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Afterword, an opera

Except from George Lewis’s Afterword: The AACM as Opera from Sean Griffin on Vimeo

The Ojai Music Festival is proud to present Afterword, an opera
Friday, June 9 at 8:00pm
Libbey Bowl, Ojai CA

About Afterword
George Lewis

Founded on the South Side of Chicago in 1965, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians has long played an internationally recognized role in American experimental music. The AACM’s unique combination of artistic communitarianism, personal and collective self-determination, and ardent experimentalism animates the Afterword project.

However, Afterword is not a history of the AACM, but a “Bildungsoper”–a coming-of age opera of ideas, positionality, and testament. The challenge here was to create an opera around a collective that remains noted for its diversity of approaches to creative practice, while eschewing direct character representation of AACM artists. The opera eschews a conception in which fixed, authorial characters pose as what Michel Foucault calls “historical figure[s] at the crossroads of a certain number of events” in favor of having music, text, and movement deploy a tricksterish displacement of character onto metaphysical collectivities. Sung and spoken voices, instrumental music, and movement become heteroglossic avatars, in a process described by Toni Morrison and others as the expression of a community voice. In some scenes, that voice presents remembrances and testimony; in others, clashes between subject positions allow audiences to eavesdrop on history as it is being made in real, human time, bringing us face to face with contingency, empathy, and wonder. In a sense, the community voices adopted by the avatars could also constitute externalizations of the conflicts within a single complex human life.

The opera takes its title from the concluding chapter of my history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press, 2008). The “Afterword” chapter selected quotes from nearly one hundred interviews with AACM members to fashion an imagined intergenerational dialogue about overarching social, cultural, and aesthetic issues that the organization and its individual members faced over the decades.

Afterword’s direction and movement take their form from the libretto, which is drawn from the interviews I conducted for the book, as well as transcripts of audio recordings of formative AACM meetings made by Muhal Richard Abrams in 1965 and 1966. The opera includes remembrances from family histories and the Great Migration, daily observations jotted down in diaries, and descriptions of Paris in the wake of the tumultuous events of 1968.The lively dissonance of the orchestration functions as a musical commentary on these recounted historicaland psychic moments, encouraging us to listen in on the fast-moving, creative sonic imagination animated inside the minds of the characters as they calculate their collective creative powers.

As the action unfolds, we witness young black experimentalists interrogating many issues: of power, authority, identity, representation, culture, economics, politics, and aesthetics; self-fashioning, self-determination and self-governance; personal, professional, and collective aspiration; race, gender, and sexuality; and tradition, innovation, change, spiritual growth, death, and rebirth.

Building upon AACM ideas that are now part of the legacy of experimental practice constitutes a vital touchstone for operatic experience. The goal of Afterword is to combine aesthetic exploration with critical examination of the multiple, overlapping, and fundamentally human motivations that affect us all.

On the Bildungsroman and the Dramaturgy of the Avatar in George Lewis’s Afterword
Alexander K. Rothe

George Lewis refers to Afterword as a “Bildungsoper,” a term derived from the “Bildungsroman”—a coming-of-age novel. Lewis’s choice of terms here is especially significant, since the bildungsroman has traditionally been associated with white European values. In the bildungsroman, as discussed by Jennifer Heinert (2009), a young hero is confronted with a series of obstacles that, once overcome, lead him—the protagonist is usually male—to embrace the values of the dominant (i.e. white European) culture. Instead, Lewis presents a revision of the traditional bildungsroman—a revision that critically engages the genre’s values, assumptions, and conventional narrative techniques. In Afterword, the development of the community is just as important as that of the individual. Like the bildungsromans of Toni Morrison (e.g., The Bluest Eye), Lewis eschews the linear and teleological trajectory of the traditional bildungsroman in favor of the juxtaposition of multiple narratives and historical moments. In doing so, Afterword offers listeners a positive model of development that does not reduce African Americans and women to the role of the other.

Particularly important for understanding Afterword is its dramaturgy of the avatar. An avatar is a virtual image that stands in for a person on the internet or in a game. The dramaturgy of the avatar refers to a type of theater in which the characters on the stage are both human beings and virtual selves. Accordingly, Afterword refrains from depicting actual historical figures in the AACM and instead employs the opera’s characters as proxies for the AACM as an organization. As Uri McMillan (2015) writes about black feminist art and performance, the avatar blurs the boundary between subject and object, allowing black female artists to perform objecthood in a way that extends agency and overcomes everyday limitations.

This aspect of the avatar is evident in Afterword’s emphasis on the body as a site of meaning that extends beyond the confines of the verbal language of the libretto. More specifically, in Sean Griffin’s remarkable staging, the singers also appear as movers, performing a sophisticated gestural language in counterpoint to the verbal text. McMillan also alludes to the “polytemporal” nature of the avatar—that is, it permits performers to transcend linear time and to perform the past in the present. One finds this practice in Lewis’s libretto and its interweaving of testimonials and transcripts removed in time. Afterword does not depict the AACM’s history in a sequential fashion, but rather as a series of historical episodes.

Finally, the concept of the avatar enables us to rethink the relationship of the media involved in opera. Just as the avatar blurs distinctions between the real and virtual worlds, opera similarly transcends the boundaries of its constituent media. As Lewis states: “Sung and spoken voices, instrumental music, and movement become heteroglossic avatars, in a process described by Toni Morrison and others as the expression of a community voice.” Ultimately, in expressing the community voice, Afterword contributes to what Guthrie Ramsey (2012) refers to as the outstanding task of “denaturaliz[ing] some of the conventions that have governed blackness’s presence in opera.”

Works Cited

Heinert, Jennifer Lee Jordan. Narrative Conventions and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison. New York: Routledge, 2009.

McMillan, Uri. Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance. New York: New York University Press, 2015.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.

Ramsey, Guthrie P. Jr. “ Foreword: Singing in the Dark.” In Blackness in Opera, edited by Naomi Andre, Karen Bryan, and Eric Saylor, ix-x. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012.

Alexander K. Rothe is a Core Lecturer at Columbia University, where he completed his Ph.D. in Historical Musicology in 2015. His research interests are Opera Studies, Wagner Studies, and 19th- and 20th-century music. He is currently working on a book project on stagings of Wagner’s Ring cycle and afterlives of 1968 in divided Germany during the 1970s and 1980s. His research has been published in Musical Quarterly and Tempo, and has been funded by the Fulbright Program and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Dr. Rothe regularly blogs on musical topics at https://alexanderkrothemusicology.wordpress.com/blog/ .