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George Lewis and Christian Wolff

CMA Duos: George Lewis and Christian Wolff

By Peter Margasak

Photos: Karina Gytre, nyMusikk

The two composers discuss their crisscrossing histories, the unique challenges of teaching one’s own compositions, and their shared passion for what they both call relational music.

Christian Wolff and George Lewis renewed their intermittent creative partnership in April of 2019 at Only Connect Festival of Sound, a music festival programmed by Norway’s nyMusikk and conductor Ilan Volkov’s Tectonics. They performed their own work in a trio with Norwegian bassist Michael Francis Duch, while each also observed the other in performances of Wolff’s classic Burdocks and Lewis’ collaboration with the local Kitchen Orchestra.

Wolff is the last surviving member of the New York School of composers, where he privileged rhythm over harmony and melody, developed new modes of notation, and incorporated improvisation. Lewis is an early member of the AACM—his book A Power Stronger Than Itself—is the definitive history and analysis of the organization—and one of the greatest trombonists in the history of jazz and improvised music; he is also a pioneer in the development of interactive computer music. Over the last few decades, he’s focused primarily on composition. This conversation took place over lunch, hours before the trio delivered a beguiling set featuring Wolff’s “Or 4 People” and “Line Exercise” and Lewis’ “Shadowgraph 5.”

George Lewis: I've been sort of distanced a little bit from performing on stage over the past four or five years. I might do it maybe three or four times a year. That means that I spend a lot my time doing other things. If I come on stage, it's generally to answer a question from performers about a piece I wrote for them. So, if I'm going to perform on stage, there are very few people I do that with now—Roscoe Mitchell is one of them. But to come all the way out here, there had to be a very good reason, and you were the really good reason, on a number of levels. First of all, we're playing "Or 4 People" and I didn't feel like I got it quite right last time, so I wanted to get another chance to do it; it was very important. I didn't know about [bassist] Michael Francis Duch, but it's been a fantastic experience performing with him and I think we have a really good rapport among us. But also, I've been able to think more about a lot of your ideas because it turns out in playing with the Kitchen Orchestra, everything we're doing is based on ideas that were pioneered by you back in the 50s and 60s. These ideas of relational things, and making one kind of action dependent upon another. It's almost kind of cybernetic, if you think about it. You said you were an analog person. I asked Ben Patterson the same thing, because a lot of his event scores and methods and processes, you can diagram them as a flow chart. They have routes, they have branching, and they have event structures and things like that. Your pieces also have these kind of branches and if you're in a situation you can go this way or that way depending upon conditions. It lends itself to people who think a lot about interactive computer music or whatever. For me, I think the whole evening with the Kitchen Orchestra and our trio will investigate the possibilities of what I'm calling relational, situational emergent forms.

Christian Wolff: I like to be involved if my music is being played. It started because I thought I was going to be a performer—that was my initial ambition—but I had no talent for it [laughs]. So, I took up composition as a kind of second best. When I meet young composers, I ask if they play an instrument, and if they say, ‘I used to play...’ I tell them don't lose it. If all else fails, you can play. In the early years, that was an essential factor, because getting people to play your music was not so easy. You had a few friends and you'd do it yourself and that was it. I somehow have gotten to enjoy that sufficiently that I'm still doing it to the extent that I can.

GL: I've always been the person who forgot the instrument outside or left it in the locker room when I got on the bus. I started playing on the same day and in the same room as Ray Anderson—a fantastic player—and he once wrote a piece called, "If I Ever Had a Home It Was a Slide Trombone." I never thought that way. I'm happy with what I'm doing now. I've gotten a lot of support from performers wanting to play my music and making new pieces. Over the past eleven years it started to go into that direction. But like I said, two or three times a year I get to do wonderful things.

CW: The first time we did "or 4 People" we had very little rehearsal time—it was the Music for Merce Cunningham concert in Chicago. Then there was a thing of my music at Dartmouth. They found some money. It was really great because there seemed to be no limit—‘Can I bring so and so from Europe?’ And they said sure. I thought it would be great to have you there, and as it turned out you couldn't be there the whole time—something came up. I organized three concerts, one of which was only improvisation with a kind of all-star band that you were part of, with Ikue Mori, Robyn Schulkowsky, Joey Baron, Fred Rzewski.

George Lewis and Christian Wolff

Photo: Karina Gytre, nyMusikk

GL: Didn't we play the Brooklyn piece?

CW: We did, but you didn't play it. We crossed paths in Ostrava and that time it looked as though you might be able to play it so we talked about it, and I brought you the score, but it didn't work out. I remember where we met, but I don't remember when. It was in Amsterdam, on the street, outside of De IJsbreker. Here was this guy I had heard about a long time ago.

GL: You were having your 60th birthday. There were a bunch of people there.

CW: Louis Andriessen was there. It was not a great concert. I hadn't worked with the musicians before... anyway. We agreed that we needed to see more of each other, but it took a while. I'm way up there in the sticks in Vermont so I go to New York whenever I possibly can, and you travel all over the place. We didn't really get together again until we needed liner notes for a recording on New World, and they like substantial liner notes. Joey Baron said, ‘Why don't we ask George?’ Robyn Schulkowsky was playing duos with various people, so she happened to be in town and the two of us went to see you. We talked and you recorded what we were saying for a long time, over an hour, and that's when we got to exchange ideas and stuff like that.

GL: We're doing "or 4 People" [at Only Connect] and it doesn't occur to me that you don’t have to have a classical background to do this.

CW: The music sort of provides it for you.

GL: In what way?

CW: Well, I'm basically a classical composer, right? I happen to do it in this peculiar way so it gets called experimental. It's the music I know best. I know some jazz, and I've always been interested in it, but it's always been a bit on the side. Don't take this the wrong way, but I think of myself as reinventing classical music. That's what I feel capable of doing. It sounds more ambitious than it is. I've worked over the years with all kinds of different capabilities. I've worked with David Behrman, for instance, who can play viola—sort of, the way that I play piano, sort of. David has a classical background. I then also worked with people like David Tudor and Fred Rzewski, so I've always had that range in mind when I write, that it could be David Behrman or it could be David Tudor or the later equivalents. David and I still do stuff together. An interesting case is Arthur Russell—somehow he got ahold of me and we got along very well. I hadn't heard him play, but I was somehow confident that he could do it. The first performance of Exercises the band included Arthur Russell, so that's someone coming from another background.

I grew up super saturated with standard classical music and I thought that's where it was at, but in high school we would go to hear Dixieland jazz. I heard Sidney Bechet. I grew up in New York, so that makes a big difference. I love that music, but I had no idea what to do with it.

But there was this other music out there that wasn't Bach, it wasn't Mozart, it was totally different and it was great. All of these different things flow in. One of the things in gospel music is this wonderful thing where people go slightly off and then come back again—I loved that. It was an early fascination that emerged twenty years later in my own effort—I wasn't thinking about doing it because of that, but I think that's where it came from.

GL: I've probably asked you about this but I couldn't find it. At the beginning of the New York School stuff, I don't know how much precedent there was for what guys were doing, or what people even thought you were doing. A lot of younger people heard or read about these things without having access to scores and think, well, they must be doing it this way, and then it wouldn’t be that way at all. You end up developing something completely different. This was mid-50s thereabouts, in New York, and the only model or even precedent for doing these kinds of things—the most proximate thing—was bebop. I was wondering if anyone ever came to you after a concert and said, 'This is a weird kind of jazz you guys are doing.’

CW: No. Maybe much later, but not at that time. Looking back, I could have gone to hear Charlie Parker if I'd known anything, but we stayed downtown. We never went to midtown clubs.

GL: There's that book that came out with all of those Frank O'Hara things, Give My Regards to 8th Street, and there's a thing where Frank O'Hara describes [Morton] Feldman in terms of jazz, and I'm just thinking this is exactly not what he was thinking about. What it reminded me of—and this is really off-topic—but I was doing the Merce [Cunningham] events near the end of his life, and after one of the DIA Beacon concerts I got a chance to talk to Merce. He says, ‘Well, you know, George, I didn't feel the same way about improvisation as John,’ and I'm wondering, ‘Why am I hearing this?’ Then he started talking about a concert he did with [early jazz drummer] Baby Dodds. I asked him what it was like. People who really think a lot about experimental music or contemporary music didn't find this interesting enough to think about. It brings up some fascinating questions about the relationship between music and dance and about representation. I said, "What happened?" He said, "We couldn't get Baby to stop accompanying us." That gave me a clue, that this sort of idea about the relationship between music and gesture went really far back. Baby Dodds wrote his own account and it's in his memoir, The Baby Dodds Story. He says, ‘a guy named Merce came to see me and said he wanted to play with me.’ And he told Merce he didn't know what he wanted him to do. Merce said, ‘Play something.’ So he played something and Merce said, ‘That's what I want.’ So he describes how he approached the concert—no one said, ‘don't accompany us, so I did my best, I thought I was pretty on top of it, when they did one thing, I just followed right away.’ And that's exactly what they didn't want. It's interesting, because no matter what happened, what you're hearing is two different traditions coming together.

CW: Merce had these interests which are completely apart from new music or classical music. He started out wanting to be a tap dancer. He was always open. With Cage, this thing Merce said about John, he had no use for what you might call popular culture—but even there there are questions. You know that piece, Credo in Us? It has boogie woogie in it, which is actually written out by Cage, and it uses recordings as a found object and it's meant to be a joke if you get Dvořák coming across with these tin cans banging away. Improvisation is an issue which he would’ve known from jazz, and his notion about it was that it simply encourages routine and therefore it’s no good because basically you’re playing stuff you already know and he’s not interested in that.

GL: If you want to get right down to it, I don’t have a classical background. Whatever I do have, I taught myself—I went to school and tried to study and then I dropped out and tried to teach myself or I worked with the AACM people, and a lot of what they worked on was teaching oneself about the classical tradition. People had various ways of thinking about that and standpoints that they could take. When we play together, when we do these pieces—backgrounds aren’t that important. I could say I came from this background or the other background. I’m 66 years old, so I feel that from personal contact as well as performances of the music of you and Behrman and Teitelbaum and Tudor and everybody else, I know these people. I never met Morton Feldman and I only met John Cage for a couple of minutes, but I feel able to claim that as a part of my background.

At the same time, I do feel open to learn because I’m still younger—I wasn’t there at the beginning of it and I didn’t have the same route toward [experimental music], and in a way nice people like Frederic and Alvin and the others we just talked about, through Anthony Braxton, took me in. They said, maybe you want to know about this? And I did want to know about it. Music is obsessed by genre, but genre becomes a stalking horse for race and it becomes a stalking horse for ideas about what your background is, when it’s really where you’re going that’s more important than all of that.

I really don’t know what the backgrounds of the people are a lot of the time when they play. A lot of the time, who cares? I had trouble navigating it at first. You have to study, you have to read, you have to listen, and it helped to be around people a lot. But I just remembered a lot of [experiences] misunderstanding things, and that people allowed me the space to misunderstand, and that was something you could see in the AACM, that people gave you the space to find your own relationship to it. It was a very open community. You probably don’t know all the backgrounds of the people that played Burdocks, right?

CW: One group came from a jazz program, and then there was the group I was a part of, and they’re the pros. The others were all conservatory students—I don’t know what their backgrounds were. I think the procedures were clearly new to everybody, so they all started at the same place, more or less. The clarinet player is a jazz improviser, and when he first saw the score he said, ‘What is this? I can’t do this, I don’t understand.’ At the end, he said he had a good time; he sort of got it. But initially he was kind of blank.

People have pointed out that my music has a pedagogical character to it. Cage also felt that way about his music. It’s new, so you have to learn it from scratch. You haven’t taken ten courses about how to play it, you just have to start. In my case, it doesn’t matter what your background is because everyone starts from the same point, nobody’s ever seen this notation before. When you come to it for the first time you have to figure out what to do, rather than these are the notes, this is the tempo and so forth, and this is what I’m going to do. If it’s a group—which it usually is—then they have to start talking to each other—'Hey, what are you doing? It says here you can’t do that, or maybe this means that you should be doing that?’ And you get a whole thing going.

Sometimes it drives me nuts because they spend hours talking before they actually play a note because there are all of these issues they want to sort out beforehand. But that seems to me like a teaching experience.

GL: You’re teaching yourself, always. You have to learn how it works. I don’t care if it’s written out or not, or how it’s written out. It’s not so important. I once read somewhere where Stockhausen said—I forget which of those biographies it was—he said you have to learn the music first and then you have to teach it to other people, or even after you write you have to learn it, so that’s one thing I found to be true. I always thought it was because I was a slow music reader, but it turns out it’s not really that; you do have to learn it even though you wrote it.

There’s pedagogy at all levels, and if you’re talking about improvisation, if you put that in the mix, then you have people telling you who they are at every minute, and there’s the pedagogy of the personal; you have to learn about them, and through them you can hear and imagine wider worlds or other worlds besides your own, other minds that are out there. If you think about it, composition can be the same. You engage a score and you’re engaged with the writer and you can use that as a kind of self-teaching opportunity.

The thing about academia is it’s not just about music—at least at the University where I am or where you’ve been—there are people in all of these different areas and a lot of them are world-class people and we can learn a lot from them. You should be reading as widely as you can.

My approach is to make my academic environment more like the AACM, where people go off and do things on their own and don’t like to be told by an authority figure that this is how it’s supposed to be. Muhal Richard Abrams’ way of doing it was to actually deny the authority. When they were talking about forming a school—which I went to—he said, “I’m not talking about so-called teachers and so-called students.” This is where it starts.


Peter Margasak spent the last 23 years as a staff music writer at the Chicago Reader. He recently left his position to write a book on the collision of avant-garde jazz, post-rock, and experimental music in Chicago during the 1990s. He also programs the Frequency Series, an acclaimed contemporary music concert series at the Chicago multi-arts venue Constellation.


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