Sound Ideas

Courtesy andynew flickr

More than a century ago, Friedrich Nietzsche expressed his frustration with the distance between music and philosophy; he wanted a Socrates who could play the harp. He took to composing music as a means of supplementing his philosophy in order to reunite the two traditions. In spite of his efforts, Nietzsche’s mediocre compositions haven’t galvanized many modern musicians into thinking about music philosophically. However, on Friday, November 13, at the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall, trombonist and scholar George E. Lewis will join forces with the German free jazz pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach and UofC philosophy professor Dr. Arnold I. Davidson, in concert and in conversation that may succeed were Nietzsche failed.

The three incredibly accomplished individuals are committed to a full exploration of the ethical, political, and philos­­ophical implications surrounding non-idiomatic improvisation. On Friday the participants will discuss topics as diverse as the relationship between musicians and machines, music and social responsibility, and improvisation. The concert can be seen in part as an extension of a course Davidson and Lewis are teaching at the UofC this quarter, “Improvisation as a Way of Life.” Davidson explains, “I think what we’ve realized with our students in our seminar is that improvisation is present in so many aspects of our lives, but sometimes we don’t see it, and sometimes we restrict it to a performance domain. Thinking about improvisation, and hearing about improvisation, and being very self-conscious about it can help us to understand our everyday lives better.”

George Lewis, who is headlining the event, is “interdisciplinary” in every sense of the term. Composer, musician, scholar, and accomplished computer programmer, Lewis is a professor at Columbia University and a past recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. However, Lewis is no mere visiting professor. Born and raised in Chicago, his connection to the UofC began when he was just a child. He attended and graduated from the Lab School in ‘69, and says that returning to Hyde Park is a sort of homecoming: “I’m resisting the temptation of thinking that I’m a student walking through the halls of the University again.” In spite of Lewis’s exercise in self-restraint, recollecting his former experience at the Lab School seems to have rekindled a flame that he simply cannot put out. His voice brims with excitement as he speaks about teaching in his hometown, “I’ve been back to Chicago to perform but not to teach before…It’s extraordinary. This is the most exciting part for me–it may be more important [to me] than to perform.”

Lewis’s own musical style is intertwined with numerous musical traditions, particularly experimental music and jazz (in both freely improvised and more traditional forms). Accordingly, his music seems to jump from more lyrical passages to atonal interludes. He seeks to add an element of texture to his music, sometimes opting to blow through the tubing of trombone to produce raspy breaths rather than actual notes. One would be wrong to mistake his music as simply “noise,” though the untrained ear might perceive it as such. The overall impression one gains in listening to Lewis’s music is that he is striving to create something that cannot be expressed through traditional musical idioms. In this sense, he seems to be a reaching for something ineffable.

Equally fascinating is Lewis’s innovative incorporation of computer technology in his music, most notably with his software program, Voyager, which processes and even “listens” to music. It then bases its improvised response accordingly, as if it were an autonomous performer feeding off of the creative energy of a musical partner. Davidson says that Lewis’s Voyager forces us to reevaluate–and perhaps reformulate–Immanuel Kant’s three famous questions: “What can I know, what ought I to do, and what may I hope for?” He poses these new questions as, “What can we know, what can we do since we have to work with machines and people, and what can we hope for in creating community? And in the end, what is man, what does it mean to be who we are?”

What is implicit in Lewis’s music as well as his writings is a deep-seated humanitarian interest in what music means for us today. “Without music, life would be a mistake,” Nietzsche once famously declared. The question that seems to preoccupy Lewis, Davidson, and von Schlippenbach is, “Why?”

Mandel Hall, 5720 S. Woodlawn Ave. November 12th. Friday, 7:30 pm. (773)702-8068. $20 general/$5 for students with UCID. All ages. artspeaks.uchicago.edu/lewis