Author: George E. Lewis

I Can’t Breathe:  A Virtual Dialogue

A protester carrying a banner stating "I CAN'T BREATHE." Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

In 2016 I first heard I Can’t Breathe, Georg Friedrich Haas’s haunting work for solo trumpet, performed by Marco Blaauw at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.  Haas’s work, written just after the birth of the Black Lives Matter organization, and well before the concept of Black Lives Matter came to international prominence, raises a number of important questions about the response of the international new music community to the increasingly multicultural and multiracial, i.e., creolized, societies in which its performances, curatorial directions, and critical and philosophical inquiries are being presented.

I Can’t Breathe was conceived and written in 2014 as a response to the police execution of an African American citizen, Eric Garner, on a New York City street. Garner’s “crime” was selling “loosies,” single cigarettes from a pack. This was said to be technically a form of tax evasion, which is not a capital crime in the statute books. However, a bystander filmed a police officer restraining Garner bodily with an illegal chokehold. On the video, Garner was heard to repeat the words “I can’t breathe” eleven times, before passing out and lying on the ground for seven minutes. While the authorities waited for an ambulance, Garner passed away; the autopsy cited “[compression] of neck, compression of chest and prone position during physical restraint by police” as cause of death. Despite nationwide protests, charges were never brought against the officers involved, although one of them was eventually terminated in 2019.

Georg Friedrich Haas: I can’t breathe (2014) for trumpet solo
Marco Blaauw, trumpet; Janet Sinica, video
(Lockdown Tape #66 in Ensemble Musikfabrik’s series of live to tape recordings of solo pieces in times of Corona lockdown by ensemble members.)

It seemed clear that Haas’s piece took on renewed relevance with the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd, who before passing away, interspersed urgent pleas to be allowed to breathe with plaintive calls to his deceased mother. In the wake of the much larger, worldwide protests over Floyd’s killing, the widest range of individuals and institutions, including those in the field of new music, are being called to account for their actions regarding race.

I have always been intrigued with the questions raised by I Can’t Breathe, so I decided to talk to both Marco and Georg about the piece. The method I am using here to combine our respective dialogues is similar to the penultimate chapter in my 2008 book, A Power Stronger Than Itself:  The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press), in which I selected quotes from nearly one hundred interviews with AACM members to fashion an imagined intergenerational dialogue about overarching social, cultural, and aesthetic issues that the organization and its individual members faced over the decades. I blend this new imagined dialogue with critiques of scholarly writing about the piece.

I begin with Georg’s understanding of the motivation for the work.

GFH:  Well, it was a spontaneous activity. It happened when we looked out of the window at our house and we saw some demonstrations, Black Lives Matter, below us, and I said, OK, we have to go down there to join this. And suddenly this anecdote popped up about Chopin, when he heard about the revolution in Russia and decided, instead of going to Paris, to fight in this revolution. But he changed again and decided to go to Paris and work for the idea. And it is clear that this actually helped the revolution in Poland much more than he could have done by being part of the military activity. In the same way, I decided it’s not my job to protest in the streets. It’s my job to protest in the arts. And this is maybe one of of a few pieces [of mine] which had some nonmusical connotation.

At the time, Georg was already quite late with another, much larger commission, but as he recalled, “Because it was such a spontaneous idea, there was no time for me to make a large, huge internal discussion about what is the right way to discuss this. Just do it. Do it now. And I think this idea is one of the possibilities to go to work as an artist.”

  • It seemed clear that Haas’s 2014 piece took on renewed relevance with the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd.

    George Lewis, composer & musicologist
  • I decided it's not my job to protest in the streets. It’s my job to protest in the arts.

    Georg Friedrich Haas, composer
  • I feel that sometimes in the audience, people do not dare to breathe anymore.

    Georg Friedrich Haas, composer
  • Anybody doing political stuff is told to just shut up. But as I see it, you're bringing a needed message to this public.

    Georg Friedrich Haas, composer

The present essay was prompted by a discussion I had with Marco Blaauw this past summer about the frequent negative responses to a Facebook announcement that his new-music group, Ensemble Musikfabrik, posted about this forthcoming release. Indeed, a number of the comments around the Facebook posting indicated that white new music people really had no business even speaking about the topic. One commenter suggested that Haas had “appropriated the words of a dying black man to become his anodyne aesthetic plaything.”

That such an apparently non-confrontational work could generate such heated debate seems ironic at first hearing. However, I read a number of these responses as exemplifying the growing pains that the field of new music is undergoing as its composers, performers, listeners, curators, scholars, critics, and educational institutions gradually awaken, now certainly fitfully, to the need to develop a far more refined and trenchant discourse around the location of the field in a creolized creative environment.

Marco_Blaauw playing his specially desined microtonal trumpet (Photo © Astrid Ackermann, courtesy MusikFabrik)

Marco_Blaauw (Photo © Astrid Ackermann, courtesy MusikFabrik)

Despite the shocking nature of its subject matter, I Can’t Breathe is anything but sensationalistic. Rather than a wailing lament, Haas produces a restrained elegy.

GFH: The piece starts like a sentimental twelve-tone Kaddish. What I do technically, the process is, that this Kaddish is taking away the space to breathe. You are singing freely and the space gets closer and closer. And what I did technically is just to transcribe and transform the melodic elements into smaller intervals. As I reduce it, the melody is squeezed into 16th tones. The music is really very difficult, and Marco in this performance really is able to sing emotionally within these small intervals. There exists a cantabile in these 16th tones. And I still have this very traditional translation of a huge range of intervals describing the entity of the free world, and therefore it starts with the spaces between the lowest pitches of the trumpet and the highest, soft.

Marco Blaauw’s perspective on Georg’s technique evokes the blues:

MB: A blues player colors the notes, so to notate that, Haas uses what he has always been using, microtonal intonations. In the beginning, it’s like more and more colors to the melody, and then it becomes more and more strict as the melody goes from the big trumpet range to the tiniest interval, interrupted all the time by these single notes that are held for a very long time and pull you in.

GL:  I feel that the piece as a whole can be usefully contextualized as a form of pranayama, the study of the breath: a meditation on breath and life. We are asked to feel ourselves inside the breath, following its every nuance. The piece has a timeless quality about it, although it’s only thirteen minutes long.

MB: I do think it’s very, very meditative. And in that way, I think the brain starts listening more and more for details so that when you come towards the middle of the piece, you actually hear all the microtonality, the tiniest steps. You can actually listen to them because you’ve been trained during this short duration of the piece to all these little things [sings], this blues melody, like a variation on two notes.

GL: I’d also say that with its emphasis on depiction, I Can’t Breathe is very much in the American tradition expressed in Duke Ellington’s concept of the “tone parallel,” which includes Charles Ives, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins. The use of the harmon mute is of course related to the African American tradition, very effectively through Miles Davis. And then there are those super-high “squeeze” notes, an innovation in technique that is closely associated with the Ellington Orchestra’s altissimo specialist, trumpeter Cat Anderson.

GFH: And it was you who said to me that this is a specific technique of jazz, these very high pitches. It’s very rarely used in new music. For me the association is more to Luigi Nono, for whom high melodic gestures are a symbol of utopia—for example, the beginning of his string quartet, Fragmente-Stille.

GL: The piece is about aspiration in the literal sense, and with regard to the conceptual context, for me the squeeze notes depict severe restrictions on the breath, while the hesitations in the tone production refer to the fragility of life as the breath is strangled. The breath becomes rougher and more fragile as the life force goes out.

MB: The association with suffocation comes in when that becomes softer and softer and longer and longer and you get literally out of breath. But I don’t think it’s really meant that way. And then the piece falls apart after that. It loses structure also by the use of softer and softer mutes. And then, in the end, it’s just the silences and the single notes which are, as in the beginning, very, very long. Don’t you think that when you listen to a piece and you see somebody play a very long phrase, it’s almost like you stop breathing? I think when you have long silences, the same thing can happen. I feel that sometimes in the audience, people do not dare to breathe anymore.

GL: It’s like the audience can’t breathe. And you, the trumpeter, evoke a sense of empathy via a kind of transubstantiation.

In a 2016 essay, musicologist Max Erwin positions I Can’t Breathe as program music, which from the foregoing conversation seems evident enough; indeed, Haas appears to find no substantive moral imperative on either side of classical music’s traditional debate over programmatic versus absolute music. However, the author provocatively characterizes the nature of the program as “more accurately, western art music snuff” (Erwin 2016, 10). However, rather than a criminal’s recording of an actual murder for macabre or prurient interest, one can summarize Haas’s origin narrative for I Can’t Breathe as a determined response to an atrocity (in this case, musically) by a concerned citizen.

However, when the deformation of race becomes involved, an atrocity is no longer just an atrocity, and music becomes more than just music. Erwin sees Haas’s approach as exemplifying “a pervasive self-satisfied attitude and concomitant mode of production within the New Music apparatus. Under these auspices, the ‘politically engaged’ composer writes ‘protest music’ which laments the fate of this or that marginalised group” (Erwin 2016, 9). Thus portraying Haas’s move to assert humanistic values as simple political posturing, Erwin maintains that the statement in Haas’s program note—“I leave no notes to the perpetrators” identifies an object of political critique—’the perpetrators’, whilst simultaneously extricating the subject (composer/artwork/audience) from the object of critique… The object of critique is exactly that; it remains fundamentally over there, safely removed from composer and audience to observe and lament (Erwin, 10).

Erwin’s critique would have greater currency and credibility if new music as a field could demonstrate an ongoing concern with black lives, including those of its own Afrodiasporic composers and performers. However, this lack of engagement with issues of race is precisely what Haas is pointing to with his program note. Bringing this level of engagement from “over there” to “right here”–to himself as composer, to his audience, to the performer, and to the historians, critics, and institutions of new music–was exactly the goal of the piece.

In an influential essay, theorist Sylvia Wynter pointed out the consequences of the routine use of the acronym N.H.I. (No Humans Involved) by Los Angeles juridical and enforcement institutions “to refer to any case involving a breach of the rights of young Black males who belong to the jobless category of the inner city ghettoes” (Wynter 1994, 42).

By classifying this category as N.H.I. these public officials would have given the police of Los Angeles the green light to deal with its members in any way they pleased. You may remember too that in the earlier case of the numerous deaths of young Black males caused by a specific chokehold used by Los Angeles police officers to arrest young Black males, the police chief Darryl Gates explained away these judicial murders by arguing that Black males had something abnormal with their windpipes.

Indeed, this image of the deformation of the Black windpipe is central to the iconography of I Can’t Breathe. The remainder of Wynter’s “open letter to my colleagues” attempts to answer her own pointed question:  Where did this classification come from?

GL: In both the title and the content of the piece, there’s a conceptual aspect which is very important. It’s not just an exercise. It’s designed to make people think. And I was telling Marco that for this sort of white audience for new music, it should make these people think.

GFH: Thank you. That’s very good. And in the end, in fact, this is what I also can prove. In interviews, I’m very often asked about this. And of course, this gives us a chance to speak about this, within surroundings in which, additionally, nobody is speaking about it. This is a way in which, in my opinion, political music does work.

Mostly staying in the softer and more difficult-to-sustain regions of the trumpet, I Can’t Breathe is zurückhaltend (reserved), and not only by the composer’s choice. Rather, the situation forces the composer’s writerly hand. Here, I find that the piece’s intensity depicts both a fragility and a Stoic nobility, where Eric Garner, George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Rayshard Brooks, and thousands of other black citizens are literally trying to draw upon their reserves of breath in a life-or-death struggle with forces who, backed by a culture in which black lives and liveness do not matter, take no significant notice of the humanity of those lives, while negating their own humanity in the process.

While Erwin’s thesis concludes that “Haas’s piece is at least five degrees removed from even the most rudimentary criteria of effective political protest” (Erwin 10, n16), in this thirteen-minute lament, political protest seems to be no concern whatsoever–unless protesting racialized injustice is now to become merely a political matter. Rather than a reductive rerouting of human values to questions of political efficacy, I Can’t Breathe is simply about black subjectivity, and what it means to be human.

Even so, our virtual conversation took on an ominous tone:

GL: The piece doesn’t have a happy ending; one could play it again and again, and a Sisyphean hell would be evoked. That accounts for what I find to be the work’s pessimistic quality– in the sense of Afro-pessimism, or how to function in the face of the possibility that Western society might prove permanently unable to shed its preoccupation with anti-blackness as a central part of its identity.

Indeed, it could be that at this late date, a reserved, conceptualist approach may not be enough. To begin with, Marco Blaauw was concerned about the ethical dimension of this kind of work and these kinds of issues being presented by white institutions, composers, and performers, in the white-majoritarian new music context:

MB: You don’t think that when I go to that festival and I ask my fee and I play that piece, that is somebody profiting from the situation?

GL: I feel that when you play this piece, and other people play it too, it brings those issues to an audience that isn’t often exposed to them, or maybe doesn’t think that those issues are relevant to their lives, or feel that what you are performing is totally antithetical to pure musical expression–what are you doing with this political stuff? Frederic Rzewski went through the same thing, John Coltrane, Bruce Springsteen–anybody doing political stuff is told to just shut up. But as I see it, you’re bringing a needed message to this public. And if you don’t do it, who’s going to do it?

Sylvia Wynter saw the disclosure of the category of N.H.I. as an opening from which to spearhead the speech of a new frontier of knowledge able to move us toward a new, correlated human species, and eco-systemic, ethic. Such a new horizon, I propose, will also find itself convergent with other horizons being opened up, at all levels of learning… It is only by this mutation of knowledge that we shall be able to secure, as a species, the full dimensions of our human autonomy with respect to the systemic and always narratively instituted purposes that have hitherto governed us–hitherto outside of our conscious awareness and consensual intentionality (Wynter 1994, 70).

This new awareness bears strong resonances, not only for the understanding of I Can’t Breathe, but for the future of new music itself. In the end, a creolized work like I Can’t Breathe represents a move toward a new identity for new music. No longer framing itself as a globalized, pan-European sonic diaspora, the goal of a creolized new music field is less about pursuing diversity than achieving a new complexity that promises far greater creative depth by recognizing the widest range of historical, geographical, political and cultural cross-connections. As the philosopher Arnold I. Davidson has noted, “Multiplication of perspectives means multiplication of possibilities.”

As Georg Friedrich Haas has declared, “With this piece, I declare my solidarity with the protesters” (Haas 2014). Indeed, each performance of I Can’t Breathe demands from  contemporary music a further solidarity: an affirmation that black lives and black liveness do matter, to its history and to its future.

The first page of the musical score of Georg Friedrich Haas “I can’t breathe” Copyright © 2015 Universal Edition Vienna.

The first page of the score for Georg Friedrich Haas “I can’t breathe”
Copyright © 2015 Universal Edition Vienna. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission of European American Music Distributors Company, U.S. and Canadian agent for Universal Edition Vienna, publisher and copyright owner. This license is valid for distribution and usage in the territory of the world.

References 10 June 2020

Erwin, Max. 2016. “Here Comes Newer Despair: An Aesthetic Primer for the New Conceptualism of Johannes Kreidler.” Tempo 70, No. 278: 5–15.

Haas, Georg Friedrich. 2014. “I Give No Sound To The Perpetrators: Ein Kommentar.”

Lewis, George E. Unpublished videoconferencing interview with Georg Friedrich Haas, 14 June 2020.

Lewis, George E. Unpublished videoconferencing interview with Marco Blaauw, 14 June 2020.

Wynter, Sylvia. 1994. “’No Humans Involved’: An Open Letter to my Colleagues.” Forum N.H.I.: Knowledge for the 21st Century, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall): 42-73.

Blogging the 2011 ACO Composer Readings: JCOI Origin Story

[Ed. Note: From June 3-7, 2011, Columbia University’s Miller Theatre will host a series of readings of new orchestral compositions by the American Composers Orchestra. The weekend will begin with the Underwood New Music Readings, now in its 20th season, featuring works by six composers (Friday and Saturday). Following that, eight composers’ works will be read as part of the Jazz Composers Institute Readings (on Sunday and Monday), now in its second season. Over the next six days, we’ll be hearing from several of the participants involved this year. As in past seasons, it should be a fascinating and widely varied musical journey. —FJO]


I studied composition with Muhal Richard Abrams in the early 1970s, and three decades later, historicizing the experience in my book, A Power Stronger Than Itself, I wrote that the AACM School at that time was largely informed by autodidact learning strategies.1 However, the term “autodidact,” I feel now, is something of a misnomer, because it implies that the learners sit at home by themselves with scores, books, recordings, and other instructional materials.

Certainly one of the most influential autodidacts of the 20th century was Arnold Schoenberg, who briefly took counterpoint lessons with Alexander Zemlinsky. Once the lessons had ended (the main result of which, on one view, was his marriage to Zemlinsky’s sister), Schoenberg (however irascible) was anything but a hermit; rather, his learning and eventual innovations had everything to do with his headlong plunge into the creative cauldron that was fin-de-siècle Vienna, exemplifying the point made by Janet Wolff, Howard Becker, and many other sociologists of art and culture—that the production of art is strongly or even largely social.

So it could be with learning, and perhaps the term “sociodidact” might be more descriptive of this type of individually driven, community-mediated pedagogical process. In any event, the creative communities that generate practices of contemporary music and experimental jazz constitute epistemologically functional entities that define, valorize, and legitimize knowledge and social aesthetics. In my experience of 1970s and 1980s New York, these communities intersected, intermingled and even intermarried, and part of the dynamic here involved complementary sociodidacticisms; the jazz end of the spectrum was developing sociodidact practices of composition, drawing on models that were well known to members of the contemporary music community, which was in turn busy developing sociodidact models of improvisation that drew—sometimes openly, sometimes furtively—upon a range of practices in the jazz community.

The result was a kind of experimentalist bimusicality, the sort of thing that one might expect to see from a new kind of well-rounded and increasingly cosmopolitan musical artist. This new, hybrid community produced new music that implicitly proposed the demolition of the fixed boundaries of genre, practice, cultural antecedents and social conditions to which its parents were subjected. The result was a set of creative realignments that remain highly influential today, fracturing and rupturing genre assignations along lines that any postmodernist would be familiar with.2

Of course, structures of race, class, and gender mediated these sociomusical processes, and certain rigidities in the formations of these two communities persisted. Weighing heavily here were the different orientations to academia. Academically based contemporary music from 1970 to the present was little marked by Schoenberg-style autodidacticism; rather, graduate programs in music composition formed epistemological communities that transferred knowledge, traditions, technologies, and professional expertise in primarily notated forms of compositional practice across the generations. Experimental practices became canonized—microtonalism, spectralism, extended instrumental technique, and computer-assisted composition, by which term I do not refer to notation software such as Finale and Sibelius, but to programs such as PWGL, Open Music, Audiosculpt, and the like, that facilitated modeling of medium-to-large scale musical objects.

On the jazz side of academia, matters appeared considerably different; few programs in jazz studies, as I saw it, pursued analogous experimental models, a situation that became exacerbated in the 1980s with the rise of fealties to received traditions that were always far more contentious and ultimately more welcoming of difference than corporate-driven media models insisted; as Count Basie told me the night after I performed a “silent” solo with the band in 1976, “I like all that experimenting you’re doing.”3

Part of the issue was infrastructural; as I note in my account of the 1976 Anthony Braxton “Creative Orchestra Music” session, AACM autodidacticism had produced a community of composer-performers who had trained themselves to code-switch between standard jazz performance models and complex rhythms and interval complexes that were rarely encountered in jazz big band writing; the session, as with AACM work more generally, amounted to postmodernity in action.4 Two decades later, Wynton Marsalis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning composition, “Blood On The Fields,” promulgated an analogous code-switching, as highly trained jazz musicians received time and funding to learn to execute passages well beyond the capabilities of most jazz orchestras, however highly trained in conventional forms.

One could imagine a similarly outfitted jazz orchestra or jazz studies program, along the lines suggested by William Grant Still for the classical orchestra in 1930 in his call for a “Negro symphony orchestra,” where “Negro” was a metonym for code-switchers who could both improvise and perform complex notation—an experimentalist experience that musicians of his generation, such as Duke Ellington and James P. Johnson, were already exemplifying.5 However, in my experience, jazz-identified composers and performers of today who were interested in large-scale work of an experimental bent were generally more likely to pursue these experiments autodidactically or within smaller, personalized communities of practice, rather than academically. Moreover, academic programs in both jazz and classical composition were slow to take note of the experimental hybridities of the itinerant world. These programs functioned not so much as simple networks of traditions and practices as sociomusical locations, each with their own versions of what constituted real knowledge.

Enter the American Composers Orchestra, whose 2004 “Improvise!” initiative had already introduced jazz-identified composers to the resources of the classical orchestra. That year, the ACO premiered my “Virtual Concerto,” for full orchestra and an interactive computer pianist performing on a 9-foot Yamaha Disklavier. Subsequent years featured works by Vijay Iyer, Susie Ibarra, Steve Coleman, Henry Threadgill, Uri Caine, and Fred Ho.

Running in parallel with the ACO’s concerts were its ongoing orchestral readings, a kind of farm team approach to professional development well known in classical circles. Emerging composers, more often than not enrolled in or recent products of graduate programs in composition, received performance and instructional opportunities to engage with difficult-to-access orchestral infrastructure in open rehearsal.

It was Michael Geller, executive director of the ACO, who brought the idea of instituting ACO readings for jazz (identified) composers to me, in my capacity as the (now outgoing) director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. The ACO’s work had already substantiated a strong desire on the part of jazz-identified composers to take advantage of the hybridities and opportunities for extended form and infrastructure that had opened up over the past quarter-century. At the same time, given the differences in social aesthetics and pedagogical directions between jazz and classical academia, one could not simply conceptually migrate standard models of open rehearsals to a jazz context; for one thing, the kinds of expertises for which graduate student composers were being prepared were not necessarily central to jazz studies programs.

Moreover, as something of a code-switcher myself, I detected a disconnect that had gradually developed between the two communities; not surprisingly, the 1970s became the period after which the disconnect in techniques and histories proved most acute. As I saw it, a romantically hermetic autodidacticism was unlikely to ameliorate the situation. The most recent techniques were simply not available in the libraries other than in score form—and how were isolated autodidacts supposed to deal with these new ideas, notations, and the like? One could certainly attend concerts, listen to recordings, and examine scores—but which ones? To really learn these ideas, you have to be part of a community that thinks about them and develops them.

So my counter-observation to Michael was that the hybridity of the experimental music community needed refreshing, perhaps by promulgating a renewed exchange of expertises, narrative, techniques, and histories. To that end, we jointly conceived of a kind of workshop week in which those hybridities could be renewed and rebooted. From this mycelium, the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute emerged, and in July 2010, with the help of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, a set of jazz-identified composers, diverse in age, gender, and musical orientation, came to the Columbia campus to work with mentor composers in a community-based, sociodidactic engagement with the most recent approaches to orchestral composition, along the lines that one might receive as a student in a graduate composition program such as Columbia’s. At that point, the pedagogical process could inform a subsequent session of orchestral readings by selected composers from this initial cohort; these readings, which I’m very excited about, are occurring this weekend at Miller Theatre at Columbia.

Of course, as this YouTube video indicates, multiple motivations animated the project.

For me, I felt that we could provide an example of how extended infrastructure could help another set of emerging composers to realize ideas and creative dreams that I know they harbored. Everybody was talking about it, and here was a way to make it happen. Moreover, as with the AACM School, we were trolling for converts— education the fulcrum for the leveraging of a potentially new community of creative music. I felt gratified to learn from the post-institute reviews by participants that we were able to contribute genuinely new insights to this small group of composers—”seeding the clouds,” as I told someone, in the hope of expanding the community to create new conversations of the sort we experienced during July 2010’s JCOI workshops.

Certainly the JCOI model or something like it is generalizable beyond its initial conditions; I look forward to seeing how other musical communities create their own hybrid creative partnerships.


1.George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

2.A small but steadily growing body of journalistic and historical accounts supports these views of the New York downtown of the 1970s and 1980s. One early and prescient account of these events is to be found in John Rockwell, All American Music: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983). Later histories tend to extend Rockwell’s understanding; see Kyle Gann, American Music in the Twentieth Century (Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 1997); Bernard Gendron, “The Downtown Music Scene,” in The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene, 1974-1984, ed. Marvin J. Taylor (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006); Tim Lawrence, Hold on to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992 (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009); and Benjamin Piekut, Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and Its Limits (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011). Theorizations and historicizations produced by this generation of composer-performers are to be found in the John Zorn-edited Arcana series of books. See, for instance, John Zorn, ed. Arcana V: Music, Magic, and Mysticism (New York: Hips Road,2010).

3.For an eyewitness account of the “silent solo” and its aftermath, see “Interview with Bill Hughes,” Cadence, Vol. 23, No. 11, November 1997.

4.Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, 339-41.

5.William Grant Still, “A Negro Symphony Orchestra,” Opportunity September 1939.

Introduction to A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music

George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music

Reprinted with permission from A Power Stronger Than Itself, by George E. Lewis, published by the University of Chicago Press.

© 2008 by George E. Lewis. All rights reserved.

READ and watch a conversation with George E. Lewis.


Around the fall of 1996, I had been promoted to full professor in the department of music at the University of California, San Diego. I was sitting in the office of my colleague, F. Richard Moore, who probably doesn’t realize his role in the creation of this book. Dick had just finished his landmark book, Elements of Computer Music, and was busy extending cmusic, his set of software tools for musical experimentation. Dick saw cmusic as an example of a research project blending creativity and science, and pointed out to me that this was the very sort of project that might not receive support outside of the academic environment, even if the underlying ideas were arguably fundamental to the field of music technology. That was an argument I understood, because as an itinerant artist, I had tried to write on planes and trains, in the manner that one imagined Duke Ellington doing during the writing of his memoir, Music Is My Mistress. Now, I began to wonder about the kinds of projects I could initiate that would best utilize the strengths of the academic infrastructure in ways that complemented or exceeded my already established career as an itinerant artist. I began to think seriously about writing a biography of Muhal Richard Abrams.

As it happened, that year, 1996, Wadada Leo Smith had invited Muhal for a residency and concert in his program in African American improvisational music at the California Institute of the Arts. Muhal had invited me to participate in the concert, and so I drove up to Valencia from San Diego with the intention of sounding him out about the project. We went on a long walking excursion in the desert warmth, ostensibly searching for an espresso bar, although Muhal doesn’t drink coffee. When I broached my idea, he quickly shook his head—but then said that he would rather be part of a book project on the history of the AACM. That possibility had also crossed my mind, of course, and it seemed completely appropriate, since so many of our dreams as members of the collective had focused on creating a book about that history.

In 1981, Joseph Jarman and Leo Smith interviewed each other with a view toward constructing a general history of the AACM. The project was never completed. In the end, realizing such a work requires considerable infrastructure, by which I mean a network of people who are willing to engage the work—read it, comment on it, publish it, distribute it, and provide the time and funds for the kinds of ethnographic and historical research that the life of an itinerant artist makes difficult, even given the amazing achievements of the early twentieth-century African American historians that the late Jacob Carruthers called “the old scrappers,” including J. A. Rogers and John G. Jackson, among others.

I had already begun to realize that the AACM membership would never trust an outsider to construct its history. As AACM cofounder Jodie Christian told me in 1998, “Muhal said that it should be somebody in the AACM, and pretty soon, somebody will write a book; this was four or five years ago. One time I thought he would write one, but he ain’t got time to write no book.” So Muhal and I began talking about what the book could be, and I came away from the project with a determination to begin writing. At the behest of Samuel Floyd, then the dynamic director of the Center for Black Music Research, I had just completed my first published article for Black Music Research Journal, and was ready to proceed with a new project. During a visit to the Midwest in December 1997, I began interviewing musicians, starting (naturally) with Muhal. It quickly became evident that our conversations would range far beyond the biographical orientation that one might expect. Naturally, Muhal was vitally concerned with how the organization would be represented in the narrative.

If it’s going to be a musicology thing, or a thing that includes the AACM and talks about all this other stuff, I’m not going to participate. I’ll just cut right out right now. We’ve waited too long to put out a document. I don’t want to be part of that. . . . I didn’t spend all these years to be put in a situation that didn’t have nothing to do with what I did. This book gives an opportunity to do what the musicians say happened.

It became clear, however, that a book that did justice to the work of the AACM would have to move beyond a project of vindication, and would have to include more than just the voices of musicians. My working method necessarily juxtaposed oral histories of AACM members with written accounts of the period, a process that combines the ethnographic with the archival. I performed more than ninety-two interviews with members and supporters, ranging anywhere from two to six hours in duration, and for the older members, two or three such interviews were sometimes necessary. These interviews provided me with important insights, reminded me of things I had forgotten, and destabilized comfortable assumptions I had made. In many, perhaps most, cases, the remembrances I recorded of Chicago, New York, Paris, and other geographical/historical locations were powerfully corroborative of the written histories of these same places and eras. As a complex, multigenre, intergenerational network of people, places, and musical and cultural references began to emerge in my notes, I saw a responsibility to be inclusive, rather than to concentrate on those AACM members with more prominent public profiles. Even so, certain members have achieved more notoriety than others, and I felt that this would naturally come out in the course of the work. In any event, I do regret not being able to interview everyone I would have liked to.

The worldwide impact of the AACM has been amply documented in many countries—in print, on recordings, and in popular and specialty magazines, academic treatises, and books. As a scholar, it would be irresponsible of me to simply ignore this level of paper trail, or to dismiss these additional narratives out of hand. Thus, the book features a very conscious effort to problematize the “creator vs. critic” binary that both inflects and infects critical work in jazz, while at the same time providing unique and personal insights that only orature can provide.

“I was glad that somebody did come on the scene that was in the AACM and knew some of our members and had a little idea about the group itself,” Jodie Christian observed in our 1998 interview. “Being in the organization, you had a chance to see some things yourself. You could make those kinds of judgments from that period of time. You can do that because you were there. It wouldn’t be something that you surmised, but something that actually happened, and when you say it, it’s authentic.” As a scholar, however, I want to handle the idea of “authenticity” with extreme care. In fact, I was not there when the AACM began, though I am always flattered by those of my forebears who, when memories fail, somehow place me at the scene. My construction of the AACM is but one of many possible versions, and my hope is that other scholars will take up aspects of the AACM’s work for which a more detailed discussion eluded the scope of this already rather long book.

Truth be told, however, the “real” story, if there is one, will not be captured in a set of recordings or an archive of texts. Here, I take my cue from an unnamed AACM musician’s answer to a query from writer Whitney Balliett about “the” AACM sound: “If you take all the sounds of all the A.A.C.M. musicians and put them together, that’s the A.A.C.M. sound, but I don’t think anyone’s heard that yet.” Nonetheless, what I am hoping for is that a useful story might be realized out of the many voices heard in this book, the maelstrom of heteroglossia in which we nervously tread water.

Autobiography—factual, fictional, and virtually every variation thereof has constituted a crucially important African American literary form, both in the scholarly literature, such as Charles Davis and Henry Louis Gates’s classic work, The Slave’s Narrative, and in popular works, from James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex- Colored Man to the Autobiography of Malcolm X, Alex Haley’s Roots, and the Delany Sisters’ Having Our Say. The insistence on autobiography, as Jon Michael Spencer maintains in his book on Harlem Renaissance composers, The New Negroes and Their Music, became a weapon in the battle over the historicity of the African diaspora, where issues of credit and vindication were of prime importance. In the 1960s, both people of letters and people in the street were vitally invested in this struggle for history.

It should therefore be not surprising that the historiography of jazz is similarly dominated by autobiography, most often in the form of transcribed and published interviews, as well as the frequent “as told to” ghostwritten efforts. For instance, as historian Burton Peretti has noted, the interviewers for the National Endowment for the Arts Oral History projects of the 1970s were largely drawn from the ranks of “veteran jazz writers.” Certainly, historians owe a debt to these writers, who pursued their enthusiasms for their subjects in the face of considerable disapprobation concerning the utility of documenting black music. Nonetheless, for Peretti, “the interviewers tend not to ask the questions that would be of most interest to scholars. They are strong on straight biography, who played with whom, discographies—and anecdotes, anecdotes, and more anecdotes. They tend to avoid addressing issues of intellectual development, social context, racial conditions, or the subjects’ views of culture, history and philosophy.”

The effect of these serious omissions is to decontextualize the music, to frame it as outside the purview of both general social history and the history of music. This experience indicated the need for viable alternatives to the journalistic paradigm that, according to Peretti, still dominates the historiographical process regarding black music. My musician colleagues had been looking for these alternatives for many years. In pianist Jodie Christian’s experience, “There were a lot of hits and misses with people trying to figure out in their minds what this was about and what that was about. Even though they were interviewing people, they would come up with their own idea about what the AACM was about.” On one view, this was certainly understandable; in my experience, the people who were trying to figure out what the AACM was about included, most crucially, AACM people themselves. Thus, my collegial interview/conversations seemed automatically to turn to the very issues that Peretti found lacking in many of the NEA interviews: intellectual development, issues of race, class, and gender, musical form and aesthetics, and the interpretation of history. I began to notice a distinct lack of funny stories and anecdotes, even from people such as the late Lester Bowie, whom we all knew to be given to pointedly ironic jocularity. I imagine that for some readers, these preoccupations could seem unnecessarily dour at times in comparison with other kinds of musicianly texts that rely in large measure on interviews.

Perhaps this serious mien was an inevitable artifact of an interview process that often felt like a kind of collaborative mode of writing history, after the fashion that James Clifford has proposed, even if the adoption of this collaborative ethos seemed to develop spontaneously, rather than as a conscious and studied attempt to address the issues Clifford identified regarding the authority of the interviewer. People felt free to explicitly express their love for the AACM, an organization that in many cases had given them creative birth and nurturing. Interviews served as a form of generational reconnection for some of my subjects, who frequently asked about what had been happening over the years to the people with whom they had been so intensely involved, and about where the organization was headed now. In this way, the book became an autobiography indeed—the autobiography of a collective, a history of an organization that developed into an ongoing social and aesthetic movement. Perhaps at least part of that movement’s dynamism was derived from the clarity with which its members realized that the project could not really be completed; its unfinished nature became its crucial strength.

Historical, autobiographical, and ethnographic processes necessarily cast the historian-ethnographer in the role of intermediary between the subject and the public. The construction of this role during the process of engaging the oral narrative is obviously of prime importance, since the process involves not only transcription, but also interpretation and editorial choices. To pretend that race and gender do not mediate these proceedings is needlessly naïve; at the same time, to claim special advantages based solely on these factors is equally untenable. Thus, a signal factor in the historicization of black music concerns the fact that in the vast majority of cases prior to the late 1960s, as Amiri Baraka pointed out in an important essay from 1963, “Jazz and the White Critic,” those doing interviews with black jazz musicians were most often white, male, and of a different class background than the person being interviewed.

In the 1970s, this began to change. For me, and for many musicians, the watershed work of this generation was the drummer Arthur Taylor’s book of interviews with his musical colleagues, Notes and Tones. Taylor’s initially self- published book demonstrated forcefully that the questions that Burton Peretti felt were of most interest to scholars were also of great interest to the important musicians of the period, such as Betty Carter, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and many others. While Peretti’s critique of oral histories does not directly connect the failure of scholars to review these seemingly fairly obvious areas of interest to institutionalized systems of ethnic and class domination, articulated as a form of historical denial, to Taylor and to many of his subjects, this was precisely what was at stake. Thus, Taylor’s book functioned as perhaps the sharpest musician-centered critique then available of the racialization of media access, which both for Taylor and his subjects, amounted to a form of censorship. In a self-conscious act of intervention, Taylor used his insider status as a canonically important drummer to allow his subjects wide latitude to critique the discourses and economic and social conditions surrounding their métier, including possible distinctions between being interviewed by white critics and by black colleagues.

Even as so much African American literature, from the slave narratives forward, favored the autobiographical in some way, it was becoming clear to me that what was needed was not only a compendium of personal reminiscences and observations, but also a framing of the AACM in dialogue with the history of music and the history of ideas. In fact, AACM members who published critical work in the 1970s and 1980s tended to take this approach. Leo Smith’s writings, notably his 1973 Notes (8 pieces) source a new world music: creative music, and his 1974 “(M1) American Music,”12 were closely followed by Anthony Braxton’s massive three-volume Tri-Axium Writings, a work that, while clearly in dialogue with John Cage’s 1961 manifesto Silence, Amiri Baraka’s 1963 Blues People, and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1963 Texte zur Musik, extends considerably beyond each of these texts, both in length and in range of inquiry. For me, the works of these AACM members constituted sources of inspiration and instruction for my own research, as did Derek Bailey’s influential book, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music.

With these texts as antecedents, I felt that my goals could be better accomplished by deploying methodologies associated with academic historical inquiry, rather than with journalistic models. Of course, this issue is connected with the writerly voice of the book. Early on, several good friends and colleagues were concerned that the book avoid “academese,” or the arcane jargon that these well- meaning people associated with scholarly books. These associates felt that using more accessible language would produce a friendly and nonthreatening introduction to the AACM and its work that would appeal to a wide audience. The jazz writer Stanley Dance was evidently a devotee of this approach, judging from his critique of two jazz studies anthologies published in the 1990s by film scholar Krin Gabbard, Representing Jazz and Jazz among the Discourses:

There is original thought here, but the reader is immediately confronted by the language academics apparently use to communicate with one another. Sometimes it reads like a translation from the German, at others that they are merely trying to impress or indulging in a verbal cutting contest. Here are a few of the words you should be prepared to encounter: hermeneutics, commodifi ed, contextualizing, conceptualize, hyperanimacy, taxonomic, metacritical, rhizome, perspectivizing, nomadology, indexical, polysemy, auratic, reifi cation, metonymic, synecdoche, biodegradability, interstitial, valorize, diegetic, allegoresis, grammatology, oracy, centripetality, and esemplastic.

Dance felt that these kinds of words “obviously impose considerable restraint on the transfer of knowledge.” Girding against what he saw (correctly) as an attack on his métier, the writer grumbled that “the academics tend to be critical and rather patronizing about the accepted journalistic standards of jazz writing, which, to judge from their back notes, they have investigated haphazardly.” Finally, Dance ventured that instead of drawing from writers such as Gunther Schuller, “Gabbard’s people seem more attached to Theodor Adorno and Roland Barthes, of whom the average unscholarly jazz fan has probably never heard.” For me, however, the interdisciplinary approaches to black music and improvisation in the Gabbard texts—the work of Nathaniel Mackey, Robert Walser, Lorenzo Turner, John Corbett, and Scott DeVeaux, among others (as well as the references to Adorno and Barthes) were inspiring, announcing a new generation of writers on improvised music who were, first, declining to conflate oversimplification with accessibility; second, asserting common cause with intellectuals in other fields concerning the ways in which music could announce social and cultural change; and finally, seeking liberation from the Sisyphean repetition of ersatz populist prolegomena that seemed endemic to the field.

Another important book that came out around this time was Ronald Radano’s New Musical Figurations, an account of the career of Anthony Braxton that included a chapter on the AACM that was much closer to my own experience than anything I had read before, and which introduced a new character to the heretofore white-coded historiography of American experimentalism: the “black experimentalist.” These texts helped me to realize that in looking for ways to theorize the music I had been trying for so many years to compose, improvise, and perform, I needed to involve myself with the tools, methods, and discourses that had been developed in a range of fields of inquiry. Doing so would not only allow readers less invested in music but familiar with those discourses and debates to find commonalities with the histories surrounding new music, but could also provide musically oriented readers unfamiliar with those discourses with an opportunity to engage them on familiar ground. As I began to publish, I discovered a rapidly developing, questing new literature, a group of wonderful new colleagues, an exciting crop of graduate students, and an international reading public, including many musicians, who were eager for a new kind of writing about music that did not patronize the reader or assume his or her ignorance of the matters under review. Perhaps most gratifying of all, in these new texts, complex ideas were worked out at sufficient length and in detail in a manner that seemed compatible with my experience as an artist.

Thus, as I told an interviewer/friend in 2002 regarding the progress of this book, “I’ve made some concessions to narrativity. Someone else can write the Cliffs Notes later.” Indeed, in the nine years since I began this project, a new generation of progressive musicians has come out of Chicago, whom I can mention only in passing, such as cellist Tomeka Reid, guitarist Jeff Parker, trombonist Steve Berry, and rapper Khari B; trumpeters Robert Griffin and Corey Wilkes; singers Dee Alexander and Taalib’Din Ziyad; drummers Chad Taylor, Mike Reed, and Vincent Davis; saxophonists Matana Roberts, Aaron Getsug, and David Boykin; bassists Darius Savage, Josh Abrams, Cecile Savage, and Harrison Bankhead; and many others. Perhaps one or more of those people will create a sequel, after one fashion or another. For now, one of the aims of this book is to help those younger artists in dealing with the richness of the legacy that they carry, as well as in understanding what has been achieved, what was shown to be possible, and what remains to be realized.

The stakes are quite high in this endeavor, as I realized when a friend alerted me to a letter in the British magazine Wire from the African American experimental musician Morgan Craft, living in Italy at this writing. I found his remarks both poignant and terribly telling:

So here we are in the year 2005 and I actually agree to sit down and write about being black, American and experimental in music. The genesis springs from looking at a magazine devoted to challenging, progressive musics from around the world, and seeing their top 50 list for last year (The Wire 251) and the only black Americans were rappers (three) and old jazz era men (one living, one dead). So I bring up this observation about the lack of a black American presence on the avant garde scene under the age of 50 just to see if maybe I’m not paying attention. I’m constantly fed this steady stream of future thinking folks from Germany, Japan, UK, Norway, etc, but when it comes to America all I hear about is the genius that is free folk or if it’s black it must be hiphop, jazz, or long dead. How many more articles on Albert Ayler do we really need?

In fact, black artists on both sides of the age-fifty divide shared Craft’s dilemma, and the analysis of this issue is central to this book. Literary critic Fred Moten has expressed this issue so well and so succinctly that I want to preview his remarks here before redeploying them in another chapter:

The idea of a black avant-garde exists, as it were, oxymoronically—as if black, on the one hand, and avant-garde, on the other hand, each depends for its coherence on the exclusion of the other. Now this is probably an overstatement of the case. Yet it’s all but justified by a vast interdisciplinary text representative not only of a problematically positivist conclusion that the avant-garde has been exclusively Euro-American, but of a deeper, perhaps unconscious, formulation of the avant-garde as necessarily not black.

Part of my task in this book, as I see it, is to bring to the surface the strategies that have been developed to discursively disconnect African American artists from any notion of experimentalism or the avant-garde. This effort, as Craft seems to have noticed, has now moved into the international arena. If Craft—and Ayler, for that matter—exist simply as oxymorons in an international consensus based on the presumption of pan- European intellectual dominance (a dynamic extending beyond the individual phenotypical to the collective institutional), the histories and analyses that I recount here are meant to shepherd young African American artists such as Craft through the convolutions and contortions that were needed to construct this ethnically cleansed discourse; to encourage younger African American artists to see themselves as being able to claim multiple histories of experimentalism despite the histories of erasure, both willful and unwitting; and to reassure young black artists that if you find yourself written out of history, you can feel free to write yourself back in, to provide an antidote to the nervous pan-European fictionalizations that populate so much scholarship on new music.

The set of issues Craft identifies was also rather well symbolized in a lecture I attended by a scholar who insisted that if academics hoped to have any real effect on the culture, the only music worth studying and writing about was music that “everybody” listened to. As an example, this well-known speaker referred to an even better-known rapper who, despite his misogynistic lyrics, was someone who needed to be “dialogued” with so that scholars could reach young African Americans in particular with more “enlightened” ideas. I was struck by the superficiality of this understanding of the many ways in which music exercises cultural impact. First of all, in my experience, young African Americans are generally particularly pleased to discover the depth and breadth of the cultural artifacts created by their forebears. I write these words directly to those young people who, along with those ancestors, are participating in the development of a most influential panoply of expressive voices, not all of which will be heard by majoritarian culture. Nonetheless, it should be pointed out that much of the most influential music of the twentieth century—music that will probably never appear on any major U.S. television network—was nonetheless being avidly attended to by the heroes of rock, the early rappers, and techno’s originators—or was it purely coincidental that so many early Mothers of Invention fans absorbed Edgard Varese’s manifesto, strategically placed on the back of the albums: “The present-day composer refuses to die!”

On that view, it should come as no surprise that the impact of music on culture cannot be meaningfully investigated simply by reviewing Soundscan figures or tuning in to Dancing with the Stars. Moreover, advocating the neglect of “unpopular” sonic constituencies in favor of yet another safe valorization of corporate-approved cultural production—this time disguised as “critique” or “dialogue”—seemed to revoke local musical agency, even as the term “local” moves beyond its original, geographically centralized meaning toward a technologically mediated articulation of diaspora. As scholars, we ignore at our peril the networks that carry the flows of new musical ideas, since it’s so easy to miss nascent musical phenomena while they are still growing—in other words, the trajectory of hip-hop culture itself, not to mention its heir apparent, reggaeton, a phenomenon that like its predecessor from the Bronx, flows across borders of class, race, geography, and language.

This is not a version of the standard, hopeless rejoinder to those who point out the obvious lack of mass audience for some kinds of new music that “one day,” this music will be vindicated by ending up in everyone’s ear. Rather, I wish to point out that naturalizing this kind of vindicationism as a goal may be misdirected. African American culture has produced a vast array of musical practices, which have been taken up to varying degrees by a diverse array of constituencies. Some of these practices, however, remained indigestible to powerful players such as modern media corporations, whose products, in economist Jacques Attali’s 1977 formulation, were recursively reinscribed through a powerful “economy of repetition” that drowned out alternative voices. For Attali, “Free jazz created locally the conditions for a different model of musical production, a new music. But since this noise was not inscribed on the same level as the messages circulating in the network of repetition, it could not make itself heard.” This observation seems to evoke a special need for vigilance on the part of music scholars. As Attali wrote, “Conceptualizing the coming order on the basis of the designation of the fundamental noise should be the central work of today’s researchers. Of the only worthwhile researchers: undisciplined ones. The ones who refuse to answer new questions using only pregiven tools.” Thus, if we wish to avoid the appearance of positioning not only the musical production of entire cultures, but also our own research, as wholly owned subsidiaries of corporate megamedia, we will be obliged to tune our discourses to the resonant frequencies of insurgent musical forms around the world, to make sure that we can hear Attali’s “new noise.”