Musician George Lewis riffs on improv and ethics

Chicago’s own George Lewis—an esteemed musician, composer, and scholar—returned home to host a night of music and discussion at Mandel Hall this past Friday.

By Katherine Stewart

Chicago’s own George Lewis—an esteemed musician, composer, and scholar—returned home to host a night of music and discussion at Mandel Hall this past Friday. He has received many honors, including the 2002 MacArthur Fellowship, an Alpert Award in the Arts, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. Upon Mandel Hall’s stage, Lewis collaborated with artists and scholars like Alexander von Schlippenbach, Arnold Davidson, and the Great Black Music Ensemble. In his discussion, Lewis focused not only on purely musical topics, but ethics and aesthetics as well. The Chicago Maroon spoke to him about his work and how his Friday night unfolded.

Chicago Maroon: What overall characteristics would you use to describe your music/improvisation techniques and structures?

George Lewis: I’m pursuing what I like to call a “post-genre” aesthetic, so I try to avoid expressing an overall style. Improvised music is a swirling conversation that goes beyond expressing “emotions” and “beauty.” There’s an exciting philosophical conversation going on, where we are reading the complex set of desires being expressed at that moment. The product, of course, is the sound, but equally important are the processes, which tell us that improvisation becomes a human birthright that the audience can share through our capacity for empathy.

CM: Could you describe your thoughts on ethics in music?

GL: Embedded in the sounds of improvised music are desires, goals, likes, and dislikes. Part of the ethics of improvisation is to create spaces for everyone to realize themselves, but also to situate themselves within a society of sound, where one has responsibilities to that society and beyond. The larger implications of this become clear when you think about the notion of improvisation as a way of life.

CM: So what happened Friday night? Can you give us a run down?

GL: This [was] part of my residency at the University’s Center for Disciplinary Innovation and the graduate seminar I’m teaching with Arnold Davidson on “Improvisation as a Way of Life.” For the first part of the evening, Alexander von Schlippenbach and I perform[ed] “Interactive Trio,” an improvisation for me on trombone and two pianos—one played by Alex, the other by a computer program that listens to us and improvises its responses. Then, Alex, Professor Davidson, and I pursue[ed] a discussion of improvisation in music and in life, considering issues of ethics, communication, technology, and social responsibility. After that, the Great Black Music Ensemble of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) [performed] pieces by Nicole Mitchell, Mwata Bowden, and myself, with Alex as guest soloist.

CM: What do you have to say about your collaborations with Arnold Davidson and Alexander von Schlippenbach?

GL: I met Professor Davidson at a conference in Berlin where we both gave papers on improvisation, and since that time, we’ve collaborated on scholarly presentations in Paris and at the American Academy in Rome. I’ve been performing with Alex for over twenty years, including his Globe Unity Orchestra, which has been active since 1966. At the Berlin conference I performed a version of “Interactive Trio” with Alex and guest violinist Mary Oliver, so we’re continuing that conversation here.

CM: Do you have any goals for the future? Any new compositions or upcoming performances?

GL: There are some wonderful ensembles all around the world that are very willing to perform new music. In New York, I’m creating new work for groups like the International Contemporary Ensemble, Wet Ink, and Talea. Also, I have a collaborative project with Oxford University Press to create a two-volume Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, an interdisciplinary volume which is to come out in 2012…[It] will present the state of the scholarly discussion on improvisation in the arts, humanities, and the social and technological sciences, and includes work on both musical and non-topics in philosophy, economics, anthropology, computer science, classics, and many other fields.