He plays a compact-disc track — the opening of Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra (1926–28). He calls attention to the melody, singing it. “Now get that in your head,” he says, and replays it, then asks the class to hum it.
“I can’t hear you,” he imitates a drill sergeant, but softly, and they try again with more success.
“Okay, now check this out.” He plays the second variation.
“See? The melody’s in the background now. You’ll be singing it in your next class,” he predicts, then creates an imaginary exchange between a student humming Schoenberg and an inquisitive classmate: “ ‘What’s that?’ ‘Schoenberg.’ ‘Oh! [Impressed.]’ ”
Lewis plays more of the piece, guiding the class’s listening with his commentary. What at first seems murky becomes less so — at least it does for me. As the melody repeats, it turns itself this way and that, flexible as a cat. Like a cat, too, this music never smiles, although it’s playful. It strikes me as a metaphor for the way an obsessive thought recurs, each time a little differently, as it tumbles around in your head.
Next Lewis introduces Schoenberg’s student Alban Berg and his Lyric Suite (1925–26), which he characterizes as “jovial.” As the music fills the room, it seems more confident than Schoenberg’s, perhaps because Berg took steps taken first by his mentor. At times, it does seem “jovial.” But all that feel-good shit is gone. And yet it’s not discordant, despite what Lewis calls “the strong societal feeling” that discordant is exactly the word to describe it. To my ear, the correct description would be, simply, mixed-up — familiar things out of place. Music for the world of dreams. As Lewis says, these composers tried to allay their audiences’ fears about this music by using the new system to compose in traditional Western forms. Apparently, then, their theme is hybridity too.
More listening is accompanied by more commentary from Lewis, who alternates between colloquialism and erudition. For example, when he introduces the third big name in 12-tone music — another Schoenberg protégé, Anton von Webern — he says of the first movement of his Symphony, Op. 21 (1928), “This is only a few minutes long, but it’s a pretty hip few minutes,” then goes on to discuss Klangfarbenmelodie, Webern-style — that is, his “extremes of register and range, wide intervallic leaps, sudden shifts in color, unusual timbres presented in isolation, and the idea of a very simple set of materials reworked to produce a variety of combinations.”
As time runs short, noise comes from the hallway. Professors are dismissing classes early. Lewis asks a student to close more tightly this room’s double doors. Webern’s music needs quiet, he says. “Webern assumes a basis in silence. The silence is part of the music.” And: “You can’t be distracted; you have to give up to it.”
When the real clock face on the wall announces the period’s end, Lewis concludes with a flourish — a double-layered, throw-away line: “So now the next time you answer the phone, you can say, ‘Ready for the revolution.’ ”
Not everyone leaves. A line of six or seven students forms at the front of the room, waiting to speak with Lewis. Apparently, Music 114’s enrollment continues to grow. They are holding slips of paper, wanting to add the class to their schedules.
Lewis has been described as the music-department member who most involves himself with the city beyond the campus. Point Loma bears this out, as does his membership on the board of the San Diego Symphony. But hearing his music for the first time — say, The Usual Turmoil (1998), a compact disc of improvised duets featuring Lewis on trombone and San Francisco’s Miya Masaoka on koto — one may want further proof of regional simpatico. (Less usual a musical pairing is hard to imagine, incidentally. Even Lewis says — albeit with pride — that trombone and koto are “two worlds that were probably never meant to meet.”) While the citizens of Mandeville are known internationally as practitioners of experimental music, the citizens of San Diego proper are not known as the music’s keenest proponents. I was also thinking of his peripatetic past.
“Is San Diego your base of operations?” I asked when I first met him, in January 2000. “Yes, of course,” he replied. But when I asked next if San Diego was home, he said, “Oh, well, home and your base of operations are two different things. You could say there’s a nomadic impulse at work here. I feel at home in Chicago, New York, Amsterdam, Paris, to a lesser extent London, and here in San Diego. More and more I would like to make this the base of operations. This is where my infrastructure is: my computer doodads, my network of friends — not that I’m completely comfortable with calling my friends part of my infrastructure.”
He admitted, however, that San Diego could be considered an “odd” choice. (“The real question is, ‘Is there life after New York?’ ”) “And I have yet to say those dreaded words, ‘back East.’ ” But he sees “tremendous potential in the music and art scene here.”
He mentioned Spruce Street Forum, the concert venue in Banker’s Hill that showcases new and improvised music, and Trummerflora, the experimental- and improvised-music collective that plays at the Casbah in Middletown and at Galoka in La Jolla, among other places. “It’s true that those spaces don’t hold many people,” he said. “One hundred or so at the most. And some people can’t take it seriously if it isn’t a stadium of 10,000 people. But I say if Lenin could do it with 5, you could do it with 20. The numbers aren’t important.”
When we met again, ten months later, I was still curious about how the experience of living in San Diego was influencing him, or not. I asked if the region’s geography had discernibly affected his art.
“I’m not a person who understands space very well. For me space comes in two sizes, big and small. I love the landscape and the sense of it.” But he said he continues to “think as an urban person,” someone who is “used to large, intense urban areas.”