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.”