Afterword: An Opera in Two ActsGeorge Lewis & International Contemporary Ensemble

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International Contemporary Ensemble releases Afterword: An Opera in Two Acts by George Lewis on its Tundra Records imprint. Lewis’s first opera, Afterword, premiered in 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The opera was created in conjunction with the exhibition The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, as part of the 50th anniversary commemorations of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the Chicago-born and now internationally acclaimed African American collective whose members have explored an unprecedentedly wide range of new and influential ideas in new music.


# Audio Title/Composer(s) Time
Total Time 117:44

Afterword, Act One

01Prologue to Scene 1
Prologue to Scene 1
02Scene 1: Down South
Scene 1: Down South
03Prologue to Scene 2
Prologue to Scene 2
04Scene 2: In Chicago
Scene 2: In Chicago
05Scene 3: The Cemetery
Scene 3: The Cemetery
06Prologue to Scene 4
Prologue to Scene 4
07Scene 4: First Meeting
Scene 4: First Meeting
08Prologue to Scene 5
Prologue to Scene 5
09Scene 5: Naming
Scene 5: Naming

Afterword, Act Two

10Improvisation: Remembrances
Improvisation: Remembrances
11Scene 6: Ariae
Scene 6: Ariae
12Scene 7: The Split
Scene 7: The Split
13Scene 8: Death
Scene 8: Death
14Scene 9: Departure
Scene 9: Departure
15Scene 10: Paris
Scene 10: Paris
17Scene 11: Afterword
Scene 11: Afterword

International Contemporary Ensemble releases Afterword: An Opera in Two Acts by George Lewis on Friday, October 6, 2023 on Tundra Records/New Focus Recordings. Lewis’s first opera, Afterword, premiered in 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and subsequently appeared in European and US venues.

The opera was created in conjunction with the exhibition The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, as part of the 50th anniversary commemorations of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the Chicago-born and now internationally acclaimed African American collective whose members have explored an unprecedentedly wide range of new and influential ideas in new music.

The opera takes its title from the concluding chapter of Lewis’s history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press, 2008). In this chapter, Lewis selects quotes from nearly one hundred interviews with AACM members that engage aesthetic, social, cultural, and political issues that the organization and its individual members have faced across the historical periods through which the collective’s members have lived, an era marked by the Great Migration, the urbanization of American life, the civil rights struggle, and decolonization.

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Lewis describes Afterword as “an opera of ideas, positionality, and testament…exploring history to reaffirm fundamentally human perspectives that mark not only the AACM, but also any social formation.” The opera presents the AACM not as a set of fixed characters and plot lines, but as an avatar for experimental Blackness itself. As the action unfolds, we witness young Black experimentalists interrogating issues of power, authority, identity, representation, culture, economics, politics, and aesthetics; self-fashioning and self-determination; personal, professional, and collective aspiration; and tradition, innovation, change, spiritual growth, death, and rebirth.

Act One begins with reminiscences of Black life in the Southern United States, from antebellum days to the early Great Migration and the first stirrings of the Black Power movement, which inspires the musicians to create a better future for themselves and their community through the interlocking powers of music and collective action. The founding meetings of the AACM, where the musicians realize that creativity itself could play a crucial role in fostering social, political, and cultural change, are portrayed in a scene drawn largely from audio recordings of AACM meetings from 1965 and 1966.

Act Two sees the AACM exploring the new individual and collective they have fashioned for themselves. Clashes between avatars and subject positions allow listeners to eavesdrop on history as it is being made in real, human time. In the wake of conflicts between tradition and innovation and the untimely passing of two AACM members, the musicians are invited to France as they turn toward an understanding that life is fleeting, mobility is power, and the world is open for them to explore.

George Lewis calls Afterword a Bildungsoper, a term derived from the Bildungsroman—a coming-of-age novel. Traditionally, Bildungsoper refers to the practice in opera for characters to realize themselves in the course of the story, as in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. In an interview with musicologist Alexander K. Rothe, George Lewis notes, “This is an opera about coming of age. The organization comes of age, and the people do too. They start out in Coon Town and the Great Migration. They go to Chicago and they live on the South Side and, you know, do stuff like hustling people for money and pickpocketing, living in these horrible places and doing what the migrants did to survive. Then they decide to do something to better their lives. They form an organization to better themselves. They go off to Paris and learn a lot there, they start to find out things about themselves and about the nature of the world.”

Recorded live, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, October 16 and 17, 2015

Recording Engineer: Levy Lorenzo
Mixing, editing: Ryan Streber, Jacob Greenberg
Mastering: Ryan Streber,

For the International Contemporary Ensemble:
Jenni Bowman, Executive Producer
Jacob Greenberg, Director of Recordings

Design and layout: Marc Wolf,

Cover photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago
Stage photos: Nathan Keay and Sean Griffin
George Lewis photo by Maurice Weiss
David Fulmer © Sonja Georgevich
Joelle Lamarre © Teresa Dalbéra
Julian Terrell Otis © Elias Rios
Gwendolyn Brown © Devon Cass

Synopses: George Lewis
Publisher: Edition Peters

All compositions © 2023 C.F. Peters Corporation, BMI

George Lewis

George E. Lewis has been a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) since 1971, Lewis's work in electronic and computer music, computer-based multimedia installations, and notated and improvisative forms is documented on more than 140 recordings. His work has been presented by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonia Orchestra, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Talea Ensemble, Dinosaur Annex, Ensemble Pamplemousse, Wet Ink, Ensemble Erik Satie, Eco Ensemble, and others, with commissions from American Composers Orchestra, International Contemporary Ensemble, Harvestworks, Ensemble Either/Or, Orkestra Futura, Turning Point Ensemble, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, 2010 Vancouver Cultural Olympiad, IRCAM, Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, and others. Lewis has served as Ernest Bloch Visiting Professor of Music, University of California, Berkeley; Paul Fromm Composer in Residence, American Academy in Rome; Resident Scholar, Center for Disciplinary Innovation, University of Chicago; and CAC Fitt Artist In Residence, Brown University.

Lewis received the 2012 SEAMUS Award from the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States, and his book, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press, 2008) received the American Book Award and the American Musicological Society’s Music in American Culture Award. Lewis is co-editor of the two-volume Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies (2016), and his opera Afterword, commissioned by the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry at the University of Chicago, premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in October 2015 and has been performed in the United States, United Kingdom, and the Czech Republic.

Professor Lewis is the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University. A 2015 Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, Lewis has received a MacArthur Fellowship (2002), a Guggenheim Fellowship (2015), a United States Artists Walker Fellowship (2011), an Alpert Award in the Arts (1999), and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2015, Lewis received the degree of Doctor of Music (DMus, honoris causa) from the University of Edinburgh. He came to Columbia in 2004, having previously taught at the University of California, San Diego, Mills College, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Koninklijke Conservatorium Den Haag, and Simon Fraser University's Contemporary Arts Summer Institute. Lewis studied composition with Muhal Richard Abrams at the AACM School of Music, and trombone with Dean Hey.

International Contemporary Ensemble

With a commitment to cultivating a more curious and engaged society through music, the International Contemporary Ensemble – as a commissioner and performer at the highest level – amplifies creators whose work propels and challenges how music is made and experienced. The Ensemble’s 39 members are featured as soloists, chamber musicians, commissioners, and collaborators with the foremost musical artists of our time. Works by emerging composers have anchored the Ensemble’s programming since its founding in 2001, and the group’s recordings and digital platforms highlight the many voices that weave music’s present.

Acclaimed as “America’s foremost new-music group” (The New Yorker), the Ensemble has become a leading force in new music throughout the last 20 years, having premiered over 1,000 works and having been a vehicle for the workshop and performance of thousands of works by student composers across the U.S. The Ensemble’s composer-collaborators—many who were unknown at the time of their first Ensemble collaboration—have fundamentally shaped its creative ethos and have continued to highly visible and influential careers, including MacArthur Fellow Tyshawn Sorey; long-time Ensemble collaborator, founding member, and 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winner Du Yun; and the Ensemble’s founder, 2012 MacArthur Fellow, and first-ever flutist to win Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Prize, Claire Chase.

A recipient of the American Music Center’s Trailblazer Award and the Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, the International Contemporary Ensemble was also named Musical America’s Ensemble of the Year in 2014. The group has served as artists-in-residence at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival (2008-2020), Ojai Music Festival (2015-17), and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (2010-2015). In addition, the Ensemble has presented and performed at festivals in the U.S. such as Big Ears Festival and Opera Omaha’s ONE Festival, as well as abroad, including GMEM-Centre National de Création Musicale (CNCM) de Marseille, Vértice at Cultura UNAM, Warsaw Autumn, International Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, and Cité de la Musique in Paris. Other performance stages have included the Park Avenue Armory, ice floes at Greenland’s Diskotek Sessions, Brooklyn warehouses, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and boats on the Amazon River.

The International Contemporary Ensemble advances music technology and digital communications as an empowering tool for artists from all backgrounds. Digitice provides high-quality video documentation for artist-collaborators and provides access to an in-depth archive of composers’ workshops and performances. The Ensemble regularly engages new listeners through free concerts and interactive, educational programming with lead funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Curricular activities include a partnership at The New School’s College of Performing Arts (CoPA), along with a summer intensive program, called Ensemble Evolution, where topics of equity, diversity, and inclusion build new bridges and pathways for the future of creative sound practices. Yamaha Artist Services New York is the exclusive piano provider for the Ensemble. Read more at and watch over 350 videos of live performances and documentaries at

The International Contemporary Ensemble’s performances and commissioning activities during the 2023-24 concert season are made possible by the generous support of the Ensemble’s board, many individuals, as well as the Mellon Foundation, Howard Gilman Foundation, Jerome Foundation, Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, Aaron Copland Fund for Music Inc., Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, Francis Goelet Charitable Lead Trusts, The Cheswatyr Foundation, Amphion Foundation, The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, New Music USA’s Organizational Development Fund, Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University, BMI Foundation, as well as public funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, the New York State Council for the Arts with the support of Governor Kathy Hochul and the New York State Legislature, the Illinois Arts Council Agency, and the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) from the U.S. Small Business Administration. The International Contemporary Ensemble was the Ensemble in Residence of the Nokia Bell Labs Experiments in Art and Technology from 2018-2021. Yamaha Artist Services New York is the exclusive piano provider for the International Contemporary Ensemble.

David Fulmer

Winner of the 2019 Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, David Fulmer has garnered numerous international accolades for his bold compositional aesthetic combined with his thrilling performances. A Guggenheim Fellow, and a leader in his generation of composer-performers, the success of his Violin Concerto at Lincoln Center in 2010 earned international attention and resulted in immediate engagement to perform the work with major orchestras and at festivals in the United Kingdom, Europe, North America, and Australia. Fulmer made his European debut performing and recording his concerto with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Matthias Pintscher in 2011. That same year, Fulmer debuted at Tanglewood, appearing with the work. A surge of recent and upcoming commission include new works for the New York Philharmonic, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Scharoun Ensemble of the Berlin Philharmonic, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, ProMusica Chamber Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, Alte Oper Frankfurt, BMI Foundation, Concert Artists Guild, Washington Performing Arts, Kennedy Center, Fromm Music Foundation, Koussevitzky Foundation, and Tanglewood.

As conductor, Fulmer recently led the NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, International Contemporary Ensemble, Elision Ensemble, Sydney Modern Music Ensemble, along with appearances at the New York Philharmonic Biennial, Tanglewood Music Festival, and Lucerne Festival. Recent highlights include important debuts leading the Ensemble Intercontemporain, ASKO|Schönberg Ensemble, South Netherlands Philharmonic, and assisting concerts and projects with the New York Philharmonic. Fulmer made a triumphant return to the NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra, which included a collaboration with IRCAM. This season he returns as Director, curator, and conductor of the Mannes American Contemporary Ensemble in programs of 20th and 21st Century music, and continues his close relationship with the International Contemporary Ensemble. Recently appointed as Music Director and Conductor of the Hunter Symphony Orchestra, Fulmer will lead programs including works of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Mendelssohn, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Debussy, Schubert, Fauré, and Florence Price. He made his debut appearance in 2014 on the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series at Walt Disney Concert Hall. During the summer seasons, Fulmer leads concerts at the Chamber Music Northwest Festival, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, and has maintained a very close relationship with the Lucerne Festival and Tanglewood Music Festival.

Fulmer was recently the recipient of both the Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Carlos Surinach Commissioning Prize from the BMI Foundation. He is the first and only American recipient of the Grand Prize of the International Edvard Grieg Competition for Composers. He has also received the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composers Award, the BMI Composer Award, the Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a special citation from the Minister of Education of Brazil, the Hannah Komanoff Scholarship in Composition from The Juilliard School, and the highly coveted George Whitefield Chadwick Gold Medal from the New England Conservatory. Fulmer appears regularly and records often with the premiere new music ensembles in New York, including the International Contemporary Ensemble, Talea Ensemble, Argento New Music Project, Speculum Musicae, The Group for Contemporary Music, and the New York New Music Ensemble. His work is recorded by the Ensemble Intercontemporain. He has appeared recently on the Great Performers Series at Lincoln Center, The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and Live from Lin- coln Center broadcasts. Fulmer is Director of Orchestral Studies, Head of Strings, and Composition Faculty at Hunter College, CUNY. He graduated from The Juilliard School.

Joelle Lamarre

American soprano Joelle Lamarre is an in-demand performer of new works by today’s living composers. Notable recent performances include George Lewis’s experimental opera Afterword the Chicago premiere of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking; working with multi-disciplinary artist Sean Griffin in Charles Gaines’s Manifestos 2, a score based on Malcolm X’s last public speech made in 1965 in Detroit’s Ford Auditorium; the South Shore Opera of Chicago’s production of Nkeiru Okoye’s Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed that Line to Freedom; the Lyric Opera Unlimited’s comedic opera, Factotum, by Liverman DJ Rico & Maharaj; the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s performance of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones; Chicago Opera Theater’s world premiere of Errolyn Wallen’s Quamino’s Map; and Long Beach Opera’s production and recording of Anthony Davis’s Pulitzer Prize–winning opera The Central Park Five. A 3Arts Make a Wave grant recipient, Lamarre performs across genres in theater, musical theater, and opera, and seeks to push boundaries as a librettist, poet, and artistic advisor. She is the creator of the one-act play The Violet Hour, which explores the life and career of American soprano Leontyne Price, as well as her own EP The Other American.

Gwendolyn Brown

Contralto Gwendolyn Brown’s extraordinary versatility in operatic performances in traditional, 20th century, American Art Song, Negro Spiritual, and avant-garde settings has earned her many superlatives: “...astonishing range and timbre, a stern voice of certainty” (Huddersfield Examiner); “a transfixing force of nature” (Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times); “an overwhelming power” (Tageszeitung, Berlin). Ms. Brown’s performances in George Lewis’ opera Afterword (2015) and his monodrama Song of The Shank (2023) with the Ensemble Modern were met with critical acclaim, as well as her creation of the lead role of Marie Laveau in Anne LeBaron’s Crescent City (2012) for Los Angeles’ The Industry. Ms. Brown has performed with opera companies and orchestras throughout the United States and overseas, and has been lauded for her interpretation of such character roles as the Principessa in Suor Angelica, Zita in Gianni Schicchi, Erda in Das Rheingold, and her signature role of Maria in Porgy and Bess. Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, Ms. Brown studied music at the University of Memphis, the American Conservatory of Music, and Fisk University, where she is now Assistant Professor of Music. She participated in the young artist programs of Des Moines Metro Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago Center for American Artists.

Julian Terrell Otis

Multidisciplinary artist, creative vocalist and composer Julian Terrell Otis progressively pushes positive energy into his interests in experimental music, movement, and theater making. As a vocalist he has collaborated with Nicole Mitchell, VijayIyer, Renée Baker, Dougla R. Ewart, Sean Griffin, Angel Bat Dawid, Isaiah Collier, Asher Gamedze, Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, and Chicago Sinfonietta among others. Julius Eastman’s vocal music has been of particular interest to him, with multiple performances of Prelude To The Holy Presence Of Joan D’Arc performed nationally. Otis’s own explorations involve a melding of fact and fable to piece together new recollections/imaginings of personal narrative, word games, sense and nonsense utterances, digital layering and looping. This storytelling ritual has culminated in a musical release of All the Pretty Flowers on the Chicago Improvised Music label, and a recent Creative Capital award has allowed him to expand on this through his project, Resolved: Critiquing Contemporary Music Through Improvised Performance.

Sean Griffin

For decades, Sean Griffin has been active in interdisciplinary contemporary music, bridging performance and art communities of Los Angeles, Chicago and abroad. Griffin has composed, directed, conducted and produced new intermedia works, bringing to life dazzling, unique interpretations to the stage and gallery with his opera design and performance consortium called Opera Povera, with which he has created new works with George Lewis, Pauline Oliveros, Charles Gaines, Ron Athey, Catherine Sullivan, and others. Often characterized by rigorous rhythmic scores and choreographies mixed with improvisation, Griffin’s operas navigate interactions between contemporary music performers, performance artists, dancers, vocalists, actors and sculptural sets through uncharted interdisciplinary forms. As a director, Griffin has established a distinctive form of physically-based, interdisciplinary operatic theater, creating large-scale works that integrate choreography, archives, public outreach, interactive media and his distinctive vocal method, Full Body Singing. These new forms of opera include archival, algorithmic, ritual and gallery-based events that engage the public in new kinds of performing arts experiences. In 2020, during Covid lockdown, Opera Povera created a version of Pauline Oliveros’s Lunar Opera called Full Pink Moon, a participant’s opera that featured over 270 international performers connected through Zoom. Described as the first Zoom opera, Full Pink Moon was acknowledged and archived by the Library of Congress. Griffin’s critically acclaimed productions, recordings, live performances, installations, operas and stage designs have been featured at EMPAC, MoMA, Brooklyn Museum, RedCat, LACMA, 56th Venice Biennial, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Ostrava Days Festival, Ojai Festival, The Broad Museum, and Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella Series. Griffin is an award-winning and prolific visual artist, exhibiting his drawings and graphic scores in galleries in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. He holds a PhD in music composition from the University of California, San Diego.

Catherine Sullivan

Born in Los Angeles (1968) and based in Chicago, Catherine Sullivan works in film, theater and installation. The ensembles she works with are her true medium, and her highly collaborative productions are often concerned with aesthetic behaviors in historically conditioned contexts. Solo exhibitions include Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Metro Pictures, New York and Tate Modern, London, and she has also participated in the Lyon, Whitney, Moscow and Gwang Ju biennials. Screenings include the Berlin International Film Festival and International Film Festival Rotterdam and theater works have been staged at venues including Opéra de Lyon; Volksbühne, Berlin; Cricoteka, Krakow and Trap Door Theatre, Chicago. Her work is held in public and private collections including Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Castello di Rivoli, Turin and Sammlung Goetz, Munich. Awards include a Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, DAAD Artists-in-Berlin residency, a United States Artists Walker Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She holds a BFA in Acting from California Institute of the Arts and an MFA in Fine Art from Art Center College of Design. She is a professor in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago.

27 Dec, 2023

New Focus releases highlighted in year end lists

New Focus titles were highlighting in several 2023 best of the year lists: Alex Ross's Notable Classical Recordings 2023 list in The New Yorker - Claire Chase: Density 2036,” Parts VI, VII, VIII: works of Olga Neuwirth, Pamela Z, Phyllis Chen, Sarah Hennies, Liza Lim, Matana Roberts, Wang Lu, Ann Cleare; Claire Chase and various collaborators (New Focus) - George Lewis, “Afterword”; Joelle …

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New York Times

George Lewis’s recent chamber and orchestral scores have been action-packed thrill rides, full of lovingly crafted dissonances and exciting collisions of rhythmic contour. But his foray into opera, “Afterword: An Opera in Two Acts,” is less traditionally dramatic. That’s intentional.

In the liner notes for this finely produced live recording, Lewis — a scholar, computer music specialist and trombonist — talks about the conceptual influence of Anthony Braxton’s operas. In those works, singers are not bound to representations of a single character from one act to the next. And so it is in “Afterword,” in which three singers rotate roles to depict the formation and development of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a pathbreaking experimental music community.

Lewis, a veteran of the artistic network, wrote a celebrated historical tome on the organization, and his libretto for “Afterword” freely adapts that text. The composer describes the result as a Bildungsoper, a “a coming-of-age opera of ideas.” As such, historical figures represented in his text dissolve into a collective voice. The result may stint on narrative continuity, but Lewis also offers stretches of poetic meditation. One such passage dramatizes an early meeting in which association figures debate a tenet of the A.A.C.M.’s artistic mission — specifically, all original music, all the time.

You may find yourself wanting to read along with the stream-of-collective-consciousness libretto, which is helpfully included with digital and physical purchases. Behind the vocal lines you can hear Lewis’s whirling, distinct approach to instrumental variation, even if his typical rate of change has been slowed a bit to allow for conversational English to flourish. And it does flourish, among the trio of vocal soloists, most prominently in an extraordinary performance by the contralto Gwendolyn Brown.

— Seth Colter Walls, 12.01.2023


BBC Music Magazine

In 2010, composer George Lewis noted that, ‘Communities provide access. They provide access to history, they provide access to key individuals and traditions … How to provide access to tradition and history is extremely important.’ Five years later, Lewis explored these themes and more in his first opera, Afterword.

The work’s focus is the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the Chicago collective formed in 1965 (by pianists Muhal Richard Abrams and Jodie Christian, drummer Steve McCall and composer Phil Cohran) to support Black experimental performers and composers in the face of oppression, social injustice – and musical stereotyping. Drawing on interviews from newspapers and A Power Stronger Than Itself – Lewis’s book on the AACM, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2008 – an unnamed soprano, contralto and tenor evoke its backstory, formation and purpose, embodying multiple community perspectives through a series of historical episodes. From life in the Jim Crow deep South via the Great Migration north, thence Paris and a return to consider achievements and ongoing difficulties, ‘music, collectivity, ethical action, and self-realisation’ are cast as ‘keys to the future.’

Ruminative, discursive and sometimes didactic, it’s a cerebral work – and, at a slow-moving two hours, a rather taxing one, the weight leavened by the inventiveness of the instrumental writing and by astute performances from the cast and International Contemporary Ensemble under conductor David Fulmer. Most striking is the furious delicacy that underpins the often languid vocal lines, with spiky, finely drawn dissonant textures and motifs rippling to and fro the seven players, as if in musical manifestation of the ideas debated.

Those ideas remain central to Black musicians’ ongoing struggle for creative freedom and identity. Afterword demands that we hear those not just bearing witness to that struggle, but living it.

— Steph Power, 12.01.2023



Atonal high modernism is not exactly a common style among African American composers, but it certainly exists in the work of George Walker and others. The conception of this two-act opera, however, is unique. Afterword traces the founding and early history of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), even drawing in some passages on recordings of actual conversations leading to the avant-garde jazz collective's formation in 1965. Composer and trombonist George Lewis is a member of the group himself and has written studies of its development. This may not sound like operatic material, but sample the opening vocal scene, "Down South," where the players reflect on the repressive Southern environment that caused the musicians to migrate to Chicago. What Lewis does is capture an atmosphere of creative excitement, and he successfully fuses spiky modernist textures with elements of jazz improvisation; the work does not really sound like what one would hear at an AACM performance but is something of a classical abstraction of such material. The dramatic impetus slows somewhat in the second act, and one could argue that the work takes on oratorio-like qualities. Afterword has enjoyed several performances in different parts of the U.S., but this performance, by the singers (soprano Joelle Lamarre, contralto Gwendolyn Brown, and tenor Julian Terrell Otis) and forces (the International Contemporary Ensemble) for whom the work was composed, may be taken as definitive. The sound from New Focus Recordings, recorded live at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art in 2015, is clear and direct.

— James Manheim, 12.01.2023



There are intriguing aspects to George Lewis’s contemporary opera Afterword that will attract historians as well as music lovers. Its most lasting significance, perhaps, is that it fills a glaring gap. As neglected as Black composers have been in this country, one area of major exclusion is experimental music. Even knowledgeable advocates of New Music are unlikely to be able to name a Black exponent. To correct this situation, a collective was formed on Chicago’s South Side in 1965 called the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Lewis joined in 1971 when he was nineteen. The collective represented, and continues to represent, a major focus of expressive freedom for experimental Black composers. Lewis, who was born in Chicago and now holds a professorship at Columbia, is prominent among them.

In 2015, as part of celebrating AACM’s 50th anniversary, he premiered Afterword, his first opera, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago—this recording documents the event—and other stagings in the U.S. and Europe followed. One needs to approach Afterword with no expectations but with high hopes given Lewis’s sterling reputation, which grew from his early career as a virtuoso trombonist. AACM tends to be identified with experimental jazz, but Lewis’s idiom is purely personal in the way he employs New Music devices. He has the talent to create a language that is challenging but accessible.

A chamber ensemble of seven players represents the sections of a symphony orchestra in miniature with two strings, two woodwinds, one brass, and percussion, along with piano. The instrumental writing is consistently ingenious and varied. The vocal lines for the three leads—soprano, contralto, and tenor—are often spectacular and are based on melodic fragments or long lyric lines. As New Music goes, the demands on the listener aren’t great. The ear soon adapts.

The libretto is based on tapes of formative AACM meetings in 1965–66, a unique kind of origins story told musically, or as the program notes put it, a Bildungsoper. We are placed in the midst of the discussions, complete with murmured comments from actors. With this historical source, Lewis tells us, “we encounter young black experimentalists interrogating issues of power, authority, identity, culture, aesthetics, self-fashioning, and representation.” That’s a mouthful, and the opera’s ambitiousness extends further to embrace “the historical periods through which the AACM has lived—the Great Migration, the urbanization of American life, the civil rights struggle, and decolonization, to name just a few.”

The danger of such an intellectually ambitious project, which the composer describes as an “opera of ideas,” is that it places the listener at a distance, and if you approach Afterword through the copious booklet writing, a pretentious academic air is unmistakable, not to mention a freight load of jargon. (Lewis, who is also a musicologist, wrote an academic book on AACM in 2008 whose last chapter is titled “Afterword.”) The attempt to be as Woke as possible about every aspect of the Black experience, beginning with reminiscences of the Deep South, is painfully sincere, although it was considered essential by Lewis and his collaborators. It would have helped to leaven the mix by releasing a video of this performance, which in the booklet photos looks vibrantly colorful in the costuming and wittily inventive dramatically.

The overall effect of Afterword is somewhat at cross purposes. The intrinsic interest of experimental Black composers wrestling with so many issues is abstract, while the bravura performance is exciting and often captivating. The three lead singers never failed to hold my attention, and the International Contemporary Ensemble led by David Fulmer is expert at conveying Lewis’s superb instrumental writing. The recorded sound is excellent, and a full libretto is provided.

Since this is a digital album, you can sample the opera online to see how you respond. Anyone with an interest in New Music vocal works is likely to be quite impressed

— Huntley Dent, 6.21.2024

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