Issue 10: George Lewis: The Past is Prologue

By Arlene and Larry Dunn

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 a 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 (ICE), 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 are crafting the experimental opera Afterword, to be 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.

Background

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.

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