Steve Lehman's Demian as Posthuman
Lester St. Louis
An album exists on a multi-strata array of options:
Ad infinitum…the album embodies the ability to touch multiple points on this stack at any given time; and for each listener, it touches different points. The format has allowed artists from a variety of disciplines to make claim of their aesthetic theory—one that is not limited to regions of the world, cultures, or value systems. Spirituality, emotion, livelihood, position, and perspective are all elements of an aesthetic theory.
Demian as Posthuman
Steve Lehman’s 2005 album Demian as Posthuman touches upon a few of these above mentioned elements. This 12-track, 37-minute work featuring Lehman, Vijay Iyer, Tyshawn Sorey (these three forming Fieldwork), Me’shell Ndegeocello, Eric McPherson, and Jahi Lake makes propositions on cultural and musical synthesis, form, and interface.
I spoke with Lehman about the ideas I recognized in this album and how he went about its construction. While this article is not an interview, the conversation melts into it. But let me first establish some context.
In the early 2000s, Lehman began working with digital music platforms, starting with Ableton Live and later incorporating Max MSP. Ableton and Max were part of a generation of programs that built upon the electronic music tradition of accurate, reproducible precision in timing, dynamics, timbre, and articulation, as well as all other categories of music-making. In sculpting Demian, Lehman brought together a roster of highly talented musicians and meticulously crafted performative tracks to create a sophisticated electro-acoustic ensemble that had endless possibilities.
Lehman’s musical output at the time dealt with approaches to improvisation, groove in relation to complex rhythmic structures, and extending harmonic and timbral considerations. Demian follows in this line, but to my ears it touches more on what I would call an urban experimentalism: a kind of idea space that exists in places with a fast pace of life and information, large varieties of people with large varieties of ideological premises, stacks and grids of transport, energy and fluids. This is a sort of experimentalism that meshes together the sounds that the inhabitants make and bring to them. Urban experimentalism is the collective options available when one has the access to interact with people, musics, and ideas stemming from different premises and places.
Demian has a strong contemporary sensibility and engages with its greater cultural environment. The album’s recognition of hip-hop, electronic music, electro-acoustic music, jazz and African-American creative music, spectralism, and other forms of contemporary composition from the classical tradition is clear. And, Lehman makes an effort to show there is no disparate space between the expression that these musical forms offer.
This is not to say that these pieces are an amalgamation of various musics. Not at all. Demian acts, instead, as a reminder that works of art are created from experiences, and artists are afforded the ability to compose their experiences into their medium and make the claim of their personal epistemology.
Albums traditionally include a final, finely executed version of the pieces that highlight the musician’s finest qualities. Very often in re-releases of albums in jazz history, outtakes and secondary takes will be included where the listener can hear the musicians take another approach to the better known final version on the same record. Demian turns that intention around. It presents multiple performances of the same piece with variations in approach to the melodies, phrasing, and time feel. This method of track presentation reminds the listener of the inherent internal multiplicity of approaches that exists in a work.
Throughout the album, pieces recur in permutations. This gives the listener a way to hear each performance through the lens of the other; hearing how each execution makes due with its limits working towards the same end. “Damage Mobility” presents one arrangement for saxophone quartet and another for saxophone and electronics. The piece’s focus on shifting timbre and suspension lends itself well to both permutations. Lehman’s instrumental vocabulary shows the timbral options that experimentation can lend. On the electronic version of the piece, Tyshawn Sorey performs a drum improvisation that adds another layer which shows the pivot of suspension and rhythmic feels embedded within.
In the four versions of “Logic” a four-bar phrase is repeated in one of the instrumental voices and the other instruments are open to create new contexts around it. In ‘’Logic (featuring Me’shell)’’, the bass is placed with the figure with drums (played by McPherson) tied to it; Saxophone and Turntable are open to improvise over the figure and create form. This iteration delivers a groove-based track displaying much of the powers of this ensemble in real time composition and expansion. In ‘’Logic (featuring Tyshawn)’’ Saxophone takes on the rhythmic figure, allowing the drums to open up from their usual rhythmic dimension. Sorey performs an exploratory solo using an extensive setup of percussion, putting the instrument’s more conventional functions to the side.
In the four versions of ‘’Cognition’’ Lehman composes new performances of the keyboard and bass parts; digitally manipulating velocities, envelopes, attacks, decays and all parameters of musicality with precision. With the pre-composed portions accounted for, Lehman and Sorey create context for the other material with counterpoint and solos. In each of the iterations via multi-tracked saxophone parts the melody and a counter-melody are maintained in each track.
The gradation in each approach communicate musicianship and takes nothing away from the affective wholeness instilled in each one. The permutation model is built to show qualitative nuances in musicality, it allows performers to flex their skill sets while laying out some of the ways a piece can be made for the listener.
Demian as Posthuman is a great example of the meeting of diverse interests and ability. Steve Lehman continues a tradition where an artist can feel free to expose the many facets that go into their creative DNA. Artistic DNA, much like biological DNA is made up of all kinds of non-end product elements. Some parts art, some parts experience, some parts disposition, and many parts unknowable. I believe that great works of art embody a system of generativity in their form: response leads way to inquisition and inquisition to search and search to generation. I also believe that all traditions and all works are built on top of each other, from the mundane to the radical. If these beliefs are true then—as Lehman has built on the backs of many others—who has built on the back of Lehman? I cannot say, but what I can do is hope that the works following absorb the necessity for relevance and contemporaneity, cross-cultural communication, use of new media and employ creative performance strategies.