In the arts, you’ll come across a lot of multi-talented people, but not many who can boast the depth of accomplishment in as many areas as George E. Lewis. Since the beginning of his involvement with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) at the young age of 19, Lewis has engaged in a dizzying number of projects with an impressive array of collaborators. As an improvising trombonist, he has worked with not only AACM luminaries Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Roscoe Mitchell, to name just a few, but also with the likes of John Zorn, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, and Miya Masaoka (who is also Lewis’s wife). And that’s only a very small sampling.
Starting in the late ’70s and continuing through the time he spent at IRCAM in Paris during the early ’80s, his interest in improvisation drew him (perhaps counterintuitively) to work with computers. Between 1985 and 1987, he worked on his software for Voyager, improvising software that reacts in real time to the input of another (human) player, and which has been featured on two of Lewis’s album releases. In the last few years, his palette has widened to use computers as something other than an independent factor in his composed works, which are increasingly fully notated for non-improvising performers.
But even with such an array of accomplishment as a musician, his work as a musicologist and scholar might even be more impressive. Lewis has published dozens of articles, notable not only for their depth of insight but also for his skill as a writer. His 1996 article for Black Music Research Journal, “Improvised Music After 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives,” is pretty much a must-read for anyone interested in the subject. In 2008, the University of Chicago Press released Lewis’s magnum opus to-date, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, a formidable 700-page tome that’s nonetheless highly readable, the culmination of more than a decade’s work and thousands of hours of interviews. He is currently editing the first two volumes of Handbook of Improvisation Studies, due next year.
So the man received his 2002 MacArthur fellowship with good reason. It’s clear enough that no interview is going to be able to come close to addressing everything that engages Lewis’s prodigious intellect; but equally true is that any interview will be expansive and intensely interesting. The two hours NewMusicBox spent with him is no exception.
Trevor Hunter: One of the interesting things about your past is that while you have achieved so much in the academic realms of music and musicology, your own degree is a bachelor’s in philosophy from Yale. Why philosophy?
George E. Lewis: When I went to Yale, at first I was pretty naïve about what you could do and what you should be doing. So the idea was to do some professional thing, because that’s what you were supposed to do if you were a regular reader of Ebony magazine—you wanted to be in that part of the paper where they show what the cool blacks are doing. And they were always doing something like being a lawyer or a doctor or a businessperson, or whatever. They were never a composer or anything like that. So I thought that was what I wanted to do, and then I left school for a year, and then came back. And in the interim, of course, I met all those AACM people. And a lot of those people were really doing interesting things. I think it was probably Muhal who had a copy of the Walter Kaufman translation of On the Genealogy of Morals at his house, and he let me borrow it—that along with an Elliott Carter score of the First String Quartet. I thought both of those were pretty great.
It looked like something you could really study academically, both of them. The music major thing kind of collapsed, but the philosophy major thing continued. Because what was nice about that is you could still think about music, and you could write about it. There were all these phenomenologists there at the time, people who actually ended up doing very interesting things—Edward Casey and David Carr. And there was a team-taught class with the late Thomas Clifton who wrote this well-known book called Music as Heard, which dealt with the phenomenology of music. Very inspiring class. So in the end, it made sense to follow up with that and try to get a degree in it. It’s been very helpful since then, because I’ve continued to maintain my link with that world academically.
TH: After graduating in 1974, you released four albums of your own music in the late ’70s with you as the primary performer, starting with The Solo Trombone Record. It seems like at that point you could have sculpted a career for yourself as a sort of go-to trombone player, but you also started to work with electronics at that time. How did you get involved with making your own systems?
GL: There was a community that developed in the mid- to late-’70s surrounding computer music, an itinerant kind of community. I went to Mills and saw what they were doing there—David Behrman, Jim Horton was still alive, Rich Gold, and John Bischoff. They had a quartet of these little microcomputers, and they were hooked up to each other and doing these cool things. I thought, “This sounds like people improvising. I think I should try to do this.” It was great. I went home and got one of these things, and tried to learn. And there was a community available, so you could ask people for advice and assistance.
The goal was always to make some sort of improvising program; I wasn’t particularly invested in any other way of doing things at the time. Maybe I’ve sort of expanded my horizons since then, but it was good to do this because it called upon a lot of intellectual faculties as well, thinking about what it meant to be a person improvising, what real-time activity meant. The more you learn about what people believe they’re interested in, what they think they’re hearing, or what they think they’re communicating while in the process of making something improvised—at some point, it became pretty clear that was pretty much what people were doing in their every day life, whether they were walking across the street, or deciding what to eat in the morning, or whatever. There wasn’t a lot of difference between that and what they were doing on the stage; they were drawing upon the same faculties, having the same problems, and the same opportunities for learning. Any life experience was somehow grist for the improvisation mill.
So there was this sort of radical art-life blending that went on being technologically mediated. Maybe you could also think about ways of approaching this without the computer, but somehow the computer made it that much more evident—you were able to create an avatar that represented something different from yourself, that you somehow had to communicate and negotiate with. There were two different modes of experience, the programming experience and the performing experience. And, of course, you didn’t have to be the only one performing; other people were performing, too. And you were creating a group of people who were thinking hard about what it meant to do what they were doing. And that’s what I always wanted: music as a space for reflection on the human condition.
TH: During the process of developing all your work with electronics and eventually your program Voyager, did your relationship with the trombone change?
GL: Yes, it did. It sort of made the trombone superfluous, and in the end I decided to stop doing it as much. The trombone opened up a space of being able to do certain things, and also being able to collaborate with really wonderful people. Having the trombone as a medium for doing that was a very important thing, and in a sense without the trombone, there was really no way of investigating what would happen at the computer, because I was the number one guinea pig as a performer.
I was communicating and trying to reflect at the same time how else to communicate. I began to develop what I thought was a facility for having multiple mindsets while improvising. I’ve read that people say things like, “I blank my mind out when I play.” That’s not my experience: usually I’m thinking about a lot of different things at the same time. I think that helped me perform in a different way, because it provided a space where I could at once hear the sound and to have a sense of the intent of the other person. It’s not mysterious; people experience it every day. Parts of sound and intentionality create a link.
TH: After your activity in Chicago in the late ’70s, you moved out to New York at around the same time as several other members of AACM, and you got the curating gig at The Kitchen. How did that come about?
GL: My girlfriend at the time worked there, but I had been going there all the time anyway. I saw some great concerts there. Alvin Lucier with his dancers, or composers with electronics. It was incredible seeing David Tudor and those guys putting those speakers on resonating boards and sounding boards and pianos. It was fascinating stuff.
Rhys Chatham had a sort of drone band, and he and me and Peter Zummo played trombone; basically playing one note very loud. Being in that milieu, at a certain point Rhys said, “I’m going to step down as The Kitchen’s music director. Would you like to do this? What would you do?” So I came up with a list of things I’d like to do.
The loft jazz thing was happening at the same time, but that was more about performance, acoustic stuff. Some people were doing electronics, but people looked at that in a funny way. You know, there’s a lot of leftover received wisdom from jazz that people were trying to break out of to some extent. But there was this ambivalence that often happens to artists of color where you can’t go too far afield, because you’re already being accused of certain inauthenticity. You’re basically being policed by yourself in a way; it’s kind of a self-censorship. And then there’s a community that’s there to make sure that you don’t go beyond a certain point. So, basically, I wanted to make sure that I was with the weirdest people around, and The Kitchen was a good place for that.
So I was music director of the Kitchen before I went to IRCAM. Two years of that, from 1980 to 1982. That was cool. I gave a lot of people their first big concerts; I think Zorn was one of those, and Diamanda Galás. Some pretty good people got concerts while I was there. We had Bill Laswell’s Material group—or we thought it was going to be Material, then Bill calls the week before and says, “I want to change the band.” I said, “I don’t care; you can bring whoever you want.” He said, “I want to bring Derek Bailey and Charlie Noyes.” Who would complain about that? So instead of doing Material-type rock stuff, they did this two-hour improvisation that nonplussed a lot of the fans, but that was sort of the idea. There was a period of trying to stretch people’s ears and their consciousness. Anthony Braxton would go to Donaueschingen and play Charlie Parker for them, and then he would go to the Newport Jazz Festival and play this 50-page notated piece. That’s how it would work. You want people to not be settled in their beliefs; you want to challenge their beliefs through music, in some way.
TH: Do you think that era has ended?
GL: Well I hope it hasn’t. I mean, it hasn’t for me, but maybe I’m feeling a bit isolated. Maybe it’s not as necessary. Maybe all that work that was done before had some effect. But then, maybe not. I mean nowadays, everyone seems to want to be confirmed in what they currently believe. Technologically mediated narrow casting seems to make that possible. You don’t have to go to a concert of anything you don’t like; you don’t have to encounter a sound that you’re not interested in. What we find, though, is that there are people still out there who seek out new experience in sound; and that’s our audience. Or my kind of audience, anyway.
TH: You’ve been involved in several rich and diverse communities, including the AACM and the downtown New York crowd during the early ’80s. From my own perspective, looking at various communities of young performers and artists now, there’s a lot of anxiety about community. From your perspective, what makes a successful artistic community?
GL: Communities provide access. They provide access to history, they provide access to key individuals and traditions. So if you’re going to make a community, you have to be aware of how to provide access to community. How to provide access to tradition and history is extremely important. So, with the AACM, they may have come from the same background in some superficial sense as African Americans. But while they were all seen to be striving to do interesting things on their own, they had very diverse ideas about sound, and about compositional, improvisational direction. What brought them together?
What brought them together was a shared sense that they should be responsible for each other, because they were trying to do what you were trying to do, which is trying to advance as a person and as an artist. That seems to be the basis on which a kind of mutual aid society gets developed, and that mutual aid society doesn’t have to be limited to just that group. If there’s like 10 or 20 or 30 people in that immediate community, they should really have the sense that they should be reaching out to other people who might be thinking along those lines who they don’t know. They should be open to new people and new ideas, and treat those people as part of the extended community of people who are trying to do what they do. There are no limits to the size of the community, otherwise it becomes like a clique. But to avoid becoming a clique it means you have to be open to new ideas. You just take upon yourself the notion that you’re going to support people in whatever they would like to do; that becomes a part of personal transformation, a community of people who all are engaged in personal transformation. It becomes a practice of the self that looks outward toward the community and without limits.
TH: In terms of your relationship to New York, you started out in the downtown scene in terms of your interactivity with people like Rhys and eventually Zorn. But now you’re at Columbia, which has this stereotypically uptown history.
GL: Well, it certainly had that reputation when I was here in the ’70s. But this is my third tour of duty living in New York. After I lived in Europe, I came back to New York for a couple of years; those were not very good years. Then I went to Chicago and taught at the Art Institute for a couple of years. And then I went to UC San Diego with the help of Stuart Dempster, who didn’t teach there, and Bert Turetzky, who did, and Roger Reynolds, and then we brought in people like Anthony Davis. Isn’t that a strange community of people already? Some people might think so. But that was an amazing, extraordinary department. And that was when I began to write. So that’s a little bit of a 13-year blip on screen before the most recent New York experience, which certainly made Columbia possible.
There were a lot of wonderful things that happened when I was in California—I got the MacArthur grant and all these things happened. My big fear of coming to New York again was that I would be doing the same things I was doing here when I was 23 years old. I was coming back at 50, and didn’t want to do the same things; I wanted to try something different, something new. And then the other fear was based on not knowing anything about Columbia other than my memories of the ’70s, which were generally uptown/downtown. I remember when I came here at first, that dynamic was a family squabble as far as I was concerned. I was as happy listening to Charles Wuorinen as I was listening to Sam Rivers. I didn’t care; I liked them both, and I got to know them both while I was in New York the first time. So, for me, all those things didn’t really matter very much, although they probably matter much less to most people than they did to me at that time.
The main fear for me was that I wouldn’t be able to maintain a certain diversity. But that turned out to be completely chimerical. First of all, I’m on two faculties, composition and musicology, and the composition side includes computer music so it’s a very wide field of operation for me personally. I don’t know about the uptown/downtown thing—maybe it’s still important. There’s a great deal of diversity here with the composition students, of a kind that maybe there might not have been when the previous generation of great people was here.
TH: What goals did you have coming here as a faculty member?
GL: Columbia’s a research university, so if you’re a composer or a musicologist your research is basically musical research. And so the goal was really to extend the scope and breadth of my musical research. And what has happened has even exceeded that goal. At UCSD, I wasn’t really a part of the composition faculty. In fact, we made our own sort of faculty; our area was called Critical Studies and Experimental Practices. But here a lot of the effort has gone into trying to extend compositional practice. It’s been great being a part of the composition seminar on a weekly basis, being exposed to a lot of new developments in composition from around the world, and being associated with an open-minded group of people who are nonetheless firmly invested in what they believe in. You don’t want to lose who you are, but still, I’ve really been able to learn a great deal from that, and that’s reflected in my current set of compositions.
I’ve been getting more involved with the thorny and cranky medium of composing for non-improvisers in more extended ways. There are improvisers here at Columbia; there are people doing what might even be called “sound art” or “interactive media and music”; but you know, there’s a majoritarianism about writing scores on paper here—virtual paper nowadays. So you sort of get swept up in that, but I was swept up in a different way than I was at IRCAM in the ’80s. There’s more of a maturity about it. That’s on the composition side.
On the musicology side, I’m sort of the 20th-century person here, or at least I was until Ellie Hisama came. Which is great, because now there are sort of two of us in musicology. We’ve been able to do several interesting things. We’ve been able to diversify the student body, in particular in the area of having more African Americans. African Americans in composition programs, especially the so-called elite ones, are very difficult to find. And the hardest thing to find in any avant-garde scene in music is an African American woman. So we managed to break that particular barrier at Columbia in terms of the graduate student make up, as well as other seeming barriers.
Another goal is to do what happens in the AACM, which is to provide the atmosphere for exploration. You try to instill a sense of that openness about gathering community that I was talking about earlier. Communities—even a diverse community like Columbia—does have its preferred set of value systems: some of them are built into the curricular requirements; some of them are built into the folkways of the institution; and some are built into the faculty and the people who come here with their own views of the world. The people who don’t share those views just don’t come, or are selected out of the process. And that ends up being a problem because you don’t want to be self-fulfilling or self-perpetuating where the same people come every year with the same sense of ideas. So there is a bit of a struggle, but I don’t think I’m the only person struggling. I think we’re all trying to struggle in our own ways with those issues.
So I’ve found it to be a pretty salutary experience being here. And there’s community beyond the music department: there’s a comparative literature department; there’s a history department; there’s an anthropology department; there’s an African American studies department; there’s women and gender; there’s art history. It’s a huge place, and there are amazing people in all these fields. What I find interesting about being in an academic institution is that you are able to interact with ideas from other areas of the intellectual community, and actually bring your own sense of discovery and research into the public sphere. I think the challenge for me in musicology and composition is that we are not really sufficiently invested in the public sphere. When I say the public sphere, I’m talking about The Atlantic Monthly, New York Review of Books, or various blogs that are out now. The public sphere’s kind of fickle. If we’re not a part of it, then those ideas aren’t influencing the conversations. So certain kinds of humanisms that come out of contemporary music don’t turn up in that sphere, and it impoverishes both our community and the communities that could benefit from that.
Nobody came here with the intention of being an underground hero. We want our work to be seen and heard and understood, or misunderstood. We believe there’s something in it beyond just the careers. Not just the composers, but the performers, and the performer-composers. In the last 20 years, the most amazing development for me has been the number of ensembles, much more than there was when I was in New York the last time. Wet Ink, Argento, Talea, ICE, Sospesso, and Pamplemousse, just to name a few, they’re all doing these amazing things. And it’s not just in New York, either. Tristan Murail was telling me about going to Alabama and meeting contemporary music groups there. It’s happening in a lot of places around the country.
I think these developments are the result of people redefining what they mean by “communities.” A community of that kind has to necessarily be international; it’s supported in part by the internet to make things possible that weren’t possible before, but overall, it’s still this internationally, technologically mediated community that is gathering people in and looking for some new experiences. I think we see it now, and I think we’re going to be seeing more. I don’t know how people are surviving, but they’re doing incredible work. When you go to see one of these ensembles perform, it’s just unbelievable. How do they do it? I remember trying to get together a freelance band with these wonderful freelance musicians who are among the best in the world at what they do. People like Jean Kopperud, an incredible clarinet player. But now, there’s 20 of those people who are capable of doing incredible work, and come from these top flight places and who are, as they say, serious as a heart attack about doing what they’re doing. And a lot of them are composer-performers, which is in another kind of tradition; but composer-performers maybe in a slightly different way than previously. Although composers always did perform their own work, and the work of others to a very high degree, somehow I think that there’s something a little bit different in this group. I’m not quite sure what it is. Anyway, I’m pretty happy about it. I think it’s something that surprised me and it has been very, very gratifying for me to see how these people operate.
TH: Contemporary music and musicology entering the public sphere is sort of The Big Question in those fields, it seems to me. For the people involved with that, what can be done to take an active role in entering the public sphere?
GL: This is one of the hardest things to do, and people are going to have to be pretty ruthless and cynical about it. I was at UCSD in the ’90s. There are people there who are pretty influential in the world of scholarship—not just music, but many things. And they had no idea about what the musicians in this great music department were doing. So your job as a person is to go out and make those links. But that requires you do some research about what has been going on in those areas, and it might require you to develop some moles in the system, so to speak. There’s always somebody in there who is interested, and you don’t know who they are, but it’s kind of your job to find them. There’s no possibility of mass marketing. You’re not going to get attention without some mole in the system.
I think what’s going to have to happen is that people have to do things on a more personal basis. They have to extend their community to people who are more involved in the public sphere than they are, and be prepared to articulate the reasons why they think it’s important. A lot of people just aren’t; the old reasons don’t work anymore: it’s good for you; it’s going to be great in 100 years; it’s high culture work that exemplifies the highest ideals of human kind. People don’t believe that stuff anymore. Plus, it was never really true.
As others have remarked, people are ready for very interesting sounds in the movies. So there’s already an installed base of people who understand odd music because they listen to it all the time. They’ve been listening to it since they were kids. But they don’t connect that with larger structures that are active in their own experiences. That means that some people have to be developed who can make the translation. And I think that musicologists are in a place to do that. The ones who are working on new music are going to have to investigate the place of new music.
If they want to see how it was done successfully, look at new media. New media is definitely in the public sphere. Everything from intellectual property to the interfaces for DJs and electronica to ideas about identity and computing, they’re filtered into the mainstream discourse. It’s all there. The people who did computer music in the ’70s could have done that, but they were pretty much navel gazing about trying to get into the pantheon of Beethoven. If we hadn’t been thinking about that, we would have spent our time trying to acquaint people with these fascinating ideas that were coming out of music. We acquainted ourselves with it, but we didn’t go any further with it. I think new media was very successful in forging an institutional matrix that included technology corporations, government institutions, and academic institutions. There’s a lot of intellectual power there.
TH: I’m actually quite curious about the appeal of the pantheon, or what drew you in. Why is there a greater emphasis placed on the historical significance versus the significance of now?
GL: It’s not that you don’t want to be a part of history or be disconnected from a tradition. I think a lot of people in my generation wanted to be connected with more than one tradition or history. You know, they were Americans. There’s an experimental music tradition here, and they saw it as being a multi-cultural, multiple media experience. They wanted to be a part of that, and somehow make their mark on it. That was their notion about what the so-called pantheon was.
At the same time, you want to be aware that the pantheon is being made now. People are dealing with the issues of their time and not some other time, and that has to be the primary focus of that artist’s work, as he or she sees it. But there’s kind of a career move where if you can become associated with a particular genre, maybe rewards come for successful incorporation into that genre—you get more money from ASCAP or BMI, or you maybe get a certain commission, or maybe publishers come in your direction.
Those personal rewards are still mediated by race and class and, to a lesser extent I think than before, gender, although I still think gender is very important. So you may find a sort of disappointment if you’re not one of the favored members of those groups. It’s been denied that Saul Bellow asked about the Proust of the Papuans and Tolstoy of the Zulus, but that was the attitude. And so if you were considered to be one of the descendants of the Zulus or the Papuans, you would have a harder row to hoe in certain communities. Maybe you go outside and look for them and develop your own pantheon, or maybe you just don’t think about it. You spend your time concerned with grappling with those issues and looking for other people, regardless of field, who are grappling with the same ones.
TH: I want to step back to where we were before I got off on that tangent about the public sphere. You said that you were writing notated music for non-improvisers, but there’s sort of a politic to notated music; in my experience people who do more improvised music need to grapple with the different relationship that exists with performers who are playing your music off the strictly notated page. Is that something you’re considering in your work?
GL: In the old days, when I was writing, I tended to let my ideas about improvisation and egalitarianism enter into the composition. I always felt like I didn’t want to have some people just sitting there doing very little and other people are doing a lot. I wanted to try to make sure everyone got a chance to exercise something important. That tended to make the piece a little overly busy in some ways, which was mirroring what was happening in certain strands of improvising where things would get pretty busy, partly because the notion of egalitarianism meant that people were loath to think of themselves as background or foreground. But you need to think about background and foreground in any kind of music, including improvising. The other thing is that improvised music is not free of power relationship problems. There are power struggles and struggles for attention going on right there inside the piece, right there while it’s being performed, and you can hear that. Certainly as a performer you can be attuned to it, but not all performers are. Not even all improvisers are. But after awhile you do learn to hear these things, and to use them as part of the work. You could simulate that in a composition, in a notated work, but there’s no reason to.
Just go for the sound. That’s how I look at it. Go for the form. Go for the ideas. Try to figure out where the piece is headed. All the talk of linear form and stuff, it’s so retrograde. I mean people in other areas of art practice aren’t talking in those ways. So you need to get outside the loop of just the people thinking about composition. Now what you said was something a little different. What you asked about was whether I’m thinking about performer-composer power relations?
GL: The funny thing is I’m not quite experienced in that in the same way, because people decide to play this music because they’re interested in it. So the most powerful thing you can do is to write something that the musicians really want to play, something they maybe haven’t seen before. I don’t think of it so much as power. I look at it as opportunity. I don’t have power struggles like that. I’m not trying to impose my will on anybody.
TH: Well, especially with chamber ensembles, it’s much easier to maintain an individual level of engagement. But within certain grander institutions of music like, say, the New York Philharmonic, there’s a disconnect between performer and composer. They’re doing it because it’s a job, and if you’re doing it because it’s a job, then power relationships become more pertinent than they would in a more open environment.
GL: One of my very best students, Ben Piekut, wrote a chapter in his dissertation on the John Cage performance of Atlas Eclipticalis with the New York Phil. Talk about power struggles. It’s a very legendary performance because everyone basically accepted Cage’s view, which was that the performers were childish and stinky and they busted up the instruments and they played the music wrong and they deliberately sabotaged the performance. That narrative from 1964 goes on 40 years. Then Ben says, “That’s very interesting. Let’s ask the performers what they were doing.” So he interviews these people, and the things they say are variations on, “Well, I wasn’t acting that way, but maybe some of the other guys were.”
Yes, they were doing it because it was a job. One person said as an excuse, “Well, we didn’t have any private stock options.” Sometimes people form their own judgments about the composers, especially these young composers. Maybe some of the players didn’t get into music to play certain kinds of pieces, and so they play them under duress. But even so, one hopes that a kind of professionalism will prevail on both sides of the aisle. And one of the things that I think Ben’s research turned up was that John and those guys were still learning how to do orchestral music. They didn’t have the same experiences as Stockhausen because they didn’t have access to the same resources; that wasn’t happening in the American context.
It may be that as a composer you will encounter situations that are not ideal in terms of how your music is regarded by the people who are charged with performing it. That’s your problem. It’s always the fear, sometimes justified but often overblown, that the orchestra has this reputation regarding contemporary music for being sometimes recalcitrant. I’ve only had one orchestral piece performed. It was the American Composers Orchestra and they were pretty tractable. I mean they were tractable to the extent of performing on stage live with a computer-pianist who played the music, and they had very complimentary things to say about my computer-pianist, which pleased me and relieved me to no end. There were a lot of codes being broken, and the orchestra exists with a series of codes. Sometimes younger composers don’t know what the codes are, and don’t know how to finesse the codes.
You know, being an optimist as I am, I feel that composers do have an ability to inspire people that think they’re doing it for a job. Sometimes by what they write, sometimes by their fervent belief in what they are doing, and sometimes by just laying back and letting it happen. Where the problem comes is when people respond right away to any sense of antagonism. Just don’t let the neurons fire. Just suppress them. If you feel a little draft, you say, “Okay, I felt a draft. Now let’s go to measure 47.”
Even if they’re doing it for a job, they want to feel they’re doing a good job. Basically, it’s on the composer to deliver a score that lets people do a good job. One that’s well written, that’s well orchestrated, that lets people sound good. Thelonious Monk supposedly said to Steve Lacy, “You’re supposed to make the musicians sound good.” Well, that’s what you want to do as a composer. You want to let everyone sound as good as they can sound even though they may be doing something they’re not that familiar with.
TH: One last question: to use the colloquial metaphor, you wear a lot of hats—composer, improviser, performer, scholar, teacher. I would think that breadth of activity requires such a commitment of time and energy that it’s hard to keep all the balls in the air. Why do you engage with so many different areas of activity? Do you feel like being spread out as a scholar, as a performer, as a composer, et cetera, does it have a negative impact on any one aspect of what you do? And actually, I’d be curious to know how separate you consider all these aspects anyway.
GL: I used to think they weren’t that separate, if one gets the same sort of emotional impact from all of them. For me, when a composition is working—I’m looking at a piece and thinking, “Yes. This is it. It’s working.” The same thing when you’ve got the scholarly article working, “This is working. The story’s being told. It’s all coming together. Fantastic.” Or if there’s a certain part of the improvisation where you think it’s working—although I find that a little more illusory. I’m always skeptical, even at the time: “Is this really working?”
But yes, there could be an issue of spreading oneself a little bit thin. I spend a lot of time investing in diversity, and now I’m starting to reap some of the benefits by having a wider palette of references for me to draw from, and that’s going to enable me to look at the particular areas that I want to concentrate on and do my best work in for the next few years. The thing I’m working on the most right now is composing and then probably just as much on writing—scholarship of certain kinds, a new improvisation book. The thing I’m not working as much on is performing because when you’re not working on it, you’re not really advancing in it. It’s the old model of practicing everyday—I’m just not doing that. I want to be able to do newer things. I mean, I’ve played the trombone in improvised contexts since 1971. That’s quite a long time. I think that if I stopped tomorrow, it would be okay.
What would I do if I couldn’t play anymore? Is that going to be the only leg you stand on? Are you going to bet your whole creative life on this one thing? From the age of 20, I didn’t feel I could do that, and in the end, I feel that was a good question to ask early on. A lot of my resistance has been to resist people who have tried to channel my playing to be the only thing. That’s a point of active resistance, because of the peculiar nature of the policing of the African American artists in particular. And I think a lot of artists, regardless of color or gender or whatever, do face this.
So yes, certain things over the next five to ten years may be done less—but then I’ll be enjoying them more. I’m feeling pretty free, especially after the McArthur thing happened. I mean, it was really not the money. It was mainly the sense that you had been doing something all this time that you got recognition for on some level, and I was unclear as to what it was. People say, “Why did you get this thing?” I have no idea. First of all, they don’t call you up and say you got this for doing this. You just got it for being who you were. So if I just keep being who I am, then probably other cool things will happen. And if not, what the heck. You did it. It was encouraging in a major way, and I stopped worrying about identity at that point. Suddenly there was no need. Do what you’re doing and keep exploring and see what happens, and it was felt there was some kind of support. There was a community out there to support that. But there always has been because of the AACM. And you talked about a goal here, earlier about the academic environment, I’ve often wondered why the academic environment couldn’t be more like the AACM. That is, having a sense of people who are committed to supporting you no matter what. So that’s what I think I try to do with the students here. You know, no matter what happens, no matter where they go, we’re going to try to help them do it.