George Lewis' Song of the Shank

A Conversation with George Lewis, Jeffery Renard Allen and Stan Douglas

He was known as »Blind Tom«: the Black pianist and composer Thomas Wiggins, born in 1849 to enslaved parents in the US state of Georgia. Early in life, he became an illustrious artist personality. A pianistic »child prodigy«, he was soon labelled a »Black Mozart«. In the 20th century, however, he was forgotten. The American writer Jeffery Renard Allen rediscovered him, publishing the novel ›Song of the Shank‹ in 2014. The composer George Lewis is writing an eponymous work about »Blind Tom«, which will have its world premiere in Frankfurt am Main on June 5, 2023 and will be premiered in a staged version at the Wiener Festwochen from June 13 to 15, 2023. Egbert Hiller spoke to George Lewis, Jeffery Renard Allen and director Stan Douglas.

Egbert Hiller: George, you curated the project ›Afro-Modernism in Contemporary Music‹ for Ensemble Modern, illuminating contemporary composers of African heritage. Is there an inner connection between ›Afro-Modernism‹ and ›Song of the Shank‹?

George Lewis: Yes, Ensemble Modern and I discussed both projects in 2018 and set wheels in motion. ›Afro-Modernism‹ took place in 2020 and ›Song of the Shank‹ is now in preparation. The inner connection is the enduring fact that Black composers are hardly noticed to this day – and if they manage to achieve renown, they are quickly forgotten again, fading from the historiography of music, even if they were as famous as »Blind Tom«. He was a fabulous musician, giving concerts all over the USA and in Europe. Then he was consigned to oblivion, and this silence has lasted until our times. Changing this is important to me. I would like to focus attention on Black composers: through concerts, lectures and other event formats. I can feel that the audience is very curious to learn more about these artist personalities and eager to hear their music. When I read Jeffery’s novel ›Song of the Shank‹, I was immediately on fire. He has just completed the libretto. We have known each other since 2004, when he visited the University of California in San Diego, where I was a professor at the time. I met Stan, who will be directing the piece, more than 30 years ago. I think we are a good team.

Hiller: The novel is based on the eventful story of Tom Wiggins’ life. How did you first encounter him?

Jeffery Renard Allen: I first read about him about 25 years ago in the book ›An Anthropologist on Mars‹ by the neurologist Oliver Sacks. Sacks writes about autism in one chapter; one section is dedicated to »Blind Tom«, as a historical example of an unusual form of autism. I was immediately fascinated. I did a lot of research and found that he was one of the most popular pianists of his time, in the second half of the 19th century. Later, he was almost completely obscure. This fact won me over even more. Then George told me that he would like to write a new dramatic musical work based on my novel.

Hiller: Are there ideas for the staging yet? Will it tend towards realism or abstraction, showing »Blind Tom« as an archetype rather than a person?

Stan Douglas: It will not merely recount the circumstances of »Blind Tom’s« life. We will find a language and images reflecting the breadth of his complexity. The special focus is on making his inner world – mainly a world of sound, as he was blind – visible, to express that inner world. His obsession with sound, with piano playing, which he pursued excessively, and his interest in everything related to the piano, will be the focus of attention – including his notion of the state of the world as he »saw« it, in the figurative sense, of course, without being simplistic.

Hiller: Will »Blind Tom« appear on stage as a real person, for example as a pianist?

Douglas: Not in the traditional sense, because he will be split into three persons and identified with different musical layers. George’s work is intended for countertenor, piano and large ensemble, and each of these levels represents a part of him. Individual parts come into focus at different times, but they may also overlap, commenting on and contradicting each other.

Lewis: The interplay between concrete and abstract depiction is reflected in the structure of the work, as it can be implemented in two ways: as a stage work and an ensemble piece. In the latter, the action per se shifts to the realm of imagination

Hiller: On the other hand, you have a particularly keen ear for real life in your instrumental music. I’m thinking of a piece for improvising ensemble, ›Artificial Life‹ of 2007, which emphasizes very inspiringly that the »artificial« sphere of music has a lot to do with daily life, regarding the relationship between individual and society, humour and earnestness, harmony, discord and misunderstanding. How is it in ›Song of the Shank‹?

Lewis: Well, unlike ›Artificial Life‹, the music for ›Song of the Shank‹ will be strictly notated, and my starting point is that Wiggins did a lot of imitating. He imitated sounds of nature, of daily life, horse-drawn carriages for example. He wrote a piece about the noises made by sewing machines, and in his most famous work, ›The Battle of Manassas‹, which is about an episode in the American Civil War, he quoted the ›Marseillaise‹. To me it is intriguing not to dive into the 19th-century world of »Blind Tom«, but to transpose it to the here and now, into my music today.

Hiller:The fact that he did a lot of imitating may have had much to do with his blindness. He was blind from birth and had to understand the things he perceived through musical means.

Lewis: It’s worth pointing out that the sonic depiction of non-musical phenomena is an important tendency in American music. Duke Ellington often portrayed Harlem; Charles Ives represented New England, and Amy Beach composed her ›Gaelic Symphony‹. Those are only a few examples. Wiggins and his penchant for imitation is closely related to them; furthermore, he was an early user of modern elements such as clusters, anticipating Henry Cowell, who in turn was an important point of reference for John Cage. I would like to continue tracing these lines in ›Song of the Shank‹, without ignoring the fate of »Blind Tom«. How could a man such as he exist? As an enslaved man who entered unheard-of intellectual regions in his music, which makes him an example of a high ideal of humanity. This also made him a paradoxical figure, and that inspires me.

Hiller: I also think that the life and artistic identity of Wiggins can help us pinpoint many elements which are still relevant today: political, human and creative aspects.

Allen: Yes, and he was an incredibly exposed personality. At the age of seven, he was giving concerts. When he was ten, he became the first Afro- American to play at the White House. As a slave, he travelled the entire world, playing incredible music, his own and of course also European classics. He revolved mainly around himself, but of course his life was also influenced by external events, such as the American Civil War.

Hiller: In this context, what does the word »shank« in the title mean? There are several German translations, ranging from »thigh« to »shaft« to »cutting weapon«.

Allen: In prison jargon, »shank« means a knife. To me, the word also stands for the separating element – consider how »Blind Tom« was separated from his family. However, »shank« is also a term used for several types of meat resulting from the slaughter of an animal, a reference to the fact that slaves were often viewed and treated like animals. Those are a few associations I have with the title.

Lewis: The title inspires me to write music that is as sharp as a knife, doing justice to the many layers of »Blind Tom’s« existence while also reflecting our own times – including current issues of racism and human rights, without making ›Song of the Shank‹ a political statement.

Hiller: I have the impression that it’s very important to you to be working with Ensemble Modern on this particular project.

Lewis: Yes, I’m very happy about that. We have been in contact for a long time, but this is my first piece for the ensemble. For me, it’s a dream come true.