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Sound Experiments

The Music of the AACM

A groundbreaking study of the trailblazing music of Chicago’s AACM, a leader in the world of jazz and experimental music.
Founded on Chicago’s South Side in 1965 and still thriving today, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) is the most influential collective organization in jazz and experimental music. In Sound Experiments, Paul Steinbeck offers an in-depth historical and musical investigation of the collective, analyzing individual performances and formal innovations in captivating detail. He pays particular attention to compositions by Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell, the Association’s leading figures, as well as Anthony Braxton, George Lewis (and his famous computer-music experiment, Voyager), Wadada Leo Smith, and Henry Threadgill, along with younger AACM members such as Mike Reed, Tomeka Reid, and Nicole Mitchell.
Sound Experiments represents a sonic history, spanning six decades, that affords insight not only into the individuals who created this music but also into an astonishing collective aesthetic. This aesthetic was uniquely grounded in nurturing communal ties across generations, as well as a commitment to experimentalism. The AACM’s compositions broke down the barriers between jazz and experimental music and made essential contributions to African American expression more broadly. Steinbeck shows how the creators of these extraordinary pieces pioneered novel approaches to instrumentation, notation, conducting, musical form, and technology, creating new soundscapes in contemporary music.

304 pages | 17 halftones, 108 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2022

Black Studies

Chicago and Illinois

Music: General Music


Paul Steinbeck’s magisterial Sound Experiments [is] a look at the AACM through “a set of ten compositions, improvisations, and recordings.” Sound Experiments contains many transcriptions and technical descriptions, but Steinbeck is a fluid writer and there are stories to tell.

Sasha Frere-Jones | Bookforum

"In this erudite but lively account, Steinbeck presents the first in-depth study of the AACM’s musicians and music as he traces the evolution of the group's innovative work over many decades. . . . An important addition to the jazz bookshelf."


"[Steinbeck] gives a good account of the cultural, social, political, and economic contexts from which the music emerged, and is keenly aware of the racialised gatekeeping which has all too often kept AACM composers from getting their due. . .  . Ultimately, the reader comes away with a greater appreciation of the AACM's achievements: Great Black Music, from Ancient to the Future." 

The Wire

"Musical analysis dominates the text, but Steinbeck’s thoughtful writing makes the descriptions work on several levels: for a student, or anyone interested in learning about how the music works; for a non-musician who may breeze past the score excerpts but dig into the plain-speak breakdowns; or the attentive fan who can relate the structures discussed to stage dynamics they have witnessed."

New York City Jazz Record

"The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians has achieved worldwide recognition for its approaches to notated composition, improvisation, technology, and intermedia. Steinbeck’s extensive historical and methodological analysis of a wide range of AACM musical practices makes this book indispensable to an understanding of the leading role of Afrodiasporic experimentalism in the past, present, and future of new music."

George Lewis

"I really appreciate Paul Steinbeck’s scholarship in putting together Sound Experiments. I have always found him to be an engaging writer. I enjoy how he wrote about my compositions on my album Sound, as well as the different iterations of my composition Nonaah. He really dug deep!"

Roscoe Mitchell

"Steinbeck has written an excellent analysis of the works of composers-performers from the AACM. A clear and concise investigative text, it looks into many aspects involved in creating a work of musical art. His writing is creative and has an expressive use of language. I recommend his book to everyone."

Wadada Leo Smith

"One of the most significant avant-garde collectives of the twentieth century, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) remains a powerful force in the early 21st century. In Paul Steinbeck, the AACM has found a chronicler and scholar of passion, erudition, and discipline, the very qualities that have made it such an enduring institution."

Adam Shatz

"Rather than a tour through AACM history, Sound Experiments serves as a deep dive into six of the organization’s seminal albums across the decades, which makes listening to the music while reading a whole new kind of experience. Be it Abrams’s ambitious Levels and Degrees of Light from 1968 or Mitchell’s 1977 solo-concert album Nonaah… Steinbeck makes an authoritative guide."

The Slowdown

"Before analyzing each work, Steinbeck traces its genesis in a detailed monograph, illustrating the context in which it was born and the biography of the protagonists. (...) The result is a seminal work on the AACM, the first of its kind."

Angelo Leonardi |

"Steinbeck provides some musical notations and deeper analysis of the sounds from his perspective as a musicologist – very illuminating to us, as we tend to have much more of a visceral response to these records."

Dusty Groove

“A Seminary Coop Notable Book of the Year”


"Paul Steinbeck, Sound Experiments: The Music of the AACM (Chicago) — Musician and Washington University, St. Louis music professor Steinbeck provides a stimulating history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) founded on Chicago’s South Side in 1965. He offers in-depth explorations of innovative performances by members of the organization, from Anthony Braxton’s Composition 76 to Wadada Leo Smith’s The Freedom Summers and Nicole Mitchell’s Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds. He demonstrates the ways these pieces contributed singular approaches to notation, instrumentation, and musical form, creating fresh sounds to contemporary music."

Henry Carrigan | The Journal of Roots Music No Depression

Table of Contents

1 Roscoe Mitchell, Sound :: Muhal Richard Abrams, Levels and Degrees of Light
2 Roscoe Mitchell, Nonaah
3 Anthony Braxton, Composition 76
4 Air, Air Time
5 George Lewis, Voyager
6 Fred Anderson, Volume Two
7 AACM Great Black Music Ensemble, At Umbria Jazz 2009
8 Wadada Leo Smith, Ten Freedom Summers
9 Nicole Mitchell, Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds

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