Lewis Pc 80 Copy

A Conversation with George Lewis

By Lumi Tan

Feb 1, 2016

The Kitchen is fortunate to have had a long history with the composer, trombonist, and scholar George Lewis; he first performed here in 1979, and then took on the role of Music Curator from 1980-1982. During this time, he programmed such seminal artists as Julius Eastman, Douglas Ewart, Julius Hemphill, Joan LaBarbara, Jackson Mac Low, Eliane Radigue, and many more. As part of our “From The Kitchen Archives” CD series on Orange Mountain Music, Lewis curated The Kitchen Improvises: 1976-83; on February 9th, Lewis will perform at The Kitchen alongside those who appear on the CD, including Thomas Buckner, Earl Howard, Oliver Lake, Michael Lytle, in addition to improvisers of a different generation. In conversation with Kitchen curator Lumi Tan, Lewis shares his recent projects and reflects on the changes in improvisation in the past three decades.

Lumi Tan: It's been a year of looking back for you, both with the release of this CD and with the 50th anniversary of the AACM.

George Lewis: I hadn’t thought of this year as looking back, really. I did write a two-act opera on the subject of the AACM, but I also finished a piece for sixteen solo voices, five other chamber pieces, a foreword to the new book on Julius Eastman edited by Mary Jane Leach and Renee Levine Packer, installations at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (at the same time, a first for me) and various other things.

L.T.: How has the hybrid moment that is captured on this CD continue to transform through the years? Have the binaries between genres and scenes continue to break down?

G.L.: For one thing, I think many people feel less comfortable about assigning genres to artists on the basis of race. Also, the music itself has inspired critical thinking on how improvisation is a part of the human condition more generally. What we find now is that improvisation’s ubiquity leaps right over unproductive barriers between scenes, with implications that range well beyond the arts. For example, our two-volume Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies is finally scheduled for July 2016 publication, with contributions from scholars working in architecture, anthropology, art history, computer science, cognitive science, cultural studies, dance, economics, education, ethnomusicology, film, gender studies, history, linguistics, literary theory, musicology, neuroscience, new media, organizational science, performance studies, philosophy, popular music studies, psychology, science and technology studies, sociology, and sound art--among others.

L.T.: In your liner notes, you reference The Kitchen's role in promoting emerging avant-gardes such as loft jazz and sound art-influenced improvisers before you arrived as music curator in 1980. Did The Kitchen as an institution influence your own work in terms of the proximity to artists in other disciplines?

G.L.: At The Kitchen, right there in the back room you were with the other curators--Eric Bogosian and Jamie Avins in dance, Tom Bowes in video, and others. You never knew who might come by from day to day; people just dropped in. Robert Wilson might pop by for a visit, Vito Acconci, Laurie Anderson--you know the names. I could go on all day. Interdisciplinarity was all around you, right at hand. How could you not be influenced? Or rather, “influence” would be a rather wan description of the effect that being at the Kitchen had on me. Thanks for Mary Griffin, Rhys Chatham, and Carol Murashige, I was lucky enough to witness all that.

L.T.: The Kitchen currently has early computer compositions and artwork on view as part of our exhibition "From Minimalism to Algorithm."

G.L.: First of all, if I may make a suggestion, David Behrman’s “Cloud Music” with Robert Watts and Bob Diamond is a classic that directly addresses this dual theme by transducing the movement of clouds and light into sound.

L.T.: We’d sought to include “Cloud Music” for David Behrman’s Synth Nights in 2013, and hope to be able to represent it in a forthcoming phase of the exhibition! Voyager, your responsive "virtual improvising orchestra," was initially developed in the late 1980's. How have advancements in technology continued to impact improvisation?

G.L.: Understanding improvisation has proved to be a crucial component of the design of responsive systems and VR. I’ve recently completed an article about Rich Gold, one of the founders of the League of Automatic Music Composers in the mid-1970s, whose work with networked microcomputers was foundational to mine. At Xerox PARC, Rich was one of the developers of the concept of ubiquitous computing, which in my view emerges directly from the League’s idea of networked computers that interacted with each other and with humans to co-create a larger sonic environment. There are lots of people making improvising systems now, like the Live Algorithms and Live Coding people. So in this case, technology and improvisation impact each other, as the late AI founder and improvising pianist Marvin Minsky also recognized early on.

Visit our archive site to learn more about George Lewis's long history at The Kitchen.

Photo: George Lewis at The Kitchen, 1980. ©Paula Court

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