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George Lewis Gittin’ To Know Y’all: Improvised Music, Interculturalism, and the Racial Imagination

George E. Lewis, Columbia University

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Turning the face of music historiography toward a relatively frank engagement with issues of race, ethnicity and class has rarely proceeded without discontents. While popular music studies, including jazz history and criticism, have addressed race matters for quite some time, studies that deal specifically with these issues in the self-described “experimental” musics, including improvised music, are rather few in number, evincing a rather stunted discourse. In the foreword to their book, Music and the Racial Imagination, editors Ronald Radano and Philip Bohlman use the term “silence” to describe the historical aporias that accompany this discursive lack (37).

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Among the vanishingly small number of texts that explicitly address constructions of race in experimental music, those produced by improvisors stand out, including work by Malcolm Goldstein (1988) and Wadada Leo Smith (1973), and Anthony Braxton's massive three-volume Tri-Axium Writings (1985), an effort which, while in dialogue with such texts as LeRoi Jones’ Blues People (1963), John Cage’s Silence (1961) and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Texte (1971), extends considerably beyond these texts, both in length and in range of inquiry.

This general erasure of race seems at variance with experimental music’s presumed openness, its emphasis upon resistance, and its excavations of subaltern and marginalized histories of sound. The primary direction of my analysis, then, concerns the ways in which not only music scholars, but also musicians themselves, have either confronted or avoided engagement with issues of race in experimental music. I seek to identify some uninterrogated tropes concerning process, history and methodology that, when brought to light, do seem to embody coded assumptions about race, ethnicity, class, and about the possibilities for artists to move across, transgress and possibly erase borders.

As critical tools in advancing my theorizing, I wish to return to the terms “Eurological” and “Afrological,” which I used in a previous essay (“Improvised Music”) to historicize the particularity of perspectives developed in culturally divergent environments. These terms refer metaphorically to musical belief systems and behavior that, in my view, exemplify particular kinds of musical “logic.” The terms refer to social and cultural location, rather than phenotype (skin color); they are theorized here as historically emergent, and must not be used to essentialize musical direction in terms of ethnicity or race.

As I maintain in “Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives,” these constructions make no attempt to delineate ethnicity or race, although they are designed to ensure that the reality of the ethnic or racial component of a historically emergent socio-musical group must be faced squarely and honestly. In fact, the term “race” here is viewed as a historical construct whose borders are consanguineous with those of class and place. The fluidity that marks this intersection produces complex, mobile identities that do not respect traditionally monolithic taxonomies that assume race as a necessary precondition of musical method, infrastructure and materials.

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