George Lewis: The Will to Adorn (2011)

  • Performance Date: 2011
  • Season: 2011-12
  • Series: Miller Theatre
  • Composer Name: George Lewis
  • Composer Dates: b. 1952
  • Premiere Region: World Premiere
  • Duration: 15'
  • Auxiliary/Principal Collaborators: Silas Brown, audio recording
    Ross Karre, video recording

Lewis has taken the title for his new piece from a 1934 essay by Zora Neale Hurston, “Characteristics of Negro Expression” (available online), whose key phrases for him are: “The stark, trimmed phrases of the Occident seem too bare,” “decorating a decoration,” and “one always finds a glut of gaudy calendars.” However, the identification of “the will to adorn” as characteristic of a particular racial-cultural group – an identification no doubt defensible eight decades ago as an assertion of identity – is not here accepted without question. Describing his interest as in “adornment as a compositional attitude or method,” he distances himself from any naive view of it as a marker, and his references include not only “those amazing church hats worn by African American women” but also ideas of “saturation” put forward by the French composer Franck Bedrossian.
He has further proposed the following longer quotation from Hurston’s essay as relevant to his composition:“I saw in Mobile a room in which there was an over-stuffed mohair living-room suite, an imitation mahogany bed and chifferobe, a console victrola. The walls were gaily papered with Sunday supplements of the Mobile Register. There were seven calendars and three wall pockets. One of them was decorated with a lace doily. The mantel-shelf was covered with a scarf of deep home-made lace, looped up with a huge bow of pink crepe paper. Over the door was a huge lithograph showing the Treaty of Versailles being signed with a Waterman fountain pen.
“It was grotesque, yes. But it indicated the desire for beauty. And decorating a decoration, as in the case of the doily on the gaudy wall pocket, did not seem out of place to the hostess. The feeling back of such an act is that there can never be enough of beauty, let alone too much.”