Composer Spotlight - Ralph Lewis
Interview conducted by Jan Li Tan, 5th December 2021. We sat down with Ralph Lewis to talk about his work, from the various collaborative projects he's been involved in to his dissertation on Aaron Cassidy's Second String Quartet.
Ralph Lewis is a doctoral candidate in music composition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who is passionate about exploring and understanding new musical expression. Active as a composer, music theorist, and educator, his work is often centered on creating welcoming, inclusive spaces and engaging less discussed music and technology. Since 2016, Lewis has led All Score Urbana, a community engagement music composition workshop program he founded. Through a mixture of programs open to all local residents and partnerships with Urbana High School orchestras, All Score facilitates opportunities for Champaign-Urbana composers, especially young and new ones, to work collaboratively with performers from their community. In 2019, Lewis received one of ten Phi Kappa Phi Graduate Research Grants awarded throughout the US to support his on-site research at the University of Huddersfield for his dissertation about Aaron Cassidy’s Second String Quartet.
To start things off, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and who you are?
My name is Ralph Lewis. I use he/him/his pronouns. I’m a composer that lives in Urbana, Illinois. I’m originally from Long Island, New York. I’ve moved around the US a fair amount in the last few decades but that’s where I started from. In my work as a composer, I’m often looking for the in-between spaces of things. I’m very interested in microtonality. I’m very interested in different modes of experimentation, including the impact of choreography in performance. I’m really interested in collaboration as both creative impetus and also a compositional feature of works. I’m very interested, in a broader sense, in creating music with different aspects of community or working with different communities. I guess I’d also say that, without being someone who’s only looking at it with a historical lens, I have a strong passion for many strands of experimental music. It’s been interesting being in different spaces in the US that have had a historical experimental presence. Even though some of the specific people that originate those practices may no longer be there, it’s nice to learn about what these different spaces special.
Can’t say I know much about American history but New York School composers… a lot of experimental music came out of the US.
Yeah. Just for an example, I was at Mills College for my Masters and being there and the lasting impact of Pauline Oliveros on the community. Getting to study with Wendy Reid, John Bischoff, Fred Frith, and Roscoe Mitchell. Of course, Steve Reich went there back in the 1960s. I saw his Masters thesis in the library.
Wow. Did you read it?
I did. It’s a piece for jazz combo but it’s Serial. It’s kind of cool because the most iconically Steve Reich part of it is the instructions where he tries to get the drummer to play without emphasising the downbeat and just keep pulsing. So it’s like “Hmm. Look at that, you know?”
Things like that and of course with Mills - the SF Tape Center (Now the Center for Contemporary Music) which Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnik and Ramon Sender were all involved in many years ago. And then over here in Illinois, thanks to Kerrith Livengood facilitating, I have gotten to interact with Chuck Corey and Luke Fitzpatrick from the Harry Partch Ensemble. While Partch lived here for a while and his archives are here, there’s also the impact of Lejaren Hiller and the groundbreaking computer music he made–later on he brings John Cage to town and they create “HPSCHD.” I was able to see the 50th anniversary performance of that here in Champaign-Urbana. That happened just before the March 2020 Covid stay in place in the US. The legacies of James Tenney and Lou Harrison’s influence out in the Bay Area were also special to learn more about from people who cared about them. Willy Winant, who still teaches at Mills College, has all of these instruments from Lou Harrison. Hearing Steed Cowart share about people like Tenney made time there very special.
That’s so cool.
It’s one thing to read about someone or listen to their music on a recording. Hearing the affection people had for them and working with them is a different experience.
I would love to be in your position in that sense. Just surrounded in the atmosphere of all these amazing people.
Ralph Lewis - Can't Take You Anywhere (2019).
Moving on a little bit, what are your interests as a musician? Are you primarily just a composer? Do you have an instrumental background?
In terms of making music, I’m primarily a composer. I started on viola. When I got here to Illinois, I wanted to get back to lessons in a performance capacity so I started taking harp lessons. I took them with Molly O’Roark and Noël Wan and they’re both really fantastic, interesting harpists with very different research interests. Molly did her doctoral thesis on Harpo Marx.
Do you know the Marx Brothers?
He was a self-taught harpist and that’s really him playing in all the movies and so on. So she she did all of the music and the jokes in her lecture recital.
So, I’m primarily a composer and music theorist. I guess I’m always interested in looking at other modes of creativity. I really enjoy doing research, for example for my recently completed dissertation, but at the heart of it I am most interested in how to share, connect, demystify, unclutter a topic to support people’s knowledge and creativity. For example, one of my favorite moments in the last year was hearing Michael Bennett’s research presentation about Joan Franks Williams. I had never heard of her and the ways she built her ensemble and developed concerts and community in Seattle in the 1960s was really fascinating. For me, I guess another component of being involved in music I really like is project-leading or collaborating or being a community member. A lot of my time goes into trying to support other people’s work. That’s something I do for All Score Urbana, a free community engagement composition program I founded, for instance, but in general it’s composer, music theorist, and collaborator, something like that.
Big question. Why did you decide to become a musician?
There are probably several things that led to it. I suppose a big part of it was the legacy of Walter Schneider in the town I grew up in. He had gotten this annual Composers Concert going at the high school and later when Frank Doyle took over, the event continued. I had this sense that people were being creative in a way I didn’t understand and I wanted to be involved somehow. I think initiatives like that make it so much easier for people to try out being creative in new and different ways.
What has your involvement in The Arc Project been and what has the experience been like? How did you first hear of us because you’re all the way over in America? It’s been really wonderful for us that you’ve been so involved and we really, really love it and we really, really love to see it.
The feeling is mutual. I’ve really, really enjoyed being a part of the projects I’ve been in. I’ve really loved seeing the work coming out of them and listening to what everyone is making. I enjoyed the recent festival quite a bit and I’m really curious about what 2022 is going to be. I first heard about you all via the Beyond 88 call on www.composerssite.com. Let’s say it right upfront - when you come across an opportunity on a website like that or a posting from somebody, the number of moving pieces that you need to submit to get involved with the project, the more things are being asked of someone, the more selective it is, the harder it is to connect. It’s so much more likely that people will give up mid-application or stop to come back to it and then jut won’t due to time or other reasons. It was a very simple application. It was very concerned about actually making music and that itself made me go, “Yeah, let’s apply to this. Let’s see where it goes,” so that’s how I got on board.
After signing up for Beyond 88, I saw the Digital Ensembles call and thought that was exciting. I was working on my dissertation at that point and so eventually when the dissertation was finally defended, I was finally able to deliver the scores for those two pieces. It was a very fun experience to work with those two groups. I had a lot of face-time with James and Maya (flxnflx) and that really helped shape that my sense what I could do with them. I really felt like I understood where they were coming from and that helped me kind of run during that project. Beyond 88 was really great too because I hadn’t really had a chance to do an extended or prepared piano piece because whenever you talk to someone “May I please do this to your piano?”, they typically say no. It was a lot of fun and there were a lot of questions I got to ask myself with that project. I really appreciate it. I use the phrase often, ‘moving at the speed of community’ - these projects moved at the speed of community so we were able to get there and work on stuff and I was very pleased with that piece too. Actually, ‘Kib,’ the piece I did for flxnflx was recently accepted to Audiovisual Frontiers ‘Digital Exhibition.’
Ralph Lewis - Kib (2021), performed by flxnflx for The Arc Project: Digital Ensembles Edition.
The other thing I have done with Arc is present at the recent festival with Dr. Tiffany Chang, Ava Simon, and Carol Vang about our live-to-Zoom orchestra work “Straight Into Tangles.” This whole last year we’ve been working on this orchestra piece together and it’s so exciting to get to share it with everybody and talk about the process. Time with the orchestra members was so important for the experimentation that led to the completed work. I really appreciated their effort and how we grew to work better with each other. Tiffany is this unbelievable conductor. She recently conducted a whole run of “Tosca” at Portland Opera. She was conducting Tosca with Opera Columbus the week of the Arc Festival. The reason I bring her up is because there’s somebody who has so many ideas and is such a wonderful collaborator. She is a great listener and a great leader–a flexible, creative, engaged, always inspiring kind of collaborator.
Could you name some musicians that have influenced your perspective on music and your style?
It’s always an incomplete list and it’s always a changing list. I’d say that people that have had an impact on me include Ross Feller, Wendy Reid, Erik Lund, Alvin Lucier, Peter Adriaansz, Aaron Cassidy, Pauline Oliveros, Eric Dolphy, Chris Orr, Liza Lim, Kerrith Livengood, Scot Wyatt, Harry Partch, Annea Lockwood, Rebecca Saunders, Ollie Wilson, Thomas Carroll, Derek Bermel, Johnny Mac, Randolph Coleman, Timothy McCormack, John Bischoff, Christopher T. Riggs, Roscoe Mitchell, Johnny Reinhard, Bill Ayasse, Dan McKemie, Julian Cartwright, John Cage, James Tenney, Steed Cowart, Christian Wolff, Jack Bruce, Frank Doyle, Jim Steinman, Rachel Bloom, Pete Townshend, and Jacob Barton. David Tudor and the journey he goes on through his career is really important to me. It seems like songwriters, composers, performers, teachers, and a lot of friends wound up on this list. There are a many more.
I love songs and songwriting so it wouldn’t feel complete without talking about Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and Richie Havens. One of my favourite memories from when I was younger was when Tom Paxton was doing a gig at the Chapin Rainbow Stage, a local arts centre in Huntington, NY named after another musician that I really care a lot about, Harry Chapin. Before the gig, Paxton did a workshop on how to write a song. There he is, this person you’ve listened to since you were a little kid and he’s just breaking it down, talking about how he made this serious song, this funny song, this short song - it was really, really special. About ten years ago, I got to see him perform again (in Berkeley, California) and I got to tell him how much I appreciated him and I think he was very confused that this person getting a Masters in electronic music was telling him that he’d been really inspired by him.
My friend Robin Meiksins is really important to how I’ve developed as an artist. She is a flutist who is a contemporary music specialist. She has a YouTube channel where she performs flute works and discusses aspects of contemporary music, community building, and freelancing. A few years ago she put out a call for works and I wanted to give her a work that was about what she likes to do, which is using YouTube as a performance space rather than just as an archival space. I wound up writing this piece called ‘DuoTube’ where a YouTube viewer or multiple viewers perform a piece that a manipulates a flute solo I wrote. We’ve just been able to make it something you can perform at home yourself and we’ve gotten to perform it with audiences and ensembles in so many places. When the pandemic happened, we created a group called DuoBunch to perform works from this series at some conferences that had gone virtual. What’s kind of funny is that originally, “DuoTube” is written for one person at home alone in 2018, so it went from an at home work, to live in concerts and festivals, now it is performed from this new kind of stuck-at-home context. I like it when people join us in playing it–it takes about 10 minutes to learn. All of this music-making came out of being inspired by my friend. Even though I wrote it, my friend is the impetus for and the idea that it ideally fits them is something really special to me.
I think a lot of times with these kinds of questions, there is that tendency to drop the big names but at the end of the day, there is just so much impact from people around you and people you work with all the time.
Definitely. I’d rather work with a kind, intentional person than a famous person any day of the week.
If you had to pick a work that you’re particularly proud of, which would it be and why?
If I had to pick one, I think ‘DuoTube’ (the one I was mentioning earlier) might be it because in addition to it being part of a rich, ongoing collaboration with my friend Robin Meiksins, it’s been a piece that’s achieved its goals in the sense that it’s something that’s been successful in welcoming people to perform electronic music at various levels of experience and technical literacy. What you’re doing is you’re essentially using a familiar space, YouTube, as a cheap sampler. The laptop part is written with this gentle but focused indeterminacy. Whether it is inviting audience members to join in on the day of the performance at a festival or people playing it at home alone, it people seem to be able to jump in and partcipate. It’s is also fun to include it when teaching high school students about indeterminacy and some basics of electronic music.
Robin and I played it with a number of high school and college classes too. It’s been something that people who are not professional musicians or not currently performing musicians have engaged with too. It’s something that people can pick up and try. It’s the kind of piece that maybe we’ll have a few ringers who already know the piece set to play in the audience and then we’ll invite people in the audience to take out their computers if they happen to have them and play along with us. (I don’t assume people have computers on them at all times, but if it is a conference or a concert at a college, it seems like a reasonable ask). It’s an imperfect thing, there’s still accessibility issues and so on but the idea of getting to do music in a public way, in ways that people feel like “Oh yeah, I can try that. I can do that”, that’s really special to me. “DuoTube” is also a goodie bag sort of piece that even if you didn’t play it at the show for whatever reason, you can perform it the next time you are at a computer by yourself or with friend.
Ralph Lewis - DuoTube (2018) for Robin Meiksins. Additional instructions can be found here.
These qualities led to a sequel piece called “MoxTube” for Dr. Elisabeth Stimpert from University of Central Missouri and Alarm Will Sound. In that case, it builds on “DuoTube” but focuses on her passion for teaching her clarinet studio. So there the piece includes group improv prompts that often depend on watching Beth’s performance for physical cues. Getting to collaborate with her and her studio was really special. She made it a supportive, experimental environment for them, which is probably my favorite learning space too. We did the premiere at MoxSonic in March 2020 with her students placed throughout the audience. I was on stage playing the laptop part and hearing all of them playing while other attendees played the laptop parts was so much fun. Combining things people really love to do and inviting people to be involved in low-stress, low-risk experimental music is something I found through these projects and I hope to keep on doing it as part of my musical practice.
You have recently completed a Doctorate of Musical Arts. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Yes, I graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s doctoral program last year. The program focused on music composition and music theory–to complete the program we all have to write a scholarly document of some kind rather than a piece of music. I wrote a dissertation entitled, “Aaron Cassidy’s Second String Quartet: Resilient Structures, Indeterminate Localities, and Performance Practice.”
Looking back on how the pandemic has affected so many parts of society in the last few years, including international travel, I feel lucky that applied for and received a Phi Kappa Phi Graduate Research Grant so I could afford to go over to the UK in Fall 2019 and do research for this project. Cassidy is based in Huddersfield. I was almost able to visit to York and might have met you and Jake - I still kick myself everyday that I didn’t go to York too. Bill Brooks had actually invited me - I was so broke but I really wanted to visit. So with the Graduate Research Grant, I was able to go to the University of Huddersfield and interview Aaron and really importantly, see him in action working with collaborators, in this case, with line upon line percussion (they’re a phenomenal percussion trio from Texas). I saw them play the revised premiere of “a republic of spaces” at the Open Circuit Festival at the University of Liverpool. During my research trip to the UK, I was allowed to see how Cassidy and line upon line interacted there and in preparation for their recording date later that week. Getting a chance to interview Aaron and really bare down on questions I had about his music and the opportunity to go through all of his manuscripts was really wonderful.
The dissertation takes on Cassidy’s music through analyzing the large-scale structures and the indeterminate elements within them, but it also makes time throughout to address how people learn and interpret his music in performance. Recurring questions I try to put at the top of my list when researching music is how can this project serve performers? How can it clear pathways for other people to investigate this music? So, in addition to the research in the UK, I interviewed members of the JACK Quartet, members of the ELISION Ensemble - Daryl Buckley and Kathryn Schulmeiser, as well as Weston Olencki. I learned a lot about Aaron’s music but I also learned more about how they approach the music and what it means to them. Some clear ideas for how to engage with the music come from those interviews. For example, Chris Otto, from JACK Quartet, had several great comments about dealing with how Cassidy’s work resists traditional feedback mechanisms in the practice room.
Another part of the dissertation was focused on what it means to do an experimental music that isn’t a historically and culturally recognized “Experimental Music.” It’s is less to do about what counts and what doesn’t, and is more about trying to hone in on critical elements in terms of form, gesture, methodology, indeterminacy, and so on. While still making time to introduce Cassidy’s aesthetics and notation, I tried to make significant, detailed inquiries into what Cassidy’s choreographic notation generates and how it fits into networks, sections, and so on.
You’re now done with this big, big, big thing that you’ve been working on for a few years, I imagine but what are the areas you want to explore more of in the future?
I continue to work with this program that I founded called All Score Urbana, it’s a community engagement composition program. Currently, we have Michaela Wright (who you’ve been aware of through recent Arc Project programs), Dr. Mike McAndrew who’s a collaborative pianist, ShayLyssa Alexander and Thereza Lituma, We’re doing this current grant-funded program called All Score Urbana: Community of Song and we’re working with creative folks with different experience levels and vantage points, heading towards a virtual concert sometime in March. Working in that way means a lot to me, I think that in many cases, people are dealing with roadblocks or questions about permission or questions about materials. So in working with people we look for ways to defuse and help clear paths for the music they are already working on or have dreamed of working on. All Score isn’t the same as The Arc Project but I think we have many similarities in terms of how we’re finding ways for people to connect with each other, we’re finding ways to facilitate projects, and we’re not charging people money which is one of the baselines with All Score. We’ll take grant money, we’ll take donations but we don’t charge people, that’s how we’ve been rolling since 2016. We’ve done a number of projects with that perspective and are enjoying this current one. We’ve got composers, songwriters, and visual artists contributing things.
Ralph Lewis - MoxTube (2020)
I’ve also been working a lot with another Mike - with Dr. Mike Minarcek he's a percussionist who by the time this comes out will be living in the Dayton-Cincinnati, Ohio area. We’re working on a few pieces right now and I’m really excited for that. Dr. Nicole Gillotti just commissioned a work for trumpet and electronics which I’m gonna be bearing down on in a serious way in the next few weeks. Nicole is a really fantastic trumpet player. Once again, driven by wonderful collaborations, being kind of starstruck by what they care about and what they do while also still being myself.
In terms of next steps with the dissertation itself, the paper talked based on it has gotten into seven conferences recently, I’m hoping I can go to as may of them as I can - one has already told me they will not go remote so I will not be attending that one. Another recently told me they were working on these accommodations. I do not want to get coronavirus while doing a conference presentation even though I would love to present and go to other people’s talks and performances. Thank you by the way for doing a remote festival. So, I’m hoping to present about the Cassidy research. I can’t cram the whole dissertation into a 20 or 25 minute presentation, but my goal is to help people see the broad takeaways, make the dissertation available to them, and be happy to discuss things in more detail. At some point before July 2022 I am hoping the UIUC IDEALS portal will complete posting the dissertation there–I’ve specified it should be open access so no login would be required to get to the full text. People are welcome to contact me if they want to read it. The first 247 pages are free. (It’s all free). I really like Cassidy’s music and the purpose of my research was to make it easier to investigate his music in a number of ways.
In terms of next steps and projects and so on, I'm interested in doing more research on some Swiss composers I have been enjoying listening to. I'm in the early process of that. I'm also hoping at some point to finish “Nightpartches” - a series of horror-themed songs for Harry Partch’s adapted viola and intoned voice. I had the opportunity to write music for Luke Fitzpatrick from the Harry Partch Ensemble - thanks to Dr. Kerrith Livengood’s brilliant organizing skills. Currently, three songs are complete and function as a subset, but there are five more coming. Writing them makes me feel close to my Aunt Ethel, who they are dedicated to. She was very funny and loved the macabre. The fifth song will be based on a concept she gave me during one of our phone calls in 2019.
Next question. Is there anyone or people you want to collaborate with in the future?
I guess I’m always more interested in what’s special about somebody so like hoping and wishing that someone will work with me is not the same thing as being in the collaboration. For example, in Nicole’s piece - we just set it up this week, I was sitting there going “Oh, Nicole does this, Nicole does that,” and it becomes this deep dive into what is the Nicole-ness of things. Nicole is a trumpet professor in Laredo, Texas but up until the end of undergrad, she doubled on violin. Her thesis is all about taking violin technique and putting it into trumpet technique. It’s things like that that really get me going. That specific thing will not go into this current piece because of the timeline but we talked about doing a another piece that deals directly with those pedagogical insights. Those kinds of things really excite me.
I try to not get my heart too attached to feelings along the lines of “someday, I’ll write for this orchestra.” But in terms of dream collaborations? I would love to write a song for or song with Cécile McLorin Salvant. I absolutely love her recordings and really want to go to a show of hers when things are safer. I am also a huge fan of Tanja Orning’s writing and performances. Any sort of project with her would blow my mind. My former classmate Stephen Menotti did an amazing premiere of Maja Ratkje’s trombone concerto “Considering Icarus” recently. I’ve always loved his playing and that performance only further reinforced how much I respect his work.
If you could perform anywhere in the world, where would you go?
I’ve been dying to go to Montreal and Toronto for the last few years, especially if the performance involved Noël Wan, Joanne Mitrovic, Rebecca Gray, or Rena Roussin. I would really be interested in being involved in some way with the the Sonic Matter Festival that recently happened in Zurich. I enjoyed what I caught of their programming this year. Their interest in radio art and different approaches to contemporary music really speaks to me.
Plug session! Are there any other upcoming projects you’d like to talk about or anything exciting coming up?
Mike Minarcek and I are preparing a Merce Cunningham tribute piece (solo percussion) I wrote for him. We’re looking forward to that. We’re in early talks with a dancer to join us on it. I also do a fair amount of transmission art, like with radio and Zoom. Radiophrenia Glasgow is coming up soon in February–It’s one of my favorite events every year. This time around it has two short pieces of mine: a collaboration with Mike and writer Bradley Njus and a solo for hornist Anna Marshall. Later this year, Tiffany Chang and I are presenting the live-to-Zoom Orchestra piece “Straight Into Tangles” (the same piece at Arc Project Festival) at a series of conferences. It’s a transmission artwork in a lot of ways–where playing with the medium of Zoom and letting Zoom break things.
Ralph Lewis - Straight into Tangles (2021) In April, Verdant Vibes is going to be playing my cello solo “Can’t Take You Anywhere” which is for cello and electronics. Zan Berry is their cellist. The electronics are based on this cracklebox with light sensors I made in a workshop run by Travis Thatcher while I visited University of Virginia years ago. The light sensors on the crackle box are so fussy. When I was still working as a TA at the University of Illinois School of Music building, I was taking it around the building and recording it, listening to how it would react to different lighting . Eventually, it became clear that the elevators brought out the most unstable, fun sounds. So I would ride up and down between floors, recording the crackle box bawling away, as I tried my best to apologise to people riding with me during that break week. This one poor musicologist was always using the elevator when I was recording. I felt bad about it but I’m glad he understood why I was doing all of that. I’m very excited about this cello solo’s inclusion on Verdant Vibes’ concert series. They are the kind of organisation that I really am proud to be involved, in the way I’m proud to be involved in The Arc Project. I like spaces that are accessible, that don’t play money games. I really do appreciate that.
We are on our final question. If you win the lottery, what would you do with the money?
How much am I winning in this lottery?
An indefinite amount. It could be millions.
Depending on how much money it was, I’d like to find a way to put that money directly to work. Something that has immediate impact. Here in the US, the hardest thing in the world is navigating healthcare. It is very troublesome even when you have allegedly good insurance. So honestly, I probably wouldn’t spend it on music, I’d probably spend it on making it so that you could just get to a doctor really quickly and effectively. In terms of music, right now I would use some of that money to give The Harry Partch Instrumentarium a new home. They’re currently seeking a new space after a number of years in Seattle. I really like the community Chuck Corey built up around that project and hope that this can continue with new support sometime very soon. They have all these one of a kind instruments made by Partch maintained, played, and taught by Corey. Another way I would use that money would be to short-circuit the cost of college, especially music school. In the US, it’s kind of obscene how much attending schools cost. I can’t do all the currency exchange rates but what used to be a $40,000 a year college in the US is now a $60,000-$70,000 a year. It makes people make different choices. And if we want a more equitable society, making them cost more and more to take risks and try new things is the opposite of what we should be doing. Instead, we should be aiming to create situations that honour people’s time, experience, and effort and create more spaces for people to do the things they like to do.