Keynote Address: George Lewis

Rethinking Diversity: New Music in the Global Context

Friday, January 8, 2010, from 9:00 to 10:00 am

With George Lewis — Edwin H Case Professor of American Music, Columbia University (NYC)

(The following is the complete speech by George Lewis)

Je me sens très étrange de parler de diversité parmi les Canadiens; surtout parce que je ne suis pas Canadien moi-même. [I find it very strange to be talking about diversity among Canadians; especially since I’m not myself Canadian. ]

Despite having had over thirty years of deep association with several Canadian experimental and scholarly scenes–in music, video, visual art, cultural studies, and new media studies (most recently in the West, but also in Toronto, Guelph, and Montreal) — with a number of my friends and collaborators in attendance this morning — I still have only a limited understanding of how Canadian cultural workers have approached the issue of diversity. I do have some sense, however, of the wide-ranging changes that have taken place in Canadian society over the past decade, and I’m sure that over the next two days I will learn a great deal about how emerging cultures of new music have been affected by these developments.

I have had several occasions over the years, in my own research work, to consult demographic data from Statistics Canada. My recent essay on Vancouver’s Western Front presented reminiscences from my late-1980s participation in composer Martin Bartlett’s “Music of Two Worlds” Summer Music Intensives at Simon Fraser University. The residencies were unique, the students intrepid and eager, the faculty unbelievable: the late K.R.T Wasitodipuro, (Pak Cokro), who passed away recently at the age of 102; his son-in-law I Nyoman Wenten, his daughter Nanik Wenten, and his esteemed colleague Hardja Susilo, all among the most important Indonesian artists of our time, taught Balinese and Javanese music and dance, while Bartlett, Daniel Scheidt, and Martin Gotfrit joined David Rosenboom and myself, among others, in teaching computer music.
This potent intercultural combination of tradition with the avant-garde and new technology even gained notice in Indonesia itself, with an account published in Tempo, the major Jakarta newsmagazine, reporting on a concert attended by the consul general of the country. [See “Menabuh dan Menari lewat Sarung Tangan,” Tempo (Indonesia), August 17 1991.]

Strongly connected with the Vancouver arts community, the Music of Two Worlds intensive constituted an important and particularly prescient early embrace of the realities of the changing demographics of Canada, positing this emerging diversity as a source of new ideas and networks. At this time, Canada was already moving away from its two-European-languages + First Nations identity model toward self-recognition as a multi-ethnic nation. Today, Canada’s population includes more than 200 different ethnic origins, 11 of which have passed the 1-million population mark. Immigration led to the emergence of new communities who brought their musics with them. Hybrids emerged, and intercultural streams of musical experimentalism began to develop.

Across the border, the civil rights and black power movements, as well as cultural nationalist ideologies with all their flaws, influenced a renewed consciousness on the part of national minorities worldwide to throw off legal and customary discrimination. Struggles by LGBT people, women, and ethnic groups and class formations of all kinds for recognition and economic development were accompanied by concepts such as “self-determination,” and nascent cultural and ethnic nationalisms developed that included music as a prime component.

The advent of the postcolonial moment resulted in new transnational alignments that brought new music to the fore. Decolonization was an undertone of the civil rights movement that promoted new understandings of history at the grass-roots, and globalization, immigration and multiculturalism all influenced the rise of contemporary diversity discourses, as well as reasserting music’s role as an internationally active force for change. Finally, both analog and digital technologies promoted what one could call “sound immigration.” Sampling technology in particular encouraged practices of “remixing” that bore implications for even more mixing at the level of history and culture-bearing performing bodies.

All of these forces accelerated the legitimacy of ethnomusicological study in the academy, including the study of improvisation, the fundamental practice underlying most music in the world, as well as most transactions between human beings and their environments taken more generally. However, even such an eminent researcher of improvisation as Bruno Nettl, in his important 1974 article on improvisation studies, seemed to have no explanation for what in 1974 he called “the increased attention given to musics which appear to depend much more heavily on improvisation than does European art music,” eliding the obvious fact that jazz was the music that brought to the world the notion that improvisation could be the staging ground for a world-historical musical high culture that demanded study, and that the forces we’ve mentioned so far—the civil rights movement, decolonization, immigration—strongly conditioned the rise of this new reality.

By the time Nettl wrote his 1974 article, black power movements had already invaded academic music studies, formerly the province of comfortable sinecures for pan-European musical discourses, both compositional and musicological. Scholar-activists both in and out of the academy redirected economic, physical, and discursive infrastructures in academia to deal with Afrodiasporic musical culture and its innovations, not as playgrounds for high culture, but as a set of forms that merited, in its own right, support for research, study, composition, and performance. The civil rights movement had already accelerated the rise of jazz-as-art. This development had been in motion since the 1950s with the promulgation of classicizing discourses for jazz that both recognized the nature and scope of the challenge that jazz and improvisation posed to Western hegemonies of music history and practice, and also attempted to co-opt those challenges by offering jazz a seat at the table of subsidized culture, albeit with considerable restrictions in terms of infrastructure. Scholar Iain Anderson recounts the consequences of the rise of jazz-as-art, including a rise in the legitimacy of funding jazz performance and composition as a social good.

Indeed, the vector for the incursions into academia was ethnomusicology, as jazz musicians seeking academic legitimacy, employment, and the expansion of discourses to include black music, sought advanced degrees. Despite the field’s emphasis on ethnography as a central component of its identity, the aim of these returning students was the legitimation of the historical study of black American music, at a time when the discipline of historical musicology locked out the study of non-European music. Jazz musicians largely ignored methodological distinctions between the two branches of the musicological endeavor, and the work of these musicians foreshadowed historical musicology’s own turn to diversity, in the late 1980s, fueled by the desires of a new generation to legitimize the study of rock.

The emergence of jazz as an academic field of historical study was eventually dwarfed by the rise of a particular model of jazz studies that for the most part de-emphasized scholarly study in favor of performance. Nonetheless, the advent of departments of jazz performance made it easier for many institutions to open up their models of both performance and scholarship to include the serious study of music performance across many traditions. This in turn brought knowledgeable practitioners from around the world, and these new, socially constituted epistemological networks redefined and diversified the range of what counted as “expert musical knowledge,” “coherence, “unity,” “form,” “musicianship,” and “quality.”

Despite the influential thesis of Leonard Meyer, these developments were anything but static. For Attali, the free jazz of the 1960s “eliminated the distinctions between popular music and learned music, broke down the repetitive hierarchy”—an enormously portentous change that was certainly on view as the first activities of AACM artists in New York City, occurring roughly between 1970 and 1983, played a crucial and very public role in the emergence during this period of now-standard musical, critical, and institutional discourses of diversity and musical hybridity. Meanwhile, in Europe, an emerging pan-European political nationalism conditioned the emergence, reception and production of an intercultural European free improvisation, at a time when there were patrolled borders across the continent. A concomitant pan-European cultural nationalism was seeking to bring the new music of the first-generation free jazz improvisors into the European cultural consensus–which would include the kind of government support for cultural production that had become an integral part of European social democracy, but which was seen as inimical to musics that drew from jazz or other vernacular forms, both foreign and domestic.

In these cases, it was improvisation that provided a driving force for bridging the divide between high and low culture, conditioning the formation of an international, multiracial, integrationist milieu encompassing jazz, rock, and classical musicians, as well as anyone else from any tradition seeking the hybridities and fusions that were part of this new practice of music making. As a group of scholars, including myself, wrote in 2002, improvisation can both facilitate and embody cross-cultural and transnational exchanges that produce new conceptions of identity, history and the body; promulgate new notions of meaning and knowledge; and provide models for new forms of social mobilization and community development, providing a means of speaking across boundaries of culture, genre and practice. I’m sure that you will here more from Professors Heble and Waterman from the University of Guelph later today, with their leadership of the dynamic and internationally innovative Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice initiative, in which I have a small but significant role myself.

Critic John Rockwell’s 1983 book All American Music predicted a new multicultural diversity-oriented perspective while noting that the new forms of diversity entered the American classical world only grudgingly. Even so, New York’s habitual distinction between downtown and uptown modes of classical music suddenly became exposed as a whiteness-dominated family squabble that seemed moribund in an environment in which Steve Reich, the World Saxophone Quartet, and Nana Vasconcelos could share billing (if not equal claims to infrastructural access) on multi-genre concert series that superseded the old bugaboo of “eclecticism.”

Now, in the new century, we can assess the results of this quarter-century of diversity. Some of you remember the bad old days, B.D.; Before Diversity; when Eurocanons were unchallenged and whiteness was unmarked. Now, we have diversity. We know what it is, and it’s clear that everyone (except for a few Neanderthals) approve of it. All we have to do now is implement it.

But are we so sure about that? Even the appearance of diversity in new music (I hesitate to say “the achievement of diversity”), at least in my experience, was hard-won. Recalling the oft-heard bromide that “Diversity is our strength” prompts me to ask if diversity has now accumulated sufficient symbolic cultural capital to appear unassailable as a goal?

Certainly this is the case, if recent practices of funding agencies are any indication. Funding guidelines routinely advertise nondiscrimination policies and issue calls for work that addresses “diverse communities” and border-crossing. But if new music (or any music) survives because it serves, as I heard Berthold Hoeckner remark in a Berlin lecture, the promulgation of diversity obliges us to ask about what communities are being served, whose cultural survival is considered vital, whose histories are considered canonical (and why), whose modernity is sought and needed, and to what community is the audible result epistemic or transgressive?

Diversity is intimately connected with place. In the pre-diversity moment, rigid homologies between music, race, and place were asserted, and socioprofessional networks generated exclusionary canons and discourses, a logic that especially affected visible minorities (by Statistics Canada’s definition, excluding Aboriginal or First Nations people) who now make up over 16% of the Canadian population; right now, well over 80 percent of the immigrants who arrived between 2001 and 2006 were born in regions other than Europe. This profound demographic shift has obvious implications for the future of musical discourses, pedagogies, audiences, ensembles, and musicologies, even if Statistics Canada has little to say about music per se (try it!). In such an environment, can pan-European discourses still be regarded as “mainstream”? Does the goal of “inclusion” still serve? Are we moving toward a cosmopolitan model of musical reference?

Diversity is not polyphonic; there is no overarching tempo, conductor, or clock source. Diversity is heterophonic, heteroglossic and noisy; like improvisation, it is a dangerous hybrid created from agency and indeterminacy whose ultimate outcome is a continuous transformation of both Other and Self. What diversity can produce, when it is at its best, is not a new set of common practices, but a new noise that can bring together the widest range of traditions and peoples. If diversity means anything, we should expect to see conflict, placing pressure on discourses of “unity within diversity”—or for that matter diversity within unity–but we should also expect to be able to create and participate in systems that can respect and encourage, but also manage difference—the messy diversity of individualism.

Here, we should recognize the ugly recrudescence of genre in what many were hoping would be a liberatory post-genre moment in music. Genre becomes linked with the related concepts of category, classification, and label, and the word on the jazz street at least, particularly between 1930 and the rise of jazz‘s neoclassical strain in the 1980s, was that musicians did not particularly want to be categorized, classified, or labeled. Thus we have Max Roach, whose views are worth considering at some length:

Let us first eliminate the term “jazz.” It is not a term or a name that we, as black musicians, ever gave to the art which we created. It is a name which was given to the Afro-American’s art form by white America, and which there fore inherits all the racist and prurient attitudes which have been directed to all other aspects of the black experience in this country…the worst kind of working conditions, the worst in cultural prejudice, the worst kinds of salaries and conditions that one can imagine.

As Roach suggests, genre, as a locus of racialized power, also predicts infrastructure, socioprofessional networks, and even—as James Newton discovered to his chagrin–the machinations of government and the interpretation of the law. Even in the 21st Century, all hybridities and fluidities aside, there are still well-known philanthropic foundations devoted to music, even at my own institution, which proudly state that they do not fund jazz—a commonplace at the time Max Roach wrote these words. Diversity discourses circulate as part of a socially constituted epistemological network comprised not only of musicians, conductors and composers, but also administrators, foundations, critics and the media, historians, educational institutions, and much more. Each of the nodes within this network, not just those directly making music, would need to become restructured in ways that interrupt received connections between genre and infrastructure access. Otherwise, diversity easily becomes boilerplate, a recognized public good, but pursued in ways that retain and even require stereotypes.

Fabien Holt has decried a certain “fetishization of hybridity,” and David Hesmondhalgh has declared that “We need to know how boundaries are constituted, not simply that they are fuzzier than various writers have assumed.” These two impressions are of signal importance for understanding diversity in the new century. For a while, musics identified as “hybrid” were perceived as having the power to transcend genre, as in contemporaneous commentary on John Zorn and other Downtown artists of the 1980s, which celebrated the diversity of sonic and cultural reference in their work, and their resistance to category, even as comparable and simultaneous efforts by black experimentalists such as Anthony Braxton were being routinely framed as rigidly yoked to a unitary tradition. In Braxton’s case, the discursive genre-tool used to revoke his hybridity was his “background in jazz”—ironically, the same background that was being used to valorize Zorn.

But more to the point, I want to suggest here that for musicians, both diversity and hybridity may have lost much of their power as discursive tools. The reason for this is that in genre networks inflected by race and gender oppression, genres pretend to do epistemological work, but quite often the only real work being done is the reification of the limits of what counts as knowledge. A diversity regime that depends upon that reification—so much jazz, so much classical, so much improvised music—becomes hoist by its own petard—along with the artists who are supposedly being helped.

With that in mind, I want to introduce a related notion—that of mobility, a trope most centrally represented by the defining moment in the origins of jazz–namely, that after three hundred years of a very real silence of violence, immobility, and terror–rather than, say, a freely chosen conceptual silence of four minutes or so–one can well imagine newly freed slaves developing a post-slavery participatory performance form in which each person is encouraged to speak—and move their bodies. Here, mobility means change, and is corporeally as well as discursively asserted.

Mobility also means agency, as musicians assert the freedom to move in and out of particular genres, scenes, styles, and categories, rejecting race-and gender based restrictions on access and aesthetic reference. As we see from the Braxton-Zorn example, hybridity is easily revoked through discourse, while mobility remains a component of the agency of the artist—a kind of positional diversity with respect to aesthetics, style and methodology that may or may not be matched by symbolic or real capital infrastructure. To the extent that racialized and gender-inflected art-world systems assert overwhelming investment not only in white male heteronormativity, but in homologies between race, gender, and sound, positional diversity in any group becomes revoked—or even stolen. Can a black musician ever adopt the trope of the “former jazz musician,” so easily available to white artists of the West? Or is there a “one-drop rule” that limits mobility through the exploitation of hybridity’s eugenic heritage? Merely individualizing accusations of discrimination cannot identify the real thief here, the asymmetrical investment structure itself. Members of the favored groups cannot be blamed for taking advantage of the lack of policing, the freedom, and the mobility.

The early AACM notion of “original music,” unbound by strict adherence to free improvisation, notated composition, constructed notions of blackness, or any other fixed notion of method or tradition, reminds us that even seemingly monolithic ethnic or gender situations, such as the 100% hypersegregated, overcrowded, cheek-by-jowl black environment of Chicago’s South Side, can become the staging ground for eclectic fusions, hybridities, and postmodernities of all sorts. Here, we need to remember that experimentalism can take many forms, draw from many histories, confront different methodological challenges, and manifest a self-awareness as being in dialogue with the music of the whole earth, as exemplified by the mobility expressed by Lester Bowie’s ecstatic declaration, made not long after the dawn of postmodernism: “We’re free to express ourselves in any so-called idiom, to draw from any source, to deny any limitation. We weren’t restricted to bebop, free jazz, Dixieland, theater or poetry. We could put it all together. We could sequence it any way we felt like it. It was entirely up to us.” (Beauchamp 1998:46) This is mobility discourse in action—indeed, an assertion of freedom that seems to elude standard diversity discourses, even as it becomes obvious that diversity without freedom seems a wan and unappetizing gruel indeed.

Ultimately, diversity can become a servant of genre, but mobility remains forever separate—in bell hooks’s phrase, “strange and oppositional.” Thus, if Fred Moten makes a very strong point in his declaration that “constraint, mobility, and displacement are conditions of possibility of the avant-garde now,” discourses that revoke mobility also destroy diversity, and ultimately compromise the trenchancy of any experimentalism. Diversity without mobility becomes a set of prefabricated and pre-approved categories that fail to account for the facts on the artistic ground.

One conference narrative that I read seemed concerned with how to integrate the new diversities—the new citizens that Canada has adopted with alacrity–into existing structures. But new citizens, new subjects, will create new structures and networks, new interpretations of and interventions into the production of standard histories, and new mutations of cultural memories. Here, a diversity regime that is mainly concerned with the preservation of existing structures will at some point simply collapse under the weight of its contradictions. If, as I have written elsewhere, “in performances of improvised music, the possibility of internalizing alternative value systems is implicit from the start,” we can learn from improvised music’s openness in seeing the difficulty with the pluralist conception of diversity, where, as art critic Hal Foster once put it, “minor deviation is allowed to resist radical change.”

To conclude, I want to address the notion of the “intercultural orchestra,” a topic of one of the discussion sessions here. This is an exciting new development whose antecedents I want to briefly consider. In 1960, the influential ethnomusicologist Mantle Hood coined the term “bimusicality” to describe the work of musicians of the Imperial Japanese Court, who were trained in both gagaku and pan-European classical traditions. As it happens, decades before the publication of Hood’s article, the circle of musicians around William Grant Still and New York’s Clef Club were already well known as practitioners of the proto-bimusical. In 1930, Still’s optimistic belief in the viability of a “Negro Symphony Orchestra” was based on his own experience as both composer and performer in classical, jazz, and popular idioms. Still predicted that for the players in such an orchestra, “their training in the jazz world will even have enhanced their virtuosity, and they will be able to play perfectly passages that would be difficult for a man trained only in the usual academic way.” The word “Negro,” of course, was a metaphor for the presence of improvisation; imagine if composers could count on improvisation as a baseline competency in classical music performance! The new pedagogies that imparted such knowledge would create a panoply of new resources for composers, ultimately creating a new music.

Well, things didn’t quite turn out that way. As Still was well aware, improvisation, a primary practice of the European composer-performer for centuries, was unceremoniously dumped from Western music’s arsenal of practice by the late 19th Century. The extreme understatement with which the historiography of Western music treats this radical rupture with over a half-millennium of canonical practice justifies my ironic characterization of it as “The Quiet Revolution.” In the end, many of the most radical practices and social changes that emerged from what cultural historian Daniel Belgrad called “the culture of spontaneity” of the 1950s and 1960s seem to have occurred without very much input from the modern symphony orchestra. At the same time, there is insurgency from below. The number of individual performers and composers who are able to perform one of musical diversity’s fundamental practices—code-switching between cultural practices of sound—is growing steadily, as we saw in last night’s superb performance by the Nova Scotia Symphony.

Perhaps a new classical music, fully engaged in a postcolonial world, would use these new capabilities to draw upon the widest range of traditions and pedagogies, where such musical code-switching would realize Attali’s notion of composition as existing “in a multifaceted time in which rhythms, styles, and codes diverge, interdependencies become more burdensome, and rules dissolve.” In this way, diversity becomes, not an aftermarket gadget, but a fundamental condition that places its practitioners at the center of things, even as the myth of its marginality is ever more anxiously repeated.

I’d like to conclude with a rather different view of diversity, coming from the French Caribbean scholarly and activist communities. This analysis allows us to re-evaluate what we mean by diversity, and what it means for us as people engaged with the relationship between new music and the larger world of ideas and the social world.

Créolité, Diversalité, Mondialisation
Raphael Confiant, Patrick Chamoiseau (Martiniquean scholars and historians)

Et là, j’en arrive logiquement au troisième et dernier terme de l’intitulé de mon exposé: la Diversalité. Ce néologisme, nous les auteurs de la Créolité, nous l’avons forgé pour tenter de faire pendant au vieux concept européen d’universalité. A l’unique, nous préférons le divers, car derrière ce vieux concept se cache, vous le savez pertinemment, l’idée de la supériorité de la civilisation européenne sur toutes les autres civilisations du monde.

Ainsi donc, l’idée de Diversalité est étroitement liée à celle de Créolité: elle veut dire qu’il n’existe pas de petit peuple, qu’il n’existe pas de petite langue, qu’il n’existe pas de petite culture. Que toutes les langues, toutes les cultures, toutes les religions du monde sont dignes d’intérêt et contribuent à la richesse du monde, à la biodiversité culturelle.

A la vieille Universalité européenne, nous souhaitons opposer la Diversalité, notion qui tout en maintenant l’idée d’un destin commun à l’espèce humaine, exige le respect et surtout la sauvegarde des identités particulières, non pas dans l’enfermement ou le nombrilisme, mais dans l’interaction librement consentie, dans la créolisation acceptée, voulue, recherchée même, et non plus subie.