Friday, May 11, 2018

The Sound of Empathy in George Lewis’s Afterword

By Alexander K. Rothe

Premiered in 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Afterword is a two-act opera composed by George Lewis to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). I approach the opera as an opportunity to examine the role of community and empathy in Lewis’s works. Though Lewis discusses empathy in terms of a specific community—the AACM on the South Side of Chicago—I apply his thinking to the role of the listener in general. Lewis’s musical works, especially Afterword, demonstrate the sound of empathy—the sound of pushing existing boundaries while at the same time calling on the active participation of the listener as a creative improviser.

(Afterword, Act 1, scene 4, from left to right: Julian Terrell Otis, Gwendolyn Brown, and Joelle Lamarre. Photo by George Lewis)

In a recent interview, George Lewis describes his conception of community and empathy in Afterword:
Community is essential to the opera’s themes. What we’re seeing is a community in formation. People are coming together to find commonalities, and they need to come together because nobody is really supporting them. […] And we’re seeing the stresses and strains of community formation—disagreements of different kinds. But at the same time there is a need to forge a community that is accepting of different points of view. This is when you get to the empathy part. Empathy is also fundamental to the creation of this community; we need empathy to establish community. People need to be receptive and open. They need to even make themselves a little vulnerable, and we see this in the opera as well. There is a sense in which people aren’t sure what’s going to happen.<1>

At the AACM’s first meeting in May 1965, musicians gathered to discuss how they could survive in an environment where black musicians were being pushed out of the South Side of Chicago. Confronted with an exploitative music industry and a city council that sought to shut down music venues on the South Side, the musicians voted to form an organization for the promotion of creative music—original music outside the restrictive genre markers of the music industry.

A key aspect of the AACM from its inception, genre mobility refers to transcending the existing musical system and its genre boundaries, drawing on a broad range of different musical languages. Through genre mobility, AACM members were able to resist restrictive genre markers while exploring new networks and infrastructural pathways.

As described by Lewis in his 2008 book, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, in the early days of the AACM, empathy was especially evident in Muhal Richard Abrams’s aim of “awakening the psyche” of his fellow creative musicians. On the one hand, this was a commitment to original music and the need to be supportive of fellow creative musicians. On the other, it involved concern for the “spiritual growth” of the community—to provide free education for young musicians and present imaginative programs of creative music to the public.

The Sound of Empathy and Genre Mobility

Drawing on the scholarship of Suzanne Keen, I interpret empathy as a shared experience and feeling. Keen discusses empathy as including two aspects: it is a spontaneously shared emotion that also involves cognitive perspective taking.<2> This perspective taking is always shaped by cultural and individual factors of memory and experience. In a chapter on empathy, improvisation, and embodied cognition, Vijay Iyer likewise stresses how our perception of others is grounded in a culturally-situated understanding of embodied action.<3> According to Iyer, empathy is a kind of action understanding that activates similar motor programs in the observer’s brain when experiencing music—i.e. bodies in motion.

Ryan Dohoney’s research on Julius Eastman has been instrumental in shaping my thinking about empathy in terms of genre mobility. In a chapter on Julius Eastman’s life and music in New York City in the period between 1976 and 1990, Dohoney examines how Eastman was able to connect diverse networks at venues such as The Kitchen, Environ, and Paradise Garage.<4> During this period, Eastman composed and performed music that defies a single genre label—mixing extended vocal techniques, experimental music, improvisation, and disco.

George Lewis’s music demonstrates a similar sort of empathy through genre mobility and drawing on multiple networks. In Lewis’s music, the sound of empathy is of pushing existing boundaries, giving rise to a feeling of instability that calls for the active participation of the listener as a creative improviser. In the process of doing so, it activates the desire for change in everyday life.

(Afterword, Act 1, scene 4, 1:45:44-1:58:19; Ojai Music Festival performance, June 9, 2017, Libbey Bowl, Ojai, CA)

The sound of empathy is especially evident in scene 4 of Afterword, entitled “First Meeting.” Based on Lewis’s transcript of an audio recording of the founding AACM meeting in May 1965, this scene depicts the musicians in the process of deciding to perform only original music. As the musicians discuss various types of music, Lewis uses the opportunity to compose music that comments on music (music about music)—a tradition that stretches back to Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

A close listening of this scene reveals that there is no over-arching global form. Instead, Lewis works with modules—approximately ten to fifteen measures of music at a time—which he brings back, but changes with each repetition. The layering of ostinatos and sustained chords results in a thick, complex sound. Lewis creates a shared feeling of instability by means of jump cuts between sections and extended techniques that destabilize pitch (e.g., glissando, microtonal inflection, tremolo). In the vocal writing, he contrasts recitative-like passages, which are unmetered and occur over sustained chords, with metered arioso passages. Lewis stresses the clarity of the text through syllabic treatment.

A key technique of genre mobility is musical signifyin(g), a practice of quoting or referring to preexisting material that in turn changes it by adding a new layer of meaning—whether playful, subversive, or as a means of paying tribute to someone or something (on musical signifyin(g), see Samuel Floyd).<5> Afterword’s scene 4 includes a number of examples of musical signifyin(g). When soprano Joelle Lamarre’s avatar sings “we thought of all the things we are,” the music references the jazz standard “All the Things You Are” (1:47:07). Given that the AACM members rejected the genre marker of jazz, this reference is a playful subversion of existing genre boundaries. When the text alludes to music on the radio (“The other music is already being presented; record companies, disk jockeys, everyone is promoting it”), Lewis signifies on the groove-oriented nature of much popular black music in the mid-1960s (funk and R&B; 1:51:38). Lastly, whenever the text refers to original or creative music (1:48:19, 1:50:01, 1:54:16, 1:56:51), Lewis layers multiple loops on top of each other. He is signifyin(g) on the idea of creative music as involving the complex layering of sounds. In sum, we encounter a sense of empathy through the shared feeling of instability along with the shared experience of Lewis pushing existing genre boundaries.

The Improvising Listener

The absence of a global form, the complex layering of loops, and stark contrasts of sound—these are all techniques that call on the active participation of the listener as a creative improviser. While Afterword’s score is fully notated—i.e. there is no improvisation at the level of the performers—this does not exclude the possibility of the improvising listener. Lewis writes of the listener:
[...] We can understand the experience of listening to music as very close to the experience of the improviser. Listening itself, an improvisative act engaged in by everyone, announces a practice of active engagement with the world, where we sift, interpret, store, and forget, in parallel with action and fundamentally articulated with it.<6>

In other words, the listener participates in the performance as an improviser, which is akin to the experience of improvisation in everyday life. In Afterword’s scene 4, the improvising listener navigates multiple layers of sound and creates a pathway through disparate blocks of sound. The fact that the singers’ text always remains in the foreground in no way diminishes the role of the listener as creative improviser. By experiencing this scene in the context of a musical language of instability, we have all the more appreciation for the difficult task confronted by AACM musicians at the first meeting. While the listener to some degree self-identifies with the AACM musicians, empathetic listening in this case refers more broadly to the shared feeling of instability and pushing existing boundaries.

In recent years, empathy—as a mode of emotionally engaging with music and literature—has received much criticism. Molly Abel Travis argues for the necessity of moving beyond the self-identification of empathy, instead adopting an attitude of openness to experiences of difference that “interrupt our epistemological projects to contain the other.”<7> However, it is exactly this attitude of openness that Lewis’s opera fosters by pushing existing genre boundaries. In doing so, he creates a shared feeling of instability that simultaneously activates the listener’s own mobility as a creative improviser. As listeners to Afterword, we encounter a model for thinking about improvisation in everyday life, seeking similar experiences of pushing boundaries of social injustice.

<1>Lewis quoted in Alexander K. Rothe, “An Interview with the Composer,” VAN Magazine June 22, 2017.
<2>Suzanne Keen, Empathy and the Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 4 & 27.
<3>Vijay Iyer, “Improvisation, Action Understanding, and Music Cognition with and without Bodies,” in The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, Volume 1, ed. George E. Lewis and Benjamin Piekut (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 81.
<4>Ryan Dohoney, “A Flexible Musical Identity: Julius Eastman in New York City, 1976-90,” in Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and His Music, ed. Renée Levine Packer and Mary Jane Leach (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2015). See especially 126f.
<5>Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., “African-American Modernism, Signifyin(g), and Black Music,” in The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 87-99.
<6>George E. Lewis, “Mobilitas Animi: Improvising Technologies, Intending Chance,” Parallax 13, no. 4 (2007): 113.
<7>Molly Abel Travis, “Beyond Empathy: Narrative Distancing and Ethics in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace,” Journal of Narrative Theory 40, no. 2 (Summer 2010): 232.

Alexander K. Rothe is a Core Lecturer at Columbia University, where he completed his PhD in Historical Musicology in 2015. His interests are opera staging, Regieoper, Wagner Studies, and new music. He is currently working on a book project on stagings of Wagner’s Ring cycle and afterlives of 1968 in divided Germany. His research has been published by Musical Quarterly and Tempo, and he has received research grants from the Fulbright Program and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

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