Blogging the 2011 ACO Composer Readings: JCOI Origin Story

Blogging the 2011 ACO Composer Readings: JCOI Origin Story

The production of art is strongly or even largely social.

Written By

George E. Lewis

[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.