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The Deformation of Mastery - George Lewis

"The terms "deformation of mastery" and "mastery of form" come from African American literary theorist Houston A. Baker Jr.'s influential 1987 book, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Even though Baker is largely discussing literary and historical figures and works, his invocation of these two strategies are intended to produce "more accurate and culturally enriching interpretations of the sound and soundings of Afro-American modernism than do traditional methods." In Baker's words, while mastery of form "conceals, disguises, floats like a trickster butterfly in order to sting like a bee" (think Florence Price, or Julia Perry), deformation of mastery "distinguishes rather than conceals. It secures territorial advantage and heightens a group's survival possibilities." Here, I am reminded of musicologist Ryan Dohoney’s account of Julius Eastman’s notorious 1975 performance of John Cage’s Song Books - not only a deformation of mastery, but also, perhaps, a challenge to the master himself, a raucous, post-Stonewall queer assertiveness that proved quite unsettling to Cage.

Thus, the title of this work closely tracks its sonic intent: deformation, disruption, breakdown, having no truck whatsoever with any received notions of authenticity in Afrodiasporic sonic expression, or indeed any expression. The aim of this music is to remind its hearers of our endemic condition of instability, fostering not only a subliminal psychological discouragement of complacency, but also a celebration of mobility. I’m allowing myself to hope that, as with Baker’s work, these values migrate beyond the sounds of the piece to the consideration of larger issues in our lives." George Lewis

The Deformation of Mastery was commissioned by the London Sinfonietta with kind support from Nicholas Hodgson. The film was recorded at the Southbank Centre on 31 March 2022 and features the London Sinfonietta alongside conductor Tim Anderson.

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Published: 31 Jan 2024