• George Lewis
  • Song of the Shank (2023)

  • C.F. Peters Corporation (World)
  • Ct,pf + 1.1.1(bcl).1/
  • Countertenor, Piano
  • 52 min

Programme Note

George Lewis: Song of the Shank (2023), monodrama for ensemble and voice

Commissioned and premiered by Ensemble Modern

Hermann Kretschmar, piano

Gwendolyn Brown, contralto

Jeffery Renard Allen, libretto, from his novel Song of the Shank (2014)

Stan Douglas, director and scenarist


The background of Song of the Shank begins with Czech writer Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R., which portrayed conflict between human capitalists and a new source of labor, the “robota,” a Czech word for feudalism that has come down to us as “robot.” Although Čapek’s play does not directly refer to US chattel slavery, robots and slaves are objects, pure and simple, a fact that allows my composition to engage with literary theorist Fred Moten’s provocative observation that “the history of blackness is testament to the fact that objects can and do resist.”


Composer-pianist Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins was such a resistant object. Born enslaved in 1849, Wiggins was the first Black American to perform at the White House, when he was just ten years old. Mark Twain and Willa Cather attended Tom's concerts, and wrote about them, and an 1860 account of a performance cited by philosopher Alain Locke recalls the young Mozart: “He could play flawlessly any composition he heard played, usually on once hearing it, and is said to have had a repertory of several thousand pieces,” including Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, as well as works by Bach, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Rossini, Verdi, Meyerbeer, Liszt, and many others. And, of course, because he was blind, he had to learn all these pieces by heart. Tom’s best-known composition, the 1863 work for piano, The Battle Of Manassas, deploys the classic American tropes of musical depiction and quotation found in Gottschalk, Ives, Ellington, Carter, and so many others, as thunder, lightning, and the sounds of cannons are recalled via tone clusters that anticipate early Henry Cowell and the Futurist composers.


Jeffery Renard Allen’s libretto avoids a simple historical recounting of Tom’s history. Rather, in the six scenes and interludes in this monodrama, Tom returns to life and confronts the challenges his music posed to conceptions of blackness as a subhuman level of sentience. While neurologist Oliver Sacks attributed accounts of Tom’s seemingly repetitious behaviors and random silences to autism (a concept that did not exist in the 19th Century), for a creative artist who made many of the same moves as Mozart while being black, blind, and enslaved, silence could be viewed as a strategy to avoid being characterized as “uppity,” which could have resulted in a lynching rather than a trip to the White House. As Amiri Baraka noted, “Whatever Wiggins’s physical handicap, his worst handicap was slavery itself.” Thus, both Stan Douglas’s direction and scenic design and the musical behavior composed for each of the three “Toms” in this work--the piano soloist, the contralto, and the ensemble--express an inner freedom that Blind Tom did not have in his real, outward life.


Along with Amo (2021), my work for the Neue Vocalisten with text by the 18th century Afro-German philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo, and Minds in Flux (2021), for orchestra and transforming electronics, Song of The Shank proposes new subjects, histories, and identities for classical music, part of my ongoing exploration of what the decolonial might sound like.


Transposed Score


  • Independent Repertoire: American History and Politics
    • Independent Repertoire: American History and Politics
    • The rich, complex, and often tumultuous history of American politics has been a key concern for many American composers. Their political engagement ranges from earnest celebration of national triumph to sobering investigations of the painful past. These works help us better understand our current realities through the sounds of our history.