George Lewis on the AACM & American Experimentalism

George Lewis in 1982

In the latest issue of NYFA’s online magazine George Lewis, trombone player extraordinaire, electronic experimentalist and one of the great impro players it has been my pleasure to hang with on occasion, writes about the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a Chicago-based collective of experimental musicians — a book on the history of which Lewis is finishing right now. Below, the opening paragraphs; for the full version click here.

Constructing Collective Autobiography : The AACM and American Experimentalism

George E. Lewis

Stating “Providing leadership and vision for the development of creative music” as a primary goal, the AACM has long cultivated an atmosphere privileging a free, collectivist atmosphere where individuality is given space to expand within a group. Their motto: “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future.” Distinguished, multigenerational members abound, including pianist Amina Claudine Myers, multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton, and the revered group Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Despite the AACM’s ample contributionsmusical as well as social and intellectualto American experimental music over the past 40-plus years, history tends to be mum on the collective. When they are acknowledged, it’s normally through discography, which ignores the greater social context in which they emerged and persisted. AACM member and musician-composer-artist George E. Lewis’ Power Stronger Than Itself: A History of the AACM, to be published by the University of Chicago Press in October 2007, redresses these omissions by presenting a complex, nuanced, and multicultural view of the diverse and unstable environment of contemporary American musical experimentalism. Here, Lewis discusses the AACM’s radical spirit and his motivations for writing his forthcoming book.

Since its founding on the virtually all-black South Side of Chicago in 1965, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the subject of my forthcoming book, has played an unusually prominent, internationally recognized role in the development of American experimental music. The composite output of AACM members has explored a wide range of methodologies, processes, and media, developing new and influential ideas about timbre, sonic identity, collectivity, extended technique, instrumentation, performance practice, intermedia, the relationship of improvisation to composition, form, scores, computer music technologies, invented acoustic instruments, installations, and kinetic sculptures.

In a 1973 article, two early AACM members, trumpeter John Shenoy Jackson and co-founder and pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams, asserted that, “The AACM intends to show how the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised can come together and determine their own strategies for political and economic freedom, thereby determining their own destinies.”[i] Accordingly, the collective developed strategies for individual and collective self-production and promotion that both reframed the artist/business relationship and challenged racialized limitations on venues and infrastructure.

In 1981, Wadada Leo Smith and Joseph Jarman interviewed each other with a view toward constructing a general history of the AACM.[ii] The project was never completed, but recent scholarship tends to emphasize the continuity of efforts such as these with the slave narratives of 19th century America, which presaged the importance of autobiography as a crucially important African American literary form. In recent years, works ranging from James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man to the Delany Sisters’ Having Our Say became weapons in the battle over the historicity of the African diaspora, in which people of letters and people in the street were all vitally invested.

It should therefore be unsurprising that the historiography of black music is similarly dominated by autobiography, most often in the form of transcribed and published interviews by journalists and music enthusiasts. Certainly, historians owe a debt to these writers, who pursued their enthusiasms in the face of considerable disapprobation concerning the utility of documenting black music. At the same time, many musicians felt that the results often concentrated on discographies and anecdotes, while avoiding, as Burton Peretti puts it, “issues of intellectual development, social context, racial conditions, or the subjects’ views of culture, history and philosophy.”[iii]

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