Interview with George Lewis

George E. Lewis in discussion with Richard Carrick, September 2011.  George Lewis’ 2010 composition “Les Exercises Spirituels” will be performed by the Wet Ink Ensemble on the inaugural event of Interpretations’ 23rd season on Thursday September 22 (also featuring Morton Subotnick and Tony Martin).

RC: I’d like to discuss your work Les Exercices Spirituels from 2010, which will be performed thursday evening at the new Roulette.  What a fascinating title. There seems to be many layers of meaning behind it. You have mentioned it is a twist on French philosopher Pierre Hadot’s book Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Furthermore, there is a relationship between Hadot’s ideas and your work with philosopher Arnold I. Davidson (to whom this score is dedicated) which developed into the multi-faced lecture/class you call “Improvisation as a way of life.”

With so many references to choose from when sitting down to compose a new score, I’m curious which of your ideas also found their way to influencing the composing of a notated, 24 minute work for chamber orchestra and specialized sounds, with optional improvised passages. Can you discuss a few of the salient ideas in the title and how they relate to the music you wrote?

GL: The titles of the movements provide some clues as to my intent, even though, in accordance with practices in improvised music, as well as the way in which certain cultures treat births, I named them after they were “born.” Also, since the premiere was to take place in France, I wanted to use French titles. After years of living there and going to visit, I finally had a breakthrough in which I began to understand some of the ways in which the sound of French embodies beauty; German was always easier for me in that respect.

Du jour a la nuit basically oscillates between short, intense days and long, fairly mysterious evenings. Espaces is short and self-explanatory. I still have a fascination with silences in which very little happens, but I’m not quite as forceful with that as the Wandelweiser people, so instead I like to have open-ended spaces in which very little appears to occur.

The third movement presents a series of virtuosic solo passages with accompaniments, and Meditations presents repetition textures, but not for too long; I like what I call “freely fractal” repetition, with lots of noise in the lines, rather than the gradual process music of yore.

Maybe I should also talk about some other ideas that weren’t related to the titles. These days I’m undecided as to how to handle live electronics. I spent decades creating electronic music devices that played themselves, and they got pretty good at improvising and being very up front and dialogic, but in this piece there’s basically an operator who follows the score and initiates preset transformations that were composed with the orchestration in mind. But one day I made a mix of the Tzadik recording, which is of the premiere, in which I could turn off the electronics. I liked that too, so I thought about listing the electronics in the score as “optional” for future performances. But after I heard Sam Pluta’s mix of the version with electronics, I decided not to go through with that.

I guess my first inclination was the right one, but I was also pleased that the basic instrumental sound was working. If that works, all you have to do is add very minimal electronic intervention, which is the idea throughout the piece—not quite as minimal and blend-oriented as when I heard Kaija Saariaho’s Lichtbogen in Amsterdam in the 1980s, but with that sort of thing in mind.

Then there are the improvisations, which really are optional, based on a little grid with text instructions that the performers read and perform at a totally unhurried pace. The ensemble Erik Satie performed them brilliantly, and so did Dinosaur Annex in April at Brown University.

In fact the improvisations do allow the computer performer some leeway— the system that Damon Holzborn made for the piece lets you mix and send sounds around and across the space, making zig-zagging, complex trajectories and patterns in eight channels that don’t come through on a stereo recording, but which will sound great at Roulette. You can even have the sounds move according to the pitches that are being played.

On the Tzadik recording there were these very experienced improvisers like Denis Colin, who is one of the truly great bass clarinetists, and Ramon Lopez, who did amazing things with tablas, cajon, and all kinds of unusual percussion. I don’t think they followed the grid all the time; once you have a sense of what to do, you can incorporate the grid into a larger scenario. There’s also an option for conductor improvisation, but I don’t think people have been doing that in the performances I’ve seen.

In these kinds of semi-improvised sections, it’s always prudent for performers to use the material from the composition as a base, rather than creating their own stuff from scratch, unless they feel able to create stuff that really relates to the rest of the piece.

RC: Are these pieces in some way actual exercises? If they are, for whom are they exercises? And what are the goals of these exercises?

GL: In my graduate seminar with Arnold last Fall 2010 at the University of Chicago, we spent a lot of time thinking about the possibility that the notion of spiritual exercises as conceived by ancient philosophers could embody improvisation in some way, or maybe even that improvisation itself could be a spiritual exercise. Certainly generations of improvisers have affirmed their relationship to the spiritual, or have framed their work as related to
spirituality–John and Alice Coltrane, for instance. But then, so have a number of composers—Messiaen, of course, and of the people I’ve known, Muhal, Jonathan Harvey, and John Zorn come to mind. So if improvisation could be a spiritual exercise, why not composition? Maybe these spiritual exercises were for me, really, something to focus my compositional energy on, to interact spiritually with the more prosaic and determined compositional processes.

Wet Ink Ensmble performs Les Exercises Spirituels Thursday September 22 at Roulette for the inaugural event of Interpretations’ 23rd season.   Purchase tickets online at and enter to win copies of George Lewis’ new Tzadik release and Subotnick/Martin’s Mode Records DVD!



Described as “charming, with exoticism and sheer infectiousness” by Allan Kozinn of The New York Times, Richard Carrick‘s music has been performed throughout the Americas, Europe, and Japan by the New York Philharmonic (Ensemble Series), Vienna’s Konzerthaus, ISCM World Music Days, Darmstadt Summer Festival, the Nieuw Ensemble, the JACK Quartet, Magnus Andersson, Rohan de Saraam and others.    Recent works include The Flow Cycle for Strings (commercially released on New World Records in 2011), Adagios for String Quartet, and Find the Devil’s Lead.  He also writes large-scale multi-media works such as Cosmicomics (based on stories by Italo Calvino) combining video, electronics and live musicians. As a critically acclaimed performer (pianist, conductor, guitarist) he regularly premieres a diverse repertoire of solo and chamber pieces including works by Lachenmann, Czernowin, Radulescu and Greenwood. He co-founded and co-directs the contemporary music ensemble Either/Or, and teaches at Columbia University and New York University.   He has taught and guest lectured about his music in Japan, South Korea, Sweden, France, Germany, The Netherlands and the US.

One response to “Interview with George Lewis

  1. Pingback: Interview with George Lewis | Avant Music News

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