PRINT December 2020


George Lewis

Composer, musicologist, and computer-media artist George Lewis is the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University. His book A Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press, 2008) won an American Book Award, and he is coeditor of the Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies (2016).

Roger Frappier and Justin Kingsley, Chaakapesh, 2019, 2K video, color, sound, 123 minutes.

CHAAKAPESH (Roger Frappier and Justin Kingsley)

This documentary follows the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and its conductor Kent Nagano on a visit to Indigenous communities in northern Quebec to perform Cree Canadian writer Tomson Highway and Anglo Canadian composer Matthew Ricketts’s unprecedented multilingual (Innu, Inuktitut, Cree, and French or English), intercultural chamber opera, Chaakapesh: The Trickster’s Quest (2018).

Kyle Armbrust performing Vijay Iyer’s 2019 Song for Flint at Miller Theatre, Columbia University, New York, October 24, 2019. Photo: Rob Davidson.

VIJAY IYER (Miller Theatre, New York, October 24, 2019)

Last October, Iyer presented the world premiere of Song for Flint (2019), a work composed for Kyle Armbrust’s deeply emotional viola that asks us to remember the water crisis in that Michigan city, as well as Trouble (2017), a violin concerto whose affecting second movement is dedicated to the memory of Vincent Chin, the victim of a racist murder in 1982.

NATHALIE JOACHIM AND THE SPEKTRAL QUARTET, FANM D’AYITI (WOMEN OF HAITI) (Ecstatic Music Festival, Merkin Hall, New York, October 26, 2019)

Joachim combined electronics, traditional and modern texts sung in kreyòl, and the Spektral Quartet’s mastery of extended string techniques to place Black liveness, Black women, and Black spirituality at the center of the classical-music table.

Annea Lockwood. Photo: Kyle Dorosz for Miller Theater.

“COMPOSER PORTRAITS: ANNEA LOCKWOOD” (Miller Theatre, New York, November 14, 2019)

Miller Theatre presented the works of Annea Lockwood, one of the foremost experimental composers and sound artists of her generation, including the ecstatic “I Give You Back” (1995) for solo voice, with text by Mvskoke poet Joy Harjo.

PHILIP GLASS, AKHNATEN (Metropolitan Opera, New York, November 30, 2019)

Countertenor Anthony Roth Constanzo and mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, as the Egyptian royal couple Akhnaten and Nefertiti, respectively, brought extraordinary gravitas to Glass’s contemporary operatic tragedy, an elegy for a monotheism that was ahead of its time.


The compositions of Mitchell, a central figure in the important experimental-music collective the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, here receive extraordinarily nuanced performances by longtime collaborators Petr Kotik and Ostravská Banda.

Elaine Michener. Photo: Brian Roberts.

ELAINE MITCHENER, SWEET TOOTH (Borealis Festival, Bergen, Norway, March 3)

The frank exploration of sexual violence in the London-born vocalist and movement artist Mitchener’s torrid chamber work could serve as a companion to A Subtlety, 2014, Kara Walker’s monumental sugar sphinx and sculptural callout of capitalism and slavery. 

Shortly after I returned from Norway, public concerts were shut down worldwide to help combat Covid-19. Nonetheless, not only the pandemic but also the technological ways musicians worked around it went global in 2020.

Screen shot of Roscoe Mitchell performing at the online Bang on a Can Marathon, June 14, 2020.


The marathon, which has graced New York musical life for more than thirty years, went “virtual” this year, with broadcasts by experimental composer-performers of all generations that viewers could access from around the world. 


Supervirtuoso violinist Jennifer Koh commissioned more than forty composers to create solo works of three minutes or less and, alongside short interviews with the artists about creating under pandemic conditions, presented them all on YouTube and social media.


A similar approach was taken by this French trio, who have to date commissioned fifty-two “Sonic Postcards,” works of under one minute in duration. By July, they were permitted to present these works in “real” outdoor concerts, an example of how Europe and Scandinavia are now cautiously opening up to live events—which we in the US hope one day to do, perhaps with the support of a revised governmental attitude toward public health.