George Lewis by Jeff Parker

Musician, electronic composition innovator, and MacArthur fellow Lewis has been documented in more than 120 recordings as well as numerous installations and written texts. He talks with Parker about where improvisation and politics intersect.

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From the cover of Endless Shout, 2000, Tzadik. Photo by Glen Wilson.

I first met George Lewis in 1999. It was at the Velvet Lounge in Chicago, where I was performing as a member of the Fred Anderson Quartet for a live recording, and Lewis was composing the liner notes. He introduced himself and said that he would like to interview me for the book he’s writing, a history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the legendary, innovative, and influential Chicago-based musician’s collective, of which we are both members (an extensive project—he’s done 90 interviews since 1998, and the book will be published by the University of Chicago Press in 2006). I was quite familiar with him and much of his work, not to mention awestruck and flattered that he even knew who I was. A few days later he showed up at my old apartment in Bucktown and asked me questions about music and myself that shone a fresh light on the path I was heading down (I’m still traveling that path). This was the beginning of a friendship that has inspired me in ways that I could’ve never imagined.

Lewis wears many hats: he’s a trombonist, an improviser, a composer, a pioneer in music technology and computer music, a scholar, an historian, a multimedia artist, and an educator. He has always been light years ahead of the pack, asking questions that need to be asked, addressing and eloquently articulating issues about the various relationships between art and society, and realizing his humanistic vision through his brilliant works. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Lewis on two occasions. The first was as part of a performance and discussion (along with Kelan Phil Cohran) that George curated, called “Frankiphones and Silver Cycles: African-Americans in Electronic Music” (2002), where I also got to see an incredible performance with Lewis, the great Roscoe Mitchell and Lewis’s computer-interactive composition/improviser Voyager. The second was the “Baden-Baden Free Jazz Meeting,” which George describes as

an event that, since the late 1960s, has had a long and important history in European improvised music. For this edition of the meeting, I wanted to explore ways in which technology dovetailed with improvisation in creating a site of hybridity between electronic and acoustic sound worlds. Each of the musicians I chose for the project seemed to me to be addressing that nexus in some way—Jeff Parker (electric guitar), Guillermo E. Brown (drums/electronics), Kaffe Matthews (electronics, Great Britain), DJ Mutamassik (turntables), Miya Masaoka (koto, electronics); 48nord (Sigi Rössert, bass and electronics, and Ulrich Müller, guitar and electronics); and me.

Three days of performances followed, and the experience reminded me of a ring shout—everyone had their say, but the collective was just as important, creating an improvisatory environment in which I felt truly open.

Jeff Parker Hey. I have a bunch of topics I want to try to cover.

George Lewis Really? (laughter)

JP I’m hoping that they will kind of lead into one another. But maybe not. (laughter) Okay. Well, one thing I’ve noticed is that you create a historical as well as a socio-political setting for seemingly all the work that you present. Is this something that you feel is necessary only as it applies to you and your work, or do you feel that all art is political in nature?

GL I’ve always wanted some kind of subtext in my compositions, and I think where it starts to get intense for me is with the piece called Homage to Charles Parker, which was done at the AACM Festival in 1978. It was in two parts. For the first part we put contact mics on cymbals and Douglas Ewart used mallets and brushes, and I had, like, stomp boxes from the ’70s (laughter), Electro-Harmonix stuff, phasers and flangers. You could get sounds a lot like [Stockhausen’s] Mikrophonie I and II and things like that. So the idea for me was that this kind of represented Charlie Parker’s life, which seemed to me to be very turbulent. My interpretation of Parker was that he really was trying to realize more than society was going to allow him to achieve, and so he found other, more destructive ways to exercise the rest of his prodigious energy. You know, all the things he was reputed to be, this extremely smart guy who could talk about anything. Fred Anderson has this wonderful interview with him on tape where he’s talking about Bartók. He’s very voluble, very well read and so on. And then the second part of Homage was these two ethereal seventh chords: Charlie Parker’s afterlife. I wanted to go back to the “Bird is free” idea—“Bird Lives,” that phrase coined by Ted Joans in the ’50s.

JP Sure.

GL Douglas was playing alto saxophone; I played an electric keyboard. The idea was to approach these historical and socio-political energies in a subliminal way, sort of like what Anthony Davis was doing on a grand scale with [his opera] X, or with Amistad, which is an even more amazing opera than X, I think.

The other important point for me was my recording Changing With the Times, which was done in ’92, where all the pieces deal with history, memory, and with how black males are viewed in society, through looking at an older black male—in this case, my father—and using an original text by him, more or less a found text. He went to this adult education class and they said, You guys read the autobiography of Frederick Douglass and then write your own autobiography. In other words, it’s a slave narrative.

You know, the idea that art has to have a political basis seems a little too much like preaching to other people about what they should be doing. On the other hand, seeing artists as political seems almost intrinsic because of what you have to go through to get art before the public, or to make a space in which it can be interpreted or understood, thought about, or debated.

JP Right.

GL All of that is a political process shot through with the usual dimensions of class and race and gender and sexuality and all the rest of it. There’s that whole thing, in classical music mainly, the idea that political music is just not quite as good as music that is apolitical. But why should music be necessarily secular, with no spiritual component, necessarily apolitical with no claims on society? That’s kind of out of touch with the realities that we face.

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George Lewis, 1999. Photo by Ian Cummings.

JP You have a strong compositional background. I use the term compositional in the organizational sense. In your approach to music, there’s often no written notation. It’s highly conceptualized, but not composed. I notice that you focus on improvisation a lot, also in your writing. Do you see improvisation as a way of presenting a social ideal? When we worked together at Baden-Baden it was like that; you were trying to get us to realize a way of relating to each other socially through the music.

GL In improvisations, I believe that people should know what to do, but I’ve realized that often they really don’t know what to do, or rather, they know what to do as it relates to themselves. That is, they have a certain style that they impose on every situation; otherwise they’re not “keeping it real,” not being true to themselves. I’d like to be more protean about the whole thing, analyzing situations and then taking action based on that analysis. You listen, you try to intuit, use every technique or possibility for awareness, and after a while you can tell more or less what’s inside the musicians’ heads, what they want, what their goals are, what they’re trying to do.

But this is just a subset of what people are doing in their normal everyday-life improvisations, if you will. Creativity is not a special gift, but a kind of birthright. You get rid of the idea that the musician is being some special priest, and move into a very prosaic space where all we’re doing is trying to get along in the world as creatively as we can, given what we find in the environment and our own possibilities for creating change.

JP Sure, yeah.

GL Creating a computer improviser draws on these ideas about awareness. You couldn’t really get it to work unless you did those things. At least it’s been my approach to getting it to work.

JP Are you referring to Voyager? You started working on this in the late ’70s, right?

GL The first interactive computer music piece I made was in ’80 or ’81. Then in ’82 I went to IRCAM [Institute for Music/Acoustic Research and Coordination] in Paris, worked on a piece there for a couple years, then premiered it there in ’84. It was a network of three computers that were making music, and they were listening to four musicians: Douglas Ewart, Derek Bailey, Joelle Leandre and Steve Lacy.

JP And this is before Voyager.

GL Yeah, maybe three years before. It was my idea of a virtual orchestra. I didn’t call it that in those days, but it had something you couldn’t have in “real life,” at least not in the classical domain: an orchestra that improvised. There was a lot of disapprobation, so in that environment you could get individual brilliant improvisers, like Frederic Rzewski, for example, but you weren’t going to get a whole culture. So you created it in software, (laughter) and then you could invite people like Frederic.

Voyager was more an architectural than a conceptual change from the IRCAM piece. It was a massively parallel type deal, where you had a large number of software “players” that could play any instrument at any time. This comes directly out of AACM multi-instrumentalism. When I saw the Art Ensemble in 1972, they’d have like a thousand instruments on the stage. See, I don’t know of any culture where you can get a hundred people together, each one of whom can play a hundred instruments, and they get together and they improvise. It doesn’t happen. Software is the only place where you can realize conceptions like that now. My feeling was that there is a political subtext to the idea of signifying on, that sort of détournement of the classical orchestra.

JP So this concept of having a multi-instrumentalist orchestra, is that what Voyager is now? The one time that I saw yourself and Roscoe Mitchell—

GL The piano thing in Chicago.

JP Yeah.

GL I had taken the Voyager software and made a little piano version of it. It didn’t play the piano very well, it didn’t have a great touch or anything, so I revived it with the help of Damon Holzborn, who’s now a Columbia composition graduate student. We were using the Disklavier, the Yamaha grand piano that’s MIDI controllable. The thing is, usually people just run a sequence on the piano, and it sounds very wooden, or alternatively, somebody plays the sound in and takes the whole thing into some editing software, and then the touch is as good as the person who originally played it. But in my case, I felt that I should be able to get the computer to sound good more or less on its own, so that someone listening to it says, “Who is that playing?”

JP Right.

GLBut if you get “What’s that?” instead, you have to go back to the drawing board. And that may seem scandalous to a lot of people, but at this point I feel like Voyager’s gotten pretty good, actually dialoguing with people—or maybe just playing a solo, because the other thing about Voyager is that it doesn’t need you. It’s perfectly capable of playing whole concerts by itself. If you choose to go in and play, it’s happy to listen to you and dialogue with you, or sometimes ignore you, but the conceptual aspect of it is that it’s pretty autonomous. You can’t tell it what to do. Just like with people, I expect it to listen to the situation and figure out what’s appropriate, and although I may not agree with what the computer finds appropriate, that’s too bad, because there’s no reason why I should have a veto on what anyone does. So improvisation becomes a negotiation where you have to work with people rather than just be in control.

JP You referred to it as—

GL —anti-authoritarian. (laughter) That was in this great film by Jeremy Marre, with Derek Bailey going all around the world talking to improvisers. They interviewed Jerry Garcia, and I borrowed the anti-authoritarian thing from what he said in the film.

JP That’s a great phrase.

GL It’s a great film. It’s one of those things that they made for PBS, but you know PBS these days—my God, they can find time for Tucker Carlson but they have no time at all for Derek Bailey. (laughter)

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George Lewis, published in New Music America Program Book, 1979.

JP We’ve had conversations in the past where we touched on the subject of genre and how it implies certain restrictions. I guess it’s kind of a credo of the AACM, breaking down these genres that seem to restrict artists’ freedom. And it seems, at least to me, that you try to challenge people’s perceptions or expectations, definitely of African American artists, in order to redefine or modernize what’s considered Afrocentric.

GL Maybe so. I came up at the tail end of the sort of heavy cultural nationalism period, where it seemed to be pretty rigid as to what was considered truly black music. By the way, this is something that has always excited me about your work—how you just ride over all of that, especially when it comes to the interface with rock, you know, the Tortoise thing, the Isotope thing. I don’t want to feel that people are looking over my shoulder all the time. If they are, I don’t want to have to even notice it. (laughter)

JP I feel the same way.

GL This is what I want to do, figure out ways to feel that free, while recognizing at the same time that there are actions by society that make it difficult to exercise these kinds of freedoms. And of course you can’t boil it down to personality X and personality Y. That’s just recapitulating Horatio Alger.

JP Sure.

GL That’s what I think has been great about operating in spheres that are very different. You start to see the hidden assumptions, the comfortable agreements about who is authorized to make certain sounds, and there’s a sudden Aufklärung—an enlightenment. I like bringing those kinds of situations out through the music, so that people start to realize that maybe everything is much more in flux than they thought.

Jeff, let me ask you something, is that okay?

JP Yeah, of course!

GL I was going to ask you about this little business of so-called free improvisation. I mean, maybe just broadly stated, how do you feel about it? Is it something you do a lot?

JP Yeah, I guess it’s … I do, I do it a lot, especially with musicians around Chicago. Are you talking about it in terms of what’s implied by the term free improvisation, or just getting together and improvising with other musicians?

GL I guess particularly in the European sense, it became this kind of practice, and then it became quite politicized in some ways. I was reading the new biography of Derek, where it takes on this messianic dimension that I’m pretty uncomfortable with.

JP You mean the people who kind of define the idiom, like Derek Bailey?

GL Yeah, or were said to have defined the medium. The author put Derek in the role of the messiah, but maybe none of us can take on that role.

JP Right right right. It seems like a parody now; I mean, it contradicts what it was supposed to be about in the first place.

GL I would say the people who really were doing great work back then are still doing it. You just said idiom, which is interesting, because I think a lot of writing about improvisation goes like: Well, our thing is not idiomatic, whereas other kinds of music are very idiomatic—that is, immobile, unchanging, non-dynamic, like a fixed star—and the fixed star is usually jazz, because that’s where most of them came from anyway, so it’s kind of Oedipal. Also it’s frankly the most successful Western form of improvisation. Whether you love it or hate it, it’s sitting there like a big elephant in the room. For me the subtext of the idiomatic/non-idiomatic thing is largely about race, and there is a poverty of theorizing on that subject that has yet to be really addressed.

JP You’ve definitely been focusing on that for the past, I don’t know, ten years or so? At least in your writing.

GL This goes back again to my record Changing With the Times. The liner notes by Paul Carter Harrison talked about the trickster imagery in the piece, and I realized, I don’t know anything about any of this, and this is my music. It made me understand that you didn’t have to rely on the composer as the ultimate arbiter of what the work was about. Other people could develop ideas and if you encourage that process, you could develop a larger network of discourse surrounding what you’re doing.

A couple of years after that, I started publishing so-called historical and critical texts. Musicians have always been a little disaffected with what’s been said about their work, and then suddenly, I’m saying things that they had always thought about but couldn’t quite put together, or maybe were afraid to say. This other mode of thinking feeds back into the musical thinking. I get the same feeling from writing a scholarly article as I do from composing or playing music. I don’t want to get too romantic about this, but there is a kind of ecstasy connected with it all.

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Stills from video of Leon Theremin and George Lewis, January 1991, Moscow. Collection of George Lewis.

JP It’s important to have the history documented from an alternative viewpoint, actually from an insider point of view.

GL Well, so many of us have been written out of these histories of contemporary music. But we can write ourselves back in. It comes out of the whole jazz idea that your job as a musician is to bring your individual voice out.

JP Right. That’s the reason I personally started doing a lot of the stuff that I got into, because I felt like my individual voice was something that I needed to find. Coming from my experiences in music school, they tried to repress it, like they didn’t want me to find my own thing, my niche.

GL When you say they, who is that?

JP Just some of the jazz pedagogy police. (laughter)

GL Well, you really went all the way through that.

JP At the time that’s what I was into. I was always infatuated by jazz and jazz history when I was a child, and I really wanted to know what it was about. The deeper I got into it, the less it seemed like I had to do it the way that they were teaching me in the schools.

GL What would you say your relationship is to jazz today?

JP I don’t know if it’s necessarily something I can define for you. It’s not especially a part of what I do. Just the fact that it has an improvisational nature is what attracted me to it, because that’s what I was always doing on the guitar anyway, from the minute that I picked it up. That’s the extent of my relationship with it really, just as an improvising musician.

GL In Tortoise, does everyone have a jazz background?

JP No, nobody does.

GL How does that work in terms of the conception of improvisation?

JP It doesn’t really. It’s improvisational more in the way that a composer improvises. It’s basically a band that just gets together and we write together. We document it like that. There’s no improvisation in it at all.

GL So the improvisation is not in the performing but in the conceptualizing of it?

JP Right, exactly.

GL So what other kinds of projects are you involved in right now?

JP I just got into Reason. It’s electronic music studio software. When we were in Baden-Baden, Guillermo [Brown] was trying to get me into it because I was explaining some things that I wanted to do. I was dealing with sample-based music, trying to incorporate it into whatever it is I’m trying to do in a really natural way.

GL When you say natural, do you mean playing it on an instrument, or having a real-time composing environment around you?

JP More a way to compose, using sample-based technology as a compositional element, but in a way that doesn’t sound like you’re just making a hip-hop or electronic music track. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for years, but I was intimidated by the process and kept putting it off. Now it’s something I’m getting into, even though I know it might take me years to really figure this out. (laughter)

GL You know, the Baden-Baden experience was the outgrowth of work I’d been doing with this electronic music duo 48nord from Munich: Sigi Rössert and Ulrich Müller. I had a residency there, and they were showing me stuff I’d never seen—the laptop improvisers and their world.

To people who know me, this won’t sound terrible at all, but I have always had a real ambivalence about the trombone. It got acute after I had some real success as a trombone player, and then it was like, Well, if you don’t play the trombone you’re worthless, you know? As a creative artist I thought, I didn’t sign up for this, to have a brass albatross around my neck. (laughter) Electronics were the road out of that, and there I am with Sigi and Ulrich, and I’m thinking, Well, I could be doing more of this. This is what I’m interested in, creating sound in real time and improvising with them, and they’re all using this Ableton Live software. They showed me how it worked and I started using it for a piece that’s part of Lev Manovich’s DVD Soft Cinema, which was a personal travelogue presented as a database of video clips of video screens, hotel rooms and so on. Years before, when camcorders were new, I had made videos everywhere. I made about 300 or 400 sound clips from those videos for Lev’s travelogue. They come from all over the world, everywhere I went, playing with these 80-year-old guys, Austrian amateur musicians playing the Ländler.

You can authorize yourself to drop all the stuff about what people expect. In order to do that, though, you also have to authorize yourself against your friends and colleagues who also believe it.

JP Right, right.

GL Some of those expectations are pretty intense, whether you become world-famous or locally significant to a certain small group of people who get very invested in your previous practice, so that when you decide to step out of that practice, people say, What are you doing?

The Baden-Baden thing was designed to be gender and racially diverse. I’d been playing in all these European scenes where I was always the only African American and there were never any women, especially not women of color. I decided I didn’t want to play in any more concerts like that. It wasn’t an environment that I was that interested in, and it played totally against all these other ideas of community.

JP Sure.

GLI think that having three women in there, Miya Masaoka, Kaffe Matthews and DJ Mutamassik, instead of the usual token one person, made a lot of things better for everybody. This was also related to ideas written by Susan McClary and others about how women are kept away from technology in music and so on. So you’re playing against that as well.

Then there were the three of us African Americans: Guillermo, you and me. It provided a very different idea of what improvised music could be like than what you normally see.

JP When you put electronic elements on the trombone, did that lead you into computer music or into electronics?

GL Early on, Douglas Ewart and I would talk about how we wanted to get a computer, but we didn’t really know what computers could do. We’re talking about ’72, ’73, and computer music was mostly a mainframe thing. You also had people like Joel Chadabe and Sal Martirano who were doing the interactive live electronic music, but we weren’t in touch with that world. We were just thinking about it from our perspective.

I first encountered computers at Mills College, around ’77 or ’78. Hearing David Behrman and his associates doing this kind of work, it sounded just like the improvised music that we had been doing. I thought, Wow, if you can do this with computers, then I want to get one. (laughter) It started with one of those small single boards that you had to program yourself. And that was where people like David were just great. He would sometimes stay up all night, worrying with me about whether some interface was going to work. I mean, it was him and Richard Teitelbaum, who really did stay up all night. (laughter) He didn’t get started until ten or 11:00, and then we’d play till like four or five in the morning. These two people were my electronic music mentors. But then you also have to look at Muhal [Richard Abrams], because he did electronics on all his records; he wasn’t averse to it the way a lot of people were.

I wasn’t that interested in playing the trombone through the electronics. I thought I could—and I still believe this—really get a much wider palette of sound playing acoustically. I spent a lot of time working on just “how weird can it get,” you know?

JP Honestly, that’s how I feel about my guitar playing as well. I can get more interesting sounds out of just playing the guitar with my hands than with a bunch of devices hooked up to it. So at the time when you did the Solo Trombone record, you were already into computer music?

GL Yes, but the main point for me was always using computers to create these alternate beings, a kind of animistic conception. Of course, what I’ve done is on the fringe somewhere, but I’ve been a part of so many fringes, including contemporary music. It’s not really sampling, it’s not really transformation of timbre or playing your instrument through the electronic box. It’s just its own little thing. You saw me in Baden-Baden with the electronics and the trombone, but I still approach it very gingerly, because you can get into some pretty hoary clichés really quick.

JP You mean as far as in the laptop—

GL Well, there, but I’m more insulated from that because having done electronic music for so long, you hear a lot of the stuff that people have already picked over. You don’t have to go into those ancient middens to find stuff.

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George Lewis conducting, 2003.

JP I want to ask one last question. Did you learn from the AACM the direction that you eventually ended up taking, or was it a direction you were already going in before, that was cultivated by the AACM?

GL I was 19 years old when I met the people in the AACM. It was just dumb luck that I almost literally stumbled upon Muhal, Pete Cosey, people like that. I was walking on 87th and Bennett and I saw a band rehearsing in this children’s center. I poked my head in, and that was how I met them. They had their Monday night band, and then after the initial period of “Who is this guy?” they let me play.

It seemed that the AACM was a place where if you didn’t have a clue, you were encouraged to develop one. If you had an idea, no matter how half-baked it was, they would try to realize it, and they would demand that you create your own concepts, your own compositions. They had their Saturday classes, and people were being encouraged to compose. They never discussed improvisation; the only classes were in composition. So to bring this whole thing full circle, this whole business of my approaching things compositionally came from the AACM, because it was assumed that you were there because you wanted to be a composer, and by being a composer you were manifesting a kind of alternative model of what African American creativity would be about.

People like Fred Anderson, Lester Lashley, and Roscoe were constantly questioning you about what you were trying to do. I remember riding in a van with Anthony Braxton, and he turns to me and says, George, what is your music like? So I gave him what I thought was a pretty cool answer, and he said, You know, George, that kind of sounds like bullshit to me. (laughter) I mean, he was right, you know?

People took it personally as to whether you advanced as a musician. I had a whole community of benevolent aunts and uncles who were trying to help me do stuff. That seems almost utopian, but I have to say that’s my recollection of it. They wanted to institutionalize that attitude toward nurturing artists. Rather than keeping it on the individual basis of mentorship, you have a whole group of people who feel that it’s necessary to take each other on. It’s a model I haven’t really found in any other world of music I’ve been involved in.

In writing this book on the AACM I’m trying to sort out why the AACM succeeded where so many musicians’ collectives failed. The focus was on helping someone else rather than helping your own career. The economic strategy of the AACM is the thing that most people focus on, but very few people have a strategy for encouraging individuals to realize themselves. They always talked about self-realization, and being a college boy from Yale, I thought it was about Abraham Maslow (laughter) but it was really Paramahansa Yogananda that some of them were influenced by.

I’m not saying that other people didn’t have a hand in what I have become, because I’ve learned from everyone that I performed with and did stuff with. But the AACM gave me the tools that enabled me to really open up, to have a questioning and a critical attitude.

Was it the same way for you? I think it changed quite a bit by the time you were there.

JP No, in honesty, man, I wasn’t really as immersed in this as in that time. I was mentored by Ernest Dawkins and Ameen Muhammad in a lot of ways, but I felt like I developed more of a community with my peers around the stuff I was doing in Wicker Park in Chicago.

GL In my case, there was a sense of urgency about it. One doesn’t want to get into the nostalgia of it, but if you were on the stage with Henry Threadgill, Muhal, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Amina, and Braxton would visit, or Leroy Jenkins and Leo Smith—and who’s playing drums—Hamid Drake? I mean, it was my luck to come up right at that moment, and I think that the AACM is about to have another one of those lucky moments with lots of new people, like Nicole Mitchell, who’s brilliant, Corey Wilkes, people like this.

That’s not to say the community doesn’t have dislocations, but in the end, part of what I found interesting about the AACM was—for one thing, I got to meet you through it. You know, it works in mysterious ways.

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Kayn 7

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Okkyung Lee and Ikue Mori
Okkyung Lee Ikue Mori  01

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Abrams Bowles 1

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Originally published in

BOMB 93, Fall 2005

Featuring interviews with Arturo Herrera and Josiah McElheny, Jennifer Bartlett and Elizabeth Murray, Lincoln Perry, Anthony Downey and Yinka Shonibare, Eliot Weinberger and Forrest Gander, Lionel Shriver, Noah Baumbach and Jonathan Lethem, George Lewis and Jeff Parker, and David Rabe and Evangeline Morphos. 

Read the issue
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