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Outspoken composer to lead international contemporary ensemble
The composer George Lewis at an International Contemporary Ensemble concert in New York, Aug. 22, 2013. Lewis, a Columbia scholar who has documented how Black composers have been excluded from experimental music, will be the first Black leader in the 21-year history of the renowned International Contemporary Ensemble. Hiroyuki Ito/The New York Times.

by Javier C. Hernández

NEW YORK, NY.- A composer and scholar who has spoken forcefully about the exclusion of Black artists from experimental music will lead the renowned International Contemporary Ensemble, the group announced Friday.

George Lewis, a professor of music at Columbia University known for his groundbreaking work in electronics, will take the helm as artistic director later this month. Lewis, 69, a trombonist and frequent collaborator with the ensemble, will be the first Black leader in its 21-year history. He said in an interview that he hoped to bring more of a multicultural focus to one of New York’s premier new music groups and to feature a wider variety of artists.

“I’m looking to bring newer people who happen to have great ideas, but who might be overlooked by other ensembles or institutions, to the forefront so they can be noticed by everybody,” Lewis said. “It’s a sense of widening the community.”

Lewis is an influential voice in the effort to “decolonize” classical music at a time when the field is reckoning with questions about racial injustice and a legacy of exclusion.

“The composers and improvisers are not the ones producing the sounds of colonialism,” he wrote in a recent essay. “Rather, it is the music curators and institutions who have been composing and improvising 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 commission more works from composers of color.

“There is no reason why major music institutions that tout 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 his “The Will to Adorn,” inspired by a Zora Neale Hurston essay and also the title of a 2017 album of his works made by the ensemble.

Lewis will replace Ross Karre, a percussionist who after five years as artistic director is stepping down to take a teaching position at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. The ensemble was co-founded and led for years by flutist Claire Chase.

The group’s leaders said Lewis, a board member since 2018, had long had an outsize influence on their work.

“George’s impact on this ensemble is almost immeasurable,” Rebekah Heller, a bassoonist and board member, said in a statement. “His voice and his vision have been quietly shaping the musical direction of our collective.”

Lewis said he hoped to help the ensemble move beyond rigid notions of genre, in part by encouraging artists to listen to one another through improvisation.

“At a certain point, 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,” he said. “It’s something that accretes and accumulates new information, rather than something that excludes or does gatekeeping.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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