George Lewis, Improvisation, and the Rhizome

This is the written portion of a presentation by the same name I gave at the College Music Society‘s Northwest Chapter conference.

George Lewis is one of the most significant composers in the world of computer music and improvisation.  Beginning his musical career as a trombonist with the AACM (American Association of Creative Musicians) on Chicago’s South Side, Lewis began to create software that would interact with improvisers as a human would, emulating a human’s musical sensitivities and providing a powerful partner for an improviser such as himself or his fellow AACM musicians. I will delve into the influence of late twentieth-century thought on his work, including the French post-structuralists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari as well as scholars of African-American aesthetics including Robert L. Douglas and Olly Wilson. These scholar’s concepts of the Rhizome and Afrological aesthetics play a significant role in my understanding of Lewis’ work.

Perhaps the most studied of Lewis’ works is Voyager. Lewis composed Voyager in Forth, a “curiously hybrid compiled/interpreted environment,” by Charles Moore. The program is non-hierarchical and it interacts with the ensemble in the way that any other performer would (the iteration of the program discussed in this article is intended to interact with two live human improvisers). The processes at play in Voyager include many different parameters for what sorts of things the interactive system could do; whether it should listen to and respond to one, two or none of the performers; how many different channels should be active for this 5-7 second period of time, etc. Pitches come from a table of values from Harry Partch’s 43-note scale, and “all communication takes place sonically,” since the computer can generate notes on its own. Ultimately, the “at least thirty different parameters” Voyager takes into account form a complex interaction with the human performer that nonetheless retains some of the emotional character of the improviser’s intentions.

Lewis is deeply concerned with the nature of African-American musical practice, in contrast with the Euro-American musical practice that dominates conservatories, universities and so-called “fine arts” institutions. He points out that European musical values of clarity, objectivity and precision still pervade in computer music, even as it attempts to overthrow the existing European tradition by building new structures from the ground up. Any synthesis of musical values from Africa and Europe are bound to be reductive, since each continent carries thousands of years of recorded history and an astonishing array of cultures, languages and musical traditions. In the context of Lewis’ work, however, he is mostly concerned with these aesthetic traits insofar as they influence contemporary United States art music, which is a far narrower scope. He is not attempting to describe all European or African music, simply the music from those cultures which is most relevant to his musical concerns––namely 20th century European avant-garde and computer music and the musical traditions of west Africa via the diaspora and its development into blues and jazz.

Citing scholar Robert L. Douglas’s influential essay, “Formalizing an African-American Aesthetic,” Lewis is clear about the aesthetic implications of a program like Voyager: “Thus Voyager is in clear violation of the dictum Douglas identifies here as Euro-centric: ‘don’t overcrowd your composition with too many elements.’” The deep aesthetic features of European art music retain a specter of its origins in the liturgical music of the Catholic Church: its emphasis on clarity and rational order (laid out as early as Boethius), its notational system that emphasizes harmonic, melodic and rhythmic structures over texture, timbre, expression and improvisation, and the privileged role of the composer. In Lewis’ music, sounds are not meant to fit into a rational, organizational framework. Too often in European music theory and analysis, the “genius” of music is revealed though a consideration of how the music fits into a neat and orderly musical schema. Lewis resists this by allowing sounds to come into being on their own terms, without the need to impose a structure upon them.

Lewis also cites Olly Wilson’s breakdown of six important features of African-American musical practice: “(1) rhythmic and implied metrical contrast, (2) singing or playing in a percussive manner, (3) antiphonal or call-response activity at several architectonic levels, (4) high density of events in a relatively short time frame, (5) contrasting timbres and (6) physical body motion.” One can see these features at play in Voyager, given the ways the program interacts with the human performer, along with countless other examples. Lewis’ use of computers in his improvisation also has precedents within African-American music. As he writes in “Foreword: After Afrofuturism,” there is a long history of Black musicians incorporating new technology into their music, from Sun Ra and Pamela Z to Jimi Hendrix and Moor Mother. This experimentation and interest in technology among African-descended artists goes as far back as the Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh and writers like Aimé Césaire and Octavia Butler.

In his article, “Improvised Music After 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives,” Lewis examines the neglect for African-American artists in histories of music since 1945. The two terms he coins in the title refer not to specific traditions but to tendencies that are constantly in flux and favor divergent aesthetic perspectives. The concept of “whiteness” is defined mostly by exclusion: it is a term to be deployed towards political ends of maintaining the currently-defined power relations in society. In fellow AACM member Anthony Braxton’s view, this exclusion manifests in music when white composers invent terms to avoid the cultural baggage around the term, “improvisation,” referring to “aleatoricism” or “indeterminacy”—technical jargon akin to that of the sciences. Thus the improvisation of Bebop provides a “challenge” for white Europeanized music that must be answered in one way or another. (Lewis and Braxton share many affinities in their thought, though Braxton’s thought is extensive and nuanced enough to be beyond the scope of this paper: Lewis cites his “three-volume, eighteen-hundred-page Tri-Axium Writings (1985),” in an article for the Journal of Contemporary African Art.)

For a clearer example of the difference between Afrological and Eurological improvisation, note the differences in improvisation between the work of Lewis and Braxton with something like Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke XI, where the performer plays through a set of pre-composed phrases, with precise instructions for how to interpret and move from one phrase to another. Unlike Voyager, Klavierstücke XI is a closed system: while in a sense every performance is unique, there are a finite number of possible interpretations of the score. Nothing happens that Stockhausen himself did not account for, and the performer has little to no expressive input to be able to create something truly new. Stockhausen is not the only practitioner of this Eurological approach to improvisation, with John Cage using the I Ching to help him compose various works and Terry Riley letting performers choose how quickly they move through the fifty-three phrases of In C.

The technical and musical developments of rock music (created by black musicians such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Fats Domino and iterated upon by white musicians) are rarely discussed with regards to the history of “serious” music. Scholars of 20th-century experimental music were more willing to finding precedents in distant European traditions such as figured bass and Renaissance polyphony than in the music of contemporaneous black musicians. Even a musician as amenable to free improvisation as Derek Bailey still retains a fundamentally European assumption of objectivity though his “non-idiomatic” improvisation. Lewis as points out that Bailey’s criticisms of jazz are more concerned with the institutions surrounding jazz music than the purely sonic character of the music. In an article about Lewis’ study of the AACM, A Power Stronger than Itself, Charles D. Carson argues that Lewis’ historiographical project is of a kind with those of rappers such as Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def): “Scholars and artists like Lewis and Mos Def seem to offer an alternative. Like the best historians, they posit readings of the present that integrate re–readings of the past, and in doing so, expose both the discourses that inform the contemporary Black experience, and the often hidden power structures that sustain those discourses.” Lewis and Mom Def thus both take action against the conventional music narratives of music which marginalize the role of black innovators. 

Lewis notes the differences between what he calls the Afrological and Eurological systems of improvisation, where the latter creates systematic and formal restrictions on the improviser by an external authority (the composer), while in the former there are limitations imposed from within each individual performer. Afrological improvising also puts a much greater focus on personal expression on the part of the improviser. He ties the Eurological perspective with the “post-Kantian ‘autonomous significant structure’ identified by [scholar Rose] Subotnik in her essays on contemporary Eurological music.” Subotnik points out the assumption common to European composer that we can create musical structures that do not retain the values and powers of the person who created that structure, and that the artwork stands up due to its own laws of internal consistency. Lewis also notes the similarity between Subotnik’s analysis and the implications of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, which prove the inherent limitations of any logical system to describe itself or prove its own consistency. Thus the “autonomous significant structure” that Subotnik identifies within Eurological musical thought––that is, the desire for theorists and composers to create a theoretical edifice upon which their music will stand up to rational scrutiny––contains inherent contradictions and limitations and is not as universal as the most ardent proselytizers would like to believe.

Before he was a musician with the AACM, George Lewis studied philosophy at Yale. In an interview with the San Diego Reader, Lewis hints at the influence of critical theory and French post-structuralist though on his aesthetics. Author Jeanne Schinto writes: 

Lewis also recommends “listening to music of all kinds, listening to expert or even inexpert talk, responding to various kinds of visual and performative art, being aware of what is happening in the sciences.” The next step [to learn improvisation] “is making connections between the music and the rest of what you are experiencing. The critical-theory people call it ‘rhizomatic’ thinking…Your personal environment gets richer, and it gets more difficult to separate one element from another; the divisions seem arbitrary and limiting.”

The term Lewis uses here, “rhizomaitc,” was coined by French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their 1980 book Mille plateaux (A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia). The term refers to the growth of rhizomatic plants such as ginger root or turmeric, which do not grow a root system but rather expand in many directions simultaneously––thus there is no single “center” from which everything else grows. Deleuze and Guattari’s method in A Thousand Plateaus attempts to resist conventional European philosophical thought by taking the reader through a whirlwind of non-linear thinking, making connections between natural sciences, mathematics, philosophy, geography, historiography, politics, music, literature, psychedelic drugs and absurdist humor. 

In Lewis’ thought, the act of improvisation is highly rhizomatic. There is no single source from which all musical ideas emanate during a group improvisation; musical ideas grow in multiple directions simultaneously, and some paths are abandoned and others taken based on the whims of the improvisers. The dynamics of a group of improvisers are by their nature communal, while each performer’s personality remains at the fore of the music. This complex interaction between diverging musical personalities is of central importance to jazz, as well as the posse cut in hip-hop where as many as a dozen rappers get their chance to show off in friendly competition with one another (one of the many intriguing connections between jazz and hip-hop).  Lewis also notes the similarity with basketball, where teams develop higher-order group intelligence as players have to improvise based on the individual styles and tendencies of their teammates and their opponents. The extramusical implications of his work seem to inform his entire creative process. “For me music is a powerful symbolic way of doing philosophy, of doing sociology, of manifesting resistance and presenting alternative models of thought in realms not directly related to music-technical concerns. Far from being non-referential, pure, or abstract, I see my music as taking a direct part in the dialogue about our planetary situation.”

George Lewis is an important figure to study for any musician interested in improvisation, computer music and critical theory. Through his work we find a nuanced critique of the power structures and hidden biases of European art music education and culture along with new paths forward. Much has already been written about Lewis, but a full-length examination of his work and thought is overdue, along with his fellow AACM musician Anthony Braxton. Musically, the full technical capabilities of his programs such as Voyager offer much for the young computer improviser. An in-depth technical study of programs such as Voyager would be worthwhile for any young composer interested in computer music, improvisation and non-linear aesthetics.

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