Keynote Essay by George E. Lewis: What Is a Co-author?

Keynote Essay by George E. Lewis: What Is a Co-author?

Reconstructie (1969), a morality, composed together with Louis Andriessen, Reinbert de Leeuw, Misha Mengelberg, and Jan van Vlijmen. Libretto: Hugo Claus, Harry Mulisch. Duration: 130 minutes. Photo by Maria Austria.

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When The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage invited me this summer to write a keynote text on “co-authorship,” I welcomed the opportunity to reflect on a subject that I have been practically engaged with for several decades. Right now, for example, I am working on an opera titled Afterword (forthcoming in 2015) with media artist Catherine Sullivan and Opera Povera’s Sean Griffin. This experience alone has brought forth a number of issues relevant to this subject, among them the dynamics of interdisciplinary interpenetration, the negotiation and demarcation of space, the construction of trust and the need for an openness to critique, and the acceptance of chance as the ever-present co-author. So when I sat down to write this, my first impulse was to present a pungent parable about all that. But upon further consideration, I thought it more prudent to develop a few questions proceeding from the intersection of two interesting texts—one musicological, the other philosophical.

Some background: From 1985–87 I lived in Amsterdam, taking part in the city’s artistic life, teaching computer music at the Royal Conservatory in the Hague, and co-authoring, with fellow electronic composer Joel Ryan and a young video artist, Ray Edgar, a new work for a combination of interactive video, actors, and an ensemble of computers, which I would later characterize as a “virtual orchestra.” At that time, Jan van Vlijmen, Misha Mengelberg, Reinbert de Leeuw, Louis Andriessen and Peter Schat, the five Dutch composers then known colloquially as the “Notenkrakers” (a musical play on the word “nutcracker”) were still highly active in the country. The five had all become notorious for, among other things, the 1969 opera Reconstructie (Reconstruction), an audacious act of co-authoring based on the death of Che Guevara that, to say the very least, cast a sharply critical eye on U.S. foreign policy.

Listen: Intermezzo from Reconstructie, from the world premiere at the 1969 Holland Festival, June 29, 1969.

The first text I want to invoke is musicologist Robert Adlington’s extended English-language account of the creation of Reconstructie. In it, he recalls that the Notenkrakers and their literary co-authors, Hugo Claus and Harry Mulisch, portrayed themselves to one another as an “artistic guerrilla group.” (1) “As a group,” Peter Schat noted, “we discussed the compositional intention of a certain part. One or more persons became the obvious choice to prepare a musical proposal for the next meeting. Once undertaken, it was then elaborated by others and often finished off by still others—it was a to-and-fro of manuscript paper.” (2) The group’s process was influenced not only by Holland’s iconoclastic Provo cultural movement, but also by Fidel Castro’s understanding that “more and more, analysis and concepts must be the work of teams of men rather than of individual men.” (3) Reinbert De Leeuw saw the process as a form of “socialist art” in which “the collective manner of production is more important than the product.” (4)

As one might expect, and as Adlington very effectively chronicles, the actual working-out of this collective creativity encounter was by no means immune to disagreements and dislocations. While I have experienced many of the same kinds of issues over many years of collaborative authoring, revisiting these composers’ contemporaneous declarations regarding the larger implications of the co-authoring process took me instead to my second text, an old favorite of the critical theory literature: Michel Foucault’s essay, “What Is an Author?”

Reconstructie (1969), a morality, composed together with Louis Andriessen, Reinbert de Leeuw, Misha Mengelberg, and Jan van Vlijmen. Libretto: Hugo Claus, Harry Mulisch. Duration: 130 minutes. Photo by Maria Austria.

Composed in the same year as Reconstructie, Foucault’s essay confronts many of the same issues as the Notenkrakers. For example, Louis Andriessen’s declaration that “there is not one word or one note in the score behind which all seven of us do not stand” (5) reminds us that the emblem of authorship stands in a complex and intimate relation to reading, writing, interpretation, and identity, as well as larger systems of authority and authorization. Reading this declaration through Foucault, when an author or authors “stands behind” a work, the function of a specific author name becomes attached to “the juridical and institutional system that encompasses, determines, and articulates the universe of discourses.” (6) Among the prime components of this discursive system is an attachment to the imperatives of property:

Discourses are objects of appropriation…historically, this type of ownership has always been subsequent to what one might call penal appropriation. Texts, books, and discourses really began to have authors (other than mythical, sacralized, and sacralizing figures) to the extent that authors became subject to punishment, that is, to the extent that discourses could be transgressive. (7)

Although Foucault is right in claiming that “criticism and philosophy took note of the disappearance—or death—of the author some time ago,” (8) at the very moment that Foucault was writing, the Notenkrakers were being confronted with an issue that still haunts would-be co-authors today: “We now ask of each poetic or fictional text: From where does it come, who wrote it, when, under what circumstances, or beginning with what design? The meaning ascribed to it, and the status or value accorded it, depend on the manner in which we answer these questions.” (9) Each co-author confronts his or her own identity as what Foucault called “a field of conceptual or theoretical coherence” and “a stylistic unity” over time, where supposed deviations, such as those emanating from putative dissonances between the content of a text and the race, class, or gender of its co-author, are hotly disputed. Thus, an author becomes “a historical figure at the crossroads of a certain number of events.” (10) Here, the tricksterish displacement of the authorial conceit of appropriation onto a metaphysical collectivity is particularly striking. “It looks as if you lose your own identity, but that’s not true,” Andriessen remarked. “From the coming together of all these identities grows an entirely different one. There is a sort of augmentation of identity, because with such a group you can make something that no one would be able to do independently.” (11)

Musica Elettronica Viva 2, Rome, 1971. Pictured: Fabrizio Bertuccioli, Paolo Pace, Sandro Bernadoni, Alvin Curran, Yvonne Scholten, and Carla Cassola. Photo by Alessandro Figurelli.

Reconstructie’s collective yet relatively compactly envisioned co-authoring method was by no means the only such method being contemplated at this time. Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV), founded in Rome, produced music in which active participation of the audience was encouraged—or rather, the gulf separating audience from composer-performer was foreshortened, if not entirely eliminated. (12) Underlying this more expansive procedure were the ethics of improvisation, in which the notion of the musical work as an autonomous, self-reflexive logical unity is regularly called into question in real-time performance, along with the precarious status of the formerly “solid and fundamental unit of the author and the work” (13) that was also anticipated in the Foucault essay: “The word work and the unity that it designates are probably as problematic as the status of the author’s individuality.” (14)

Frederic Rzewski’s contemporaneous description of Zuppa, a collective MEV work from the late 1960s, places this challenge to conventional notions of unity in experiential context:

Individuals present were “invited,” or not, to play with some of the many instruments available on the premises, and thus to become momentarily a part of the group…At no time, however, was there any fixed program, and no verbal instructions were given. The music was allowed to run its own course until the arbitrarily chosen hour of 11 p.m., and no limitations were imposed upon any of the parameters composing this activity, except for those inherent in the physical setup itself. At times there were as many as 35 people performing almost the limit capacity of the space, using both electronic and mechanical sound sources, and the music achieved fairly indescribable levels of volume. At other times there were sustained periods of magical softness. This process was repeated night after night with improvised groups of varying size, made up of whomever happened to walk in the door. (15)

Listen: Spacecraft (1967) by M.E.V. (Musica Elettronica Viva). Recorded in Cologne in 1967 by Allan Bryant, Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum, and Ivan Vandor.

One under-interrogated aspect of co-authoring concerns two presumed necessities: first, that all parties to the co-authoring act explicitly and self-consciously frame themselves as authors, and second, that they all be human beings. That necessity looks more like a convenient preference when one considers artists whose primary collaborator is a natural environment, or interactivity artists whose work uses various technologies to create artworks that respond to acts by “audiences”—viewer-auditors, or as Fluxus artist Benjamin Patterson calls them, experiencers. A consideration of co-authoring in such contexts would certainly involve considerations of agency; as Bruno Latour reminds us, nonhumans, even objects, can also have agency. (16)

This would also include artists who, as I do, create interactive computer programs that act as fellow improvising musicians by initiating and responding to sonic acts, a medium or artistic direction that could plausibly put forth the possibility that the act of co-authoring can include non-humans—what I have elsewhere called “technology-mediated animism.” (17) Certainly a real-time improvisation (with or without computers) may be framed as an act of co-authoring, and at the crucial moment of making a sonic choice, the question of whether or not certain co-authors are people may prove just as vestigial as these questions that Foucault regards as a kind of rehashing of old news: “Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest self did he express in his discourse?” (18)

Musica Elettronica Viva at the WBAI studio, New York, 1973. Pictured: Gregory Reeve, Teitelbaum, Rzewski, Garrett List, and Alvin Curran. Photo courtesy of the New York Times, photographer unknown.

This turn to improvisation, a fundamental aspect of the human condition, allows us to more clearly see the larger implications of the co-authoring act and what it can achieve, in and out of the arts. I’ve become rather fond of philosopher J. David Velleman’s comparison of humanity to “an improvisational theater troupe that, over many years of performing together, has developed an extensive repertoire of scenes that any member of the troupe can initiate in the expectation that the others will follow suit…The totality of the repertoire shared among us is what might be called our way of life.” (19) In this light, we can consider Judith Butler’s 2004 understanding of gender as the result of “a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint,” where “the terms that make up one’s own gender are, from the start, outside oneself, beyond oneself in a sociality that has no single author (and that radically contests the notion of authorship itself).” (20) Or, at a similarly expansive scale, we can look at the Great Migration, the largest and longest internal movement of people in U.S. history, as an improvisative act of co-authoring, a shared intention pursued over half a century by ordinary working-class African Americans.

In a forthcoming essay on ensemble improvisation, Garry L. Hagberg’s elegant précis of Michael Bratman’s notion of shared intention serves as an apt description of co-authoring that both the migrants and the Notenkrakers would recognize: “The act of working together is not a moment, but a process, within which we coordinate individual actions into a cohesive unity that transcends the capacity of solo action, where this involves attending to the distributed progress of the agreed-upon action in the act of performing it.” (21) Hagberg is an accomplished musician as well as a philosopher, and his invocation of “attending” can easily be transposed to the act of listening—the fundamental trope underlying any act of co-authoring. In this sense, the co-authoring act is a kind of pedagogical relation, in which we listen to know where we are and where the others are, and where one learns about the other and oneself through attending to what the other has to offer. Here, co-authoring becomes a critical practice as well as a means to aesthetic statement, a space where discontinuity, disruption, support, and struggle become pathways to new experience.

Thanks to Susan Levenstein and Fons Willemsen for their assistance in collecting and sourcing the photographs included with this essay.

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(1) Robert Adlington, “‘A sort of guerrilla’: Che at the Opera,” Cambridge Opera Journal 19, no. 2 (2007): 171.
(2) Ibid., 172.
(3) Ibid., 171.
(4) Quoted in ibid., 172.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Michel Foucault, translated by Robert Hurley and others, “What Is an Author?,” in Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984, Volume Two: Aesthetics, Method,and Epistemology, ed. James D. Faubion (New York: New Press, 1998), 216.
(7) Quoted in ibid., 211–12.
(8) Foucault, “What Is an Author?,” 207.
(9) Ibid., 213.
(10) Ibid., 214.
(11 )Quoted in Adlington, “‘A sort of guerrilla’: Che at the Opera,” 172.
(12) See Amy C. Beal, “Music Is a Universal Human Right: Musica Elettronica Viva,” in Sound Commitments: Avant-Garde Music and the Sixties, ed. Robert Adlington (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). Musica Elettronica Viva was founded by pianist Alvin Curran, electronic improviser Richard Teitelbaum, trombonist Garrett List, pianist Frederic Rzewski, and several others.
(13) Foucault, “What Is an Author?,” 205.
(14) Ibid., 208.
(15) Frederic Rzewski, “Description and Analysis of a Process,” (Unpublished, obtained from the author, dated 1968).
(16) See the discussion in Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 63–86.
(17) George E. Lewis, “Too Many Notes: Computers, Complexity and Culture in Voyager,” Leonardo Music Journal 10 (2000): 37.
(18) Foucault, “What Is an Author?,” 222.
(19) J. David Velleman, How We Get Along (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 76.
(20) Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 7.
(21) Garry L. Hagberg, “Playing as One: Ensemble Improvisation, Collective Intention, and Group Attention,” in The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, ed. George E. Lewis and Benjamin Piekut (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).


Adlington, Robert. “‘A sort of guerrilla’: Che at the Opera.” Cambridge Opera Journal 19, no. 2 (2007): 167–93.

Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, [1977]1985.

Beal, Amy C. “Music Is a Universal Human Right: Musica Elettronica Viva.” In Sound Commitments: Avant-Garde Music and the Sixties, edited by Robert Adlington, 99–120. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Foucault, Michel, translated by Robert Hurley and others. “What Is an Author?” In Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984, Volume Two: Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, edited by James D. Faubion, 205–222. New York: New Press, 1998.

Hagberg, Garry L. “Playing as One: Ensemble Improvisation, Collective Intention, and Group Attention.” In The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, edited by George E. Lewis and Benjamin Piekut. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.

Harris, Cheryl I. “Whiteness as Property.” Harvard Law Review 106, no. 8 (June 1993): 1707–91.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Lessig, Lawrence. Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.

Lewis, George E. “Too Many Notes: Computers, Complexity and Culture in Voyager.” Leonardo Music Journal 10 (2000): 33–39.

Rzewski, Frederic. “Description and Analysis of a Process.” Unpublished, obtained from the author, dated 1968.

Velleman, J. David. How We Get Along. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.