Improvisation and Composition #1

In an afterword to his extensively researched history, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, George Lewis expresses his disappointment with the limited rhetorical form of the scholarly book, especially as it pertains to his subject, the Chicago-based musical collective, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Although this remarkable book is sedulously researched and documented—more than ten years in the making and over 600 pages in length—it cannot “cover” such a complex, evolving network of diverse and often contested voices, only perhaps represent its energies and activities in a limited manner. And, even then, its authority will come from the authority of its author, who must present a narrative that places these voices within a recognizable ordering form.

Lewis references James Clifford’s commentary on the writer’s plight in his “On Ethnographic Authority”:

One increasingly common way to manifest the collaborative production of ethnographic knowledge is to quote regularly and at length from informants….But such quotations are always staged by the quoter, and tend to serve merely as examples, or confirming testimonies. Looking beyond quotation, one might imagine a more radical polyphony…but this, too, would only displace the ethnographic authority, still confirming the final, virtuoso orchestration by a single author of all the discourses in his or her text. (Lewis 497-98)⁠

The AACM is an organization that was created to support and foster creativity, and its embrace of fiery, politically charged avant-gardism would seem to provide a perfect opportunity for Clifford’s imagined “radical polyphony.” But what would this writing, more compatible with the insights of the musicians, look like? For Lewis, whose work as a musician within the context of the AACM is known for its idiosyncratic combination of tradition and technology, this writing is all about quotation and re-use. Lewis in fact collects surplus quotation from the interviews he had conducted for the book and “orchestrates” them in a final chapter as a conversation of voices from throughout the history of the AACM, presenting a whimsical reconstruction of “what an AACM meeting might be like with everyone present, living and ancestral” (498). He describes this section of his book as “a combination of Bakhtinian heteroglossia, Gatesian signifying, and the venerable antebellum practice of collective improvisation known as the ring shout” (xlviii).

Both Lewis and Clifford suggest that posing a more Bakhtinian approach to historical or ethnographic writing offers possibilities for discovery and communication not possible in more restricted models of composition. And both tellingly turn to the creative artist as a model but seek, as well, something beyond the “domesticated heteroglossia” of the novelist. Clifford describes this imagined scholarly text as “a utopia of plural authorship that accords to collaborators, not merely the status of independent enunciators, but that of writers” (Clifford 139-140). Lewis’ last chapter, this orchestrated pastiche, doesn’t really solve the problem, of course. In the end, Lewis is faced with another variation of a paradox familiar to improvising musicians, the paradox of recording improvisations—transposing something dynamic into a fixed form. But the experiment works negatively to remind readers of what the more conventional scholarly prose cannot do.