George E. Lewis is a composer, electronic performer, installation artist, trombone player, and scholar in the fields of improvisation and experimental music.
Interviewed at “Sonorities Festival”, Belfast 23.04.2007.
Katarzyna Głowicka: Who is a composer? What is her/his role in society?
George Lewis: Composer’s role in society? Well, which society?
K: What do you mean by which society?
L: Well, we’re here right now in Belfast. I imagine that’s a very different possibility of roles than the US, where I live.
K: So, talk about US.
L: I couldn’t possibly talk about what the role of a person here is. I’d be kind of wrong, but . . . ok, here’s the downbeat view. First of all, it seems that when we say composers, I’m assuming we’re meaning composers of high culture art music of some kind. Does that sound right?
L: Otherwise, we could include Prince or whatever, which is a very different role in society. But, composers doing that kind of work, it seems to me that the role has been traditionally fairly marginal in the US. I think that’s partly because composers of that era tended to recluse themselves from involvement with society. They thought that the Cold War consensus would support them forever. They kind of felt that they were on the gravy train of the post war consensus. That is to say that contemporary music, it’s experimental leanings, it’s claim to primacy, it’s claim to being the next big thing that would influence all areas of music. In other words, the modernist project and the sense which composers align themselves with that, people felt that this was going to continue forever. And when the modernist project failed and began to fail in the 70s under pressure from, let’s say, post colonialism, post modernism of various kinds, multi-culturalisms, the idea of art music as this sort of unitary, stable construct also began to fall apart. This is perhaps more a long winded than you wanted, but it wouldn’t have fit in this space anyway. So, what ends up happening in that environment is that many composers decided that they wanted to take a less marginal role and they wanted to move more toward the centre of the concerns of the society, which of course means you have to find, rather than assuming yourself be a leader in an elite sense, you had to go out and find out what your followers wanted you to do. So, you would then see composers align themselves more with popular music movements. There was a sense in which composition was – the notion of high culture and low culture – those were being blurred. Composers began working with, certainly, electronics being one area of translation across class stratifications, another being improvisation. So, I’m talking about the way that composers are viewed with the sense of which music in the US is largely deemed as something that should be non-political, should be largely for entertainment and in that sense, I would say that the performance of string quartet and the performance of country music are basically considered the same. Which is to say, that there’s no sense that one is more edifying than another. I’d say they’re both considered part of a wide ranging entertainment complex and contemporary composers are told for the most part to stay away social concerns, to stay away from politics, to stay away from anything that might mark them as being somehow used by some other aspect of society. Well, composers accepted that and so they sort of revel in their marginality at the moment, as far as I can see. That’s my answer to it.
K: I was also looking for an answer of what is this to you?
L: I said that’s what it is to me.
K: This is your role?
L: Me, personally?
K: You see your role this way?
L: Oh yes, I do. Because, basically I’m a composer and this is the way my work is seen in the society. It’s a very marginal one. You can’t say that contemporary composition, especially outside of NYC, is in the center of the concerns of society. There’s no consensus, you know, it’s not like here. No one cares what they write in The Guardian. If there’s a Guardian type newspaper in say, Chicago or Los Angeles or you know. No one cares what they write about culture. That doesn’t matter at all. There’s no BBC orchestra that has a guaranteed spot on television in the US. So, there’s no sense in which contemporary composers in the US have any real claim on society’s resources.
K: But what is your role, yourself? How do you consider your role in society?
L: Oh, me personally. Being an African American, that puts me in a very different space. I’m not considered part of the high culture consensus to begin with. The black composer is quite invisible as far as I can tell. I mean, most people don’t even know there are black composers. You’re asking me these questions and I’m telling you the answers.
K: And women as well?
L: Well no, actually, in the United States, woman composers aren’t invisible.
L: No, as far as I can see, the millennium hasn’t come, but I don’t see the same sense of marginality at all. There isn’t a comparison there. So I think that I don’t see . . . Women composers have won the Pulitzer Prize in the United States . Women composers have performed with major orchestras. Not routinely, but quite often. It’s not to say that women composers have been thoroughly embraced, but you know, it can’t be compared. Race and gender aren’t the same and they can’t be compared. So, that’s important. My personal . . . I feel that I’m actually quite lucky. I’ve won probably the most major awards that the United States can offer in terms of my composite work as an artist. My . . so called Genius Award, but that . . . you know, you get on television for a little while, but then after that it all goes away and you go back to being George Lewis, and that’s it. I feel pretty happy with my personal role, if you’re talking about personal. But when you say “the role in society”, that’s not personal anymore.
K: That’s not personal?
L: So, you can’t ask a question like “What is the composer’s role in society?”.
K: But you can define it yourself.
L: Well, no you can’t; that’s what I’m telling you. You can’t do that because you have to be responsible to a society. Otherwise, you’re just asking yourself “How many gigs do you have?” And “What is your view of the political consensus of the day?” These are trivial questions, as far as I can tell. They’re too personal to make any real difference to anyone. So I’m telling you what the situation is facing a young composer wanting to have a role in the culture. That’s different from me. I’m 54 years old. At this point, I have a minor role. I’m in a few books. I have a few books of my own coming out; I publish regularly. And I have a small role, but it’s certainly not a household word or anything. But there’s no composer in the US that’s a household word. There’s no Harrison Birthwistle that trips off the lips of people. That doesn’t exist in the US. There’s no one like that. That enough for this?
K: Let’s go on. What makes a great composer?
L: A great composer?
L: Oh, skills? Well, that’s a different question.
K: Sorry, that’s a different question; you’re right. I was trying to combine two. What makes a great composer? Let’s just concentrate on this. Hopefully, it will be a shorter answer.
L: Probably not. You asked me to talk. And since I haven’t really thought about what makes a great composer, this is all new thinking for me. Who are the people I consider great in music? I guess it’s the people with whom I’ve had the strongest emotional connection. So, let’s see what’s the music with whom I’ve had the strongest emotional connection? John Coltrane. That’s my model of a great composer. (laughs) Number one, there’s a commitment, an absolute commitment, to being himself at every moment. There’s no one else that exists. When listening to great music, the waters part and there’s just you and the music. That’s it, for a brief moment. You lock out all the rest of the world, all the stuff about society and the place of composers gets erased. And suddenly there you are, face-to-face with this very powerful presence. The other one, of course, with whom I’ve had a similar commitment is Wagner. Very much the same, I’d say. If you listen to ‘Parsifal” the opera that a lot of people don’t like, which is one of my favorites. It’s exactly the same as listening to Coltrane if you think about it. Let’s see, a third one would be Stravinsky, although, he is not quite the same.
K: So, what you’re saying that what makes a good composer is the ability to project this presence? Is that the most important thing?
L: Well if you say in other words what I’m trying to say what my words are. I guess what my words are that the musical work itself suspends everyday reality. And this is very romantic. The possibility exists that you are just there alone with these sounds and what they mean. And they mean different things every time you hear them. So if you hear things, especially now, you can hear things thousands of times. I mean, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the overture of to ‘Parsifal’, probably thousands times. But the thing is that each time you hear it there’s something else in there that you have to grab on to. It’s like the experience renews itself. There’s something there from the previous 20 thousand times. But the 20 thousand and first time, there’s something there that you think, “Maybe I didn’t really hear that. Or did I hear that? I have no idea”. So the connection for me is largely emotional, it’s largely spiritual and it has nothing to do with methodology, nothing. And nothing to do with so called skills or any of that. That’s not what you need because the skills of all of the composers that you meet or hear about, there’s no benchmark of skills. Schoenberg, self-taught, Berio, self-taught. You know, there’s no benchmark. So, finally, the fact that I find, let’s say, Webern more interesting than Bartok, is sort of personal sense of when I’m listening to Webern, I don’t feel like I can plumb the depths. And when I’m listening to Bartok, I feel I listen to someone who . . . it’s all quite apparent to me somehow what’s going on. I applaud the brilliance, I applaud the economy of means and sometimes also the extravagance of what he’s doing. I’m very interested in the cultural ‘situativeness’. And then I go away and that’s it. It’s lovely and it’s extremely skillful. It’s done with a maximum of beauty. And so many people find that to be enough for them. And of course there are many people that feel the same way about Bartok as I feel about Wagner. So there you are.
K: Great. Next question is very similar. What in your opinion are the most important skills, (although you said there are no skills needed) to achieve success as a composer?
L: Oh no, no, no. I said . . . You talked about greatness. Now are we still talking about greatness or are we talking about success?
L: Oh, success. My goodness. For success, the main thing you need is, don’t be an asshole.
L: But then, even that’s not a mark of success. I mean, Wagner was a huge asshole. But somehow, he overcame that and inspired people. So composers, to succeed you have to inspire people with your vision.
K: Is that a skill?
L: Yes, it is. You can learn how to do that.
K: You mean personally, with personal contact or by your music?
L: Both, but personal contact probably first. Because music is a social world. You have to interest people in it. People don’t just sit there and say, “That was great music, sir. Let me bestow this cash upon you.” No, no, no, that’s not how it works. You have to meet people; it’s a social world. You meet conductors, other composers, presenters, patrons, institutions of various kinds. And so, one of the major aspects of that, is to have a vision that you can articulate to other people about what you’re trying to do. The second thing is you have to know who you’re talking to. You have to know what your market is. For example, there are people who will never support my work, no matter how they think it sounds because I’m the wrong color or because I’m the wrong gender, or because the kind of music I’m doing, the materials I’m doing don’t fit into their world. Or they don’t feel they can market it to someone else. All those things. So in the end the composers who want to succeed have to find out where they can succeed. What’s the field? The field is huge. Maybe there’s the sense in people’s minds that there’s this one field that’s sort of monolithic and that everyone goes through the same thing. That you go and study composition or you go to the conservatory and then you visit one of the major places for contemporary music. Maybe you go to Royal Hall or maybe you go to, I don’t know where else, Darmstadt, or that sort of thing and you develop those skills. But even there, if you are doing these things, you’re developing collegial relationships. So skill developing collegial relationships, makes the composer sound like a salesman. But, in fact, he is. And that’s something that has to be thought about. It’s not very romantic. It’s not cynical either. And then you see successful composers, the skill level is all over the map. You have successful composers who don’t even read music. So, what do you say about that? Well, they should have gone to conservatory? I’m not talking about rock and roll people. I’m taking about people who get their stuff done by symphonies and really have other people to dictate the work and have other people do it. In film composition, for example, one of the most famous ones. When he started, he couldn’t read a note. That was Elfman. But outside of that, let’s look at an outsider model, Glenn Branca. I don’t know if you know who that is. But, he had symphonies performed. He started out as a rock and roll musician, playing microtonal guitars of his own construction. Very interesting. Or people who avoid, drop out of college, like John Zorn, or people who never went to one. This is success in terms of getting your music played, in terms of getting commissions. This is a kind of success I’m talking about. There is no set of skills that can guarantee that. I think the major thing is commitment and believing in yourself. And even this can not guarantee the success but you are more likely to. Personal awareness of oneself and of environment. What I would ask composers to do is, as a teacher of composition I find myself asking people basically to be trying to be aware of what they do. And my job is commune with them regarding their intensions and whether their intensions that are being realized, and whether there are other intensions out there that they might want to realize, and then they can’t figure out how to, and then we can work on it together. I might not know how to do it either, but I might have seen a little more then them. My way of teaching is to work with the person together to help them to realize their vision or help them revise or refine their vision.
K: I will give you just two more questions. They will be similar. Maybe you don’t want to answer them. What personal obstacles did you find on your way to success.
L: The main personal obstacle was my own lack of believe in myself. Yes, that’s it. And there are reasons for that. My personal situation once again. Things like race and gender do matter at that point. You were talking about women composers. Certainly truth that women composers are treated the same way, so that for example if as a women you come into the room, suddenly lot’s of things change in terms of what that person feels about you. You face a hostile environment. Now, if you face that kind of environment, which I think I did, in some areas, you have to prove yourself, that takes a lot of extra work. It also feels like you never quite proved yourself. So you are always a little insecure and those insecurities build up to the point in which you become very unsure of yourself and you don’t really know. So I’d say, really the main thing was to find people who liked my work no matter what. You have to find people who really like you, and have no real criticism about you. No matter what you decide to do, they are going to say, we are backing this. That is when you might end up getting married. (laughs) You want someone like that.
K: Hard to find!
L: Yes, it is but you have to do it. And it can be done. People do it. And if you don’t find that person, I’d say don’t marry them. Don’t take less than that. It’s not worth it. In music, you might find someone who will support 80% of what you’re doing, or 50%, or 20%. Well, take the 20% and don’t give them the other part. (laughs) Take the 20% and you’ll be fine. The main thing is belief in self and self awareness. You have to develop that. The main obstacles are personally generated. And then beyond that there are the usual obstacles, but these are not as important as the personal. Because that’s something you can do about. The rest of it you just have to find your ways around. You know, if there is a big barrier there, someone is a racist, and idiot or a fool, you can’t do anything about that. They are just going to be who they are. So if you find ways of overcoming your own self-doubt then you are at the much better position to overcome external obstacles.
K: This is connected to my last questions. What were the obstacles from the outside word that you faced?
L: Well, I can’t really say that you overcome obstacles. What you do is you live with them. They don’t go away. You find ways of dealing with them. I would say for me race issues haven’t been an obstacle so much, as much as they’ve been a continuing feature of the landscape that can sometimes bobble up to the surface in unusual ways. And beyond that to be frank, I don’t think about obstacles.
K: well, probably that is your way of, not overcoming , but as you said, living with them.
L: Yes, that’s it. Because otherwise it sound like a kind of bellyaching. You know, it’s boring.” I was poor”. Yes I was. Or , I didn’t have this advantage, this teacher didn’t give me the right grade. Who cares? Basically you don’t learn much from that, cause it’s far too individualized to matter, or it’s so general, that is probably a myth. Instead of that something like personal issues that you can work on yourself, those are real to me. External obstacles there are like berms.
K: I don’t know what that is? Do you mean bumps on the road?
L: Yes. You know, you drive over that, you just remember not to drive too fast, because it will wreck your car and you have to see them coming. You have to look ahead. Developing that ability to look ahead is one of your skills. Seeing where the obstacles might be. And the other thing is. Maybe not everybody, but many people, certainly I am of the ones who wishes they were smarter, good looking or somehow nicer to people, or had better musical skills in what I do. But maybe those wouldn’t matter at the end. We all know the best musicians aren’t necessary the best composers.
K: Thank you very much. It was really great to talking to you!