At the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant, bathed in a strange orange light, George Lewis guides a reporter through a gallery of sludge pipes. Later this afternoon, Lewis — the composer, trombonist-improviser, computer musician, and installation artist — will give a lecture on 12-tone music at UCSD, where he teaches. But for now here he is at Point Loma, notably conversant about San Diego’s wastewater ways.
As one gets to know Lewis better, it becomes clear that he often thrusts himself into hybrid situations, where separate worlds meet and merge. More accurately, he often creates them. At Point Loma, for example, there are these pairings: city government and academia; engineering and art; effluent and ethereality. Sludge and sensibility. In fact, as he will later say, “The theme is hybridity.” He uses this word repeatedly to characterize both his life and work over the course of his 48 years, the last decade of which he has spent in San Diego.
Hybridity hasn’t been the easiest of paths. Or as he says, “It has its discontents.” He isn’t complaining. “If you’re not prepared to accept it, get the hell out,” he advises himself as much as anyone else who may try what he has done. “Because if you’re not prepared to accept the problems that come with being mobile, with having a sort of non-fixed way, in which you’re receiving multiple influences and acting in multiple ways, you’re going to have a hard time.”
When it’s suggested that he appears to thrive on hybridity, considering his internationally extolled opus, he replies, “I would say that it’s necessary, because of my curiosity. But at the same time I’m not going to claim that this is the route to instant success or easy psycho-social fun. I mean, you could have a lot of trouble. It’s really a dangerous path. Because oftentimes you don’t know, well, where’s your actual home? As if you need that kind of centering. And if you did need it, you would lose yourself.”
Curiosity certainly led him to Point Loma, where his latest computer-installation artwork was commissioned by the city, supported with grants, and created for the plant’s visitors’ center. Up and running since March of last year, the piece has “growing pains” from time to time, says Lewis, who has come out here this morning to fine-tune it, as well as to show me around.
The pipes run horizontally overhead, with their contents lettered unambiguously on their sides: “Primary Sludge,” “Raw Sludge,” “Digested Sludge.” While the machines murmur, Lewis says, “This is kind of a quiet moment. Sometimes suddenly huge noises come out of nowhere.” The plant runs cyclically, just like life, he explains. “One of the things I learned while working on the project is that they have rush hours around here — breakfast and dinner, when everybody is taking showers and using the dishwasher.”
As we leave the pipe gallery and make our way to the visitors’ center, Lewis points out the plant’s digesters — eight huge cylindrical tanks. Each holds 2.5 to 3.5 million gallons of sludge. “They’re like giant stomachs, extra stomachs,” he says. “What happens in them is analogous to what happens in a real stomach.”
Versed not only in the present system, Lewis has also researched the history of San Diego sewage. It hasn’t always been so well-contained. Prior to 1900, it was going everywhere — “in the streets, out the windows.” The situation was “equivalent to 15th-century Paris’s,” and something had to be done. In the 1940s, after the first modern system had been built, city boosters touted it as a reason for people to come live here. In the early 1960s, as real estate development boomed, the system was overtaxed. One temporary solution was to urge housewives to change their wash day to any but the traditional Monday and Saturday. Finally, in 1963, the Point Loma facility opened. In the late 1990s, a major upgrade of the plant took place, and a number of artists, including Lewis, were asked to create pieces of art.
While Lewis’s contribution seems to take the form of an information kiosk, it’s actually not an information kiosk at all. Instead, it’s a critique of information kiosks — a commentary on their nature and function. This in turn embodies a critique of the way we get our information and ideas about anything, too often without question.
Called “Information Station No. 1,” it consists of three video monitors, each of which is programmed to show a short loop of images, accompanied by four channels of sound. Embedded unobtrusively within it are two webcams capable of reading human body movements. If you sit in the seat and wave your hands, a show of sights and sounds is the intended result.
I sit and wave at it tentatively. Moving images and sounds begin, including pictures of the deepest reaches of the plant and the noises of its machinery. “I wanted to give people an idea of what the sonic environment is like here,” says Lewis. “Jesse says there’s a kind of music to it.” He refers to plant manager Jesse Pagliaro, who in one sequence of images is seated behind his desk being interviewed by Lewis. It’s not just the sounds that remind Pagliaro of music. It’s the way the whole structure works — its logic, its progression, from beginning to end.
Stay with the kiosk long enough and you’ll grasp a few facts as they rush past, including headlines of scanned newspaper stories from Lewis’s library research. But the point isn’t to feed us knowledge; it’s to show how we learn, or don’t learn: the more passive we are, the less the computer will deliver.
Lewis takes a turn in the seat, and I notice that his body movements induce the program to generate more sounds than I got from it. They’re also louder and more sonically interesting. He has played the program like a piano, so to speak. But all he concedes, modestly, is “I have bigger hands.”
Later that day, I am following Lewis down a couple of flights of stairs to another underground space, in the Mandeville building on the ucsd campus. “Musicians always end up in the basement,” he says.
The class is Music 114 — or 20th-Century Music. The room where it meets is a practice space, two stories high, overlooked by the windows of the music department’s audio-control booth (recording happens here too). Initially, Music 114 was assigned a smaller space, but the class has grown so popular, with an enrollment of 100-plus this term, it had to be reassigned hastily.
“I’ve worked hard to build it up,” says Lewis, comparing his role as teacher of this course to “being an evangelist”: “I’m trolling for converts.” Students needn’t “throw away their CDs and become believers in the One True Music,” however. “This is not the way. It’s one of the ways — maybe one they haven’t heard about before. But I don’t require them to attend concerts. That sounds like traffic school. It just isn’t generally how most people encounter music.” Rather than force-feed, he wants to “whet their appetites.” His plan is to “expand their understanding” of this music. He hopes former students tell others that it shouldn’t be “perceived as a threat.” He envisions sending “moles to Silicon Valley.”
He also wants people to grasp its “relevance to everyday life” and offers his own life as an example. “I’m not expected to be a devotee of [Arnold] Schoenberg, given my color and ethnicity,” says Lewis. But it was a revelation to him when, as a teenager growing up in a working-class family in Chicago, he discovered the European avant-garde composers. “It’s always easy to tell the truth. Once they see that I’m up there telling the truth about this music and that it’s about a life-changing experience — well, they want a life-changing experience too.”
Lewis told me earlier, at Point Loma, that he would use “clock arithmetic” to explain the 12-tone system, one of the major revolutions in music, originated by Schoenberg in the early 20th Century, but which, Lewis acknowledges, is “still the most hated music in the world.” With pink and purple chalk he draws a clock face on the board. Then he removes his sport jacket and puts his typed lecture on the music stand that he’ll use for a podium. The class is attentive, anticipatory, if quiet, as he takes his seat on a high stool. This is only their second meeting with the professor, and they are still getting acquainted.
“I don’t know how many of you have run across the name Stokely Carmichael in your travels,” he begins in a casual, good-humored way. “He was one of the leaders of the Black Power movement of the 1960s and used to answer the telephone, ‘Ready for the Revolution.’ By bringing him up, I’m telling you that another kind of revolution is coming here.”
Lewis gives some background, describing the status quo that 12-tone music dared to challenge. When Schoenberg invented the system that upended the basic organizational principle of Western music, he was living in Vienna and Berlin. That meant he had “Brahms here, Beethoven here, Mozart here.” A master of facial expressions and dramatic gestures, Lewis makes big starbursts with his hands, as if affixing each name in the firmament.
Besides, the orderly, rational tonal system was working fine. “Why get rid of it?” But to Schoenberg’s way of thinking, “It must have been like it seemed to Columbus — that a new system was needed.” And so he explored new sounds.
Lewis’s comfort in front of an audience is obvious. The ease derives from his far-famed career as an independent artist — “an itinerant musician,” as he might say — beginning when he was in his 20s. Besides the recordings, of his own music and others’, which number nearly 100, the concerts he has given are literally uncountable.
Most of those concerts have been abroad. His extensive European experience is the reason why he’ll chuckle along at a French film clip, shown without subtitles at a faculty lunch-and-lecture series, and why at his own lecture today he mentions “a great French word” — nager — that he says well describes Schoenberg’s methodology. He makes breast-stroke motions to give the class a hint at nager’s translation before he says: “It means ‘to swim.’ It also means ‘to be lost.’ There’s a third meaning too. It means ‘to try to find something.’ ” In all three senses, Schoenberg a nagé. That is, Lewis says, Schoenberg used his intuition to write his music. The result was that it “scared” people; they’d been taught to distrust their own intuitions.
He goes into detail about Schoenberg’s milieu. It seems there was much more at stake than mere diatonics. Old values were jettisoned by the musical dissolution. No wonder totalitarian regimes, prominently the Nazis, rising to power in Schoenberg’s day, suppressed it.
At the chalkboard Lewis parses the clock face, covering it with more pink and purple notations and a list of words that Schoenberg invented to express his new ideas: the prime form, the retrograde form, the inversion form, and the retrograde inversion form. The students dutifully write in their notebooks.
They probably don’t know yet that they won’t be expected to regurgitate these terms on a test. As Lewis has told me, he wants them to spend most of their time listening to music, not memorizing. “The ones who really want to listen will envelop themselves in sound,” he believes. “For the others, at least they got to experience a nonthreatening environment in which they can feel free to be challenged by new sonic ideas.”
Prompted by Lewis, one of his two graduate-student assistants plays a piano chord. It rings throughout the room. Then the student goes on with it for some measures to a resolution. It’s pleasant, melodic, musical business-as-usual pre-Schoenberg. “That felt good, didn’t it?” Lewis asks. The class shyly concurs. “Well, all that feel-good shit is gone,” he declares impishly. “You can forget about that.”
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.”
He directed me to his “Chicago Dadagram,” on Changing with the Times (1993). Its components are the poetry of Jerome Rothenberg; the piano teamwork of former ucsd graduate students Ruth Neville and Daniel Koppelman; and Lewis’s trombone. The bridges of four cities are celebrated in lines by Rothenberg — Chicago, Paris, Amsterdam, and New York — all cities in which Lewis has lived over the past 20 years. And although ultimately he has found that there are “urban parts” of San Diego, he likened the country’s sixth largest city to “a collection of small communities.”
Perhaps to his own surprise, he increasingly enjoys that reality. “I’ve been on the beach at night in San Diego many times by myself and with others,” he said to illustrate. “I would never do that in Miami Beach or in New York.”
His particular community is the village area of La Jolla, near Bird Rock, or was. As we spoke in his office, he received a fax from a realtor. He was about to buy a house in North Park. (He moved in six weeks later.) It would be his first. “Bankers don’t like to give these things [mortgages] to people with questionable incomes,” he said, referring to his years of itinerancy. “My father beat me by two years, for different reasons. He bought his first house at age 46.”
Then Lewis said something unexpected about San Diego. In terms of new-music audiences, there is a “refreshing lack of conventionality.” He called San Diego a “tabula rasa” — a blank page. “Many traditional verities do not hold here,” he has been pleased to note. “There is no conventional wisdom” about new music being “something to avoid.” There aren’t “many people here who say, ‘We know what it is already and we don’t like it.’ Rather, they simply don’t know what it is. They haven’t made up their minds. The former is the really dangerous thing.” In New York, by contrast, there was close-mindedness. Between various kinds of music, he found “a drawing of battle lines.” He detects no battle lines here. “Or if there are any, I feel free to ignore them.”
(Rainsticks and percussion) … In 1951 when we moved on 63rd street it was ninety percent white. They wouldn’t let us in a tavern. Heck naw. Had to go all the way to Cottage Grove just to buy a beer. By the time you was five years old it was all black.
— Father speaking to son in George Lewis’s text-and-sound composition, “Changing with the Times.” Rainsticks played by Douglas Ewart, percussion by Peter Gonzales III. From Changing with the Times (1993)
If hybridity is one theme in the life and work of George Emanuel Lewis, fixed boundaries is another. This antagonistic idea entered immediately as he related his “origin myth.”
“Let’s see. The birth date: July 14th, 1952. Born and brought up on the South Side of Chicago — meaning I spent the formative years in Woodlawn.” It’s not a middle-class community. “At least, it wasn’t when my parents moved in. They were part of one of the last waves of migration from the South — this huge migration of African-Americans — that came to Chicago in the late 1940s. You know, the Mason-Dixon line must have been like the border between East and West Germany — for African-Americans.” In the years between his parents’ arrival and the early 1960s, major demographic change took place in Woodlawn. “Suffice it to say that by the time I was growing up there it was all black.”
Lewis’s father worked in the post office — “in a clerk-type job.” His mother “had various jobs, none of which exists anymore — clerical tasks, repetitive tasks, like filing. Today that stuff is done by computers.”
The family, including Lewis’s sister, Cheryl, born in 1958, lived in an apartment on 63rd Street — two rooms and a kitchen. “And since my parents both worked, oftentimes people in the building would baby-sit for me. They worked nights a lot, because that’s what you could get. Sometimes you didn’t see either parent for a while, because when you were asleep they worked, and then you went to school. But we eventually got synchronized, being home together.”
Lewis considers one of his talents to be “seeing the potential in things.” As he said, he sees the potential in San Diego. It’s fortunate that a certain teacher saw the potential in him. Here is how he told the story:
“I went first to the public schools, which were run on a kind of apartheid principle. The theory was that schools in certain communities, meaning black communities, were overcrowded.” One solution was split sessions rather than reassignments of students to white communities. “That would have, quote, destroyed the, quote, neighborhood-school principle. But the neighborhood-school principle was obviously being used as a pretext for segregation.”
So for the first couple of years he went to school for only half a day.
Another hapless remedy for overcrowding was portable classrooms. “They took away the playground space and put up drafty trailers. And everyone was getting sick. And people wonder why those who came up through that system are angry — like they’re not supposed to be. If you want to look for the source of a lot of the anger in black communities, you can take that as a cautionary tale. You can’t treat people that way.”
According to friends and family, Lewis was a very early reader. Some claim he read “spontaneously” at age two. Lewis himself would say only this: “Before I started school, I could already read books.”
Middle-class schools can often accommodate precocity; private schools surely can, and they welcome it. Lewis’s public-school system couldn’t, and didn’t. “It didn’t jibe very well with the idea of the half-day concept.” Teachers had trouble “containing” him. “And at the time in the black areas, if schools couldn’t contain you, they put you in Special Education or else sent you to the truant officer.”
“As my dad has it — and this is part of his origin myth — ‘They made me take him to the school psychologist, because he was cutting up. They thought he was a behavior problem.’ Well, the psychologist said, ‘The kid’s bored. Send him to a different class.’ [A grade above.] But he could as easily have said, ‘Just send him off to…wherever.’ I was that close. And a lot of other kids went off that way. There’s research — several books — particularly about what they did with boys. Oh, there are horror stories. Of course, some people ended up doing very well too.” And Lewis might have become one of those successes. “But I got ‘raptured out’ of that system by a chance meeting.”
“I had a second-grade teacher who went to my parents on her own initiative and said, ‘You know, you have to get your son out of here, and this is how you’re going to do it.’ According to my parents, it wasn’t a request; it was a demand. She said, ‘You’re going to do this,’ and she wasn’t going to take no for an answer.”
Her solution was the Laboratory Schools of the University of Chicago — or the Lab School — the prestigious private K–12 system founded as an experiment in education by John Dewey in 1896. “And that’s where I ended up, on this teacher’s say-so — as a scholarship person, of course. My parents didn’t have money for it.”
He entered as a third-grader. “And it was obviously a different world. It was mostly whites, mostly kids with money” — children of professors and professionals. “It was the symbology of the Midway, if you know Chicago. If you live on 63rd Street and you have to go to the University of Chicago, which is only a few blocks away, you have to cross this huge park, which they built for one of the world’s fairs. And when you cross the Midway, if you are a kid who grew up in what was the ghetto, you enter some fantasy world” with “books everywhere” and “a library.” Also: “No one is fighting.”
“So there’s some sort of class divide. But as a kid I really didn’t think about that very much. I’m a kid, right? I’m learning.”
When the school’s annual recruitment for music ensembles came along, chance was at work again. “You know, it’s amazing. I often read stories about people who say, ‘I always wanted to play the flute, ever since I was two.’ ” But for Lewis — who was to become one of the world’s master trombonist-improvisers — it wasn’t like that. As a child, he didn’t even know what a trombone was. Nobody in his family played it or any instrument. “People loved music — that’s a part of the culture.” But it wasn’t part of the culture to take music lessons.
Lewis attended one of the school’s “little music fairs.” “They brought in instruments, and you looked at them. And someone must have told my parents that lessons and being in an ensemble were possibilities for me.” As Lewis recalled the exchange with his parents, “They said, ‘Look. Do you want to do this?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. What am I supposed to do?’ ” He laughed a broad, deep laugh. (His laughter has many rich, sonic variations, and it regularly punctuates his speech.) “ ‘Well, you can play an instrument.’ ‘I know, but why should you do that?’ ”
The answer he got “seemed to revolve around making friends.” His parents were imagining themselves in his place, Lewis speculated. “Growing up in the South under segregation, coming to Chicago, and experiencing more of it, they were suddenly sending their kid into this completely different environment, which was another kind of segregation, where your minority, if you will, is much more on display. And there is a kind of danger there. And maybe they thought doing activities [like playing music] would better integrate me into that environment.”
So he would be in the ensemble. But what would he play? “There was a discussion with my parents. I said, ‘I don’t really care which one I play. Which one do you think I should play?’ ‘Well, don’t play the trumpet,’ his dad or mother said. ‘It ruins your lip. You can see that. I’ll show you a picture of Louis Armstrong.’ ‘Oh, no, I don’t want my lip to look like that.’”
“But other than that, it didn’t seem there was a lot of choice. I guess when I saw the trombone, I said, ‘Well, let’s have this one.’ ”
He was eight or nine years old.
His parents did not buy him a trombone outright. The cost was $150. “I don’t think that was a lot of money for a university professor. But it was for my parents.” They rented to buy, at $5 a month.
The money came from his mother’s pay, and it was she who elicited from her son a promise about practice. “She said, ‘Well, look, you can have this thing, but you really have to use it.’ And I promised to do that.” But he found the promise difficult to keep: “You know, I didn’t take to it like a duck to water.” A tall, large-framed man, Lewis was not a big kid, and there aren’t kid-size trombones. “There are small ones and big ones, but they’re all the same length, because the resonating tube has to be the right length for certain notes.” Even if he had been big, no kid is big enough to play the trombone, said Lewis.
There are ways around this anatomical dilemma. “Most trombone music for little kids’ bands is written so they only have to reach out to the fifth or sixth position. It’s not that far; most kids can do it. But they generally can’t reach out to the seventh [last] position.” As the child-trombonist gets a little older, and the music becomes more challenging, his or her reach is extended by a string. “You tie a string around your hand and tie the other end to the slide, and you get adept at throwing it out. Then one day you throw the slide out and it falls off,” because you’ve grown. “And you have to shorten the string.”
Learning to play was “frustrating,” nonetheless. And because it was frustrating, it got “boring.” And he “sort of stopped doing it.” Or tried to. “There was this guilt. ‘Oh, my mom’s paying.’ The guilt factor’s pretty critical. I also remember my parents telling me, ‘You know, the reason you’re frustrated is because you don’t play very well. And if you practiced, you’d play better and feel better about it.’ ”
Even so, he told them, “ ‘I’m tired of this, and I’d like to quit.’ And they said, ‘Well, you can quit. But before you quit, you should really learn how to play.’ ”
Of course, this was “a trick.” Lewis kept practicing with the idea that he eventually would quit. Instead, at a certain point, he began to think, “ ‘Well, maybe this isn’t so bad after all.’ ”
What happened next was that he became interested in the records his parents had around the house — by Lester Young and others he had previously thought were “pretty boring.”
“I remember starting to play this music on the trombone on my own.” At the same time, “all the lectures” he used to get from his father, “about that music and those musicians,” began to get interesting too. The senior Lewis talked about hearing Lionel Hampton or Roland Hayes or Erskine Hawkins during his years in the Navy. “I don’t think he actually knew any musicians, but it was clear both he and my mom had a lot of respect for people who were trying to be creative.”
When Lewis was 12, the Lab School started a jazz band. “Remember, we’re talking about 1964, and as a discipline jazz was only just coming into the schools — mostly colleges. You could look at this as an offshoot of the civil rights movement — increased cultural awareness and diversity, and the whole Black Power thing as well.” But the adolescent Lewis wasn’t aware of a connection between political change and changes in his extracurriculars. “It was, like, ‘Hey, there’s this band and let’s try to do this music that we’re interested in anyway.’ ”
Lewis’s first music teacher was Frank Tirro. Author of standard jazz histories, Tirro later left the Lab School to become dean of the Yale Music School. “An extraordinarily patient teacher,” he was, said Lewis, “a good musician too,” who played the saxophone.
To run the jazz band the school hired another teacher, and Lewis took trombone lessons with him. “In a kind of foreshadowing, he had studied at Illinois Wesleyan University with someone who used to teach at ucsd.” The teacher’s name was Dean Hey, and his teacher at Illinois was John Silber. “John is a trombone player, who I replaced, in a way. His background is in anthropology and philosophy, and he’s a brilliant emeritus professor. But we [in high school] didn’t know any of that [about Silber or Hey]. All we knew was that here was this guy who was interested in jazz but who was also telling us about new music. His was an open conception about what music was. We didn’t get a lot of dogma.”
“Dean — Mr. Hey — brought into class [John Coltrane’s] Ascension and we’d listen to that. I couldn’t understand Ascension at all, and the discussions were very helpful, because sometimes you don’t hear it. Music is a communal thing. Forest Flower by Charles Lloyd — someone brought that in. I brought in my Lester Young stuff.”
After entering high school, Lewis continued to play in the band but eventually stopped taking trombone with Hey. Frustration wasn’t the reason now; it was a new resolve to play the way he wanted to play. “It became a thing where I tried to work in a purely self-taught way.” Lewis’s autodidactism was, he said, “a high school version” of what older musicians did, those with neither money for lessons nor the tradition of taking them — those, from a previous generation, who we call “great” today. “You learned by yourself. You practiced with a record. You figured it out. You’d get help from somebody in the community who knew a little bit of this and you knew a little bit of something else. And you cobbled the information together.”
His decision to stop the lessons was another sort of foreshadowing — “like I already knew what I wanted to do. I’m glad I got the grounding in traditional things. But I don’t think I ever finished doing it… You never really finish doing it…”
At age 16, Lewis went to a concert by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. In an essay, “Singing Omar’s Song: A (Re)construction of Great Black Music,” he writes of hearing the group for the first time: “Neither my previous experience with an enlightened high school jazz band faculty nor my heavy turntable rotation of late Coltrane had prepared me for the onslaught of (I think it was) Joseph Jarman’s body-painted arms attacking a vibraphone with mallets swishing dangerously close to my nose. I remember being so frightened that I seemed literally to faint. When I came to, it was to squeals and raspberries from the trumpet player (certainly Lester Bowie, in retrospect), which led to long drone sections in which somebody playing a bass (it must have been Malachi Favors) unwound long strings of melody, employing timbres of a kind I was too stunned to follow. All the while, somebody (probably Roscoe Mitchell) stayed a bit apart from the others, contentedly puttering about in a secret garden of percussion.”
Another concert he attended as a teen featured experimental tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson. “I couldn’t understand anything he was doing. And the way I discovered what he was doing was that I ended up playing with him” — and with the Art Ensemble too. “But all that was a few years in the future.” At the time, he was asking himself, “What was this? Sitting there and these guys were playing, and there was hardly anyone there. Seems like there was hardly anyone there. ‘What is this? Doesn’t sound like Lester Young.’ ” His laughter bubbled up through the reverie. “Ah, it was crazy.”
At college-application time, Lewis was called to the guidance office and told that his grades and scores gave him a good shot at the Ivy League. “I said, ‘Well, that’s pretty cool. Sign me up.’ I wasn’t oriented toward college. I was from a family where nobody had ever been.” But he took the information home, telling his parents, “ ‘They said I could go to these places. You’ve heard of Yale, right? And Harvard?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, we’ve heard of them, but where’s the money coming from?’ And then it was pointed out that you could get scholarships.”
Lewis’s father proposed the idea that all colleges taught the same thing, so why not go to one close to home? “And there was a discussion about whether that was true. My feeling was that if those places would let me in, and if it wasn’t going to cost that much, let’s find out. I’ll try it and see if it really is the same thing.”
And so he entered Yale’s class of ’73.
When he arrived in New Haven, his major was pre-law. “You know, when you go to a place like Yale, everyone is after you to fulfill their dream.” In his case, those other people’s dreams did not include becoming a musician. “That would have been ridiculous. Their dream is to go into government, or make some money, or be a doctor or lawyer.” Lewis initially thought along those lines too. “I didn’t know anything about it. Nobody in my family knew any doctors or lawyers. It was like The Beverly Hillbillies. ‘Pre-law? Yeah, sure. Sounds good.’ ”
He took political science courses, some of which he “actually liked,” even though the department’s focus was the containment of Communism and its stance was clashing with the anti–Vietnam War protests that peaked in a nationwide student strike that spring.
As a freshman and sophomore he took some music courses but found they had little to do with his experience. “They were designed more to transmit a set of already-existing values than to critique values or to create new ones. And I’m sure it worked out great for some people, but for me it didn’t.”
In fact, after a couple of years of Yale, Lewis went home. “I had found that pre-law was too boring for words, and I just didn’t do very well. So I left, actually.”
His parents’ reaction was complicated: they weren’t happy, but their son wondered if they didn’t have a “fatalistic” attitude toward his Ivy League experience. “Maybe they were uncomfortable with it. So my leaving could have been a relief. Remember, all this college stuff, this Yale, can be very distancing.” They had never even seen the place. “Who has money for travel?”
Lewis got a job as a laborer on a slag heap at the Illinois Slag and Ballast Company in Chicago, where his twin uncles were supervisors. He wore a hard hat and in his wallet carried a union card from the United Steelworkers. His pay was $3.65 an hour. “ ‘Well, look, I’m going to do this for a year, then I’m going back,’ ” Lewis told his parents, who said, “ ‘Oh, you’ll never go back. Once you leave these kinds of things you don’t go back.’ And so I was officially a dropout.”
He rode the bus to and from work; it left him off a few blocks from home. One day, he took a different bus and the route took him past an auditorium where he heard some musicians practicing. “It was pretty chance, pretty chance, pretty much total chance,” said Lewis, who that afternoon met the men who were to be his greatest musical influence — and one of his greatest personal influences too.
“I walked in and said, ‘Well, who are you?’ ‘We’re boom-boom-boom.’ ‘Well, could I play with you guys?’ ‘Well, no you can’t, because in order to play with us you have to be known as a musician.’ Then someone else came in and said, ‘Oh, let him play. Let’s see what he’s like.’ So they said, ‘Come to Saturday rehearsal, and bring your trombone.’ And they called me up — they were very nice — and told me, ‘There’s no Saturday rehearsal, but we’re having an event on Monday at this place called the Pumpkin Room. You should come if you like.’ ”
Lewis went to the Pumpkin Room. “And they let me play. Somebody said, ‘We thought you were just going to come and listen.’ I think it was Muhal who said, ‘Well, if he’s ready to play, let him play.’ ”
The reference is to Muhal Richard Abrams, cofounder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. A collective founded in 1965, it is famous for its development and promotion of innovative African-American music and as the spawning ground for some of the world’s best-known experimentalists — including George Lewis.
The group is famous, too, for its cooperative spirit. That’s one reason why they were so generous to the 19-year-old who wandered into their rehearsal. As Lewis said, “I suppose if they hadn’t liked my playing, they might have let me stay anyway, because this was the aacm, and they tried to nurture people. Even if I had been terrible, they would have said, ‘Come to Saturday class.’ ” Since 1967, the association has run a free weekly school for all ages, ability levels, and forms (“from solos to operas”).
But Lewis was far from terrible. Even if not yet a virtuoso, he impressed Abrams and the others with his potential for becoming one. “Right after we finished playing, Steve McCall, the drummer, said, ‘There’s a concert next week. Can you play in it?’ And the concert had, like, Roscoe [Mitchell] and Joseph [Jarman], and Douglas Ewart, now a lifelong friend, and Malachi Favors.” All members of the association, they were some of the very musicians Lewis had seen in concert as the Art Ensemble of Chicago. “I mean, who gets to play with people like that right away? Nobody. So that was incredible. Those were the people who brought me to realizations about all kinds of things. [Playing with them] is still the most significant experience that I’ve ever had. I felt totally nurtured and secured by these people.”
Under their guidance, Lewis began to compose, learning at the Saturday classes, where only one rule prevailed: “If you gave a concert, it had to be your own music. It couldn’t be anybody else’s, I don’t care whose it was. So if you didn’t have any music you had to get some. You had to find out, ‘Well, what do I like? What am I interested in? What’s my direction? What do I think I’m doing?’ ” Those were ongoing questions and furnished a crucial, constant critique, which seems to carry on in Lewis’s mind to this day.
Students also produced their own concerts and that way learned other important lessons. “Organizing audiences, making publicity — it prepared you for leadership and thinking for yourself.”
Lewis learned more frankly political lessons too. “It wasn’t just ‘Oh, we’re doing our music. It’s good. We want to hear sounds.’ ” Their aim was assertion of their right as black artists to musical self-determination. They would not be told what music to play, or where they should play it, or how. “So later, when I encountered people who were trying to lay channeling experiences on me, I couldn’t accept it. I mean, I didn’t hear anybody saying to [white minimalist composer] La Monte Young: ‘Look here, can’t you play more than one note? I’m tired of this. Go back to playing the saxophone.’ ”
Although many of the collective’s original members hadn’t attended college, it was they who urged Lewis to return to Yale that fall. As he recalled, “They said, ‘Okay, you had a good year and you had your job at the slag plant and all that. Now it’s time to go back to school, but only if you have something you really want to accomplish there. So what are you interested in?’ I think Muhal had given me a Nietzsche book. And I said, ‘Well, this is pretty interesting stuff.’ And Muhal said, ‘Well, maybe you should study that when you get back.’ ‘Okay, I’ll try that.’ ”
Lewis reentered Yale as a philosophy major. “It seemed to me the philosophy courses were something I could use, as tools for analysis and reflection. And I could do music, only under a different name — the Phenomenology of Music — instead of Symphony Class No. 3. And you could be creative with the process: you could write. So that became my area.”
In his first two years at Yale, Lewis had made friends with another young musician, Anthony Davis. Upon his return, he galvanized this friendship with Davis, today the internationally known composer of the operas X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X; Amistad; and Tania, based on the abduction of Patricia Hearst; as well as the music for Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Angels in America. He is also, of late, a member of the ucsd music department — with an office directly next door to Lewis’s.
Davis and others made the second half of his Yale experience much more fruitful than the first. During Lewis’s hiatus, Davis’s father, Charles, had been hired by Yale as professor of English and Afro-American Literature. Thereafter, Lewis would be invited to the Davis household for discussions about music and literature; he and Anthony would play music there; and they would listen to the music-making of the elder Davis, an accomplished amateur pianist.
“And then there was this Willie Ruff thing.” The hornist and bassist who earned degrees from the Yale School of Music, Ruff joined the faculty in 1971. The following year, he instituted his “Conservatory Without Walls.”
“He brought in [Charles] Mingus — you could meet him. And Max Roach — you could play with him. You could have dinner with Dizzy Gillespie.” Other musicians who came to Yale at Ruff’s invitation — to give lectures and concerts and meet with students — were Duke Ellington, Eubie Blake, Mary Lou Williams, and Dave Brubeck.
But the most important musical personage Lewis encountered upon his return to New Haven wasn’t affiliated with Yale. He was an associate of Abrams’s, formerly from Chicago: (trumpeter and composer) Leo Smith (now called Wadada Leo Smith). “He was the most important one for me and for Anthony. Leo would come by the dorm and bring these funny-looking compositions. And we’d try to play them… But, like I told Anthony — you know, I made a lot of tapes of us in college — I promised him I would never play them for anyone.” He laughed.
For Lewis’s graduation, in ’74, his parents borrowed money from friends to make the trip to New Haven. Lewis hasn’t been back since. But he said, “I’ll tell you one thing: I did meet George Bush [because of Yale].” Lewis was a member of the club: Skull and Bones. “I saw the inside of that.” He emitted an explosive laugh. “I just wanted to put that in because there’s a guy here [in San Diego] who regularly sends me e-mails about these conspiracy theories about Skull and Bones. And the Illuminati. And I said, ‘Well, I guess I must be a member of the Illuminati.’ ” More explosive laughter. “All I remember is that we sat around and waved bones at each other.”
Lewis’s reputation as a musical phenom spread. After Count Basie heard him play, Lewis was invited to travel with Basie’s orchestra, making the big-band sound. “This was the first itinerant experience I ever had, where you go on the road, you play out of town, and do all that kind of road stuff.” On a private tape Lewis can be heard playing Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellotone” with Basie in Kokura, Japan. It was 1976, and the 24-year-old was the trombone soloist, just as Lester Young had been a sax soloist for Basie.
But big band wasn’t the direction in which Lewis would take his musical life. Much more telling than his stunning performance on “In a Mellotone” is a composition he wrote that same year, “Hello/Goodbye,” in which he blended two disparate sonic worlds to create a hybrid.
It begins big band–style, then shifts to electronic music. The very public, Basie-like sound crosses into a new place, an interior. It’s music for a dream landscape, a very private, meditative sound. Later, the music reverts to big band, with improvised solos for drums and trumpet. It concludes in a frantic, frenzied crescendo that merges both musical traditions.
The following year, Lewis recorded The George Lewis Solo Trombone Record (1977), compositions and improvisations. The piece called “Toneburst” is for three overdubbed trombones. To create it, he played one line of music; improvised with it; then dubbed a third line of sound over the previous two. The result is a musical conversation between various selves. They talk, sometimes squabble; they mull over things. Finally, they resolve. It’s an appropriate form for one adept at crisscrossing Midways.
The Count Basie tour ended as the debut record was released. Soon enough, Lewis got another invitation, from the Art Ensemble, which was relocating to New York. “They had an opening because Lester Bowie couldn’t make the gig. To be asked to fill it was an honor; it was also very scary. But it got me to New York as a musician. A lot of aacm people, of a certain generation, started making this move from Chicago between 1975 and 1977. When Muhal left, it signaled a changing of the guard.” That it could happen smoothly is the beauty of the organization, Lewis said. “People thought Muhal was the dictator, but it was always a collective. And when people left they were replaced. There was structure and a framework. It had become an institution.”
Lewis owned a car by then — a 1971 Ford Pinto. “It’s a terrible car, with an unpredictable electrical system, but you could carry instruments and musicians. You just had to have jumper cables at the ready for the winter, because even if I could have afforded it, Triple A wasn’t going to come into the black community to fix your car. I packed my stuff, and with aacm bassist Leonard Jones — and his bass — I drove it to Manhattan.” He sold it after a few months, however; it was too expensive to maintain. “That was one of the many little dues-paying things you learned about New York.”
He lived in the Manhattan Plaza, an apartment building well-known for its musician-and-artist residents: Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon, and Tennessee Williams all lived there at one time or another. “So did a lot of people from the aacm. It’s between 9th and 10th Avenues on West 43rd Street. That’s Hell’s Kitchen, near Times Square. Forty-something stories. A huge building. Very intense.”
Music was divided into uptown and downtown — “of course.” The uptown scene was personified by Harvey Sollberger, today conductor of the La Jolla Symphony and a ucsd professor. “And I was kind of downtown. I went to [Sollberger’s] concerts: severe 12-tone stuff; it was very exciting to me. I loved it, and still do. But then there were the downtown people doing low infrastructure, experimental stuff. Post-Cage people. Improvisers.”
Lewis played his trombone; he also began to give concerts of electronic music. To call him merely a trombonist during this or any other period would be like calling Laurie Anderson merely a violinist. Even so, some people refused to accept the full range of his aesthetic interests.
“[Jazz critics] wrote that black musicians were abandoning their culture. And I was Public Enemy Number One. They identified a certain kind of post-bebop music with the black musical tradition. And if you didn’t want to do that, you were abandoning the tradition. In a way it was flattering, because they were saying, ‘Well, this guy could do it but he doesn’t want to.’ It was often said that the people who were doing new music were doing it just because they couldn’t do the regular music. And that was not true. But it was certainly a reassuring idea for people who thought it was true for any number of reasons.”
In 1980, Lewis recorded Homage to Charles Parker, which must have displeased those critics. Lewis’s tribute to “Bird” includes two extended works for mixed electro-acoustic quartet. The acoustic part consists of trombone by Lewis, piano by Anthony Davis, and sax by Douglas Ewart. The electronics are supplied by Richard Teitelbaum, the live-electronics musician and composer who is credited with introducing the Moog synthesizer to Europe in the 1960s.
During his Manhattan days, Lewis actually spent a lot of time doing concerts in Europe. “If you are an experimental musician living in New York at that time, basically you go to Europe to make enough money to pay your rent for a few months, and then you come back. You go back and forth, and back and forth.” This experience, he said, puts him “on the same page with a lot of my colleagues at ucsd, whose music only gets played in Europe.”
He traveled as lightly as possible. “You did one of these Have-Gun-Will-Travel–type things.” At first, his musical luggage was only the trombone; then came the electronics, so he had that gear to bring too; then the computer music came along, which meant he also hauled “a box of computer goodies.” He often set it up by himself. “And maybe it took a few hours. And maybe it took all day.”
In New York Lewis met Anthony Braxton, the composer and multi-instrument improviser who was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant some years ago. In 1966, Braxton had become a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, but he’d already left Chicago by the time Lewis joined the collective. It was Braxton who invited Lewis on a lengthy European tour.
Germany was the first stop. “And that was good, because I had taken German in high school, so I could speak the language.” Another piece of luck for Lewis? Not unless having Lewis’s character is luck. He had taken German at the Lab School “because most people were taking French.”
“And I didn’t get to France until a few years later and would have hated to learn German the way I had to learn French. French seems less complex, although there is more vocabulary. But the structure seems a little readier to deal with. German is a beautiful language, but the structure is a nightmare. That’s probably what makes it beautiful.”
When I pointed out to Lewis that German isn’t often called a “beautiful” language, he defended it. “Oh, it is. It’s amazing. It’s so flexible. It’s an improviser’s language. You can create words that never existed before but that everybody can understand, because the vocabulary is all built up from [German] roots” — not Latin or Greek roots, as, say, English is.
In Germany, Lewis entered the wider world of improvised music beyond the circumscribed one in the United States — and was greeted by a much larger audience. “I began to see that people [in great numbers] in other parts of the world were listening to it, reading books about it, watching it on television. And you start to see, as generations before me did, how limited, rigid, and controlling the American media is. And you start to think about the excuses. ‘Oh, it’s not popular.’ ” But this was a popular audience. “So you start to question the whole basis of how sound and music are distributed, sold, and exchanged.”
“[He also began to see] that there are definite lines of race, class, and gender in the musical world wherever you go. People say, ‘Oh, there’s no racism in music.’ Well, as Ice-T used to say, ‘You gotta be high to believe that.’ ” He told the story of being interviewed on German TV by Germany’s Oprah Winfrey. Before the show, all was well, until the schminken (makeup) artists saw him: they didn’t have any schminken for him.
Lewis began to create computer music, in New York in 1979, when most experimentalists used homemade equipment — “your own computer program; your own interfaces.” If a power supply was needed, you made that too. That’s when he learned the value of another type of lecture his father used to give him, about electronics.
“My dad studied to be an electronics technician but never actually got a job doing that.” Whether because of discrimination, “one is never sure — that’s the hard part about it: people always construct alternative explanations.” The post office job was a good job, as any black person of that generation will tell you, said Lewis. “Security was the big issue. So I guess he did pretty well.” Still, he had “a lot of pent-up interest” in oscilloscopes, resistors, and capacitors.
Lewis père’s fascination with electronics prefigured that of Lewis fils’s, and unwittingly prepped him for it too. While making his first forays into it, he found himself thinking, “ ‘Hmm, Ohm’s law. Now, where the hell did I learn about that?’ ”
This quick study was, by then, music curator of the innovative creative arts space in New York called The Kitchen. The careers of Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Philip Glass, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Cindy Sherman, to name only a few, have been fostered by The Kitchen. Recalling his two-year tenure, Lewis added these names to the list: “People like [video artist] Nam June Paik were showing up. And Eric Bogosian. You know Talk Radio? He put the dance program together; he started the whole thing. People like Bill T. Jones and Lucinda Childs started their early [dance] careers there.”
As curator, Lewis chose the musicians who gave concerts. He pointedly invited “a diversity of people — a lot more black artists than they were used to having and in much more prominent positions.”
The Kitchen arranged a European tour for many of its artists, including Lewis. “And while we were there, I visited ircam” — that is, the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique — the government-funded, arts-creation-and-research facility at the Pompidou Center in Paris, founded and run by Pierre Boulez. It’s a place where, as Lewis described it, Catherine Deneuve was doing movies and Marcello Mastroianni would come by for a chat. “I saw [composer and ucsd music professor] Roger Reynolds. There was always a big ucsd/ircam mix. I started hearing about ucsd at that time, but it was not on the radar screen, because there was so much else to be on that screen.”
Lewis was offered a work space by the institute. As he put it, someone “hatched a scheme to bring me over for a while. And in the summer of ’82, I nipped off. It was supposed to be just that summer, but it ended up being three years.”
He arrived in Paris with “pretty basic technical means — pretty primitive equipment, like my Apple II computer and my homemade interfaces.” But he had a fairly clear idea of what he wanted to do.
Interactive work wasn’t being much pursued yet by people doing “high-culture computer music,” Lewis told me. He would have few if any models; nonetheless, interactive programs were his goal. Since then, nearly all his computer pieces have been improvised music between computers and people, with both entities improvising.
“You build the player part of the program first,” he explained, “as good as you can make it. It plays lots of different kinds of music. It structures its own activity. It operates on its own and creates things by itself. That’s the first step, and you could stop there, because you’ve already done a lot. I thought that one I made some years ago was pretty good. And I was traveling around, and who should I run into at the airport in Brussels but the Art Ensemble. You know, you always run into people on these European trips. And I said, ‘Hey, guys, how you doing? Hey, Lester [Bowie], I want you to listen to this tape and tell me what you think.’ And they listened to it and said, ‘Well, who’s that?’ I said, ‘Ah, success.’ You know, because ‘What’s that?’ was a much more common reaction. So ‘Who’s that?’ was very good, because they didn’t look at it as being, ‘Oh, what’s this weird thing George has done now?’ but ‘Who’s this person playing?’ ”
It’s not necessary, of course, for a computer to sound like anything that has ever been heard before. For Lewis, computer-music-making extends all of music’s possibilities. “It becomes a very pure investigation of what music is about. That’s the joy of it for me. That’s also the frustration.” He feels it even at present, he said. It’s a frustration similar to what he felt while learning to play trombone, but it’s more complicated than that. “You know there are possibilities you’re not able to bring to bear.” They consist of sounds you hear in your head and other sounds too. “A lot of it isn’t a listening imagination. It’s another imagination. It’s more gestural — you don’t know what the specific sounds are, but you know what the meaning of those sounds would be.”
The second part of this type of program is the “listener.” “When you build that, you give the thing ears. So the computer’s independence is guaranteed. And you can make it as independent as you like — deciding when it will listen to [the human player who is improvising with it] and under what conditions. And the human player will be able to tell when the computer is listening. Because that’s what improvisers do. They’re trained to analyze situations and make decisions.” One of the challenges there is building into the program the ability to improvise differently with different people — just as human improvisers do.
Lewis completed one piece of computer music in Paris. Called “Rainbow Family,” it was among the first interactive pieces the institute ever commissioned. He also finished a piece of computer-installation art, forerunner of the Point Loma project. Called “Kalimbascope,” or “Algorithme et Kalimba,” it’s a thumb piano interfaced to a computer system that allows a person interacting with it to make visuals and sound.
Despite his success, Lewis found the venerable institution a “difficult” place to be for a couple of reasons. “You have to remember the itinerant/institutional divide.” That was one Midway he didn’t traverse with ease (at least, until he crossed a similar one at ucsd). “There was a lot of pressure, because there’s just so much to learn, and you’re definitely in an extreme minority in several senses — language, culture, music, affinities.” His penchant for hybridity was a problem too. “Performer, improviser, technologist, composer — those are mutually exclusive categories in the ircam world. If you do one, it’s suspicious if you do any of the others. It wasn’t part of the conception.”
His studio in Paris “was in an out-of-the-way part of the building, which I liked, because other areas were high-risk political zones. And I increasingly wanted to be alone. You see, it was hard to blow me off, because I wasn’t an unknown person. By the time I got to ircam, I had been on magazine covers — if you believe those kinds of things are important. [A lot of people there] didn’t know who the hell they were. But you began to see it didn’t matter, because the system favored certain ways of doing and didn’t favor others.”
Conceivably, in one imagined scenario, he might have “abandoned” everything else he was doing and become “more and more engrossed in that world.” But it would have involved giving up part of himself. “And I did not welcome a major transformation of who I was, because it seemed to me that [its inhabitants] were not prepared to assimilate other histories. Contemporary music is a multinational field, but it’s not a multicultural one. It’s a celebration of European histories, opposed to an assimilation of African-American histories. In fact, African-American music is its great competitor. And it’s constantly critiquing it, or denigrating it, or otherwise having problems with it. And so someone who comes from our world and yet knew enough of the other world — technically, culturally, or methodologically — was more of a threat than a promise. I upset a number of apple carts.”
In the end, even if he had tried to become one of them, he didn’t get the sense he was going to be accepted.
Amsterdam was the next stop, where he found “a very different group of people” at Steim, “a major center for the interactive approach,” which was “more performance-art-oriented, improvisation-oriented” than Paris. “And I went there in ’85 with another artist who had been working at ircam in an underground way, Joel Ryan, and Steim gave us a residency for a couple of years.”
Voyager, Lewis’s computer-music program, had been perfected by then. (“Voyager,” on his latest compact disc, Endless Shout , features a computer and Lewis on trombone improvising together.) “It was one of the first programs you could send out by itself, and it could do the whole concert, and you could listen to it.” In Amsterdam, he added a live video. “It was built by a really smart young guy, Ray Edgar, who Joel Ryan and I trained to think like us. So he built a program that could do visuals in the same way that Voyager could do music. And we made a piece called The Empty Chair, about apartheid and political prisoners.”
In the winter of 1987–1988, Lewis returned to New York, expecting to resume where he had left off. It wasn’t to be. “I had a very bad year, where I had no money, because New York had changed.” Everything had become more conservative, including the music scene.
“See, we had spent a lot of time making much more fluid the boundaries of different kinds of music. And in the five years I had been away, the boundaries had re-rigidified in the usual ways, and it was very boring. Musicians, particularly experimentalists, were under the gun in a lot of ways. [It seemed that] anyone who was black and doing experimental music was supposed to be doing a kind of jazz, with Wynton Marsalis as your boss. [People thought] he should be in control of all black artists and that he should decide when and how they should work.”
So he left New York, having again been “raptured out” of a bad situation, with a gig at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he was hired to teach installation art. “And around that time I met up with Bert [Turetzky] and talked about coming here.”
- “Playing with Bert often becomes a matter of finding, somewhere, a sound that he isn’t playing at that moment, a sound that you can grab onto as a life preserver to save you from getting smoked right out of the room.”
- — George Lewis, in the liner notes for Conversations: George E. Lewis, Trombone, Bertram Turetzky, Contrabass (1998)
You can learn a lot about improvisation by listening to Lewis and Turetzky’s Conversations. You can learn a lot about friendship too. There they are, the two of them, talking, whispering, laughing, discussing, dueling, kibitzing — with their instruments. They’re not making “a joyful noise” in the narrow sense, but it’s joyful, nonetheless.
The revered ucsd senior professor Turetzky is credited with being among the people who, in Lewis’s words, “put the bass on the map of new music.” Turetzky is also “the person who brought me here,” Lewis said. An invitation came to him from Turetzky and the music department to come out to San Diego for two weeks of teaching classes and meeting with people. He was offered and accepted an assistant professorship, beginning with the school year 1990–1991. A couple of years later, he received tenure and a full professorship.
Of the job, Lewis told me, “They work you pretty hard. It’s a myth that university professors have it easy. They said a similar thing” — that government employees don’t work hard — “about my dad at the post office.”
Before Lewis’s appointment at ucsd, he said, someone told him, “ ‘You’ll be teaching who you are and what you’re researching.’ ” But he has found his task to be much more complex. “If you come here thinking, ‘I’ll just do my workshop thing’ at the university level, you’ll discover pretty quickly you can’t do that. You can’t just present yourself. You have to have a curriculum.”
What is more, your curriculum cannot be oblivious to others’. “You have to know what the traffic will bear. There already are a lot of existing stories. You have to figure out how your story fits in. You can be hired by a university, but you must find your place to live within your department.”
His “place” is a graduate program, Critical Studies/Experimental Practices, which he calls “an academic foothold for something that already exists in the outside world.”
The ucsd catalog describes the program as an “exploration” of experimental, Western, and non-Western music-making, combined with a “critical examination” of music and musical ideas. It’s even broader than that. It encourages “cross-fertilizations” of all sorts, hoping to attract those who may not fit conventional categories of “composer” or “performer” or “those whose work is not constrained by traditional disciplinary boundaries.”
A music-making component is part of it. “[It] encompasses both compositional and performance activities. Experimental performance workshops incorporate improvisation and such diverse elements as new technologies, video, dance, visual, and theatrical components to make music in a multiplicity of ways.”
The program, in short, consists of activities in which Lewis himself has been engaged all along, as an independent artist/scholar. It is, in another phrase of his, “a grass-roots initiative,” designed to help students “do what I’m doing” — namely, realize their creative and intellectual “dreams.”
Leading an advanced performance ensemble is another aspect of Lewis’s responsibilities at ucsd. Auditions are open to all, not just music majors or minors. It’s called Jazz Improvisation, and late one afternoon, I dropped in on a practice session — one of its first of the fall term. It was held in Mandeville’s basement, in the same cavernous space where Music 114 meets.
The musicians sat in a circle, Lewis included, trombone on a stand next to him, its slide like a giant brass paper clip. The rest of the group consisted of another trombonist, two saxophonists, a bassist, guitarist, flutist, and vocalist. During the session, two drummers alternated with one another; two pianists did the same.
As I arrived, the pair of saxes was taking instruction from Lewis, whose persona was different from the one who had lectured on 12-tone music earlier in the week. This was his workshop self, the one who could just present himself and his three decades of music-making experience as they practiced a piece by Sonny Clark, “Blue Minor.” An arrangement of it was recorded by Lewis, John Zorn, and Bill Frisell on News for Lulu (1988). But, as Lewis told them, “You can always personalize these jazz numbers, kind of like monogrammed shirts.” That was what they were trying to do in the course of playing it a dozen times or more with the ever-affable Lewis.
“Here’s what you all sound like,” he said to the saxes. “You need to step back, man. It’s not scherzo. Pretend it’s Vivaldi. Try not to swing. Go for anti-swing. If you play it straight, without any swing, it’ll sound like it is swinging. You’ll be pulled into the orbit. Do you see what I’m saying?”
To the group, he said, “Let’s play it a little slower, so they can get a feeling for it.”
Then, when it was over, he addressed the saxes: “Everybody liked that. See?”
The group played it again, and again he spoke to the saxes, Doug and Gabriel: “You lost the force. This is what you’re doing.” He sings it. Then he plays it on his trombone. “Don’t do that. Okay. Let’s go.”
They repeated it, and then Lewis returned to Doug and Gabriel: “Keep the rhythm, but lose the accents. You all are still in this direction.” He sings it.
The duo tried it again, without the others, then Lewis asked them what their majors were.
He was disappointed: what he needed was a science major, he said as he went to the chalkboard and explained to the saxes what he wanted in terms of square waves. “You’re on the wrong duty cycle,” he said, adding as he went back to his seat: “There’s a self-esteem issue behind it. It’s also a question of attitude. Just bite on the reed and go for it.”
It was time for solos for each ensemble member. Afterward, Lewis said to Gabriel: “How come you swing on your solo, but you don’t when you’re playing the tune? Try to play the same way. Give us the laid-back Gabriel. The real Gabriel. That’s the way it should be played. If you go with your personality, you’re going to swing.”
That was just a warm-up. The group proceeded to the main business of the nearly three-hour session, a piece they would play for the final-exam concert at term’s end. It was Earle Brown’s “Four Systems” (1954). “This is kind of a famous piece,” said Lewis, but no one had heard of it or of Brown. They studied the odd-looking score. It had neither notes, nor sharps, nor flats. No key or tempo. No phrasing directions. No staffs or clefs. Only a series of lines, interrupted at irregular intervals.
“What does it look like?” Lewis asked. Someone replied, “A music-box thing.” Someone else: “A player-piano roll.”
Even more mystifying, Lewis informed them, they could read the musical Morse code from left or right; and from top to bottom or vice versa. “We don’t all have to start at once either.”
So they began, including Lewis, who made the first sound, a confident raspberry. Others followed, at random, creating patterns of sound. For me, as listener, I found it suspenseful, and fascinating as a revelation of the players’ personalities, which appeared to range from adventurous to timorous.
After three or four minutes, they came to a more or less mutual conclusion. Lewis turned to one of the more timorous players — the student trombonist. “What’s your method to deal with this?” he asked her.
“I was so scared, I didn’t know what to do.”
“But what did you do? And why did you do it?”
“I liked it kind of quiet. I wanted to play kind of quietly.”
“You were making choices,” Lewis observed. “So how did you decide when to play?”
Lewis’s questioning was gentle, but the young woman couldn’t come up with an answer. So he asked the vocalist, who had seemed to enjoy herself: “Why did you do anything? When you have that much freedom, why do anything? That’s what you have to decide for yourself.”
“I was kind of listening, but also doing whatever I wanted.”
“You can look at it as a kind of lesson. But what do you think this lesson could be?”
“That nothing you play is wrong. And be sensitive to what you see and hear, and then to what you play and do.”
“So there’s a kind of community being created. Sounds pretty good.”
The ensemble played it another time, without further guidance from Lewis. Everyone made more sounds. The result: it was louder, but the pattern was less discernible and therefore less interesting. It reminded me of eavesdropping on a conversation where everyone is talking at once.
“You know, this piece was played by the Budapest String Orchestra, and Earle didn’t like it,” Lewis told them. “And there could be a lot of reasons for that. There’s an implied aesthetic in that. They made it sound like Brahms. You could make it sound like Brahms, or you could make it sound like Sonny Clark. The thing is that this piece is about awareness, not just about yourself. If I haven’t heard from Jonathan in a while, I might wait for him to do something, and if he doesn’t, well, I won’t either. It [the score] looks like a printed roll or a punched metal roll for a music box, but it doesn’t work that way. It’s not press-on-regardless. You start to blend what you’re playing into what someone else is playing.” Ideally, he added, they should feel “empathy” and “trust” toward one another. When those feelings are present, “people come up with the right stuff.” Finally: “It’s sexual, man. Okay, let’s give it a whirl.”
They tried it a third time, doing more listening than playing. It was the quietest version — more thoughtful than the other two. More purposeful, less haphazard.
“The ultimate lesson is that you really don’t need [the score],” Lewis said in sum. “It’s about finding your place in the universe of sound.”
From “Four Systems,” they progressed to Coltrane’s “26-2” and Dave Holland’s “Four Winds.” A workout. When practice ended, sax player Gabriel approached Lewis, who had more words of encouragement for him; then the two, teacher and student, looked at each other for a short, warm, wordless moment.
Someone else was waiting to speak with Lewis — one of the pianists, who presented him with a package of homemade sushi. He accepted it with a deep Asian-style bow, which she answered with a bow of her own.
As we walked along a campus path, Lewis greeted students, faculty, maintenance crews and was in turn greeted by them. It felt a little like being with the president of the class. “Hi, George,” said the team at the coffee stand who fixed him a double espresso.
Settled back in his office, Lewis declared that eventually he would like the ensemble to do without scores. “I want them to generate the music themselves, like a garage band. After all, that’s how young people create experimental music today, especially rock, which most of the students know. The idea is to make sure they see that there are no limits to music and that ‘jazz’ is just a word, not a set of rigid requirements. I try to help them with notation, orchestration, whatever they need. Newcomers to class tend to bring pieces from fake books, which I discourage. If they’re going to engage with standards I’d rather they do a Latin version of Monk’s ‘Epistrophy,’ or a hip-hop version of Coltrane’s ‘Countdown.’ Actually, I have a feeling some are happy when I say no to fake books. They often assume I’m interested in standard repertoire played in a standard way. You can see them brighten when they find out I’m not.”
He said he was not big on imposing discipline. He believes it will emerge because they want it to emerge — “when they know the reasons why you need discipline.”
About 20 years ago, critic John Rockwell interviewed Lewis for All-American Music: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century (1983). “Instant composition” was what Lewis called improvisation at the time. He has since moved away from such glibness. “These days, when I hear that phrase, I think about all the hours of practice and study, all the experiences, how it took me my entire life to get to the point of being able to play. And so I don’t see anything instant about it. As far as pedagogy is concerned, we find that the people who think of it in that way tend to be the weakest improvisers.”
How one becomes a strong improviser is not an easy question to answer. “Most people in the world make music by improvising. So you can’t really generalize without running into problems. There are an extraordinary number of traditions, and new ones are forming all the time. It’s not the same thing to play a concert with John Zorn as to play one with the Art Ensemble. There’s not a lot of overlap. Everyone has to be treated a little differently.”
“Now, there is a ‘field’ of improvised music, which I think of as a hybrid. Those who inhabit it come from many backgrounds. Some come from the new, Western music virtuosity; others from African-American improvised musics — loosely stated, blues or jazz; others from rock or performance art. And some people have combination histories. I’m one. So where you start may not be where you end up.”
“My initial forays were in jazz. But does that mean every time I pick up my horn to improvise it’s a jazz event? That’s a mobility issue. I mean, do we get to name what we’re doing? This is hard to achieve, particularly for African-American artists.”
Lewis would, however, say that beginners of all types tend to be concerned with what they’re going to play, while more experienced improvisers are concerned with what they’re going to encounter — “making predictions about the inner states of the people with whom they’re playing on the basis of what they’re hearing.”
This is a very human process, as it turns out. A few years ago, at a conference sponsored by an art-science research center in Copenhagen, Lewis was delighted to meet neuroscientists studying “how we routinely infer the inner states of other people based on external actions, gestures, sounds.” It’s exactly what occupies Lewis and his improviser-associates.
“[Saxophonist and composer] Steve Lacy said — I heard him say it — and as Monk told him, ‘When you make music, you want to make the other people sound good.’ You are trying to let everyone have their say. This specifically comes out of the African-American tradition, because it’s very clear that a group of people who were enslaved, and silenced, would create a music in which everybody got to say whatever they wanted.”
Lewis sees an analogy in basketball. He referred me to Phil Jackson’s book, Sacred Hoops (1999). “It had such a resonance for me, because basketball is an improvised form, like soccer, say. Or, it’s much more improvised on an individual basis than, say, football, where you’re in this phalanx and you’re moving forward.”
Jackson discusses “positionality” in Sacred Hoops, Lewis said. “So that if you’re here and you have the ball, then you should know where other people are. You’ve got to pay attention to where everyone is. And everyone has to be involved. One person can’t do the whole thing. Jackson gives the Michael Jordan example, where he would have the ball and everyone would stand around and watch him, and he would score 60 points, but the team would lose.”
Lewis has seen similar situations among improvisers. “It happens when one person plays constantly and doesn’t let anyone else play. Or is not sensitive to the context or how to shift the context. And people get locked out; they can’t express themselves. Improvisation falls down. And so you [try to] create a situation that usually involves being a kind of role model. [You may even choose] not to make a sound. [In doing so] you’re expressing trust in other people to take over. Michael Jordan didn’t want to give the ball up because he didn’t trust his teammates. I like to be in an environment where people leave space for everyone. And the first time you [let others in], they might blow it, but you gotta keep trusting them anyway.”
Nonmusicians, or even nonimprovisers, may wonder how one practices for a concert of improvised music. I innocently wondered if “practice” might be a kind of cheating. I wanted to know specifically how he had prepared for his concert with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra in January 2000, when he played an improvised solo for the premiere of Frames(2) by composer Rand Steiger, another ucsd colleague.
Lewis said, “The idea of the unstructured musical event is a convenient classical music fiction, designed as a critique of things like jazz.” Even ordinary conversations, although they may seem “improvisatory,” have a structure, he pointed out. “In the case of improvised music, if there is no prior agreement in, say, the form of a score, and if there is no common sense of culture, or common history — then the structure has to emerge from the activities and the people involved. Most of it is listening. The thing about improvised music is that it is an analytic form of listening before it is anything else.”
(Lewis’s improvisatory computer program, Voyager, works the same way; he built it to play not a set of prefabricated responses, but “its own plausible responses” to the human improviser who, in real time, is improvising with it.)
Contrary to another popular notion, practicing by improvisers is not often done in groups. “The guys in the Art Ensemble — Lester Bowie played in two million one-night concerts — all these guys, they had their backgrounds, right? So by the time they came on the scene, there had been about 70 years of different approaches to improvising in the African-American tradition. That’s a huge storehouse. Then, around 1960 or 1970, comes a group of people who don’t have that background and who claim they don’t need it to improvise. Well, what are they going to draw from? Many of them got together in groups and never practiced anything improvisatory outside of the group context. That gave rise to the idea that the only way to practice improvised music was to get together and play. That’s why it so surprises people to hear that the Art Ensemble or whomever didn’t do that — because this conventional wisdom has been so widely propagated.”
Practicing is “only one of the paths” for an improviser, anyway. Lewis also recommends “listening to music of all kinds, listening to expert or even inexpert talk, responding to various kinds of visual and performative art, being aware of what is happening in the sciences.”
The next step “is making connections between the music and the rest of what you are experiencing. The critical-theory people call it ‘rhizomatic’ thinking. It’s analogous to the giant anthills that run across millions and millions of acres. Your personal environment gets richer, and it gets more difficult to separate one element from another; the divisions seem arbitrary and limiting.”
“If you extend that to dialogues with other people, then it becomes clear why musicians — at least those I was brought up with — always tell you to listen to everybody, or even to everything.”
Self-consciousness, one would think, would be death to successful improvisation. “Was it Keith Jarrett who said he blanked his mind?” Lewis asked rhetorically. “Well, that’s fine. He got good results. It worked for him. But it’s not my way. I’m not blanking anything. I want everything I can bring to the process. For me [blanking] doesn’t work; I want to be aware of all the possibilities or as many of them as I can. So this sense of self-consciousness is what you want.”
Of those besides Jarrett who favor trances, Lewis said: “What I find about people in a trance is that you can’t get their damned attention when you need it. They’re too busy working on their trance.”
Trances, finally, are “just a false hope,” in Lewis’s opinion. “Improvisation is work. Communication is work. Improvisation in front of an audience is a dialogue. You must respond. You can’t just walk up there and play. That idea came along from the same people who believe you can only practice in groups.”
For Steiger’s Frames(2), Lewis created what he calls a “constructed improvisation.” “I made my own little graphic score — a graphic reduction, measure by measure. So I could look at it and say, ‘Well, this is what’s happening in the orchestra.’ And that gave me a guidepost about what I should be doing. Now, that’s the process of working on someone else’s work. When I work on my own pieces, it depends on the context.”
In the end, it’s the improviser’s responsibility “to decide how much prior structure will fit each situation. You don’t come with a dogma about how it’s supposed to go: ‘It has to be completely free.’ ‘It has to be this or that.’ In other words, part of my job is to make that decision. It’s part of my art.”
- The rhythm takes me… back to where music began…to Africa.
- — “North Star Boogaloo,” for percussion and computer, by George Lewis. Percussion by Steven Schick; text and sampled voice by Quincy Troupe. From Endless Shout (2000)
Unlike some improvisers, Lewis isn’t keen on improvising with poetry he’s hearing for the first time. “I would rather read the poetry carefully and then construct something. I don’t respond well in situations where I’m having to create something on the spot. Since the poet has spent all that time creating a work, I want to give a complementary effort. There seems to be more symmetry there.”
Since meeting Quincy Troupe at ucsd, Lewis has created “settings” for three poems by the poet who teaches writing and African-American Literature at the university. “The View from Skates in Berkeley” can be found on Lewis’s Changing with the Times (1993). It opens with a plaintive overture by Douglas Ewart on clarinet and Lewis on trombone — two synchronized swimmers of sound. When Troupe begins to speak his words — a reminiscence about a “shimmering, rare day” full of hope (…“because we were what we always thought we were” … “we were strong, as we always knew we would be”…) — Lewis and Ewart are joined by Mary Oliver on viola, Peter Gonzales III on percussion, Jeannie Cheatham on piano, and the singing voice of Bernard Nixon.
In 1996, Lewis created “North Star Boogaloo,” featuring Troupe’s poem of the same name and a notated percussion part written for ucsd professor of music and master percussionist Steven Schick.
“It’s my way of examining the codes and practices of hip-hop,” said Lewis — its “rhymes, rhythms, samples, beats, and breaks.” At the same time, he wanted to “inject” those elements into the world of notated composition. “It’s part of my ongoing issue with the so-called experimental music tradition and its inability to digest black histories.” He thought Troupe’s epic-like “Boogaloo,” an extended narrative about African-American history and culture, would be “a well-chosen elixir.”
He didn’t set the whole poem to music. “I read it closely and realized I had to pick out fragments and yet try to retain the overall sense of the poem. Quincy let me do that, so I recorded a taped reading onto a digital sampler. It’s basically the same kind of machine that rappers use. So what I had was a group of ‘samples’ of Quincy’s voice that could be played by a keyboard or by a computer sequencer. I made a lot of other samples too — from TV sports, and from some of my own older released recordings.” Indeed, an astute listener will hear bits of “Changing with the Times,” among others. Also these: “I wanna be like Mike.” A crowd cheering at a sporting event. A sports announcer saying, “He is amazing!” and “He’s done it again!” and “A time-out is called!” A reel-to-reel tape recorder (or what sounds like one) periodically being rewound or fast-forwarded “through history’s dice game,” as Troupe would have it. And the name of a master percussionist from the past, Roy Haynes, repeated over and over.
The piece did not use regular hip-hop production techniques, Lewis explained. “I wanted the backing track to be slightly different every time; the computer would decide for itself what samples to use and when to play them.” To get the computer to make such decisions, he wrote a program instead of using standard sequencers. “It’s designed to mimic aspects of how Quincy does live readings — the repetition, sense of timing and drama. It was like part of the score — you can see from the source code when samples play, what kinds, which beat is being used, and so on. It runs for the entire length of the piece, and everything that Steve isn’t playing is being played by the program — electronic drums, samples, Quincy’s voice, etc.”
The program worked well, but the triggers were balky and unreliable. “We were in a rush because the premiere was looming.” In the end, he made a tape. “That turned out to be the right approach; otherwise, Steve would have had to take a computer and a bunch of gear with him to concerts. That would have limited where — and how often — he could play the piece. Also, I’ve done live computer-music concerts myself for 20 years, and the unexpected technical difficulty often occurs. If you’re not a technician, you can’t fix it, and bye-bye concert. I could fix it but wasn’t always going to be there. Steve has since played the piece in New York, Poland, Israel, and elsewhere, for which I’m grateful and honored.”
The hybridist Lewis accomplished something else by writing “Boogaloo” for super-drummer Schick. He had been wondering what would happen if Western-trained Schick “got dropped into” a non-Western music tradition.
“Western music is all about reaching up higher.” He mimicked a classical pianist, lifting his hands from imaginary keys, and a ballet dancer, holding arms aloft. “African music and dance is rooted in the ground. When someone from that tradition takes a step, it’s with the whole foot.” And he demonstrated that too. So in order for Schick and others to play non-Western music they would have to “undergo some change in their physicality.” That’s exactly what Lewis wanted to happen to Schick. He was, in a sense, “writing for the body.”
He did a similar thing when he asked pianist Sarah Cahill to perform his composition “Endless Shout” for his compact disc of the same name. “She doesn’t come from the boogie-woogie world” — that is, the style of playing a short, sharply accented bass pattern with the left hand, while the right hand plays freely, using a variety of rhythms. The body style and gestures of the Berkeley-based Cahill, who plays both new and classical music, had to change when she played the boogie-woogie riffs in those four movements.
Lewis has also written a version of “Endless Shout” for “creative orchestra.” It was performed in 1999 at the California Institute of the Arts, in Valencia, “mostly by ucsd people,” when he accepted a CalArts/Alpert Award. Given to artists in dance, film/video, theater, visual arts, as well as music, the $50,000 prizes are funded by the Herb Alpert Foundation.
The energetic conductor of “Endless Shout” at CalArts that evening was Lewis himself. When he toured the piece with the Vancouver-based New Orchestra Workshop across Canada last summer, he conducted and played the trombone part. At one point on the tour, at the annual jazz festival in Guelph, Lewis, the unfixed star, also delivered academic lectures and conducted workshops.
Bonnie Wright, founding director of Spruce Street Forum, was on the tour with Lewis, working as his road manager. She had met him at ucsd while finishing her undergraduate degree in music and cultural studies. This was after raising three children and working a variety of jobs, mostly in retail and design. A native San Diegan — “second generation, actually” — she offered to show Lewis around when he arrived here.
“I wanted to show him things that I know and love about San Diego. We did things in the community as opposed to on the campus. We went to a nonsymphony concert at Symphony Hall. We went to Point Loma, out to Cabrillo National Monument. All those years later the Point Loma project was right near there.”
As Lewis was getting established as an academic, he had numerous concert commitments to fulfill around the world. (His concert schedule continues to be international but is somewhat less hectic now.) Wright was hired by Lewis as his “coordinator” — “the one who tried to make sure that things went smoothly.”
She traveled with him. “I wanted to be involved with the music,” she said. “And George, as you may have noticed, is this wonderfully generous person — very inclusive.” (This is true. In our conversations, Lewis mentioned name after name of collaborators and influences and glossed each of them. I’ve had to omit most; I hope it suffices to say that Lewis thinks, works, and lives rhizomatically.) “So it was fine that I would go along. The first place I went was New Orleans, when he played with his friends from the aacm. Then I went to the Beijing International Jazz Festival. Then to Amsterdam a couple of times. It was wonderful access for me, an opportunity to hear beautiful music and meet beautiful people. And everybody in the world loves George Lewis. There’s no place he goes where he isn’t well-known and well-loved.”
Wright has worked on projects with Lewis in San Diego too. “Point Loma, for instance. I was the liaison between George and the city. There were lots of things to be taken care of, and I made sure that they were taken care of on time.” (She has a cameo on one of the audio tracks as well: her voice is saying, “sludge, sludge, sludge…”)
In 1995, after Wright finished her bachelor’s degree and was nearly finished with her master’s, she decided “to put my money where my mouth was.” She established Spruce Street Forum as a nonprofit organization in a building she was bequeathed by her father. “I renovated it, leased one half to Margaret Porter Troupe [for an art gallery], took the other half for the concerts, and there you have it.”
She credited Lewis with inspiring her to take this major step for herself and for the new music scene in San Diego. “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it weren’t for George. I mean, it’s my thing, but George introduced me to the music. There would be no Spruce Street Forum if it weren’t for George Lewis.”
Last fall, I attended the opener of Wright’s six-concert Fresh Sound series. It was Trio 3 — saxophonist Oliver Lake, drummer Andrew Cyrille, and bass player Reggie Workman. The space was warmly lit, and the artwork of Blair Thornley was on its cream-colored walls. There was no stage or raised platform; 120 folding chairs were set up around a center. Large windows showed the scene to passersby on the street. At intermission and after the concert, audience members could join the musicians in the garden for wine and snacks.
Minutes before showtime, Wright was greeting arrivals at the door. The performance was sold out, and there was a line of hopefuls on a waiting list. Later, introducing these “grand masters of improvised music,” this petite woman who exudes enormous efficiency was happy to announce that “everybody got in.”
They wailed, to use the parlance, this group of three — Cyrille, “one of the master drummers of the modern jazz era” (Wright’s phrase), who is also a composer; Workman, recipient of a 1999 Jazz Living Legend Award, who is best known for his work with Coltrane; and Lake, who was introduced by Workman as “the dynamo of our little aggregation.”
Speaking for the trio, Workman praised Wright, “who brings real music to an audience like this.”
Lewis had to miss it, having gone to Detroit for an American studies conference. (“Very rarely is American experimental music discussed in American Studies departments,” said Lewis of his lecture topic for the weekend. “Hip-hop, yes. Reggae, yes. But not the desegregated version of the experimental tradition.” He wanted to bring them “the music they ignore” and to pose the question, “Why must the experimental tradition be a white tradition? Just because it started out that way doesn’t mean it has to end up that way — or really, if you think about it, it didn’t even start out that way.”)
But many of his friends were in the audience, including Anthony Davis. Former students too — among them, trombonist Michael Dessen, a composer-improviser whose Michael Dessen Quartet would play a debut concert of improvised music at Spruce Street Forum later in the season.
“I think he’s a genius,” Wright had said to me of Lewis in our brief conversation that evening. On the phone she elaborated: “Well, I don’t know what the official definition is, but let me tell you, there’s nothing that I bring up that he doesn’t already know about. I’ve tried to find things! He remembers things, he knows things, and he sees the big picture. He’s a true intellectual.”
Hans Fjellestad — one of Lewis’s first “serious” student improvisers at ucsd (“and still one of the best”) — used the same word, unprompted: “I think he’s a — I don’t know if this is something you would want to print or whatever, because it might embarrass him, but I think he’s a genius. One thing he’s especially gifted at is negotiating between different worlds — the political world, the academic environment, his personal artistic visions, his collaborations with other artists, his teacher-student relationships. There are very few people who can do that.”
Fjellestad, a pianist-keyboardist and improviser-composer, is a member of Trummerflora, the experimental- and improvised-music collective. The 32-year-old, who was born in San Diego, is also a video artist. (“It’s the same kind of thing; it’s just a different medium.”) He owns a small video production company and directs and edits commercials, music videos, documentaries, and video art pieces. “A couple of years ago, George came out to a gig I was playing [at the Casbah], where I also presented some video pieces. He was interested in some of the video ideas and processes I was working with.” Shortly after that, Lewis asked Fjellestad to work with him on the Point Loma project.
Processing the three simultaneous video streams, getting them to interact and play with each other in various ways, was “intense work in the edit suite,” Fjellestad told me. “But the subject matter was fascinating. And being sequestered during postproduction in a creative space with George Lewis was a rewarding experience.”
His title was videographer/editor. “Essentially my job was to realize George’s vision for visual material. We used some imagery from George’s extensive library of video footage, which he had shot over the years, but the majority of material was shot at the plant and surrounding area. We spent many hours together in my studio culling this material and building the stories.”
Fjellestad’s cavelike studio is downtown, on 12th and G. “I prefer studios with no windows, because the natural light can screw up how I’m seeing the video. So it really does feel like you’re dead to the world when you’re in here for a long period.”
Lewis, for his part, told me that he loved their 10- to 12-hour sessions. He also praised Fjellestad as an artist, in an e-mail: “I think Hans has managed to do exactly what he says — translate the improvisative sensibility to the video medium, but in a different way than the hand-held shaky stuff. He could go in any direction; perhaps his next project should be a dvd, where he could really get off on a video/music combination. That would get me to buy a dvd machine. His interdisciplinary sensibility was critical to the project’s success.”
He went on to plug Fjellestad’s new compact disc: “Hans and his cohorts are doing amazing work now with the Trummerflora group. Get him to send you a copy of Red Sauce Baby — it’s his best work to date, especially the sound-art stuff, but also the piano improvisations. He’s trying to break the sound barrier.”
Without knowledge of either the praise or the plug, Fjellestad said: “He promotes his students in an unpretentious and unassuming way. Personally he’s just so damn generous, you know? He’s just mentored me and taught me much and has always sort of been there for the little comment here or there, and then it’ll sink in, so that later I’ll say, ‘Oh, I see.’ ”
- Airplane sounds, didgeridoo drone. I am a traveler, and this is the last flight. I thread myself and my instrument between groups of passengers, all the way to a seat in the last row of the crowded airplane.
- A balding fellow with a gin and tonic on his food tray stares with furtive curiosity, first at me, then at my saxophone case. “So, we’re going to have some entertainment on this flight, huh?”
- “Well, there’s a movie, I think.”
- “No, it’d be great to have some live entertainment right here on the airplane.”
- Short pause. “Thank you for your interest in my music,” I reply, “but I really have a lot of other work to do.”
- The balding fellow’s brain-computer seems visibly to grapple with this apparently extraordinary statement as I settle into my too-narrow economy-class seat and remove the newspaper from my briefcase. I open the paper and almost immediately find an article captioned, “TV viewers think most successful black males are either entertainers or athletes.” I close the paper and look up to find that above every second seat, a small television monitor is strategically positioned.
- After a few minutes, with the support of another gin and tonic, Bob was ready to try again. Evidently, processing was now complete.
- “So, you’re a professional musician, huh?”
- Quick, hide the computer and the vcr! The anthropologists are coming!
- — “Airplane,” text-and-sound composition by George Lewis. Didgeridoo played by Douglas Ewart, speaking voice by Bernard Nixon. From Changing with the Times (1993)
When a photographer posed him for a shoot for an article that appeared in a university publication a couple of years ago, Lewis was annoyed by the suggested prop — his trombone. He made sure his computer got into the picture too. “The fundamental issue is mobility for the African-American artist,” he averred recently. “I don’t want to have to choose between the two, Cage and Bird, like a biracial child being asked to choose one parent over the other. I don’t want to throw Coltrane out the door. I would call him the single biggest influence on me. But I also consider [electronic music pioneer Karlheinz] Stockhausen a big influence. I don’t want to be forced to choose. If you succumb to the cultural police and stick your hands out [for the handcuffs], you lose your freedom. And the cultural police can come from any race or group.”
Some of the people who know him only through, say, the Point Loma project, don’t even know he is a musician of any sort. They think of him in broader terms. George Lewis, Artist is what the informational plaque on his artwork in the wastewater treatment plant’s visitors’ center says. That seems to be right. Although “music is the base” of what Lewis does, what interests him above all is “seeing the integration of things.”
On his office door, there is an old photo of him playing trombone, his cheeks puffed. I suggested that at some point the instrument may be eliminated from the picture. He replied that the trombone “shouldn’t go away because I’m consciously trying to get rid of it. It shouldn’t be because it has become an albatross around my neck. It may just go away of its own accord.”
Whatever happens, it seems to me that the instrument, taken up by Lewis so randomly at the Lab School’s music fair 40 years ago, was a perfect choice, because it “speaks.” It has a vocal quality. And an important part of what he does today is speak and write about music.
Among his latest works-in-progress is a book — a history of that all-important influence on him, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Titled Power Stronger Than Itself, it will be published by the University of Chicago Press. He considers it “an autobiography of a collective,” which he calls “one of the most important movements in music in the last half of the 20th Century.” He believes, too, that “an insider” needed to write it. “The membership was not going to cooperate with someone from the outside.”
To gather the material, he interviewed upwards of 100 people. Currently, he is weaving it into a coherent narrative. He hasn’t succumbed to the temptation of focusing only on the famous personages. “That obviously works for other people, because there is a strong interest in taking the power to canonize. But the aacm is totally against that kind of thing. And so at some point you realize that everyone has to be served.”
Nor does he have plans to take a leave of absence to complete it. “I could say, ‘Well, look, I’ll just get a grant and nip off for a year.’ But so many other initiatives here at ucsd need to be nurtured. I was at least partially responsible for bringing many of these graduate students here. I can’t just leave them for a long period of time. You know, Critical Studies/Experimental Practices is a new program. It needs someone who’s kind of around. We’re trying to build something here. At the same time, the aacm is my community even more than this one. So I’m trying to negotiate between them. The thing about the aacm is that the people who started it are dying — they’re going away — and I would like them to see this before they go.”
So he’ll write it in “a paroxysm of frenzied activity,” he said. “It will be just like all the other projects, very difficult, and I’ll stay up late and will have to tell people I can’t come out and play.”
That may be, but the “nomadic impulse” is still at work in Lewis. On a recent break from university classes, he played a concert in New York and then, a week or so later, one in Seoul.
I attended the one on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Held at the Society for Ethical Culture, it was sponsored by the New York chapter of the aacm. One of his two pieces, called “Ring Shout Ramble,” was an improvisation, with Aaron Stewart on tenor sax, Miya Masaoka on koto, Thurman Barker on marimba, and Lewis on trombone. Strange bedfellows here, as sax and koto paired up for a duet, then trombone and marimba. The other pleasure of the evening was a 25-minute notated composition for string quartet. String quartet? Yes, but because it was a composition by the inimitable Lewis, it was hardly retro: it included a percussionist. Called “Signifying Riffs,” it was played by the Meridian String Quartet and percussionist Matthew Gold, whose body had to assume an other-than-Western posture to deliver the rhythms, just as Schick’s must for “North Star Boogaloo.”
Beforehand and afterward, Lewis was in the back of the auditorium, hugging old friends, many of them prominent members of various musical worlds, including David Behrman, the composer, erstwhile record producer, and recognized dean of “humanized” electronic music. There were also grandmother sorts and children.
Several thousand miles later, Lewis e-mailed me from Korea, where he had gone to be part of Richard Teitelbaum’s Golem, the interactive computer opera for which he was one of the first performers in the mid-1980s. “The piece has gone through many metamorphoses,” he wrote. This performance would feature one of the great artists of the p’ansori folk narrative tradition — dramatic singing, accompanied by drumming on a small barrel. She is Ahn Sook-Sun.
Lewis acknowledged that “one of the interesting dynamics” — which is not to say “problems” — that he and the others faced was the language barrier: how to communicate musical ideas with Ahn. “Also, our musics and musical backgrounds are very different, especially when considering the electronics and video projections.”
He wrote me again a few days later to say he had attended a traditional p’ansori performance by Ahn and had discovered something exciting — and useful. It was that p’ansori soloists are customarily urged on, with vocalizations. “P’ansori apparently originated as a kind of preaching ritual, and I saw that the audience was talking back to the performers — in rhythm — and the performers were talking to each other, just like at a bebop gig or an Afro-Christian church ritual. The newer improvised musics seem to do less of this, so I realized I had to shift gears and go back to the roots a bit.”
During the performance of the Teitelbaum opera, Lewis encouraged Ahn as she sang. “I found that incorporating that element of dialogue — ‘Go, baby’ — into it was just what was needed. Once I started doing that, I think she felt much better about being part of something very different from what she normally does, and I felt like we were coming together as an ensemble. As she responded in kind during my solo, I felt that a bond and a rapport had been achieved. This is when you realize that social interaction may be one of the strongest mediating factors in producing musical structure in improvised music.”
And although the language barrier remained unbroken, Lewis was elated to report, he and she were able to give each other high fives after the performance.