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5 Questions to George Lewis (composer, improvisor, trombonist)

Composer and historian George Lewis is the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University and has been a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians for forty-three years. In celebration of the AACM’s fiftieth anniversary, he has transposed his 2008 book, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press) into an opera that showcases the rich internal discussions of the experimental group. The complete opera premieres at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago this fall, and the New York City concert version Afterword, The AACM (as) Opera will be premiered by the International Contemporary Ensemble at Roulette in Brooklyn on May 22 and 23, 2015, at 8:00 PM. We sat down with George to learn more about his experience composing an opera for the first time.


What was your inspiration for this dramatic telling of the AACM’s internal dialogue?

My book on the AACM from 2008 is the basis for the libretto; I interviewed one hundred people for the book and I thought, wow, I’m just talking with you in this room and I’m hearing all this poetry. It was beautiful, beautiful prose. And it wasn’t really the poetics of everyday speech; it’s the poetics of something else. People were trying to recount how they came to be themselves on the south side of Chicago in the 1960s, as young African American artists trying to figure out how to reposition themselves beyond category and genre, and the societal and discursive strictures they have to fight in order to confront those limits. So if you take that poetry and enhance it with the orchestration and the setting, you don’t really have to create dramatic conflict. It’s more creating a space where ideas can merge and circulate. The arias come verbatim from the interviews – if some of the people who are still alive come to the opera … “George, this is something I said on tape! And now you’ve set it to music.

This is your first foray into opera after a long career as a composer. Was there a particular challenge in writing the piece?

I discovered that you can’t recreate anything. Even if you have a blueprint, you can’t recreate anything that comes out of a socially interactive matrix. The opera is not trying to reproduce Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians models of production; it becomes a part of the general atmosphere of diversity and creativity. The AACM has been around for 50 years and has a very diverse constituency of people; certain people obviously became more prominent than others in the press, but I tried not to play favorites. I had to ignore that and say “inside here, we’re all pretty much the same, we have ideas and we’re trying to figure out how to survive, how to create new music, how to realize our aspirations.” I couldn’t see myself writing in a character with a real name; instead, I felt the need for avatars and representations.

Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and George Lewis – Photo by R.I. Sutherland-Cohen

Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and George Lewis– Photo by R.I. Sutherland-Cohen

The AACM is often described as a group of people who wanted to revitalize jazz. Does the opera address this misconception?

I think the opera really addresses that question up front. Look, they’re not stupid. If they wanted to call it the Association for the Advancement of Jazz Musicians, they could have done that. So why didn’t they? I went through the archives – a lot of them were audio – and I heard people talking about ways of getting around societal issues and compositions that will create a certain atmosphere and be conducive to the propagation of creativity. They were trying to change the model of representation, and grappling with the nature of a much more complex world than they had been told was available. Limiting people based on gender or race or whatever to a specific area of the world or view or set of practices, that’s a discursive move. In trying to break out of that, a whole new world of creativity opens up, just by the power of your mind.

What is a way forward for young experimental collectives today?

A lot of the organizations that came up in the wake of the AACM saw their primary focus as promoting their own music, but the people in 1965 when the AACM was created saw themselves as serving communities. They were putting themselves and the music at the service of others. They wanted to have a school – they still have a school – and to be serving other people besides just themselves and their artistic career. So that might be a model that people could consider; maybe there’s more to an artistic collective than just serving musicians.

How do you hope your audience engages with the opera and its history?

It’s a historical subject, but I’m not treating it as a history that you can compare exactly with my book. It’s not a historical opera; you don’t have to think about it temporally. Within the opera there are debates about the best way to go, what people feel comfortable with, and how we can create ourselves. I would like people to empathize with what the avatars debate, which is something that probably relates to who they are and their own aspirations.  It’s an opera about aspirations.