Tag Archives: Bowling Green Contemporary Music Festival

george lewis: the past is prologue

Editor’s Note: This profile of composer and cultural philosopher George Lewis first appeared in 2015, in a slightly different form, as the cover story in Issue #10 of the I CARE IF YOU LISTEN Magazine. We are re-posting an updated version here on acornometrics, with links to performances of George’s music and other materials. We are thrilled if this profile succeeds in bringing further much-deserved attention to George’s music. We appreciate, and concur with, Ensemble dal Niente conductor Michael Lewanski’s comment when the article first appeared: “George is one of the most unique and brilliant artists working today, and this article captures a bunch of things I love about him—the integrity of his artistry, his perpetual self-reinvention, and a certain contradictoriness that keeps him unpredictable all the time in the best possible way.”


George Lewis is a burly bear of a man with an infectious laugh that, like his music, is pure joy to hear. In a 40-plus-year career, so far, his many-faceted interests have led him to explore vast territory as a performer, improviser, composer, musicologist, writer, and cultural philosopher. His work in many realms has earned wide acclaim and awards such as a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002, an Alpert Award in the Arts in 1999, a U.S. Artists Walker Fellowship in 2011, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Since moving to New York in 2004 to fill the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music chair at Columbia University, Lewis has concentrated his creative energies on composing fully-notated works for diverse ensembles that are delighting performers, critics, and audiences around the world. A long, fascinating path has led Lewis to this point in his career where he is producing a steady stream of commissioned works for prominent contemporary music organizations like International Contemporary Ensemble, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Dal Niente, and Oberlin Conservatory Contemporary Music Ensemble. In his most ambitious work to date, Lewis and a team of collaborators have crafted the experimental opera Afterword, premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago in 2015. Get ready for an opera unlike any the world has experienced so far. 

George Lewis’ Afterword . . . “Get ready for an opera unlike any the world has experienced so far.”


Although Lewis’ music has its genesis on the hard-knocks South Side of Chicago, he had the good fortune to attend the University of Chicago Laboratory School, where his interests in music (trombone), philosophy, and many other topics were encouraged and nurtured. In 1970 he headed for Yale University, intending to major first in political science, then in music. A chance encounter in the summer following his second year at Yale changed his course, when he began a lifelong involvement with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), where he was attracted to its combination of fearless experimentation and artistic communitarianism. Lewis decided to take a year off school to work with AACM musicians and study composition at the AACM School with Muhal Richard Abrams. When he returned to Yale he dropped the music major to focus on philosophy, and turned to the study of musical improvisation from a phenomenological perspective. 

In the 1970s, Lewis was earning growing recognition as a trombonist and composer/improviser in ensembles with fellow AACM members Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, and Douglas Ewart. He was also branching out to work with other kindred spirits, like John Zorn, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, and Fred Frith in New York and overseas. Sparked by an interest in the nascent use of interactive computer technology in music performance, Lewis moved to Paris in the 1980s to work at IRCAM, where he did groundbreaking development work that culminated in the Voyager music software system. An academic opportunity through contacts he made in Paris lured Lewis to the University of California, San Diego in the 1990s, where he cultivated his deepening interest in the musicology of experimental music. As the new millennium arrived, Lewis says, “the opportunity at Columbia in New York felt like going home.” And that homecoming has provided the impetus for this ongoing onslaught of new compositions. 

George Lewis


Growing interest in Lewis’ through-composed work was sparked by his North Star Boogaloo (1996), for percussion and fixed media, written at UCSD for Steven Schick, with a recorded spoken-word text by poet Quincy Troupe. It may be his most-performed work, Lewis says: “I get requests for the materials every year during recital season.” When he got to Columbia, he found it a conducive place for building on that platform. “I walked into a very supportive and encouraging environment with colleagues like Melissa Smey [Executive Director of the Arts Initiative and Miller Theatre] and Richard Carrick, who I knew at UCSD, and eager performers like Wet Ink Ensemble, who were mostly Columbia students at the time,” Lewis relates. He was also strongly energized by the weekly composition seminars on campus. By 2007-8, he realized that composing fully notated music is where he wanted to channel his creativity and see how far he could take that. “I realized that meant I had to develop a consistent practice,” Lewis says, ”one that enables adhering to schedules and keeping the works flowing.”  That started him researching the methodologies of other composers and retooling how he approaches his work. 


Percussionist Steven Schick (photo: Bill Dean)

In the process, Lewis has also reexamined his own musical aesthetic. “Works do come from places,” he says. “There’s a community of thought and culture behind every composition, and that is going to be audible in what you do.” Lewis describes his own cultural stance as cosmopolitan. As he puts it: “the past is prologue; where you’ve been is a prelude to where you’re headed.” And where he is headed is to be a conduit for the polyglot of influences he has experienced over the years—jazz, free jazz, improvisation, African American culture, visual art, western classical, avant garde, and contemporary music forms, and more—without limitations or genre pigeonholing. “The furthest thing from my mind is trying to simply translate something as complex and nebulous as the African American experience,” he says, “I’m just trying to make cool sounds.” Lewis’ insatiable appetite for uncovering new cultural threads to incorporate into his music can be heard in the “cool sounds” of his recent works, which bristle with raw energy in meticulously ordered chaos.


Lewis first connected with International Contemporary Ensemble when (then) co-Artistic Director and clarinetist Joshua Rubin inquired about playing Shadowgraph, 5 (1977), which he had discovered on the original Black Saint recording George Lewis: Shadowgraph. “I sent Josh the score and the ensemble started playing it all over the world in spectacular fashion; they play it much better than we ever did,” Lewis enthuses. That budding relationship led to a commission for a new work for sixteen players, The Will To Adorn (2011), which is named for a section of Zora Neale Hurston’s germinal 1934 Harlem Renaissance essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” Hurston discusses the African American cultural tradition of adornment, which she characterizes as “decorating a decoration.” As Rubin puts it, Lewis builds multiple layers “around solo lines that are literally adorned through ornamentation—inflections of the musical line that add motion, direction and complexity. An interesting anti-climax occurs mid-piece when the motion slows down enough, and the texture thins out enough to make the adornments themselves the prominent music, in a strange, bassy, burbling minimalism.”

International Contemporary Ensemble premiered The Will to Adorn, with Schick conducting, at a Miller Theater Composer Profile concert arranged by Smey in November 2011. Music critic Steve Smith, writing for the New York Times, called the work “a lavish charm bracelet of exuberant shades and explosive gestures. Absorbing in scope and expressive in detail, the piece offered compelling evidence of Mr. Lewis’s prodigious imagination and persuasive skill.” The work was subsequently given its European premiere in June 2014 at Southbank Centre by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, at the behest of resident composer Julian Anderson, who first met Lewis at IRCAM in the 1980s where they found a lot of interests in common. Anderson, in his program notes, describes the piece as “celebrating the colourful hats worn by African American women, and celebrating adornment and colour generally for their own sake, it is a joyous explosion of sound and energy that involves almost everyone in the ensemble all the time, yet has plenty of contrast and a wonderfully surprising narrative shape.”

2013-14 might be called Lewis’ “Ohio Period.” He was both Composer-in-Residence at Oberlin Conservatory and the featured composer at the 34th annual Bowling Green New Music Festival at the MidAmerican Center for Contemporary Music (MACCM) at Bowling Green State University, resulting in two commissions for large ensemble works. MACCM commissioned Lewis to write Assemblage (2013, for nine musicians) for Chicago-based Ensemble Dal Niente, the featured ensemble at the 2013 festival.

Lewis told Dal Niente conductor Michael Lewanski that Assemblage is a piece where “I encourage listeners to catch the bus and go along for the ride, unburdened by expectations of teleologies or global form.” Indeed, this is a manic 16-minute thrill ride for the ears. According to Lewanski, it employs constant, unexpected shifts of tempo, timbre, and texture. He calls it “a delight to listen to. There is something about it that resembles our modern life – a constant uncontextualized TV-channel-changing, as if the piece is looking at its phone and alternately checking its email, Facebook and text messages.” Fortunately, Assemblage is now available on a Ensemble Dal Niente recording from New World Records.

Lewis spent fall 2013 and spring 2014 residencies at Oberlin Conservatory conducting master classes with composition students, improvising from his laptop with students in the Technology in Music and Related Arts (TIMARA) program, and lecturing on “The Train as Metaphor in African American Music and Art.” During that time, he also composed Flux (2014, for sixteen players), for the conservatory’s Contemporary Music Ensemble (CME) and dedicated it to the memory of Wendell Logan, a longtime Conservatory faculty member and founder of its Jazz Program. Flux is inspired by JamPact JelliTite (for Jamila), a 1988 painting by Jeff Donaldson (1932-2004), and is full of “jump cuts…a recursive sense of decorating a decoration predominates,” Lewis states in his program notes. “The work features a relentlessly high-contrast sensibility; even quiet, contemplative passages never really come to rest.” 


JamPact JelliTite (for Jamila), by Jeff Donaldson

According to Timothy Weiss, Director of Oberlin’s Contemporary Music Division and conductor of the CME, they do not require composers-in-residence to compose a new piece. But Weiss says that Lewis “being the remarkably prolific composer that he is, wanted us to play a new work during his time here. It was a great thrill for me and the performers to work on Flux with George and he was able to make a significant imprint on the shape and energy of the performance.”

Also in 2014, Lewis had his second piece for symphony orchestra, Memex, performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony and its Principal Guest Conductor Ilan Volkov, a longtime admirer of Lewis’ work. (His first, Virtual Concerto, was debuted a decade earlier by the American Composers Orchestra.) Symphony orchestra commissions are rare for most contemporary composers and can be a daunting challenge. For Lewis, it became a little easier when he realized “I could simplify the task by thinking of the orchestra as a giant multi-track synthesizer.”

The name Memex is drawn from a 1945 essay in The Atlantic by Vannevar Bush titled “As We May Think.” Bush imagines a technological breakthrough that prefigures the internet and the world wide web, a “memex,” a mechanical supplement to one’s own memory using inference and association to tap into vast reservoirs of stored knowledge. Lewis found in this a fruitful metaphor for his composing process, as he states in the program notes for the piece. “Engagements with musical structures that operate in the manner of the memex and the Web can present a fecund combination of indeterminacy, agency, memory, and the ineffable moment of choice, all of which link composition out of real time with listening in the moment.”

Memex was premiered in February 2014 at City Halls in Glasgow, with subsequent global broadcast on BBC3’s Hear and Now program in April. The work explodes into a torrent of brilliant colors with the orchestra at full tilt, then unfurls into a maze to which there are as many solutions as there are listeners. Memex was given its second performance in November 2014 by the Radio Symphony Stuttgart, conducted by Volkov. 


In 2013, Lewis and his collaborators, director Sean Griffin and media/theater artist Catherine Sullivan, began developing an expansive experimental opera called Afterword. The title comes from the concluding chapter of Lewis’ definitive history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (2008). In the book’s “Afterword” chapter, Lewis stages a virtual, cross-generational, time-bending meeting of AACM members past and present to summarize the major themes of the work in high relief. This meeting of AACM luminaries, some of whom never met in real life, is drawn from more than 90 interviews Lewis conducted during his research and is the jumping-off point for the opera’s libretto. 


Catherine Sullivan and Sean Griffin

Sullivan and Griffin have worked together for over 15 years, “creating historically minded, personally voiced performances in immersive theatrical environments that deploy unexpected turns of logic, deconstructed modes of behavior, and a very tangible and essential sense of ensemble that grows out of an iterative development process based in improvisation,” according to Lewis. The team combined forces to workshop the opera in a University of Chicago course titled “Improvisational Dramaturgy,” sponsored by an Andrew Mellon Fellowship for Arts Practice and Scholarship through the University’s Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry.

While nominally an opera, Afterword is breaking with opera conventions in multiple dimensions. The performances combine “pre-structured music, text, scenes, sets, and movement in juxtaposition with analogous elements improvised in real time,” Lewis says. The singers each fill multiple roles and are called upon to perform notated and improvised music and spoken texts, all while acting and moving to create and transform the stage sets and their own stage personae. The stage settings consist of objects and images from public and personal collections and archives.  

Afterword was presented in a one-act preview version at Roulette in Brooklyn, May 2015, performed by Chicago vocalists contralto Gwendolyn Brown, soprano Joelle Lamarre, and tenor Julian Terrell Otis, with an International Contemporary Ensemble chamber orchestra. The fully realized Afterword was presented by the MCA Chicago as part of their celebration of the 50th anniversary of the AACM, which also included an exhibition, The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to the Present, curated by Dieter Roelstraete and Naomi Beckwith. The opera premiered at the MCA Edlis Neeson Theater in October 2015, with support from the MAP Fund and the Mellon Foundation.

Beyond the opera, per se, Lewis was deeply involved in other aspects of The Freedom Principle exhibition. The show presented “Rio Negro, a sound and sculptural/instrument installation in collaboration with fellow AACM member Douglas Ewart,” according to Beckwith, (then) the Marilyn and Larry Fields Curator at MCA. First shown in 1992, Rio Negro combines bamboo sculptures with advanced robotics that animate them. “Lewis has done extensive work on the intersection of music and art, making what he terms ‘interart’ analyses of the AACM and visual art collectives such as Africobra.” As a result, she says he “elucidates important parallels in the structure of these groups, pioneering much-needed terms like ‘collective orientation’ and ‘multidominance’ that allow for conceptual and cultural analysis of the visual art movements that run parallel to the AACM’s history.” The Freedom Principle exhibit ran from July 11 until November 22, 2015. 


Lewis’ deep immersion in his compositional practice is not deterring him from his other myriad pursuits. He continues teaching musicology classes, working one-on-one with composition students, and writing scholarly articles about many cultural topics. Another multi-year project he concluded in 2015 was publication of The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, which Lewis co-edited with Cornell musicologist Benjamin Piekut. A massive undertaking in two volumes, the Handbook examines the use of improvisational structures and techniques in a broad range of human activities as diverse as music, theology, critical theory, philosophy, city planning, and organizations. 

Despite his many accomplishments in a range of artistic and academic fields, what stands out most about George Lewis is his enormous generosity of spirit.

Despite his many accomplishments in a range of artistic and academic fields, what stands out most about George Lewis is his enormous generosity of spirit. Speaking for his International Contemporary Ensemble colleagues, Rubin says, “to have been able to collaborate with, talk with, and be mentored by George on so many levels has been an honor; his music and his writings have changed the direction of my musical life.” With eager collaborators like that, never fear, we are sure to be hearing a lot more of Lewis’ music. The commission requests keep flowing in, and, he says, “at this point, I’m not turning down any opportunity to make more cool music.” 


We are deeply indebted to George himself for the countless hours he spent talking with us and the mountain of source materials he provided. We are also grateful to others who contributed their insight: Tim Weiss of Oberlin ConservatoryMichael Lewanski of Ensemble Dal NienteJoshua Rubin of International Contemporary Ensemble, and Naomi Beckwith and Peter Taub of Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (at the time of original publication); plus some pithy remarks in print from Steve Smith in the New York Times and from composer Julian Anderson.