A composer and scholar who has spoken out strongly about the exclusion of black artists from experimental music will lead the renowned International Contemporary Ensemble, the group announced Friday.
George E. Lewis, a professor of music at Columbia University known for his pioneering work in electronics, will take the helm as artistic director later this month. Lewis, 69, a trombonist and frequent collaborator of the ensemble, becomes the first black leader in its 21-year history. He said in an interview that he hoped to bring a more multicultural focus to one of New York’s major new music groups and showcase a wider variety of artists.
“I’m looking for newer people who happen to have great ideas, but may be overlooked by other ensembles or institutions, to the forefront so they can be noticed by everyone,” Lewis said. “It’s a sense of broadening the community.”
Lewis is an influential voice in the effort to “decolonize” classical music, at a time when the field is considering questions of racial injustice and a legacy of exclusion.
“It is not the composers and improvisers who are producing the sounds of colonialism,” he wrote in a recent essay. “Rather, it is the music curators and institutions that composed and improvised colonialism.”
Lewis has called on music schools to recruit more young composers who belong to racial and ethnic minority groups. He has also said that ensembles should order more works from composers of color.
“There is no reason why major music establishments that label themselves as international should continue to present all-white programs,” he wrote in the essay.
The International Contemporary Ensemble, with its 35 members, has long been an important outlet for modern composers, including Lewis, long revered among avant-garde jazz fans. In 2011, the ensemble premiered its ‘The Will to Adorn’, inspired by an essay by Zora Neale Hurston and also the title of a 2017 album of his works created by the ensemble.
Lewis will replace Ross Karre, a percussionist who is stepping down as artistic director after five years to teach at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. The ensemble was co-founded and led for many years by the flautist Claire Chase.
The group’s leaders said Lewis, a board member since 2018, has long held undue influence over their work.
“George’s impact on this ensemble is almost immeasurable,” bassoonist and board member Rebekah Heller said in a statement. “His voice and his vision have quietly shaped the musical direction of our collective.”
Lewis said he hoped to help the ensemble move beyond rigid notions of genre, in part by encouraging performers to listen to one another through improvisation.
“At some point, classical music becomes so fluid that it becomes a permeable membrane where you start to realize it’s a connection point rather than a set of practices or a set of received histories,” he said. “It’s something that collects and accumulates new information, rather than something that excludes or does gatekeeping.”†