Genre Mobility and Self-Determination in George Lewis’s Afterword
Premiered in 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Afterword is a two-act chamber opera composed by George Lewis to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a collective of African-American musicians founded on the South Side of Chicago in 1965. He also wrote the libretto, based on the final chapter of his 2008 book A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, in which he depicts a fictional meeting between AACM members living and deceased who are reunited to discuss the organization’s history and hopes for the future. Drawing on recordings of past meetings and interviews that Lewis conducted, the opera presents this meeting as a series of episodes in which the same three singers serve as avatars of the organization’s thoughts and beliefs.
My argument is that Afterword is a pedagogical opera of ideas, more specifically of genre mobility and self-determination, both of which are at the heart of the AACM. Moreover, the opera presents these ideas through the voices of AACM members by having the avatars sing text from the meeting and interview transcripts. Resisting how record companies and the press impose the genre marker of jazz on black musicians in a way that limits these musicians’ access to infrastructure and funding, AACM members demonstrate a type of genre mobility that transcends the existing musical system and its genre boundaries, drawing on a broad range of different musical languages. Confronted with the music industry’s economic exploitation of African-American musicians—including denying these musicians copyright for the music that they create—AACM members engaged in a broader project of self-determination, which involved creating a new infrastructure in which members controlled all aspects of musical production.
I presented on this topic at the American Musicological Society annual meeting in Rochester, NY in November 2017. At the AMS presentation, I focused on why George Lewis refers to Afterword as a “Bildungsoper,” a term derived from the “Bildungsroman”—a coming-of-age novel. In addition to discussing Afterword in terms of Toni Morrison’s critical revision of the traditional bildungsroman, I also examined how the opera manifests genre mobility by depicting what Fredric Jameson refers to as new subjectivities. I am currently exploring the following aspects of self-determination: genre mobility and accessibility in terms of infrastructure; empathy and community building.
Afterlives of May 1968 in the Bayreuth Centennial Ring Cycle
In May 1968 and the months following it, France experienced widespread student protests and the largest worker strike in French history, affecting all parts of France and all sectors of the economy. I adopt the term “afterlives” from Kristin Ross (2002) to refer to how the legacy of May 1968 was subjected to new interpretations for personal and political gain during the 1970s in France. These afterlives were apparent not only in concert music–as documented by Eric Drott (2011)–but also in opera stagings, in particular of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. The theme of Wagner the revolutionary–Wagner’s participation in the Dresden Uprising of 1849 and the revolutionary content of his works–was especially conducive to assessments of current events and memories of the 1968 events.
Both Chéreau and Boulez participated in the May events, albeit in different ways. Chéreau experimented 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.
By the mid-1970s, memories of May 1968 had undergone a significant transformation. Many former radicals disavowed their revolutionary past and Marxism in general, as exemplified by the New Philosophers. Chéreau and Boulez were similarly disappointed with and wished to forget their experiences of May 1968. In spite of their desire to 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. Boulez repeatedly draws on ideas from his 1968 lecture, in particular the idea of discovering a new musical language and establishing a research center outside of the traditional concert system.
I presented on this topic at the Modern Language Association Annual Conference in Philadelphia, PA in January 2017. More recently, I discussed the Bayreuth Centennial Ring in terms of afterlives of 1968 in divided Germany during the 1970s, considering the Bayreuth production alongside Joachim Herz’s Ring in Leipzig (1973-76). To read more about my research on the Bayreuth Centennial Ring, see my blog posts on the production’s fortieth anniversary. See also my my blog on Boulez, IRCAM, and Bayreuth.
Matriarchy and Feminism in the Frankfurt Ring Cycle (1985-1987)
Berghaus’s Frankfurt production was the first Ring cycle to interpret the work in terms of matriarchal theory–the idea that the course of human history involves a transition from a matriarchal to patriarchal society. She adopted this idea from women’s literature in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) during the 1970s and 1980s.
The Frankfurt Ring was also the first cycle to incorporate post-Brechtian performance. As outlined by David Barnett (2011), post-Brechtian performance retains Brecht’s dialectical framework without adhering to a dogmatic sense of historical materialism. Berghaus stresses the autonomy of the different media involved in opera. Her performance style highlights a gestural language of signs and metaphors. Gestures convey meaning independent of the vocal text, yet there is no pre-existing code for interpreting these gestures. Rather, meaning is contextual and arises over the course of the production.
I argue that Berghaus’s staging is an example of feminism in the GDR, even though she did not consider herself a feminist and there was no independent women’s movement in the GDR. More specifically, I look at her depiction of Brünnhilde–how Brünnhilde is mistreated but ultimately achieves emancipation from the patriarchal order.
Though not the first woman to direct Wagner–Cosima had already done so after her husband’s death–Berghaus served as a model for future directors–male and female alike–and contributed to greater gender equality in a field that remains predominantly male to this day.
I presented on Ruth Berghaus’s Frankfurt Ring cycle at the AMS-GNY meeting in February 2016.