At Miller Theatre, ICE Shows Its Improvisation Chops In Music Of George Lewis

United StatesUnited States  George Lewis: “Composer Portraits”, International Contemporary Ensemble, Quincy Troupe (narrator), Steven Schick (guest conductor and percussion), Miller Theatre at Columbia University, New York City, 12.11.2011 (BH)

North Star Boogaloo (1996)
Ikons (2010)
Collage (1995)
Artificial Life 2007 (2007)
Will to Adorn (2011, world premiere)

“We’re past genre…I just want to make noise now,” said George Lewis in his entertaining interview with composer Richard Carrick, during intermission at this eye-opening concert at Miller Theatre, part of its long-running “Composer Portraits” series. Lewis – a trombonist who has worked with such luminaries as Count Basie, Anthony Braxton, Gil Evans and John Zorn – studied philosophy at Yale, and took his time finding his compositional sweet spot. But in an age when classical musicians – and audiences – are often much more welcoming of influences from pop, jazz and other genres, Lewis’s time may have finally come. And with the help of some staggering playing by percussionist Steven Schick and the International Contemporary Ensemble, his chameleonic talents were shown at their best.

The earliest works on the program, Collage and North Star Boogaloo, may seem more like worthy experiments when set next to his later pieces, but the performances brought them a bracing freshness. Poet Quincy Troupe was on hand to narrate the sometimes blistering images of Collage, with Lewis’s music straddling the worlds of contemporary classical and free jazz. Perhaps even more daring, North Star Boogaloo, for solo percussion (Mr. Schick), uses taped words by Troupe to create a hip-hop hybrid that must have confounded some listeners when it appeared in the mid-1990’s.

But the three most recent works made the strongest impression, starting with Ikons, written for the cultural festival accompanying the 2010 Vancouver winter Olympics. Thundering chords and squealing glissandos gradually make room for ticking oscillations (to me, very much like a hocket) – in a work that seems designed to thumb its nose at any prevailing trends. (In case there’s any doubt, that would be a compliment.) And Will to Adorn, written just a year later and given its premiere here, opens with riotous whistling over a writhing, lurching mass. Lewis’s results plunge into microtonalism, combining dreamlike hazes with rhythmic, punchy sections; one sequence reminded me of Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” but completely transformed. The percolating texture eventually evaporates, leaving the still clang of chimes hanging in the air.

Perhaps the most interesting of all, Artificial Life 2007 was created for the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra. The score consists of two pages of instructions, “which may be followed separately, in either order, or together,” including judicious applications of silence. To hear these extraordinary musicians reminded me how difficult it is to improvise well – and how invigorating it can be when they do. To observe some twelve players in “acute listening mode” – paying keen attention to the minutest fluctuations of pitch, tempo and dynamics – is a wondrous thing. It’s not fair to cite just two musicians, but I’m going to do it anyway in marveling at guitarist Dan Lippel’s brittle, strumming clouds, and Peter Evans’s haunting bleats using a muted trumpet. That Lewis’s minimal instructions could elicit such inspired results is a tribute to the group’s talents, of course, but also shows the composer’s finesse in getting the most bang for his creative buck.

Bruce Hodges