After a nearly twenty-year absence, trombonist George Lewis has recently returned to New York City to live and work as the Edwin H. Case Professor of Music at Columbia University. An active composer and improviser with a deep interest and vast experience in computer music, Lewis has been a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) for more than three decades and in 2002 was named a MacArthur Fellow. He is currently finishing a book on the history of the AACM and AAJ-NY caught up with Lewis recently in his office at Columbia.
All About Jazz: First of all, welcome back to New Yorka little belated.
George Lewis: Oh no, not at all. I snuck in anyway. I was here a year before anyone noticed.
AAJ: How does it feel to be back, compared to San Diego?
GL: Well, I love San Diego. I kept my house there. I'm kind of a self-starter, I don't need a lot of outside stimulation. And to be frank, I was afraid of coming here because of the phenomenon of "killing the golden goose." So many good things happened to me in San Diego, like the MacArthur thing...
AAJ: Congrats on being recognized as a "genius."
GL: Yes, whatever that means [laughs].
AAJ: You were the music curator at The Kitchen from 1980 to 1982. How has the creative and improvised music scene changed in 25 years?
GL: I don't know if I want to comment on that. I mean, I don't know if there is a single creative and improvised music scene. It was certainly much less diverse then than it seems to be now... Although, if I had to comment on this one, my main observation would be that, then as now, it's a really serious struggle for survival.
AAJ: Economic survival?
GL: Economically, but also just to get some attention. It's much more difficult now to get attention. Major organs of the press are far more corporate-controlled than they used to be, much more aligned with large institutions than they used to be... On the other hand, there's the Internet, which didn't exist then, there's various blogs that didn't exist, there are a lot of independent publications, independent record and DVD companies and online distribution of music. Another thing I find interestingmy impression of "the scene" is that it's much less racially stratified than it was back then.
This could be my total illusionsomeone will probably tell me when they read this, "George, you just don't know," which may be true, but it appears to me that I see more different kinds of people. I see more women, I see more people whose first language is not English. I don't see the black-white binary being as important as it was in the '70s... On the other hand, I don't think we've reached the state of nirvana yet in that regard.
AAJ: Returning to your being a MacArthur "genius," how did that recognition affect your careerdid it allow you to focus on something you hadn't been able to previously?
GL: I think it really changed my consciousness, more than anything else. I mean there were certain projects that it made easier, certain ideas that it made easier to think about. The main things were the mental resources. That is to say, I kind of felt much freer suddenly and I'm not quite sure why. It was as if I were freed from a lot of things that had really been occupying me in unhealthy ways.
GL: Doubts? Well, what do I saydoubts are healthy I think... Suddenly, I wasn't very worried about what people thought about my work; I just felt more empowered to go with what I was interested in. And I guess that's a terrible thing to say, one should go with what one is interested in, in any event, but in the end it made it possible for me to feel much more open to change than I had been before. And I guess at this moment I am, as the guy from Pulp Fiction says, "in a transitional period." [laughter].
A lot of the things that I was doing before the award, I don't want to do any more. There's always an issue, when you become well known for doing something, that you feel you have to keep reproducing that... And at a certain point, you might want to be able to transform that "you" into a totally different you. But that's much more scary and much more difficult. The idea of computers and music, of course, I retained that.
AAJ: So when did your attention first turn to computersin the '70s?
GL: Yes. Computers in the '70s were either mainframes in large institutions or people making them on their own, putting them together out of spare parts and I was part of the latter group. You taught yourself how to do circuits and programming and all that. There were not Apples or PCs!
AAJ: And so you've grown to use computers in live performances?
GL: Probably for close to thirty years now... I've been working for a long time basically trying to do something very simple, which is to have the computer improvise along with the musicians. It's simple in concept, there's not much to it, but it's not simple to create. To have the computer operate more or less in the same space as the musicians, exchanging information...
The idea is that improvisation in music, or in any domain, is a matter of exchangeexchange of sound, exchange of personal and cultural narrative, exchange of histories and so on... Music gets exciting to me when I can empathize with people who are doing it. That's why I like improvisation so much, because there's a sense of empathy and you can place yourself inside the other person's consciousness and you can be part of them and try to plumb their motivations. Otherwise it just becomes a lot of cool sounds and that doesn't interest me.
And so as a composer and computer-music programmer, my job is to create environments where the computer makes mostly decisions that seem plausible and try to reduce the number of bonehead moves that it makes.
AAJ: It's interesting you speak of empathy, because I think we tend to think about computers as impersonal and cold.
GL: Well, I don't know about "we" but I don't think about them that way, but maybe there is a "we" that thinks that way [laughter].
AAJ: I'll be more careful about my pronouns.
GL: No, please, it's great to hear the "we"!
AAJ: Well, when I picture a few musicians playing together and a laptop across from them, I think of the humans as having more personality, warmth, empathy.
GL: That's interesting. I guess over the years, I've had to give up that idea. I mean I did believe in it at one time, but then I wanted to see how far it could go. And you know it can go pretty far. Over the past 25 or so years that I've been doing this, I've seen the computers and programming that I've made evolve along with my thinking about what music is. Computers have helped me to think about music and helped me to understand improvisation more thoroughly than I used to. And one of the things I've discovered for myself is that a person can be very warm and nice and a pretty bad improviser! [laughter]
So at a certain point you have to listen to the music and say, well, it's great to have all that warmth and everything, but what about the music. And to me, I'm looking more these days at who the good players arethere's no reason for me to exclude anyone, human or whatever. If I think they're doing a good job, let's see how far they go.
AAJ: So your experience is that the computers you've programmed are just as responsive as humans?
GL: No, no, that would be overdoing it. But who knows how far they can go? I think they've gone very far already. But you know, the whole man/machine competition thing is pretty cliché at this point... Basically my major task now is to explore music and not machines and man. I think that ultimately my work in computers is mainly about exploring what we do as human beings.
Visit George Lewis on the web.
George Lewis, Solo Trombone Album (Sackville, 1976)
Anthony Braxton, Quartet (Dortmund) 1976 (hatART, 1976)
George Lewis, Homage to Charlie Parker (Black Saint, 1979)
Steve Lacy Seven, Cliches (hatHUT, 1982)
John Zorn/George Lewis/Bill Frisell, News for Lulu / More News for Lulu (hatART, 1987/1989)
George Lewis/Bertram Turetzky, Conversations (Incus, 1998)