George Lewis’ The Recombinant Trilogy Reimagines the Boundaries of Experimental Music

A renowned member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) since 1971, legendary composer, illustrious scholar, and improviser George Lewis has had a lasting influence on the realm of avant-garde. His most recent release, The Recombinant Trilogy (New Focus Recordings), is no exception, contributing to his expansive body of work that includes multimedia installations, computer music, text works, and more. During a time where the state of art and music in the United States is increasingly precarious, this album serves as a beacon for the future of experimental music, lit by today’s vanguard.

Featuring performances by powerhouses Claire Chase, Seth Parker Woods, and Dana Jessen, The Recombinant Trilogy is comprised of three works for solo instrument and electronics via software created by Damon Holzborn. In these pieces, interactive digital delays, spatialization, and timbral manipulation transform acoustic sound material, creating multitudes of sonic hybrids masquerading behind layers of repetition.

George Lewis

George Lewis–Photo by Emily Peragine

Emergent (2013), performed by Claire Chase (flute) and Levy Lorenzo (electronics), was commissioned for Chase’s Density 2036 project, a 23-year marathon to create a new body of work for solo flute. Here, the timbral versatility of the flute family and Chase’s complete command of this centuries-old instrument shine. A persistent opening motif shimmers in Chase’s effervescent high register; jet whistles and whimsical runs soon become fodder for the invisible beast–software. Lewis’ “doppelgängers,” electronic imitations of Chase, spring to life creating a dizzying funhouse effect. 

Not Alone (2014), written for and performed by Seth Parker Woods (cello and electronics), is dedicated to Abdul Wadud, an American cellist and leading member of the Black Artists Group of St. Louis, whose 1977 solo album By Myself demonstrated an expanded expressiveness of the cello. Pushing this expansion to the nth degree in Not Aloneeach remark from Woods’ cello incites a fervent response from its digital counterpart; the blurring effect that spawns is equal parts delicious and disorienting. What Lewis brings to this work in ingenuity, Woods matches with sheer tenacity, wielding both the brute musculature and delicate tenderness of this hand-carved instrument to transform its utterances into uncanny, bionic sound. 

Seismologic (2017), performed by Dana Jessen (bassoon) and Eli Stine (electronics), was inspired by Lewis’ seismologist colleague at Columbia University. In this final work, transformation heavily catalyzes at the site of the instrument itself. Jessen utilizes an impressive arsenal of extended techniques to metamorphize the bassoon’s usual rich, earthy tone into extraterrestrial quivers and buzzes; ancient, primeval hisses and hums; and mechanical whooshes and clamors. Digital processing further tesselates Jessen’s transfigurations into quaking, seismic landscapes.

Claire Chase, Seth Parker Woods, and Dana Jessen

Claire Chase, Seth Parker Woods, and Dana Jessen

This trilogy is compelling, not simply for its inventive, virtuosic convergence between acoustic and electronic, but because these heavyweight performers are champions for new music, actively disrupting the status quo. Claire Chase is a performer redefining what it means to be a virtuoso, entirely transforming flute-playing and its repertoire in a single lifetime. Seth Parker Woods’ innovative performances–including “ICED BODIES: Ice Music for Chicago” in which Woods (in collaboration with Spencer Topel) performed for two hours on a melting obsidian ice cello–have left indelible marks on the eclectic Chicago music scene. Dana Jessen’s commitment to expanding the bassoon repertoire has cultivated newly-commissioned solo, chamber, and electroacoustic works for the instrument, including an hour-long piece for seven bassoons by composer Michael Gordon. 

And of course, George Lewis’ contributions to the music world–a pioneer of computer music, a member of the AACM, a scholar, musician, educator, improviser, and historian–are admirable and indisputable. With the start of a new decade (and beneath the weight of a worldwide pandemic), musicians and artists must reckon with the future of their craft. The Recombinant Trilogy serves as a reminder of the possibilities for art and sound when boundaries are not merely pushed, but reimagined entirely.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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