Review: George Lewis’s Afterword in Huddersfield

First published in the Guardian on 23 November, 2015

The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) has a noble history — founded in 1965 as a black artists’ collective in south Chicago; pioneering force in American avant-garde culture and racial politics — but that history has yet to make the subject of a noble opera. Afterword is an abysmally misconceived lecture-meets-musical by trombonist and longtime AACM member George Lewis, with a libretto based on his own essays about the organisation and semantic arguments over words like ‘original’ and ‘music’.

Its UK premiere at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival was alarming. How did a work so self-important, so heavy-handed and plain badly-crafted, ever reach the stage? Hints of Lewis’s spark as an improviser occasionally gurgle through the frenetic instrumental score (stoic playing from the International Contemporary Ensemble conducted by David Fulmer) but the vocal writing is unbearable: drab, inflated and nonsensical, no rhyme or reason to how words and music fit together. Sean Griffin’s torpid staging is equally dismal. It would work better if singers Joelle Lamarre, Gwendolyn Brown and Julian Terrell Otis stood and spoke their lines.

If I had to name the diametric opposite of Afterword it might well be the music of Jurg Frey, featured composer at Huddersfield this year and a master of mesmerisingly calm, elemental and egoless sounds. Montreal’s Bozzini Quartet gave a beautiful performance of his Second and Third Quartets. The Second is a chordal procession that unfolds at breathing pace, unpushy and peaceful, poignant for the natural fade of each chord and resilient for the slow, steady momentum that makes the music feel as though it’s always just been there. The Third revisits similar ideas but is bolstered with rhythmic variation and more tangible colour. It takes virtuosic control for string players to whisper for an hour; after such quiet and careful textures, even the applause sounded deafening.