The Sound of Empathy in George Lewis’s “Afterword”

(This article originally appeared on the AMS Musicology Now website on May 11, 2018.)

Premiered in 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Afterword is a two-act opera composed by George Lewis to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). I approach the opera as an opportunity to examine the role of community and empathy in Lewis’s works. Though Lewis discusses empathy in terms of a specific community—the AACM on the South Side of Chicago—I apply his thinking to the role of the listener in general. Lewis’s musical works, especially Afterword, demonstrate the sound of empathy—the sound of pushing existing boundaries while at the same time calling on the active participation of the listener as a creative improviser.


(Afterword, Act 1, scene 4, from left to right: Julian Terrell Otis, Gwendolyn Brown, and Joelle Lamarre. Photo by George Lewis)

In a recent interview, George Lewis describes his conception of community and empathy in Afterword:

Community is essential to the opera’s themes. What we’re seeing is a community in formation. People are coming together to find commonalities, and they need to come together because nobody is really supporting them. […] And we’re seeing the stresses and strains of community formation—disagreements of different kinds. But at the same time there is a need to forge a community that is accepting of different points of view. This is when you get to the empathy part. Empathy is also fundamental to the creation of this community; we need empathy to establish community. People need to be receptive and open. They need to even make themselves a little vulnerable, and we see this in the opera as well. There is a sense in which people aren’t sure what’s going to happen (Rothe 2017).

At the AACM’s first meeting in May 1965, musicians gathered to discuss how they could survive in an environment where black musicians were being pushed out of the South Side of Chicago. Confronted with an exploitative music industry and a city council that sought to shut down music venues on the South Side, the musicians voted to form an organization for the promotion of creative music—original music outside the restrictive genre markers of the music industry.

A key aspect of the AACM from its inception, genre mobility refers to transcending the existing musical system and its genre boundaries, drawing on a broad range of different musical languages. Through genre mobility, AACM members were able to resist restrictive genre markers while exploring new networks and infrastructural pathways.

As described by Lewis in his 2008 book, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, in the early days of the AACM, empathy was especially evident in Muhal Richard Abrams’s aim of “awakening the psyche” of his fellow creative musicians. On the one hand, this was a commitment to original music and the need to be supportive of fellow creative musicians. On the other, it involved concern for the “spiritual growth” of the community—to provide free education for young musicians and present imaginative programs of creative music to the public.

The Sound of Empathy and Genre Mobility

Drawing on the scholarship of Suzanne Keen (2007, 4), I interpret empathy as a shared experience and feeling. Keen discusses empathy as including two aspects: it is a spontaneously shared emotion that also involves cognitive perspective taking. This perspective taking is always shaped by cultural and individual factors of memory and experience. In a chapter on empathy, improvisation, and embodied cognition, Vijay Iyer (2016, 18) likewise stresses how our perception of others is grounded in a culturally-situated understanding of embodied action. According to Iyer, empathy is a kind of action understanding that activates similar motor programs in the observer’s brain when experiencing music—i.e. bodies in motion.

Ryan Dohoney’s research on Julius Eastman has been instrumental in shaping my thinking about empathy in terms of genre mobility. In a chapter on Julius Eastman’s life and music in New York City in the period between 1976 and 1990, Dohoney (2015, 126) examines how Eastman was able to connect diverse networks at venues such as The Kitchen, Environ, and Paradise Garage. During this period, Eastman composed and performed music that defies a single genre label—mixing extended vocal techniques, experimental music, improvisation, and disco.

George Lewis’s music demonstrates a similar sort of empathy through genre mobility and drawing on multiple networks. In Lewis’s music, the sound of empathy is of pushing existing boundaries, giving rise to a feeling of instability that calls for the active participation of the listener as a creative improviser. In the process of doing so, it activates the desire for change in everyday life.

(Afterword, Act 1, scene 4, 1:45:44-1:58:19; Ojai Music Festival performance, June 9, 2017, Libbey Bowl, Ojai, CA)

The sound of empathy is especially evident in scene 4 of Afterword, entitled “First Meeting.” Based on Lewis’s transcript of an audio recording of the founding AACM meeting in May 1965, this scene depicts the musicians in the process of deciding to perform only original music. As the musicians discuss various types of music, Lewis uses the opportunity to compose music that comments on music (music about music)—a tradition that stretches back to Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

A close listening of this scene reveals that there is no over-arching global form. Instead, Lewis works with modules—approximately ten to fifteen measures of music at a time—which he brings back, but changes with each repetition. The layering of ostinatos and sustained chords results in a thick, complex sound. Lewis creates a shared feeling of instability by means of jump cuts between sections and extended techniques that destabilize pitch (e.g., glissando, microtonal inflection, tremolo). In the vocal writing, he contrasts recitative-like passages, which are unmetered and occur over sustained chords, with metered arioso passages. Lewis stresses the clarity of the text through syllabic treatment.

A key technique of genre mobility is musical signifyin(g), a practice of quoting or referring to preexisting material that in turn changes it by adding a new layer of meaning—whether playful, subversive, or as a means of paying tribute to someone or something (on musical signifyin(g), see Samuel Floyd). Afterword’s scene 4 includes a number of examples of musical signifyin(g). When soprano Joelle Lamarre’s avatar sings “we thought of all the things we are,” the music references the jazz standard “All the Things You Are” (1:47:07). Given that the AACM members rejected the genre marker of jazz, this reference is a playful subversion of existing genre boundaries. When the text alludes to music on the radio (“The other music is already being presented; record companies, disk jockeys, everyone is promoting it”), Lewis signifies on the groove-oriented nature of much popular black music in the mid-1960s (funk and R&B; 1:51:38). Lastly, whenever the text refers to original or creative music (1:48:19, 1:50:01, 1:54:16, 1:56:51), Lewis layers multiple loops on top of each other. He is signifyin(g) on the idea of creative music as involving the complex layering of sounds. In sum, we encounter a sense of empathy through the shared feeling of instability along with the shared experience of Lewis pushing existing genre boundaries.

The Improvising Listener

The absence of a global form, the complex layering of loops, and stark contrasts of sound—these are all techniques that call on the active participation of the listener as a creative improviser. While Afterword’s score is fully notated—i.e. there is no improvisation at the level of the performers—this does not exclude the possibility of the improvising listener. Lewis writes of the listener:

[…] We can understand the experience of listening to music as very close to the experience of the improviser. Listening itself, an improvisative act engaged in by everyone, announces a practice of active engagement with the world, where we sift, interpret, store, and forget, in parallel with action and fundamentally articulated with it (Lewis 2007, 113).

In other words, the listener participates in the performance as an improviser, which is akin to the experience of improvisation in everyday life. In Afterword’s scene 4, the improvising listener navigates multiple layers of sound and creates a pathway through disparate blocks of sound. The fact that the singers’ text always remains in the foreground in no way diminishes the role of the listener as creative improviser. By experiencing this scene in the context of a musical language of instability, we have all the more appreciation for the difficult task confronted by AACM musicians at the first meeting. While the listener to some degree self-identifies with the AACM musicians, empathetic listening in this case refers more broadly to the shared feeling of instability and pushing existing boundaries.

In recent years, empathy—as a mode of emotionally engaging with music and literature—has received much criticism. Molly Abel Travis (2010, 232) argues for the necessity of moving beyond the self-identification of empathy, instead adopting an attitude of openness to experiences of difference that “interrupt our epistemological projects to contain the other.” However, it is exactly this attitude of openness that Lewis’s opera fosters by pushing existing genre boundaries. In doing so, he creates a shared feeling of instability that simultaneously activates the listener’s own mobility as a creative improviser. As listeners to Afterword, we encounter a model for thinking about improvisation in everyday life, seeking similar experiences of pushing boundaries of social injustice.

Works Cited

Dohoney, Ryan. 2015. “A Flexible Musical Identity: Julius Eastman in New York City, 1976-90.” In Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and His Music, edited by Renée Levine Packer and Mary Jane Leach, 116-130. Rochester: University of Rochester Press.

Floyd, Samuel A. 1995. “African-American Modernism, Signifyin(g), and Black Music.” In The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States, 87-99. New York: Oxford University Press.

Iyer, Vijay. 2016. “Improvisation, Action Understanding, and Music Cognition with and without Bodies.” In The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, Volume 1, edited by George E. Lewis and Benjamin Piekut, 74-90. New York: Oxford University Press.

Keen, Suzanne. 2007. Empathy and the Novel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lewis, George E. 2007. “Mobilitas Animi: Improvising Technologies, Intending Chance.” Parallax 13, no. 4: 108-122.

_____________. A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Rothe, Alexander K. 2017. “An Interview with the Composer.” VAN Magazine, June 22.

Travis, Molly Abel. 2010. “Beyond Empathy: Narrative Distancing and Ethics in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.Journal of Narrative Theory 40, no. 2 (Summer): 231-250.

Boulez, IRCAM, and Bayreuth

In January 1977, the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music (IRCAM) officially opened its doors to the public. The occasion was marked by a series of important concerts entitled “Passage du XXe siècle” celebrating the music of the 20th century. Part of the Centre Georges Pompidou (CGP), IRCAM is a music center that focuses on computer music production and computer music research. It began as President Pompidou’s vision of a cultural center in Paris that would improve France’s prestige abroad and at home, which along with a music center included a Museum of Modern Art, a large public library, and a center of industrial design. President Pompidou chose Pierre Boulez to create and lead the new music center, since Boulez was France’s most revered musician and composer – even if Boulez had left France after a bitter argument with the former Minister of Culture André Malraux. When Boulez began planning the music center in 1970, he had two models: the Bayreuth Festival and Bauhaus. I will focus on how and why the Bayreuth Festival became a model for Boulez, since Bayreuth seems like an unlikely model for an experimental music research center.


The IRCAM building (seen above) and the Bayreuth Festspielhaus look nothing alike, but Boulez nevertheless saw Bayreuth as a model for IRCAM.

Boulez’s thoughts about creating a new music research center can be traced back to a talk that he gave in Saint-Etienne in May 1968, at the same time that student and worker protests were erupting throughout France (Born 1995). Entitled “Where Are We Now?,” Boulez’s talk calls for sweeping changes to the new music landscape in France:

Contemporary music in fact demands the intelligent participation of the audience … but our concert-hall arrangement, and indeed the whole character of our musical life, implies, as I have said, an attitude of worship … I believe that solutions to this problem can be found only in a common undertaking in which each individual will have his own part to play. I am quite clear in my mind that musicians by themselves cannot solve these problems … but they alone will be capable of determining the direction of any new discovery (Boulez 1986: 462).

Boulez concludes that composers, musicians, and scientists must work together to create new sounds and a new musical language that is shared by musicians and listeners alike.

When Boulez gave this talk in 1968, he had already conducted Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival, an experience that had a profound effect on his understanding of music and its place in society. After collaborating with Wieland Wagner on a production of Berg’s Wozzeck at the Frankfurt Opera in April 1966, Boulez accepted Wieland’s invitation to conduct Parsifal at Bayreuth later that year. Both Wieland and Boulez set out to capture a sonic equivalent of the New Bayreuth style, stripping away the layers of tradition that had accumulated at the festival. It seemed all the more shocking then when Boulez said in a 1967 interview in Spiegel that “blow[ing] up the opera houses … would be the best solution.” When asked to comment on his appearances in Bayreuth, Boulez explained that the Bayreuth Festival is an exception – that Bayreuth is a site for experimentation and innovation, since it is not bound by the same constraints as other opera houses.

(In the 1966 Parsifal at Bayreuth, Boulez provided the sonic equivalent of Wieland Wagner’s New Bayreuth style, stripping away old layers of tradition at Bayreuth.)

In Boulez’s writings on Wagner, he frequently repeats his argument that Bayreuth is not bound by the constraints of traditional opera houses. In his essay “Richard Wagner: The Man and the Works” (1975), Boulez writes that Wagner “overturned the existing language of music as well as of the opera” (223), which required not only a different performance space but also a new school of singing. Boulez states that Wagner finally accomplished this task with the Bayreuth Festival. Yet Wagner died shortly afterward, and Bayreuth “was soon to become a blindly conservative rather than an exploratory institution” (229). Here Boulez’s discussion of Wagner’s new musical language mirrors his own call for a new musical language and research center in the 1968 Saint-Etienne talk. In other words, Boulez’s experiences in Bayreuth shaped his plans for IRCAM.

The events leading up to IRCAM’s opening unfolded at the very same time that Boulez was working on the Bayreuth Centennial Ring cycle. (See my post on the Bayreuth Centennial Ring.) Wolfgang Wagner, who had become both artistic and managing director of the Bayreuth Festival after Wieland’s death in 1966, approached Boulez in May 1972 to conduct the Bayreuth Centennial Ring cycle. As documented by Dominique Jameux, Boulez’s nomination as head of the new music center was finalized in 1972 (Jameux 1991). In March 1974, Boulez held a press conference at which he publicly announced the future opening of IRCAM and discussed the center’s organization. There were to be four departments, to which a further one was later added: electro-acoustics (led by Luciano Berio), instruments and voice (Vinko Globokar), computer theory (Jean-Claude Risset), administration (Gerald Bennett), and pedagogy (Michel Decoust). Such a comprehensive music center was unheard of at the time, and Boulez’s selection of personnel was a sign that he wanted a diversity of viewpoints, a collaboration between a group of composers and theorists. In 1975, Boulez published a collection of essays (La Musique en projet) outlining IRCAM’s aims and objectives. The key point of the articles was that musicians and scientists must work together to discover new sounds and musical forms. Later that year, Boulez received additional funding to establish the center’s own ensemble, the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Henceforth, an important aspect of IRCAM became the training of musicians to perform new music and the creation of a concert series in which the public could be educated about new music. The importance of education and communication with the audience were ideas that Boulez had initially articulated in his 1968 talk in Saint-Etienne.

The simultaneous unfolding of both IRCAM’s opening and the Bayreuth Centennial Ring was much more than a temporal coincidence. At IRCAM, Boulez was guided by the idea of Bayreuth as a music center existing outside of the traditional opera and concert-going system. At Bayreuth, Boulez approached Wagner’ music through the lens of IRCAM’s aim of discovering a new music language. In conclusion, the founding of IRCAM and Boulez’s experiences at Bayreuth were inextricably connected: we cannot understand the one without the other. Commentators at the time were also quick to make this connection, likening the construction site of the subterranean IRCAM building to Nibelheim (Jameux 1991). (See photos of the IRCAM construction site here.)

Next year, when we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of IRCAM, we should also remember this connection between IRCAM and the Bayreuth Festival, which was one of Boulez’s greatest accomplishments.

Further Reading:

Born, Georgina. Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde. Berkley: University of California Press, 1995. [Link to book]

Boulez, Pierre. “Where Are We Now?” In Orientations: Collected Writings, edited by Jean-Jacques Nattiez and translated by Martin Cooper, 445-463. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986. [Link to book]

Boulez, Pierre. “Richard Wagner: The Man and the Works.” In Orientations: Collected Writings, edited by Jean-Jacques Nattiez and translated by Martin Cooper, 223-230. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986. [Link to book]

Jameux, Dominique. Pierre Boulez, translated by Susan Bradshaw. London: Faber and Faber, 1991. [Link to book]

(This blog post is based on Chapter Four of my dissertation. All rights reserved.) 

The Bayreuth Centennial Ring Celebrates Its Fortieth Anniversary (Part 2 of 2)

Memories of May 1968

In spite of their outstanding differences, both Chéreau and Boulez were responding to their experiences of the May 1968 events. In May 1968 and the months following it, France witnessed widespread student protests and the largest worker strike in French history, affecting all parts of France and all sectors of the economy. Both Chéreau and Boulez participated in the May events, albeit in different ways. At the time, Chéreau was experimenting with collective theater and bringing theater to local schools and factories in Sartrouville. On May 13, 1968, Boulez gave a lecture (“Where Are We Now?”) in Saint-Etienne that proposed sweeping changes to the new music landscape in France.


Student protesters confront the police in the Latin Quarter of Paris, May 10/11, 1968

By the mid-1970s, memories of May 1968 had undergone a significant transformation. The scholar Kristin Ross refers to the “afterlives” of May 1968 – how the legacy of the events was subjected to new interpretations for personal and political gain. Former radicals – in particular the New Philosophers – disavowed their revolutionary past and Marxism in general. Though Chéreau and Boulez had not been radicals in the way that the New Philosophers had been – neither joined radical worker organizations – they were similarly disappointed with and wished to forget their experiences of May 1968. Chéreau had gone bankrupt in 1969 and left Sartrouville for the Piccolo Teatro in Milan. In 1970, Boulez began plans with President Georges Pompidou to design a new music research center – what would later become IRCAM.

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The final scene of Chéreau’s Götterdämmerung. Workers watch as Valhalla burns to the ground.

In spite of their desire to disavow and forget the past, both Chéreau and Boulez adopt ideas and themes of the May 1968 period in the Bayreuth Centennial Ring. Chéreau’s critique of Wotan as a metaphor for an oppressive state is in keeping with the anti-authoritarian impulse of the 1968 years. The frequent use of steam and fog evokes memories of the police using tear gas to clear student protesters. Chéreau’s irreverent treatment of Wagner’s stage directions – for example the opening image of the Rhine Maidens as prostitutes on a hydroelectric dam – recalls his critical stagings of Molière and Jacob Lenz in Sartrouville. Boulez repeatedly draws on ideas from his 1968 lecture, in particular the idea of musical research and experimentation using new technologies and sounds. He sees Bayreuth as an alternative to the culture industry of opera houses and as a model for his own research center.


Rheingold, scene 1 (“At the bottom of the Rhine”): Chéreau and Peduzzi depict the Rhine as a hydroelectric dam.

What makes the Bayreuth Centennial Ring so relevant today is that it shows Wagner the revolutionary in a mixed light. Chéreau highlights Wagner’s vision of the power structures underlying the modern state. In this way, he upholds the image of Wagner as a radical leftist thinker, yet he is also unafraid to show the problematic aspects of Wagner’s revolutionary thinking, more specifically Wagner’s anti-Semitism. Finally, Boulez’s outstanding attention to the rhythmic and temporal innovations of the music continues to inspire musicians and listeners to this day.


 I will present this material at the Modern Language Association Annual Conference in Philadelphia, PA on January 5-8, 2017. This blog post is based on Chapters Three and Four of my dissertation.

The Bayreuth Centennial Ring Celebrates Its Fortieth Anniversary (Part 1 of 2)

This month, the Bayreuth Centennial Ring celebrates its fortieth anniversary. Staged by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Pierre Boulez, the Bayreuth Centennial Ring is still as relevant today as it was forty years ago when it took Bayreuth Festival audiences by surprise. Since Chéreau’s Ring has become so canonical – with the help of the filmed version – it is difficult to imagine just how revolutionary and shocking it was for audiences in 1976. But we must not lose sight of the controversial aspects of Chéreau’s Ring, for it is these aspects that make the production so meaningful today.

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Demonstrators gather outside of the Bayreuth Festival in response to Chéreau’s Ring in 1976.


Patrice Chéreau, then 31-years-old, wasn’t Wolfgang Wagner’s first choice for the Bayreuth Centennial Ring. (Wolfgang, the grandson of Richard Wagner, had become both artistic and managing director of the Bayreuth Festival after Wieland Wagner’s death in 1966.) Wolfgang first considered the great film director Ingmar Bergman and the English theater director Peter Brook. When Bergman and Brook turned down the offer, Wolfgang approached the controversial German theater director Peter Stein. Stein accepted the centennial Ring project but backed out in September 1974 when Wolfgang refused to let him modify the acoustics of the pit. (Stein later went on to stage Rheingold at the Paris Opéra in 1976, a cycle that was not completed.) At this point, Pierre Boulez suggested Chéreau, whom his sister Jeanne recommended.

When Wolfgang invited Chéreau to Bayreuth, Chéreau had staged only two operas before and didn’t have any experience with Wagner. Be that as it may, Chéreau fit the profile of the other directors considered by Wolfgang: he was a theater director who would provide a fresh interpretation of Wagner. Wolfgang wanted a staging in keeping with Götz Friedrich’s controversial 1972 Tannhäuser – in other words, a Ring that would highlight the political themes of the work. Wolfgang reasoned that if Wagner’s works belong to a broader Western tradition removed from German nationalism, it was only natural to have a French team. In May 1974, Chéreau gave Wolfgang a demonstration of his ideas. Wolfgang responded by asking Chéreau to move forward with the project. In July 1975, Chéreau and his crew attended Wolfgang’s Ring at the Bayreuth Festival. The stage designs were constructed in the winter of 1975/6. Rehearsals began early May 1976, with the final dress rehearsals on July 15-19. The four premieres occurred on July 24-29. In hindsight, it is striking how quickly Chéreau and his team were able to plan and realize their ideas, and how little rehearsal time they had to do so.

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Walküre, Act 3 (“On the summit of a rocky mountain”): Richard Peduzzi, stage designer for the Bayreuth Centennial Ring, alludes to Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead.

Competing Interpretations of Wagner

What is so remarkable about the Bayreuth Centennial Ring is that Chéreau and Boulez present two very different interpretations of Wagner. Chéreau writes in the Siegfried program notes:

The primary discourse of the Ring, its obvious message, is … Wagner’s astonishing vision of power, political power, society, and the modern State. The Ring is … a description of the mechanisms of power – how it is seized, how it is lost – of the terrible perversion of societies based on the preservation of power, of the mechanisms of the powerful State … which orders from the beginning its own apocalypse, since its exclusive concern quickly becomes the maintenance of its power. (English translation from Nattiez & Repensek 1980)

In dialogue with the New Philosophers, Chéreau presents the modern state as a totalitarian-like force that would rather blow itself up than give up power. André Glucksmann, one of the key members of the New Philosophers, writes in his book Les Maîtres Penseurs (The Master Thinkers): “Why does power assert itself in the planning of catastrophes? Why does it know only one history, that of an endless countdown? Why do the states keep Apocalypse-time? (261).” In other words, power is intrinsically evil, concerning itself exclusively with preservation and resulting in inevitable destruction. Particularly disturbing about the Chéreau production is his depiction of Mime, which emphasizes the anti-Semitic aspects of the character. Performed by Heinz Zednik, Mime is a pathetic creature, hunched over and with a nasal and groveling voice. Chéreau is responding to Adorno’s argument that Mime is Wagner’s spiteful caricature of Jews. He is also portraying Mime as a victim of a totalitarian-like state.

(Mime scene from Siegfried, Act 2; watch from 2:14:06 to 2:21:00)

On the other hand, Pierre Boulez dismisses the political aspects of Wagner’s life and works entirely, focusing instead on the artistic innovations of the music. Influenced by Roland Barthes, Boulez thinks of the Ring as a text removed from the author’s intentions – a product not of an author-composer but rather of an underlying musical language. This radical approach enables Boulez to brush aside any question of Wagner’s ideological beliefs and the music’s appropriation by the Nazis. Boulez’s thinking is audible in his conducting, especially in his attention to the harmonic, rhythmic, and temporal innovations of the music. In the following example (Siegfried’s Rhine Journey), Boulez brings out the contrapuntal detail and accomplishes seamless transitions between the sections by means of gradual tempo changes:

In the second example (the transition music between scenes 2 and 3 of Rheingold), Boulez gradually increases the tempo, highlights the syncopation, and draws attention to how Wagner layers ostinatos on top of each other.


(See Part 2 to find out what Chéreau and Boulez’s interpretations have in common.)