REVIEW: Programmed Spontaneity

After trekking from class to class on Thursday
in rainy, cold weather, the warm sanctuary of Rackham Auditorium was a welcome
blessing.  I was attending the George
Lewis Interactive Trio, having blindly signed up on an e-mail from a peer
advisor.  It was quite the
spectacle.  I’ve seen my share of
abstract performances; however, I’d never seen an improvised jazz trio, let
alone with a computer-programmed instrument as a member of the ensemble.  The Trio featured George Lewis, musical
genius, playing his trombone alongside renowned pianist Geri Allen, and yet the
true marvel of the performance was the “virtual improvisator.”  This computer-programmed piano, referred to
as “the player,” responded to the musical stylings of Lewis and Allen by contributing
its own improvised melodies.  Lewis
designed the software himself, allowing for “the player” to connect to the
other instruments involved.  It was
entirely spontaneous, albeit programmed spontaneity on the computer’s end, and
absolutely astounding.  An audience
member commented in the panel discussion following that “the player” both
paused to let the other instruments take their turn in the ensemble and
instantaneously responded, with both clashing and harmonious chords.  This performance was all at once bizarre, thrilling,
and, at times, unsettling in the chaotic nature of avant-garde jazz.  I couldn’t help but think of robotic pianos taking
over the world when Lewis commented that he in fact had no idea what “the
player” was going to play until the moment it began.  After hearing just three or four notes from
Lewis’ trombone, the computer decides what performance it wishes to give.  A trippy and thought-provoking display of human
versus computer improvisation, I am so glad I made time to attend.