5 Questions to Arlene and Larry Dunn about the Fund for Afrodiasporic Music

In a 2023 concert review of the International Contemporary Ensemble featuring composer-performer Douglas R. Ewart, New York Times reporter Seth Colter Walls wondered how things would be different if Black artists like Ewart had regular opportunities to be treated like a headliner: presented as a multi-dimensional artist unconstrained by labels, and their works performed with care, attention, and virtuosity. Ewart’s concert – the first helmed by George Lewis as Artistic Director – reinvigorated the Ensemble’s commitment to a decolonized approach to programming. After two years of working through new curatorial networks and developing new strategies, the Ensemble’s long-time advocates Arlene and Larry Dunn are contributing to its decolonial practices by establishing a fund to champion Afrodiasporic creators and their music.

The Ensemble calls the Arlene and Larry Dunn Fund for Afrodiasporic Music “a significant commitment to championing the rich tapestry of music by Afrodiasporic composers and performers.” For namesakes Arlene and Larry, the fund is a natural outgrowth of their efforts fighting against racism during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Despite the fact that neither had a professional career in music – Arlene worked as a financial analyst and Larry worked as a computer scientist and software engineer – the pair’s impressive musical credentials as Board members of music organizations, music bloggers, and prolific contributors to ICIYL have offered space for the pair to translate their skills as “adventurers, inquisitors, instigators, agitators, and binders” into real, lived musical practices. We asked Arlene and Larry five questions about their connection to the new music scene and their vision for the Fund.

How has your long relationship with the International Contemporary Ensemble grown and evolved over the years?

After we had attended their concerts in Chicago for a few years, we got to know them on a personal level at an ICElab workshop at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in late 2011. That’s where we first met founder Claire Chase and composer George Lewis, who was commissioned to develop an ICElab piece for the Ensemble. Claire has keen intuition about people’s interests and passions, and soon thereafter she asked us to write for the ICEblog, from an audience perspective. Her charisma is very potent too, and we found her offer irresistible. We started traveling to concerts around the country so we could write about the experience, and our work became quite a hit, definitely within the ensemble, and in the broader community as well. The next big step was our 2019 commission of Courtney Bryan’s Dreaming (Freedom Sounds) to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. Then a pandemic got in the way and that work wasn’t premiered until this past November. But our relationship with the ensemble continued to deepen in the interim, especially when George was appointed Artistic Director.

Arlene and Larry Dunn with George Lewis and Courtney Bryan following the premiere of Bryan’s "Dreaming (Freedom Sounds)" -- Photo by Isabel Crespo Pardo

Arlene and Larry Dunn with George Lewis and Courtney Bryan following the premiere of Bryan’s “Dreaming (Freedom Sounds)” — Photo by Isabel Crespo Pardo

Did you have any reservations about making such a significant financial commitment? What assured you of this choice?

We’ve had no reservations. The Ensemble has thrived for nearly 25 years, evolving through changes in leadership, staff, and performers, while sustaining a commitment to using their art to make a more vibrant, just, and equitable world. But of course there are uncertainties. Coming out of the pandemic, arts organizations are severely challenged. Sources of funds are drying up and production costs are rising. We feel this is a time for folks who, like us, are passionate about arts organizations and the work they do, to step forward and alleviate some of the uncertainty by providing ongoing funding. Our ambition is to lead by example, hoping that others will follow.

Who contributed to the vision for this fund and helped to shape it?

Artistic Director George Lewis was most influential in helping us forge the purpose of the fund. The key understanding we gained from George in our discussions is that, beyond the unfair, inequitable, and damaging treatment of Afrodiasporic artists, which is inexcusable, the art form of new music itself is impoverished, for us all, due to the neglect and erasure of Afrodiasporic music. The aim of the fund is to help  overcome that tragic diminishment of the identity, complexity, and beauty of the music. We also had immeasurable assistance from Jennifer Kessler, Executive Director, and Eric Umble, Development Director, in molding the form and workings of the fund.

We feel this is a time for folks who, like us, are passionate about arts organizations and the work they do, to step forward and alleviate some of the uncertainty by providing ongoing funding. Our ambition is to lead by example, hoping that others will follow.

The Ensemble writes that the fund will allow them to continue to “affirm and center Afrodiasporic artists, foster dialogue, spark creativity, and inspire audiences.” How do you see this season’s programming taking up this mantle?

The Ensemble has built a lot of momentum in this direction already. We’re thinking of the November presentation of Composing While Black, Volume One, which included the premiere of Dreaming (Freedom Sounds) and another premiere by AACM stalwart Adegoke Steve Colson, MIRRORS. This concert also featured Brittany J. Green’s Thread and Pull (2022) and an insufficiently celebrated gem from Wendell Logan, Runagate, Runagate (1989).

That was followed in December by a celebration of the music of George Lewis and another longtime AACM member, Amina Claudine Myers, at Park Avenue Armory; in January with a presentation of Yvette Janine Jackson’s T-Minus: A Radio Opera, at Roulette; in March and April with Polyaspora, first at Maerzmusik Festival in Berlin and then at 7th St Concerts in Charlotte, NC; and in May, with a Long Play Festival concert of the music of Courtney Bryan, featuring the premiere of a chamber version of her violin concerto Syzygy, which was commissioned by Jennifer Koh.

Our new fund is intended to help keep this momentum building. The first Ensemble event it will sponsor, in part, is an upcoming celebration of the music of legendary Society of Black Composers co-founder Talib Rasul Hakim, in collaboration with ensemble Either/Or, at the New York Library for the Performing Arts, on May 18th. The Ensemble has also launched a 2024 cycle of their Call for ____ initiative, a very low-bar-to-entry commissioning program, aiming to reach the broadest possible diversity of creators. So the train is definitely rolling.

What changes do you hope to see in the new music community as a result of the work made possible by this fund?

Just as we hope our funding initiative will spur other folks, with the means to do so, to amp up their support of new music organizations, we hope the direction of the Ensemble’s programming will inspire their peers to create and celebrate more Afrodiasporic music. To paraphrase George, this will change and expand the voice, meaning, and impact of contemporary music, with a new and expanded identity and complexity. We’re all in for that.


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