George E. Lewis and Zora Neale Hurston’s Notion of Adornment

georgelewisThis past weekend at the American Musicological Society annual conference in Vancouver, George E. Lewis was elected an honorary member of the society (see the official announcement here). Lewis, who is the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University, has been a central figure in the AMS, most notably his plenary lecture “Putting Scholarship into (Art) Practice: Four Cases” at the annual meeting in Louisville in 2015. In addition to having served as an outstanding mentor to me and many other young scholars and musicians, Lewis has greatly contributed to the AMS’s willingness to engage with important issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and diversity. In doing so, he has fostered a culture of open dialogue and tolerance, both of which are key for academic scholarship. I was very happy to hear that the AMS has formally recognized Lewis’s outstanding achievements and contributions.

In order to celebrate George Lewis’s award, I would like to revisit his composition The Will to Adorn, a work that he composed for his Composer Portrait concert at Miller Theatre in November 2011. The work’s title refers to Zora Neale Hurston’s 1934 essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” which reflects on the nature of African-American identity with regard to literature, art, and music. Hurston writes:

The will to adorn is the second most notable characteristic in Negro expression [after drama and mimicry]. Perhaps his idea of ornament does not attempt to meet conventional standards, but it satisfies the soul of its creator. In this respect the American Negro has done wonders to the English language. It has often been stated by etymologists that the Negro has introduced no African words to the language. This is true, but it is equally true that he has made over a great part of the tongue to his liking […]. The stark, trimmed phrases of the Occident seem too bare for the voluptuous child of the sun, hence the adornment. It arises out of the same impulse as the wearing of jewelry and the making of sculpture – the urge to adorn. […] Whatever the Negro does of his own volition he embellishes (56f).

In this passage, Hurston identifies the “will to adorn” as a key feature of African-American expression. As Cheryl A. Wall explains, Hurston saw culture as a living phenomenon and stressed the creativity, adaptability, and variety of African-American expression. Adornment is a creative embellishment, enabling the possibility of a mutual cultural enrichment.

George Lewis’s composition The Will to Adorn highlights this idea of adornment as creative embellishment and mutual enrichment. He writes the following about the work:

The title comes from a 1934 Zora Neale Hurston essay, “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” The piece is not meant as any kind of direct homage to Hurston, and the music doesn’t indulge in period quotes or related essentialisms. Rather, what I’m interested in is recursive adornment as a compositional attitude or method that valorizes instability and even breakdown (Lewis on Lewis).

Though not intended “as a direct homage to Hurston,” George Lewis nevertheless takes up and further develops the notion of adornment as a type of cultural exchange that doesn’t negate difference. The music is dense and complex, consisting of many layers juxtaposed alongside one another. Lewis achieves great variety by breaking down the piece into a number of smaller sections, each featuring a different set of instruments and its own rhythmic, melodic, and timbre profile. My favorite moments are when Lewis presents an ostinato in the foreground and then disintegrates it into the background. At times, the music alludes to jazz and postwar avant-garde styles, suggesting a mutual exchange between the two. Yet Lewis embellishes both styles to create his own musical language.

In place of a conclusion, I offer the reader the following question: Might the notion of adornment be a fruitful model for considering broader issues of diversity in musicology?

Congratulations to George on his AMS Honorary Membership!

Further Reading

Hurston, Zora Neale. “The Characteristics of Negro Expression.” In Sweat, edited by Cheryl Wall, 55-71. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

Lewis, George E. “Guest Post: Lewis on Lewis.” The International Contemporary Ensemble Blog, November 11, 2011. Accessed November 7, 2016. http://iceorg.org/digitice/post/guest-post-lewis-on-lewis

Wall, Cheryl A. “On Freedom and the Will to Adorn: Debating Aesthetics and/as Ideology in African American Literature.” In Aesthetics and Ideology, edited by George Levine, 283-303. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

(This blog post is based on a paper that I presented at the German Academic Exchange Service Music Conference in Berlin in 2012.)