George E. Lewis on the decolonization of classical music

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Classical music has for too long occupied a tacitly recognized white space, seemingly hostile to voices outside of its European origins. So how do you decolonize classical music?

George E. Lewis, Edwin H. Case Professor of Music at Columbia University, has some ideas.

The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music will host a Lewis residency during the first week of November 2022. The Lewis residency will include two major public events: a talk on Thursday, November 3 at 4:00 p.m. at Royce Hall 314and a concert on Saturday November 5 at 8 p.m. in the Schoenberg room. Both events promise ideas and action on Lewis’s suggestions for overturning the status quo.

Composer, musicologist and MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellow, Lewis has spent his life pushing the boundaries of creation. He was recently named artistic director of the famous International Contemporary Ensemblea leading New York-based new music organization.

George E. Lewis, photo by Eileen Barroso

“George is the very reason I went to college,” said Nina Eidsheim, professor of musicology at UCLA. “I met George through workshops he offered as part of a residency at CalArts after winning the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts. It was my first time meeting someone who was both an artist and an academic and I stayed in the US to do a PhD with him at UCSD.

Lewis’ work as a musician and composer began in Chicago’s South End, where he joined the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) at the age of 19 in 1971. The band’s eclectic compositions and musical tastes transcend the artificial boundaries normally assigned to black music. As Lewis himself said in his book A Power Greater Than Itself: AACM and American Experimental Musicthe organization retained a black working-class perspective while embracing radical alternatives to traditional Chicago jazz and blues.

The resulting avant-garde music was difficult to categorize. As Lewis commented, the cultural urge to label black music as “improvised” and white classical music as “experimental” has never quite captured the essence of either, and has was doubly bound from the outset by racial and class perceptions rooted in history and prejudice.

by Lewis November 3 debate, “New Music and the Heterogeneous Sound Ideal”, directly addresses the question posed by African-American composer Olly Wilson about what precisely made music (all music) “art” rather than “entertainment”, and which, if anything, defined the aesthetic of Black Music. Wilson identified a shared conceptual approach within Afrodiasporic musical creation. Lewis picks up Wilson’s threads to identify the aesthetic directions that have been appearing in Afrodiasporic classical music since 1960.

“When you think about the black music tradition, the focus is on creating a unique sound. No one wants to look like anyone else,” said Cheryl Keyes, professor of ethnomusicology and global jazz studies, and chair of the Department of African-American Studies at UCLA. “George’s own music is proof of his immense creativity and avant-garde style.”

Classifying Lewis’s own music can be tricky. He wrote a wide variety of experimental music. He began working with computers in music in the 1970s. In the 1980s he began to develop an interactive, non-hierarchical musical environment called Traveler. The computer program creates a dialogue between the improvisers and a computer-generated “improv orchestra” that analyzes and reacts to the improvisers in real time.

A milestone in the decolonization of classical music, as Lewis recently opined, encourages ensembles to commission new music from a wide range of composers. The Bent Frequency Duoa new music ensemble dedicated to the avant-garde, will perform a November 5 concert at Schoenberg Hall with new commissions from Lewis, African-American composer Alvin Singleton and Singaporean composer + emily koh.

“The Bent Frequency Duo has commissioned over 40 new musical works over the past nine years,” said Jan Berry Bakerco-artistic director of the group (with Stuart Gerber) and saxophone professor and vice chair of the music department at UCLA. “Bent Frequency has always sought to include artistic voices from diverse communities and to use its music and art as a catalyst for social change. In 2018, we decided to make explicit what we had been doing for years.

Jan Berry Baker and Stuart Gerber of the Bent Frequency Duo Project, photo by Steve Eberhardt

The Bent Frequency Duo named their 2018-19 season “Amplify” and dedicated it exclusively to performing music composed by women, people of color and other composers who have historically been underrepresented in music. classic. The success of the season led to an ongoing theme. His 2019-20 season “Re-Amplify” was followed by “Sustain” in 2020-21 and “Renew” in 2021-22. Baker and Gerber built each season on the promise that more than 80% of programming would be dedicated to the decolonization of classical music.

In 2022, Bent Frequency celebrates its twentieth anniversary. Its new season, “Resonance”, strengthens the links between the ensemble and its audience. Its aim is to amplify the deep meaning that music has for each of us individually and also to highlight how important artistic voices resonate and reverberate within our communities.

It’s a goal shared by Lewis, whose International Contemporary Ensemble also celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year.

“You and I must invent a new embodied ‘we’ that understands contemporary music not as a globalized, pan-European white sound diaspora, but more like the blues, practiced by the widest variety of people in many variations around the world .,” Lewis said. “If this new ‘us’ can embrace ‘our’ future, even with all its turbulence, we can reaffirm our common humanity in pursuit of the decolonization of the new music.”

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