2017 Commencement Speaker

This year’s Commencement speaker and recipient of an honorary degree was the noted composer and scholar, George E. Lewis, the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University.

2017 Commencement Address

George E. Lewis
George E. Lewis

This year’s Commencement speaker and recipient of an honorary degree was the noted composer and scholar, George E. Lewis, the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University.

President O’Shea, Provost Miles, members of the faculty, proud parents, friends and neighbors, and, above all, graduates: I am most gratified to be here with you today, and most honored not only by you conferral of the honor of the doctorate upon me, but also by the opportunity to offer in person my most heartfelt congratulations and very best wishes to all of today’s graduates, in this extraordinarily beautiful landscape where so much exciting teaching and learning has been taking place, in the great tradition of liberal arts education.

The mission statement of New College lists four core values: first, intellectual rigor; second, academic innovation; third, collaborative learning, and perhaps the most complex of all, “charting one’s own course.”

That last one — “charting one’s own course” — aye, there’s the rub. Now how are we going to do that exactly?

Let me mention that I plan to address that question with reference to lessons to be drawn from the arts, and in particular, the art of music, with which I have been most centrally involved for about 45 years now. I knew that New College is a leader in the arts because I was here in 2012 for New College’s Meeting of the Minds Festival, an amazing gathering of students and faculty.

One thing we eventually learn as artists is, first, that music, like babies, doesn’t come from the stork. And despite our star-struck culture — – Dancing with the Stars, Rapping with the Stars, Eating with the Stars, and far too much more — music doesn’t come from designated superpeople with powers and abilities far beyond those of mere mortals. Rather, music, as well as your amazing achievement being celebrated today, emerges as the product of hard work, insight, and dedication — but not just by you, dear graduates, but by communities of practice, desire and love.

I have been part of one such community for most of those 45 years. Since its founding in 1965 on Chicago’s virtually all-black South Side, the African-American musicians’ collective known as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) grew to play an unusually prominent role in the development of American experimental music. Now, in the wake of more than 50 years of work, the composite output of AACM members has explored a wide range of methodologies, processes and media. AACM musicians developed new and influential ideas about timbre, sound, collectivity, extended technique and instrumentation, performance practice, intermedia, the relationship of improvisation to composition, form, scores, computer music technologies, invented acoustic instruments, installations and kinetic sculptures.

This organization was created by young black experimentalists who came together to confront many issues: power, authority, identity, representation, culture, economics, politics and aesthetics; self-fashioning, self-determination and self-governance; personal, professional, and collective aspiration; race, gender and class. Their hopeful set of purposes included these aspirations:

To create an atmosphere conducive to artistic endeavors for the artistically inclined, bring talented musicians together, cultivate young musicians and to create music of a high artistic level … set an example of high moral standards for musicians, uplift the public image of creative musicians, uphold the tradition of cultured musicians, stimulate spiritual growth in creative artists.

Their ultimate purpose was the creation of original music — their own music. This was a crucial move to self-determination, a move made in full-on resistance to social, aesthetic, political and cultural oppression, at a time when musical self-determination and political self-determination were being conflated — and productively so. To place new cultural views before the public can be a political act. If you don’t feel free to express yourself, then you are definitely not free. In this sense, personal expression is a human birthright.

But original music, like any form of creativity, is also a form of self-reliance from which we can all learn. As you move out into the world A.T.A.: (After The Academy) — you’re going to be betting on yourself. and your own ideas. You’ll set new standards — your own standards — with all the responsibilities and risks that this entails.

No one who was really conscious in the African American community at the time could fail to be aware that Black Power was on the agenda, particularly around notions of self-determination. But the AACM’s slogan, “power stronger than itself,” seemed to feed back on itself to imagine a potentially limitless power. For electrical engineers, the characteristic about infinite feedback is that it’s difficult to control. So by talking about “power stronger than itself,” you’re telling people in a very subtle way that (1) you’re not going to be controlled and (2) you will be heard.

Our collective was one of many collectives that were formed at that time. People felt that individual strategies for success weren’t working. How many African-Americans had music composition degrees? How many were sitting on the graduate composition faculties of major or even regional universities? Well, the number at that time was very close to zero. Facing these kinds of blockages, if you’re going to get that kind of information, you’re going to have to teach yourselves — or, as New College puts it, “Each student is truly responsible for his or her own education.” But in the case of the AACM, we were also responsible for each other. We are truly responsible, not just to ourselves, but to each other — not just for now, but for ever.

Communitarianism was crucial to the AACM — but not just to advance our own careers as artists. Community service was a crucial part of our thinking. The AACM School of Music, founded in 1968 and still active today, provided free instruction in music to people of all ages — young people, but also people of my age and older. Then as now, communities are going to have to take it upon themselves to mutually build the structures that they want to see. People had to teach each other as a matter of survival.

Of course, there were already models in the black musical community for self-teaching. Jazz, blues, and rap are autodidact musics. People didn’t go to blues school, they took creative risks in clubs and on the street, and collaborated in their homes. Even before the age of Afrocentricity, as Carter G. Woodson’s conception of Negro History Week eventually morphed into today’s Black History Month, you find autodidact strategies not only in music, but in the work of community historians from J.A. Rogers to Josef Ben-Jochannan. They invaded libraries, often meeting considerable resistance even there, as I heard just last week about even the eminent historian John Hope Franklin’s early doctoral studies. There was a great deal of personal research into ancient Egypt, Africa and its diaspora. People were researching several different strains of Islam. People changed their names to home-grown variations of African, neo-African, and the kinds of Neo-Arabic names we hear today.

This kind of personal historicizing recalls the venerable literary form of the slave’s narrative, identified as such by Henry Louis Gates and his mentor, the late Charles Davis. The goal of the slave’s narrative was not always vindication, but quite often, a moral plea for responsible chronicling. Underlying it all is the conviction that if you get written out of a history in which you were very evidently present, you can just write yourself back in. These people wrote themselves back into history, and their work has been a crucial inspiration for mine, as well as a model for how all of us can insist that our voices be heard.

One aspect of New College’s core mission exhorted you to “accept no dogma without test, striving to eliminate all barriers that inhibit the growth of ideas.” That’s also an AACM way of looking at the world — but at the same time, one strong difference between the AACM and academic life was in the approach to critique. Despite the avoidance of cant and dogma, people in our collective also avoided putting any kind of value judgment on the music. In the AACM you were never told that your concept was a success or a failure. You were always told that it was good. This seems totally alien to the notion of academic critique, where someone would come to you and say, “Well, you have to be told the ‘truth’ about your work.” However, I think we felt deep down that most people already knew the truth about their work, and bringing these kinds of judgments into play might interfere with the learning process.

I’m not just saying that you should avoid saying mean things about other people’s work. When my son was six, he read a book called “Good Luck, Bad Luck.” OK, bad luck, you missed the plane; good luck, the plane crashed and you weren’t killed; and so on. The lesson here is that we live in a condition marked by a combination of agency — the capacity to make a difference — with indeterminacy, where we try to make sense of things in order to take a stand and make a choice. In a condition marked by indeterminacy, agency, awareness, and choice, we have to keep things fluid and mobile.

The philosopher Arnold I. Davidson told me that the AACM trumpeter Lester Bowie once said, “Artists teach people how to live.” Well, if you want to learn how to live, you can start by learning how to listen. The historian Mark Smith tells us that “The people most sensitive to the aural world in the Old South were slaves. For them the ability to control sound and silence could mean freedom. Harriet Tubman learned from her father “how to walk soundlessly through the woods.”

The major thing that was important about jazz, when it first emerged not long after the formal end of slavery, was that it was an outgrowth of a condition of silencing. Not that slaveowners and US slave society were invariably enforcing silence. Sometimes they wanted the slaves to sing, so they knew where they were — a sonic panopticon, or condition of surveillance. I’m talking about silencing. We were commodities — bought, sold, traded.

But when the commodity speaks, it transcends objecthood, and one of the major forms of antebellum participation performance was the ring shout, where everyone is moving back and forth in a circle. Suddenly someone steps into the center of the circle and does some incredible thing, some star turn, and then they go back to the circle. Whether they are trying to top each other, whether it’s competition or cooperation, playing the dozens or whatever, the point is that people are taking a chance to speak.

So the idea that people should speak and that they have something personal to say, unique to say, gets retained in African American music today. I think that accounts for why African American music in its various forms is a true world music, spoken in various sonic dialects by just about everyone who wants to speak up.

Robert F. Kennedy was once quoted as saying, “Some see things as they are and ask why? I see things that never were and ask why not?” But in fact we need both — the criticality of asking why, and the experimental vision to bring things that never were to reality. This can happen at extended scales of time, place, and situation, as with the Great Migration, the largest and longest internal migration in US history. The Migration lasted from about 1915 to, let’s say, the late 1960s, when African-Americans left the rural South in large numbers to migrate to Northern, urban spaces — Harlem, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, not so much to the West, but mainly to the Midwest and East. As a native of Chicago whose parents came from North Carolina and Georgia, and who still has relatives in Delray Beach, Florida, I am a child of that migration, that Occupy The North-style experiment — an improvisation of distributed intelligence — pursued over half a century by ordinary working-class African Americans.

The AACM is also product of the Migration, and by the 1960s, the aspirations of black people in the US took on the discourse of freedom. There was freedom talk all over, and in music, there was “free improvisation,” where the primary work was as much critical and political as aesthetic-not about freedom versus license or freedom versus the supposed necessity of constraint, but how freedom may be achieved, practiced, and maintained in the face of power.

For musicians of Ornette Coleman’s generation, traditional rhythmic and tonal jazz proved to be a very constrained situation in which most decisions about the course of the music were made by external systems. The story of that era concerned both musical and larger social struggles to find out what would happen when those externalities were removed. When that happens, we see the real problems in dealing with free will, agency, and systems of hegemony, and for those musicians, the analogies to political and social struggle were obvious and widely commented upon.

A lot of this music was denigrated as “noise” when it first emerged — but then, according to historian Jon Cruz, the trope of characterizing black music as “noise” dates back at least as far as the mid-19th century, when slaveowners and overseers’ accounts revealed their obliviousness to the subjectivity of their property. They described slave soundings as savage, strange, incomprehensible, with no relation to history, memory or intelligence.

Come to think of it, looking back on the past 40 years or so, I certainly have made a lot of what many people would call “noise — just noise.” I’ve also been associated with a diverse range of noisy people from around the world — the Great Chain of Noisy Beings. But for someone like the French economist Jacques Attali, who wrote a very influential book on the political economy of music, asserting the right to noise, or what he calls “a breach in social repetition,” amounts to the right to be different — the right to compose one’s own life.

Cruz goes on to point out the trickster function of noise as “sound out of order” that evades capture. Noise, and noisers like me, routinely overflow the banks of propriety, resisting and unleashing the possibility of difference, and with it, the subversive possibility of change. People hear our noise and say, “No one told me it could be like that; I wonder what else they haven’t told me.” Or they say, “Wow, that music is really different”; once they start down that road, thoughts inevitably turn to what else might need to be different. This alone strikes fear in the hearts of those who long to be in charge.

So when we want change, in the memorable phrase of the rap group Public Enemy, we “bring the noise.” This is what we will be seeing soon, as improvised, spontaneous, and even seemingly leaderless noise events remind us of the primary remit of new music and new noises: to declare that change is possible.

And let’s not forget that the right to make noise symbolizes freedom. Noisers use noise to free themselves and others, and if we stop making noise, other noisers become discouraged. Again, we can imagine that discouragement working to the advantage of entrenched interests whose primary remit is eliminating our consciousness of possibility.

The overarching characterization of music in American public intellectual life is as a charming appetizer that has little to teach us about the critical issues of our time. In that light, we routinely encounter noise designed to throw us off the scent of change. So part of what I do as a noiser involves training people to differentiate the sounds that empower from those that hamper, misdirect, or simply try to drown you out. We have to find out how, as with the musicologist Jann Pasler, “music can serve as a critical tool, activating and developing multiple layers of awareness…to help us imagine our future.”

Here, I’d like us to leave you with the philosopher Pierre Hadot’s understanding “we are not dealing with the mere creation of a work of art: the goal is rather to transform ourselves.” This kind of transformation is the real work of the work of art, and the real understanding of the relation between art and life.

I invite you to join together to make it all happen. Thanks very much, and may you live in interesting times.