George E. Lewis »New Music Decolonization in Eight Difficult Steps«

George Lewis
©Stefanie Kulisch

George E. Lewis »New Music Decolonization in Eight Difficult Steps«

My brief but memorable collaboration with the sound art collective Ultra-Red at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2012 considered this question:  “What is the sound of freedom?”


I was reminded of this when I read an interesting interview with meLê yamomo in Outernational:  “Wie klingt Kolonialismus?”  With respect to the very interesting ideas I read there,  I feel that we already know what colonialism sounds like.  We hear it at all too many contemporary music festivals around the world, as they participate in the continuous recirculation of the stereotype of exclusive whiteness around classical music’s self-image. But the composers and improvisors are not the ones producing the sounds of colonialism.  Rather, it is the music curators and institutions who have been composing and improvising colonialism.  


So what we would like these people to do is to help audiences discover what decolonization sounds like.  How can we counter the impoverishment and devolution of the field that has resulted from the consistent absences of the same ethnic, racial, and gendered voices from stages, media, music histories, and professional networks?  How could music curators could start composing and improvising decolonization?  What would a decolonized curatorial regime sound like?  


To some extent, we know what such a regime would look like, with the advent of Documenta11 in 2002, when the late Nigerian Okwui Enwezor became the first nonwhite curator of the festival.  Art historians Anthony Gardner and Charles Green observed that “Documenta11 painted a picture of contemporary art as a network in which New York, Lagos, London, Cape Town, and Basel were more or less equally important to a contemporary canon and similarly crucial in understanding contemporaneity, as opposed to some centers being exotic margins and others more genuinely cosmopolitan and contemporary.”  Surely there is no reason why festivals and other important institutions that support contemporary music could not do the same. Why don’t they do it?   


What I ultimately expect is that, like colonialism, we will be able to hear decolonization in the everyday life of sounds heard at festivals large and small.  For the rest of this short essay, I’d like to propose eight “steps” that we can take toward achieving this end.


1) Move beyond kinship.  Invest in new populations.


Sara Ahmed writes, “An institutional logic can be understood as kinship logic: a way of ‘being related’ and ‘staying related’…Institutional whiteness is about the reproduction of likeness...Institutions are kinship technologies, a way of reproducing social relations.” Similarly, in music, genre and kinship often co-present, as predicted by its root, gen- (genetic, genotype, and even gender). Genre markers like improvised music, classical, contemporary, jazz, zeitgenössisch, Neue Musik, etc., are also about the reproduction of likeness, while too often functioning after the fashion of the Procrustean bed. As these kinship-like discourses become adopted as natural by institutions such as festivals, academic programs, and foundations, they act as obstacles to change.


2) Give up on meritocracy.  


Some granting organizations and festivals in the US have always achieved greater gender and racial diversity than others--think MacArthur, Alpert, United States Artists. Others, including some of the most prestigious--and they know who they are—have never given an award to or programmed the work of an Afrodiasporic composer, although in the wake of the George Floyd murder, some felt obliged to offer pro forma expressions of solidarity with Black Lives Matter.


What we used to hear is that these kinds of decisions were based on merit—but in fact there is no such thing as “the best composer.”  The impact of many years of fake meritocracy, as well as decades of curatorial, commissioning, and academic employment and admissions decisions proceeding from what theorist bell hooks has called “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” amounts to an investment in a certain sector of the society, and a complementary disinvestment in other segments of the population. The deleterious results of this disinvestment appear in the very low number of women and people of color that I have found over more than forty years (in several countries) of evaluating applications for graduate school, grants, academic employment, and more, as well as decidedly non-diverse outcomes in contemporary music programming.


This means that what has been called white privilege, a phenomenon that is by no means limited to the United States, becomes a form of unearned equity that crosses gender lines intersectionally.  The tragedy is that undoubtedly brilliant composers—male, female, non-binary--who through accidents of birth stand to benefit from this regime are nonetheless trapped with everyone else in a system of bad faith.


3) Diversify school music programs. 


Identify and recruit young composers and performers from non-majoritarian backgrounds and institute early composition programs. Private and public music programs up to the university level should have publicly articulated plans for increasing diversity, with outcome reporting.


4) Encourage ensembles to commission and program in diverse ways, including specific calls for composers of color and historical and cultural themes that foreground non-majoritarian experience. For those who see this as a form of the hated quotas, I can offer a recent saw: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression."  Once I asked my mother, “If they have Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, why they don’t have Children’s Day?”  Her response:  “Every day is Children’s Day.”  Rather than being a victim of discrimination, I was actually taking for granted being a beneficiary of all that daily attention.  


5) Make decolonization an explicitly foregrounded part of cultural policy. 


Muhal Richard Abrams, co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, once said, “We know that there are different types of black life, and therefore we know that there are different kinds of black music.  Because black music comes forth from black life.”   Similarly, decolonized music will emerge from decolonized life.  But curators will need to start living decolonized lives, in which new genderrace relationships will produce new sounds. A failure to hear these new sounds constitutes not only a form of sensory deprivation, but also an addiction to exclusion-as-identity that ends up, as addictions often do, in impoverishment of the field, or even its eventual death.  


6) Internationalize music curation decisions.


Many curatorial decisions, particularly at the most prestigious festivals, are international, not local to one country.  There is no reason why major music institutions that tout themselves as international should continue to present all-white programs.  Curators from non-majoritarian ethnicities, genders, and regions should be engaged, a practice that could allow audiences to hear a greater range of aesthetic and methodological directions.  While themselves far from perfect, we can look to the best aspects of the policies and practices of major visual arts institutions since Documenta11 for guidance.  It will also not be enough to limit artists of color to low-infrastructure commissions and inexpensive searches for existing work while excluding them from important investments in new creations.


7) Encourage media discussions of new music decolonization.


Find ways to discuss the decolonization of new music on radio and television, and in newspapers, magazines, and academic journals. Back in 1980, the Neue Zeitschrift Fur Musik actually published an article portraying diversity as an important trend in US music curation.   Find out what has been published lately on this topic, and encourage more. 


8) Change of consciousness.  


The present essay is adapted from a talk I gave in September 2020 at the conference “Curating Diversity in Europe - Decolonizing Contemporary Music.”  The website text referred to a need for “keeping the discourse on diversity in contemporary music in Europe alive.”   However, I’ve lately started to consider the possibility that diversity discourse, despite the progress it has made, has now reached its peak.  I know that many among us were just getting started with diversity, and to have someone come along and say that it might already be over seems annoying at the very least. But hear me out on this. I’ve been hearing about diversity for a really long time now, and over the decades, I’ve experienced considerable skepticism around that discourse and how institutions deploy it. 


In Western European countries, for example, gender statistics are more readily available than other demographic vectors, while the refusal of governments to log race and ethnicity outcomes is portrayed as justified to promote national unity and avoid identity politics. However, while under every colonizing regime, it is women who bear a greater share of the oppression, that oppression is regularly experienced intersectionally with race.  Thus, as French sociodemographer Patrick Simon writes, “One may well wonder whether the negation of minority identities that prevails in France in the name of universalism is not often simply a tactic for consolidating the position of dominant groups.”  So an intersectional approach to gender and race should prompt suspicion and impatience with discourses that suggest that we can do one first, to the delay or even the exclusion of the other; after all, Dr Martin Luther King already told us “Why We Can’t Wait.”


Do not be taken in by the misdirections deployed by those who would have us spin in place, obsessing over spurious issues of “identity politics.”  Such baleful binaries as “identity or excellence” and “quality or inclusion,” so often invoked in response to demands for greater and more diverse representation,  are aimed at preemptively foreclosing initiatives by non-majoritarians to win space, while portraying women and people of color as the only identity politicians around.


I have suggested that a mental envelope of creolization would allow contemporary music to move beyond its Eurocentric conception of musical identity toward becoming a true world music. And by Eurocentric, I do not mean “Eurological”--a term I see more and more, one I invented in a 1996 article. For me, the Eurological, alongside other cultural logics, could become part of a continuously interrogatory, networked project of decolonization.  The Eurocentric, by contrast, seems simplistic, hegemonic, closed, and as that older article stated, “ethnically essentialist.”  


I drew upon the model of creolization as a way toward inserting the imagined sound of new music decolonization into our collective inner ear. Of course, I originally chose this metaphor because it specifically references race and the multinational.  A creolized contemporary music culture would be race-aware, not race-deaf, establishing a mosaic identity that recognizes historical, geographical and cultural cross-connections--not so much to achieve diversity as to pursue a new complexity that promises far greater creative depth. 


Some of the children of color being born now, right here in Europe, will be writing a new sonic chapter in the history of the region and the world, one that recognizes, with the philosopher Arnold I. Davidson, the true promise of new music decolonization:  “Multiplication of perspectives means multiplication of possibilities.”  Then, perhaps we can redirect “diversity” toward “new music decolonization.”


But what keeps us from realizing this promise? A blockage of consciousness is probably the greatest obstacle.  I fear that diversity discourse leads us to a prosthetics of inclusion—like a clunky metal knee replacement. Instead, you and I need to invent a new, incarnative “we” that understands contemporary music not as a globalized, pan-European, white sonic diaspora, but more like the blues, practiced by the widest variety of people in many variations around the world. If this new “we” can embrace “our” future, even with all its turbulence, if we can place ourselves conceptually in the situation of a creole, we can reaffirm our common humanity in the pursuit of new music decolonization. 




George E. Lewis, Professor of American Music at Columbia University, is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, a MacArthur Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, and the recipient of the Doris Duke Artist Award. A member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians since 1971, Lewis’s compositions, published by Edition Peters, have been performed by ensembles worldwide, and he holds honorary doctorates from the University of Edinburgh, New College of Florida, and Harvard University.  Lewis is the author of A Power Stronger Than Itself:  The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press) and co-editor of the two-volume Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies.