, notated music, or the downtown composers . . . I have to look at my work as kind of an interdisciplinary work, finally, so it's got to be hard to stick it in one category or another.
[Music: "Jeannie's Boogie" from Changing With The Times
TP: . . . Bernard Mixon's brilliant interpretation of the text of George Lewis' father, and orchestrated or . . . I'm not sure what words to use in the 1990s about arranging sounds and music around a work of text. GL: It's nice to actually think about what you just said. It's hard to put a title on it like an arrangement. Everything has changed in terms of the arrangement of music and text. For example, at the moment I'm working on a series of sort of computer-orchestral accompaniments for Quincy Troupe. I would like to sort of make a record with him, but I sort of want to put him in the midst of this interactive improvising ensemble, partly cinematic, using sampled sounds, sort of virtual poetry -- in other words, putting him in a field where he can walk around, where as he walks, the text is being spoken, and maybe he's just thinking about it. So we're sort of working this out step by step.
But one thing seems clear. I think that I like the idea of the original things we did, where he would read and I would play the trombone. But that never seemed to be quite enough for me. So the piece we heard earlier was sort of a first stab in the direction of what I want to do. For example, the text is constantly being shadowed by Bernard, and also there is a very strict arrangements, there are different parts in the poem, so that at a certain point certain key words are mirrored in what the musicians are asked to do in terms of how to direct their improvisations. So then also changes in the orchestration mirror important sections in the text. So basically there is this kind of idea of making an integrative work out of it.
I guess that's because I just didn't feel that I could sort of do . . . you know, provide the kinds of colors. Let's say, for example, somebody like J.D. Parran playing with Quincy or Hamiett Bluiett; I didn't feel able to do those things. I'm actually much better at composing it and then having it run as an environment, and then if I want to play, I can sort of play. Then sometimes the best thing is just solo trombone, but usually it isn't. And if you have all these other resources, the virtual orchestras that have been developed on instruments, sampled sounds, infra-red controllers that allow him to accompany himself, why not use those things?
You see, the thing is about music today, you have to compete with all these other assaults and appeals (I'll call them appeals maybe) to your senses. [Laughs] So somehow you have to sort of go with that, in that people take this kind of multi-sensual, multi-perspectival viewpoint for granted. That's how you grew up. Those of us who are old enough remember how strange MTV looked when it first came on, you know, and in a lot of senses maybe how hokey at the beginning, and then borrowing some of the techniques from video artists and then making their own techniques -- these super-fast montages and these sort of booming basses and all this stuff.
I'm not saying you have to do those things, just to take that. But you do have to provide a richer environment. So that's what I felt was the point of these things. Also with the piece with Jerry Rothenberg, the Chicago Dadagram pieces, it's to somehow have the text and the music integrated, but actually to compose pieces around it. So not the traditional settings of poetry that you might find, say, in contemporary music. I didn't really want to do that. I wanted to take a different approach. And maybe I am not the person who is going to write an aria and put words to it and have someone sing it. I just don't hear that being a part of what I do. I'm not comfortable with it.
So this seemed like a better approach to me, to have someone reading or speaking, or, in the case of "Changing With The Times," acting. He becomes my father, in a way. I give Bernard the tapes, I give him the script, we talk about it, we talk about the interpretation. It's more collaborative than directorial on my part. He's coming out of his own experience as much as he's coming out of mine. So that gives us, I feel, more of a cultural integration of the elements. He's so subtle about it that you tend to forget. It was similar to watching Danny Glover reading Langston Hughes. At first I thought, "Well, what's going on? He's just reading." But that was the point! Somehow the way he read and the subtlety, it just sort of overwhelms you after a while. And I think that this is the kind of sensitivity that Bernard brings to it.
TP: We'll move on in the next segment of our discussion to . . . again, it's hard to find the proper word, but I guess one might say George Lewis's work, theoretical work . . . GL: Ha-ha-ha! What?!?!
TP: . . . in computer interaction and improvising . . . GL: Theory. It's just not theoretical, man. You know, it's just music. I mean, I don't want to call it theoretical just because it's a computer in it. But you know what I mean. I'm uncomfortable with it because it's just another kind of sensual environment for things to happen. And the computer is a part of that, but that's because the technological and cultural base is there.
TP: Assimilating the technological base, however, is of a different order. It's not something that just happened, but you've been dealing with computers in terms of rethinking music, and now, with current technology, being able to sample and orchestrate and modify other musical stimuli. This has been an ongoing thing for you for maybe 20 years. GL: Maybe a little less, but a fair amount of time, yeah.
TP: Were the implications of what you could do with computers clear to you, let's say, 15 years ago? Or when did it become clear to you what you might be able to do? GL: Hmm, I think we're talking about future possibilities. When will it become clear? [Laughs]
Actually, certain things have gotten a little clearer from the beginning. But if we heard some of it, it might be easier.
TP: Shall we play it, and then discuss you and the computer? GL: Yes. You're playing a piece with me on it, or playing a piece with Roscoe on it?
TP: I guess what you wanted us to do was play two pieces with Roscoe. We should make clear to the audience what we're talking about. Another recent release by George Lewis, almost parallel to and in tandem with Changing With The Times has been issued on Avan-014, George Lewis, Voyager. Why don't you describe the premise of this particular project. GL: Well, you could call it an interactive virtual orchestra. This is what I've been trying to make for years, interactive players, computer players that can function in the environment that improvising musicians deal with. When I say "improvising musicians," I'm not talking about all improvising musicians. There's a certain subset of people that are working in kind of a freely improvised field. And even within that field, it's not a universal situation. Certain people respond differently.
So the piece is sort of the culmination, or these pieces are sort of the culmination of a lot of work that I've done in this area over the years. It was hard to get earlier examples recorded. John Zorn produced these Avan records, and I give him a lot of credit for getting this project going and for giving me the freedom to carry it out, and to David Wessel also at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies for helping me to produce it and record it, and having helped along the way in so many ways, shepherding me through the IRCOM experience in Paris and all of that.
So essentially what you hear is a duo between a person playing his instrument and a computer which is playing its instrument, which is a synthesizer, or a sample player, in this case. It has all these things it sort of knows how to do. It has a representation of what it plays, and it has a representation of what it thinks is going on out there in the world, what it thinks that the person is playing. So what it sort of does is, it uses that person's playing to guide its own composition and its own performance. But its performance isn't fixed in any way, and so you sort of have to communicate with it. You can set up events. You can set up situations. If you play in a particular way, the chances are that it will find a way to do that. That, of course, is something that is partly technological, but it's also partly personal, in that you have to compose the way you want the orchestra to sound, its essential sound, and then you provide enough hooks so that the performer can then sort of voyage around or explore that environment to see what they can do together. So it's very much like, or it is actually, a kind of improvised music, and a lot of the same things are happening that happen in improvised music.
Another thing that I find interesting about it for myself is that it's not. . .its cultural base . . . When you say about "things becoming clear," it became clear to me after a while what the cultural base of the music was. For example, the multiplicity of rhythms that go on, the sort of overt kind of emotionality that you can bring to bear on it, I didn't find to be characteristic of a lot of the European music that I was exposed to in the computer field at IRCAM. So that the possibilities of an Afrocentric computer music came to be kind of interesting, because of course, there are many kinds of theories, and some of those theories . . . And I don't like to associate computer with theory. I like to associate it with a kind of emotional transduction. Because all of music involves theory. In order to play the trombone you have to have a theory as well. Or if you don't . . . It will be better if you do. That's my feeling. If you sort of have some idea, some meta-idea of what you want . . . when you stick your arm out and spit, what's going to happen, you'll be in a good shape! [Laughs]
The thing is that you can think about this as . . . Well, maybe it's better if we hear it, and then we can talk about it afterwards.
TP: The pieces we'll hear are the two with Roscoe Mitchell. GL: #2 and #8. Those are the ones. Those are the good ones. Mine are okay. His are really good.
[Music: Roscoe Mitchell/G. Lewis, "#2 and #8]
TP: 'Voyager 5," one of eight duos between George Lewis and the computer, Roscoe Mitchell and the computer, or George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell and the computer in different configurations. Also the final track is an improvised duet between George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell. George Lewis is our guest on this program, and we're focusing primarily on his recent music. We'll subsequently hear another duo with Roscoe Mitchell, which you said showed Roscoe sort of investigating the possibilities of what he could do, and then on the next one he kind of figures it out and finds his solutions to the challenge of improvising with the computer that you programmed and your improvising program. GL: What I find fascinating about improvisation is that these are things that you can hear. It's something that comes out from sound, it's not something that you can write on a piece of paper: "Well, I want you to explore this area." People just do it. That's just what they do. And improvisation is a part of that exploration. You can't chart that out. And if you try, it's not exploration any more.
What I found fascinating about Roscoe's approach was the extent to which he uses these exoskeleton type methods, the degree to which he takes things that are internal, and makes them external, so that you can see a lot more of what's underneath. He also shows, in a way, sort of the range of the computer's own possibilities through the exploration of what it can do. He's trying different things musically, he's looking for the response, then he works with it to create these composite ideas. He's really quick to pick up on things that it does, and it seems to be fairly quick at picking up on things that he does.
And in totally different ways. This is kind of like an interspecies small talk; that's what David Behrman used to call one of his pieces. And it really is that. I mean, it's two different kind of beings in the same space, communicating, in their particular fashions. They are putting out things in their particular way and receiving things in their particular ways. It isn't necessary to equate them, or to make one into the other, or to do all the other things that people associate in these fearful ways with anthropomorphization of the computer. We don't need to do that. All we have to do is put it in space, give it the tools.
TP: Following up on that last comment: Is the computer in any way an alter- ego for you? Because you, after all, created the parameters by which it improvises. GL: Well, the computer does represent my theory of music. But what I tend to think is interesting is that people can realize their own ideas also in the environment, which is not really . . . It's my theory of music, but it's not my theory of my music. So there's a real difference in that, you see. So I can play, and it's rather different. If we play #3 on this same thing, you see, it's a very different attitude. We can play that maybe.
TP: Well, why don't we. #3 from Voyager? GL: Yeah. This is a little different attitude. I think it takes a solo.
[Music: "Voyager #3']
TP: Before we begin our next segment of discussion, I'll read program notes written by George Lewis for this CD: "What the work is about is what improvisation is about -- interaction and behavior as carriers for meaning. On this view, notes, timbres, melodies, durations and the like are not ends in themselves. Embedded in them is a more complex, indirect, powerful signal that we must train ourselves to detect." And indeed, in programming the computer to improvise on the highest level with musicians who have devoted a life to thinking about improvised music and have tremendous experience, you really had to organize, I guess, and come to grips with your ideas of what improvising is about and the parameters of improvisation. GL: Yeah. Well, that last paragraph is kind of a roundabout way of saying what Albert Ayler was quoted as saying: "It's not about notes; it's about feeling." Or to put it another way, the Charlie Parker thing, which is, "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn," to which I now say, "if you don't live it, it won't come out of your computer either." So that's really what it comes down to.
I find that this music comes out of what I have learned from the AACM, what I have learned about the AACM, what I have learned from people like Misha Mengelberg and Derek Bailey, what I have learned from many different types of improvisers. So basically, it's more a distillation of what I have learned about these things, rather than some grand organizational scheme. Although finally with computers, if you don't organize things, they crash. So on that level there's organization. But at another level, I find myself . . .
This computer program I wouldn't call a model of structured integrity. Different levels at which the creation is being made have to communicate with each other, and there has to be kind of an openness of channel. Like, you heard this sort of long solo that the computer does. Well, how it does it do that? What the long solo is based on, basically, is if I'm not playing, after a certain point it says, "Well, no one is playing; I guess I have a solo." Then it starts to make all these random judgments about what goes on. But when I say "random," I mean that it's sort of random, but in order to make a note, you have about 40 or 50 random decisions to make. So that in the end it's random, but in this room.
To decide what instrument to use is a pretty complex process. Like, when it's time to bring in a new group of people to play some piece of music, the first decision is how many instruments are going to play, then the next decision is how many different kinds of instruments are going to play. That's based on how jagged the rhythm is. The number of instruments is based on how loud things are. In other words, if someone is playing very softly, I don't want to bring in 16 or 17 instruments crashing down on their head. So that's another decision. Then you get into that, and then it gets into, "Well, what's going to be the timbre of these instruments?" Is the timbre going to be mixed or is it going to be a homogeneous timbre? So that's three decisions already.
You see, the accumulation of detail itself tends to focus that information. In other words, I could just say for each one of these decisions, "Well, just do whatever you feel like doing, and have any range you want, any number of instruments you want" -- and that tends to be very boring. But if you can direct things into groups, if you can direct things into fields, if you can define an area for a certain period of time, if you can do those things, then finally the randomness of process recedes into the background, and it recedes so far into the background that you don't really know where the randomness is.
So when people start to tell me about randomness versus non-randomness, I say, "Well, how random do you think you are? Maybe something you did today was based on a hormone that didn't quite make it to the level it made it to yesterday or something -- and what's that based on? You can get teleological about it or you can get biochemical about it, or you can do whatever you want to do.
The connotativeness behind randomness I always relate to the innate need of people to feel that they have control over some aspect of their lives. I think that it's important to realize that we're in a kind of an interdependent universe here, and I'm not sure how much control that we have over our lives. I'm sure that control is not total. That's pretty obvious. We seem to be faced with forces moving around us all. So I'm not sure what the answer is. The Voyager is not providing an answer to the question of how humans make music. It's a piece of music that operates within certain constraints, and expresses a certain viewpoint about how music could be made, not how it should be made -- which is an infinite question, really. That's what it's all about.
TP: We also get to a question about some of the antecedents or narrative structures of improvising, which I know are important to you, and which you've elaborated maybe a little more directly or explicitly in Changing With The Times. Do you have any feelings on that that you'd care to discuss? GL: Well, there is a kind of a narrative going on. The subject of the narrative is partly music itself, but then the other subject, or one of the other subjects . . . The process that's going on . . . I don't know if I used this word, but it's emotional transduction. Transduction is a process by which one quantity is translated into another. A simple example would be an electrical impulse is fed to a speaker. That's one. Electrical impulses, voltages then result in the speaker kind of moving. That moves air. We hear sound.
So in the same way, if I say that notes and tones and timbres and all that are carriers for meaning, and that meaning is embedded in these notes, then if there is a process by which we can sort of multiply that while retaining a certain essence of it, then what we're going to get as the output is going to also, I feel, retain some aspect of every part or every dimension of that sound. In other words, the emotionality, I think, will be retained.
So I don't think the computer itself has to generate emotional things or generate narratives as such. It's more a process still at this point of transduction. But the transduction depends on detail. In other words, you can't play a bunch of stuff in, and then what you get out is this one kind of output. There has to be sort of an idea of the complexity of music there. I don't want to go into all the details. But it certainly relates to things like duration, things like pitch, things like contours, things like tendencies, things like stabilities that have to be sort of gauged and mapped and responded to. In addition to the simple thing of, "What am I doing right at this moment?" there is a question of history involved in making these things work.
Also, you should be able to play very different things, and then it should be able to respond in a very different way. Like, if we played Piece #8, I think that's one where that's sort of shown. It's a very different piece from the rest, from the others we played.
[Music: R. Mitchell/Computer "Voyager Duo #8"]
TP: Roscoe Mitchell is a musical personality with whom George Lewis has been associated for just about two decades now. GL: Oh, yeah.
TP: Were you aware of him as a young musician coming up in Chicago, in your teens, in the lab school? Were you aware of the AACM at that time? GL: No. Muhal came to the school once.
You know, this question of personalities is kind of important as well. I mean, I've listened to a lot of computer music, because I'm sort of in the field and have been for a long time, and I feel I have made my tiny mark on the field. The thing is that I don't get to hear many pieces of computer music where people can, you know, get wild [Laughs] like Roscoe is doing on this piece. It's usually much more mannered. The reason I guess Roscoe's contribution is so important on this record is because it does show that we don't have to throw our emotions away when we enter into these areas. We don't have to become the stereotype of the computer as cold, unfeeling, whatever. We don't have to do that. And we can sort of get much more dynamic about it.
I have this problem also, in a way, with my work with the improvisers at the university where I'm teaching now. It seems there's a penalty for personal expression, to which it would seem one might say "What? A penalty?" -- but there is. I mean, in the real world there really is a penalty for personal expression. It's in these tiny enclaves we put ourselves in where we can pretend. But really, this complex system of music also embodies systems of values. So that someone who could really . . .
Often I get the feeling that my biggest job in working with the improvising students is to get them to overcome . . . I'm not sure what it is -- their upbringing at home maybe, or the constraints placed upon them by cultures they grew up in, or perhaps the academic environment, which it seems that maybe they perceive it might not accept them so readily were they to sort of expose themselves in the way that Roscoe or I might do, and that it would be better if they just were very safe.
And then there is that question of location. Now, Roscoe is located firmly in a tradition and a culture, and can trace himself back as an improviser to Buddy Bolden, okay, and then from there even back as far as he wants to go. Okay? That's not really true of at least some of my graduate student improvisers, who come from a different tradition, the one that has attempted to stamp out improvisation without success. So their tradition in that area becomes a little difficult. So it does affect their personality, and then that affects the playing. As one person, one professor if you will, I don't have the power by myself to make that environment one that's comfortable enough so that people can really feel they can break some of these shackles off.
But that's just one of the issues that this sort of piece brings up. That's why I really regard it as a very high expression of what I want to do with the computer music.
TP: I'd like to continue to address the question of location in terms of the development of your own esthetic, as someone who came up in Chicago, attended Yale University where there was a very interesting scene of talented and venturesome young musicians who you were able to work with, and coming back to Chicago in the early '70s when the AACM was still in full flower. GL: Well, the Yale business. You can get lucky, you know? You can be at a certain place at a certain time. When I look at something like the AACM, I realize that this is a group of people that one can count on -- at least I've been able to count on. I see people who have based their music and have sort of based themselves on friends and colleagues who have turned out to denounce them in later years. I see a lot of examples of people denouncing each other going on right now in this teapot tempest of Jazz.
One of the lessons I remember from Yale was, I remember denouncing someone in the paper. The person was a dead Phenomenologist. I thought it would be safe to denounce this person. The professor's comment was that you shouldn't go so far in criticizing your colleagues. And I had never thought of this person as a colleague. So it's very important, that definitional stance.
So that was an important lesson that came out of Yale, but it also was an important lesson that came out of the AACM, where there are all these colleagues. And I got the feeling that these people would never desert me, and that they would support me, and I would support them, and that would be an ongoing thing, and that sticking together as a group, we could stick to our guns and do whatever we needed to do, and we wouldn't have to be necessarily subject to, you know, the fashions that the commercial people put up or whatever they're going to do.
I think that's maybe the most important lesson among the many important lessons that came from the AACM. Just the other day in New Orleans, playing with Muhal and Fred Anderson and Ajaramu and Malachi Favors, and seeing these people who had been so influential on me and had shown me so many things, and there we were still playing together 20 years later, and there hadn't been any of this dissension. I mean, there have been conversations, certainly, and there have been differences of opinion. And then having talked to someone for whom the people that he thought were his friends ended up denouncing him in public, I started to think, well . . . God, I just couldn't imagine that happening. I just couldn't imagine that I would denounce Muhal or something. It would seem absurd. It just wouldn't happen. [Laughs]
I think there is an important awareness there which maybe I'm not finding so much of, or there is something that maybe people aren't seeing right now.
In terms of Yale, that's just luck. I mean, it seemed that at a certain place, that institution, an academic, Ivy League conservative institution, during my short time there, during this four or five year period, there were an awful lot of interesting people running around -- musically. I'm not sure that's so much the case. It's not a continuous thing. Things go up and they go down. But at this time, you could meet Charles Mingus; he would come . . . Willie Ruff did it all. He started this . . . He and a geology professor, John Rogers, started this thing called the Duke Ellington Scholarship or Fellowship. So they brought Dizzy, they brought Tony Williams, they brought Mingus, they brought Willie "The Lion" Smith, they brought people from all these genres, and you got to play with them and talk with them and stuff. Then there were people going to the school. I think Robert Dick was a year ahead of me, Anthony Davis was in my year, Gerry Hemingway's family is from around New Haven, Mark Helias was going there I think, Jane Bloom was going to school there, Leo Smith was living there, Bennie Maupin and Oliver Lake were living there -- so there was that whole influence, too.
So just real lucky, man! That's all I can say! I mean, there was all that going on at the same time. I was just extraordinarily lucky. You couldn't create that. Just like you couldn't write that situation where at the end of the last piece the computer started suddenly playing this ascending blues line. I mean, that wasn't something I set down and said, "Now you will play the blues and it will have these characteristics." It's just the working out of the processes, based on need and availability and environment.
TP: I first encountered George Lewis I guess around 1974 in Chicago, I think it was that year, and you were playing with the Fred Anderson Sextet on the campus there, and I heard a virtuosic trombone . . . I didn't know that much about the music. But I heard somebody playing explosive lines on the trombone like I'd never heard before, playing faster than just about anyone I'd ever heard -- and I've been impressed ever since. It's always a wonderful occasion for me to hear you in duo or trio, or just playing the trombone. So in this next set we'll hear George in a number of duets, I'm not sure how many, beginning with the final one on Voyager on Avan, George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell. I take it that this conceptually was the plan of the record, was the eight duos and then the two of you for one of what I guess must be many interactions over the years. GL: Well, we knew that whatever happened in the duo piece, it would be called "Homecoming." We played several takes, and Roscoe seemed to have a very firm grasp of what he wanted to do, and it was sort of up to me to respond to that. So in a way, I become the computer, which is sort of . . . ! So if you're talking about alter-egos, there is something there, because I tend to try to blend with what people want, try to sort of seek out what they need and deal with it, and try to enhance it, and to make sound good -- as I am told Thelonious Monk used to say that your job was to make the other musicians sound good.
Also noteworthy, in a way, is that we did have to present, I felt, a person- person interaction in order to close the circle, to balance things off, not so much for the purpose of comparison, but for purposes of elucidation, for bringing certain things to the fore that couldn't be brought out if we just had computers playing. It could be brought out in general, but we couldn't do them on this record. People could compare the computer things with other duo pieces they might have heard, or maybe other orchestra pieces they might have heard.
The real goal of this work, and I think I'm pretty close to doing this now, is to have a really . . . the virtual . . . I realized all the way what was going on was a kind of virtual orchestra. The virtuality situation is becoming very possible and very powerful. I have a new piece now for virtual percussion where there are no instruments on the stage at all, and people just are waving their arms and doing mime, and they are making music that way.
TP: The computer senses the motion and then processes that information? GL: Yeah, that's pretty much what happens. So that's sort of like people can talk to each other with their hands, and music can be a byproduct. I have a series of pieces like that. Often we don't get to see these pieces in New York, I notice. But I get to do them in a lot of other places, so that's okay. I just need an outlet. I'm not particular about where it is.
But the goal of this Voyager project is to have large virtual orchestra. Right now we're hearing kind of a chamber orchestra with pretensions to being a large orchestra. But what I'm really interested in doing is a couple of hundred voices, because this will really sort of bring problems of large-scale form in an improvised, virtual context to the fore. This is a problem which I can't think of anyone who's dealing with it. It's interesting to me. Maybe it's not interesting to anyone else. But I find it fascinating to think (I keep saying this, and this is probably too radical an assertion but I'm going to say it anyway -- and I remember offending someone terribly) that people who are really offended about the aspect of virtual instruments. While visual people and people who are doing all kinds of interactive things are interested in interactivity, musicians are still clinging to this idea of "the real," which is like way back in the last century, or the 16th Century or something -- very Platonic.
I am very interested in the Platonic even. But I am very interested in having a virtual orchestra that is mutable and that responds to the playing of individuals, and that talks within itself, a lot more than I am interested in writing a piece for some Philharmonic band or something. That would seem like a much less intellectually challenging situation at this point than working on self-organizing large-scale structures. It would just be much more fascinating.
The other aspect is that I don't think that the current level of social development of the Western orchestra can handle self-organization. It's just not made for it. It's really made for top-down control. If I wanted to think about a model of orchestral music-making that's not based on that, it seems that the gamelan orchestra, the Javanese gamelan would be the most interesting example, and that would be one that I sort of take as more of a model of how to proceed. Not in terms of making gamelan-type sounds, but in terms of how information gets passed within the orchestra and between the players. It's a heterarchical rather than hierarchical situation. So that's how improvising works. And certainly, an improvising orchestra would have to be a heterarchically based group.
So that's the ultimate goal of this work. And at some point we'll start to hear these rather large, like, 200-instrument pieces -- and it won't be possible to play them in [New York performance loft] Roulette. You can't cram 200 instruments in two little speakers somewhere. You need an orchestral- type space, or the great outdoors, or somewhere large enough. Because there are questions of scale involved. Already, scale is an issue with Voyager, because Voyager is really too large to be played in small spaces now, whereas pieces that I wrote years ago with one or two or three voices were more like chamber pieces. This is getting a little too big. It's small in the amount of equipment, but it's big in scale.
So you're always faced with this issue. And there are so many issues that underlie this that don't relate directly to, you know, the Man against the Machine business -- you know, the cliche business. Once you get past that, you can really think about some interesting problems.
[Music: Lewis/Mitchell, "Voyager"]