Decolonizing the Concert Hall
As Artistic Director of the International Contemporary Ensemble, George E. Lewis elevates his ongoing mission to lead us to a “new world music.”
Decolonization has a sound—many sounds, really. George E. Lewis wants us to hear them all and to consider them without prejudice, within one vision of classical music.
“We already know what colonialism sounds like,” he writes in a recent essay, “New Music Decolonization in Eight Difficult Steps.” He seeks a “true world music,” rather than “the continuous recirculation of the stereotype of exclusive whiteness around classical music’s self-image.” The final of his eight steps is a “change of consciousness,” beyond notions of purity or even diversity. “If we can place ourselves conceptually in the situation of a creole, we can reaffirm our common humanity in the pursuit of new music decolonization.”
As Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music, Composition & Historical Musicology at Columbia University, where he has taught since 2004, and as a composer of wide-ranging works documented on more than 150 recordings, Lewis, who is 70, has moved, and moved others, in that direction for decades. Through his innovative work in electronic and computer music, and in other ways, he has enlightened our thinking about the very natures of composed and improvised music. Last November, with Germany’s Ensemble Modern, he curated a concert and symposium, “Afro-Modernism in Contemporary Music,” one of many efforts to reveal hidden or suppressed cultural histories.
The ideals Lewis promotes are not entirely new, yet he brings to them fresh clarity and nuance at a moment when orchestras, if not all arts organizations, reckon with questions about racial injustice and a legacy of exclusion. One primary inspiration for him is the Association for the Advancement for Creative Musicians (AACM), founded in Chicago in 1965. There, in 1971, at 19, he began studying composition with one of its founders, pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams. Lewis, who has served as that organization’s president, documented its story in his essential 2008 book, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music.
Now Lewis has found “an ideal way to put some of my ideas about creolization and about the decolonization of classical music to work,” he says. In April, he was named Artistic Director of the International Contemporary Ensemble, which has been an important outlet for modern composers, including Lewis, throughout its 20-year history. “At a certain point,” he said upon his appointment, “classical music becomes so fluid that it becomes like a permeable membrane where you start to realize that it’s a point of connection rather than a set of practices or a set of received histories.” We talked about that point of connection—how to get there, and what it might mean.
Your relationship with the International Contemporary Ensemble goes back a decade or so, right?
There were several events that brought us together. One was a commission for the Composer Portraits series at Miller Theater here at Columbia, as performed by the ensemble. The piece was called “The Will to Adorn,” related to Zora Neal Hurston’s essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” That was the first collaboration, in 2011. The ensemble began doing my “open-form” pieces, the early ones, like Shadowgraph, 5, which I wrote for the AACM, and Artificial Life 2007. They were doing them in a very odd way. They would combine movements of the Schubert Octet with Artificial Life 2007 or Shadow Graph, 5, literally interspersing movements as if they were all parts of a larger work. Sometimes Shadowgraph, 5 sounded like Schubert. It was pretty amazing.
Did your larger involvement with that ensemble grow naturally from these artistic collaborations?
Yes, in a sense. I joined their board in 2017, and in the meantime they had kept playing my music. When they asked me to be their new artistic director, I wondered—Couldn’t you get somebody younger for this job? But then I thought, this could be an ideal way to put some of my ideas about creolization and about the decolonization of classical music to work, and try to make this a real “world music.” It’s already diasporan, but there is the notion of it is being a European or a white diaspora, when actually it’s an intercultural diaspora. The classical tradition is dispersed all over the world at this point. That’s what diasporas are, you know?
One of the things we’re planning is a Festival of African Contemporary Music. One of the emphases would be on the musical form now known as African Pianism, which was invented as a term of art by Dr. Akin Euba, a Nigerian pianist, composer and musicologist who taught at the University of Pittsburgh for about 20 years. He conceived the idea in 1970, which is around the time of the birth of Minimalism. It might sound Minimalist to some, but it has nothing to do with American or European Minimalism. It has to do with the idea that the piano as an instrument could take on African characteristics, and become a classical instrument that represents African formal and aesthetic principles of musical construction. It is a decolonized African classical music form whose now highly influential tenets have migrated conceptually to more diverse instrumental forces, from chamber music to orchestra.
Has that music had a presence in the United States and Europe during the past half-century?
No. In fact, no Black classical music has had a presence in the United States or Europe.
Is that sad reality changing?
Well, it can change and is changing. For one thing, I worked on a project with Ensemble Modern, which is in a way the International Contemporary Ensemble of Europe; they’ve been around about twice as long, really. It was called “Afro-Modernism in Contemporary Music”—a concert of music by six composers, very diverse in age, all living, including Hannah Kendall, Jessie Cox, Daniel Kidane, Tania León. And then we did a five-hour livestreamed symposium on the topic of Afro-Modernism and the lacunae that result. I deliberately did not mean African American because when you start to talk to people in Germany about Black composers, their first go-to is African American. But these people were from Cuba, South Africa, Europe, Switzerland. I mean, they’re from everywhere, right? So it showed a true Afro-diasporic presence, a circulation of Black sounds in classical music. They did a similar festival, which I co-curated with Elaine Mitchener, at the London Sinfonietta. I also published an article called “New Music Decolonization in Eight Difficult Steps,” which has been translated into German and French. So, among other things, that’s been my approach to rebranding Blackness in Europe.
Will the African Pianism program be a first step in what you’re trying to accomplish with the International Contemporary Ensemble?
Well, it’s a further step. We’ve got other ideas. I decided to take the term “international contemporary ensemble” and really reconsider what that means. I’m here at a very important moment, the ensemble’s 20th anniversary, and I see “international” as denoting classical music as a new world music. I remember Lester Bowie saying, when they [the Art Ensemble of Chicago] went to Paris in 1969: “We had to have a world audience.” We already have that. And we need to affirm that as a part of our truth in classical music. And then there’s this idea about “contemporary,” which is not a genre. We don’t want it to be a style of music. We want to be a condition of our being. That allows us to become leaders, striving to make a model for what an intercultural, interdisciplinary form of music could be about. No margin, no center. And then the idea of “ensemble,” meaning that we are creating and interacting with new communities—new musicians, new constituencies.
I’ve often cited your New York Times Op-Ed. piece, “Lifting the Cone of Silence From Black Composers”—about an often suppressed cultural history. I was moved by your line, “an addiction to exclusion that ends, as addictions often do, in impoverishment.”
Well, that that wasn’t exactly what I wrote. That was an editorial decision by The New York Times. The original quote is “ends in death.”
Well, that’s different. That’s better.
The death part was too downbeat for them, I guess. I’ve often written about how I find myself adding Afrological value to fields in which that part of things has been erased. But I think there’s a much more serious issue, especially with regard to classical music right now. And that relates to the death part, where these kinds of realizations are required in order to forestall eventual loss of influence and loss of relevance, which, for a creative field is a kind of death. When people say, Well, we don’t care about this. It doesn’t speak to us when we go into the concert hall and suddenly this invisible filter removes everything we found on the street, and puts us in this exclusively white space. Or when so-called international festivals always have the same white outcomes based on the fact that they don’t have a braintrust that allows them to make internationalized, creolized, decolonized curatorial decisions. In a sense, I have often found myself defending this or that field from its own supporters.
In that same piece, you wrote “If Black lives matter now more than ever, hearing Black liveness in classical music also matters.” Can aesthetic transformation bridge political divides with regard to troubling social-justice issues?
Well, imagine getting certain members of our composite polity to accept the idea that they are in the situation of a creole. That might not be the thing that some of the people who stormed the Capitol would be interested in hearing.
I think that’s the very thing that terrifies them.
Yet in fact, that’s the situation they’re in. But if one could embrace that situation of a creole, then you figure out that Black lives matter because Black life is a part of your life. Musical values of the kind we’re talking about, they do influence people very subtly, but very clearly, to find certain kinds of ideologies wanting. I always express it simply. Someone listens to one of these wonderful International Contemporary Ensemble concerts or, say, Tyshawn Sorey’s work, and the first thing they think is: Boy, that was really different. Then later, in their car, they start thinking I wonder what else could be different around here? And then they start looking around. That’s the moment where criticality becomes promoted by the music. Max Roach said, many years ago, “Our music is the kind of music that makes people start to think about our situation.” That’s the kind of music I want to be associated with, that I’m trying to create. I think it’s the kind of music that the ensemble is trying to create and be involved with. And if we do that, then we become a force for change.
Your ideas about creolization seem more relevant than ever now. But in the history of music, in history period, were they ever untrue?
That’s the whole idea. Never not true, but rarely recognized or embraced and actively suppressed in the service of a Eugenics-based, whiteness-imbued history. And that history is the one that we know. But history has always been changed, revised, rethought. So this is another rethinking of aesthetics.
The Met Opera opened its season last year with Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”—the first presentation of a black composer’s work in that organization’s 137-year history. And they plan to stage Anthony Davis’s “Malcolm X.” Does this signal real change in the field of opera?
I think things are changing more rapidly than some people realize. But it’s been a long time coming. Think of the struggles of people like William Grant Still. I’m not saying that there are no struggles now, there certainly are. But it goes back a very long way. For me, it’s not so much any structural change in opera’s form, though that’s happening, too. I’m thinking more about new histories which haven’t been talked about. What are the subjects of opera?
What is your ambition for your opera, Comet/Poppea, slated for premiere at next year’s Spoleto Festival USA?
I had been reading this proto-Afro Futurist short story by W.E.B. Dubois called The Comet, about the earth passing through the tail of a comet. Many people die, maybe most people die. But from the standpoint of these two people, a Black man and a white woman in New York, they’re the only two people left. What is their role, now that maybe a lot of the sociality surrounding white supremacy has been removed? What happens to all those old ideas? Well, it turns out those old ideas are embedded in their consciousness, in their bodies. In the end, their families are rediscovered. They don’t get to repopulate the planet. In a way that could be considered a happy ending, but that’s bittersweet as well. What might have been? The other half of the opera is The Coronation of Poppea [L’incoronazione di Poppea, Claudio Monteverdi’s last opera, first performed in 1643.] I had sent The Comet to [director/producer] Yuval Sharon and he said, This would be a great opera. I had this idea about double consciousness, and he asked, What about putting this together with The Coronation of Poppea? Well, that’s double consciousness for you.
I imagine that fits squarely within the larger project of creolization?
Well, it’s definitely a creolization of both. Everybody gets creolized, nobody gets out. Sometimes my writing for The Comet comes out front, sometimes the Coronation of Poppea dominates, sometimes they play together or get interspersed. It folds Monteverdi into its Afro-Futurist leanings. And it raises compositional questions. Do I need to make Julia and Jim in The Comet sound like the jazz singers of the Twenties? Or maybe they can they can enter into that other world more easily if they’re bel canto. Sometimes the most subversive thing you can do is to use the existing tools in new ways.
You earned early acclaim playing trombone. When did your aspirations to compose begin?
To me, there wasn’t a dichotomy like that. In that New York Times article, I talk about Alvin Singleton’s Mestizo II as being the first time that I’d encountered a Black composer. But the AACM was full of Black composers, who were thinking of themselves as composers. The AACM school was a composition school, at least when I was there. You went in, Muhal [Richard Abrams] or somebody would get up and start talking about composing. They’d bring in scores. You had to bring original music in, and then we’d all play them together. Who else was going to play them? I don’t know when the idea arose that we were just players. I was 19 years old. It was like, Oh, composing? Sure, let’s do that.
We always thought we wanted orchestras to play our music, but none were playing it. Until they were. My first orchestra piece was in 2004—at Carnegie Hall by the American Composers Orchestra, with a computer program as the piano soloist, which would play the piano and listen to the band and improvise its part. I’d already been writing computer programs that improvised for 20 years. But the idea of it working with a symphony orchestra—now, that was new.
That project raised interesting questions about our notions of composition and improvisation.
You know, it’s funny, I stopped doing compo-improv binaries in the Nineties, because I was doing computer programing. And this computer thing is a key part of that for me. I said, Well, the computers are improvising. So what does it mean to improvise? People didn’t know what it was to compose. There are these ridiculous definitions, like composing means writing everything down. Well, that died in the Fifties, you know? I mean, they were making all these indeterminate pieces. Stuff wasn’t always being written down, so it couldn’t be that. And if you’re talking about composing being writing things down, well, every piece of data that a computer makes can be stored and written down. So that means it’s writing everything down, anyway. It was an ideological decision and not a formal decision to say that the computer was improvising. It was kind of doing both.
Let me go a little bit further with this. If it was doing both, that meant that the definitions were very unclear. I began to realize that composition and improvisation were terms of art that referred to certain kinds of worldviews. I wrote an article called “Improvisation in the Orchestra,” which talked about an improv world dominated by ideas about jazz, and a compo world dominated by ideas about classical music. There were these racial signifiers that have been mapped onto both of them. If you want to break all that up, you need a way of describing improvisation that wasn’t beholden to that. I began to realize that improvisation was not just about music. Music is just a subset of a general, everyday life practice of improvisation that can be engaged in by humans, but also by machines, also by animals, and possibly by plants. If I think about it in that way, then composition becomes a species of improvisation. And composition is an improvised practice, which results in a non-improvised mode of presentation. Or mostly not improvised. But sometimes improvised, too.
The subtitle of your book about the AACM mentions American Experimental Music but not the word “jazz.” Was that, as you say, a rebranding?
Maybe so. I mean, they did it themselves. The AACM members spent a lot of time talking about creative music. They didn’t spend any time talking about jazz. And I listened to recordings of dozens of these early meetings. They were talking about what it meant to be creative. And then later, along came a bunch of people who tried to make creative music a synonym for jazz, which it clearly wasn’t. But then there was this larger sense in which the history of experimental music had been a whitened history. So I was doing my part to correct all that.
More than a half-century after its founding, would you agree that the AACM’s ideas have continued to grow in influence and reach?
I think even the AACM doesn’t know how influential the AACM is. I mean, certainly the International Contemporary Ensemble has gone on the record as citing the AACM as a major influence. So it’s a very interesting idea to have a former president of the AACM as the artistic director. It’s a pretty big deal for them, actually. So yes, the AACM’s influences is worldwide, very profound and still active and growing. People ask me, What is the AACM doing now? Well actually, the AACM is inside your head. That’s where it is now. That’s what it’s doing now.