In 1920 the Czech writer Karel Čapek experienced an early success with the play R.U.R., which posed interaction and conflict between human capitalists and a new source of labor, the “robota,” which has come down to us in various languages as “robot.” Most English-language critics have been content with a translation of the Czech word as “forced labor,” but parallels to the condition of slaves under the US chattel system stand out at various points in the play. Fred Moten points out that the commodity status assigned to slaves is transcended when the “object, the commodity, sounds”. Thus, juxtaposing the famous slave composer-pianist Blind Tom with Rossum’s Universal Robots provides the basis for a complex critical assemblage comprising technology, blackness, liveness, and the sounding subject.
George E. Lewis is the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the British Academy, Lewis’s other honors include a MacArthur Fellowship (2002) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (2015). A member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) since 1971, Lewis’s work in electronic and computer music, computer-based multimedia installations, and notated and improvisative forms is documented on more than 150 recordings, and has been presented by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonia Orchestra, Ensemble Dal Niente, Talea Ensemble, International Contemporary Ensemble, and others. His widely acclaimed book, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press, 2008) received the American Book Award and the American Musicological Society’s Music in American Culture Award; Lewis was elected to Honorary Membership in the Society in 2016. Lewis is the co-editor of the two-volume Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies (2016), and his opera Afterword (2015), commissioned by the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry at the University of Chicago, was premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2015, with additional performances in the United States, the Czech Republic, and the United Kingdom.