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IMPROVISATION WITH GEORGE LEWIS by Curtis Roads
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Roads: When did you begin to work with microcomputers?
Lewis: Jacques Bekaert, a composer and journalist, organized a concert with Rae Imamura, Douglas Ewart, and me at Mills College, around 1978.
The scene at Mills seemed worlds away from the electronic music studios I had been exposed to. They still had the public access studio going at that time, and they let me try out the electronic equipment myself and showed me how things worked.
Jacques introduced me to David Behrman, whose work is very important in the area of interactive performance with computers. David was rehearsing with Rich Gold, John Bischoff, and Jim Horton, who were using tiny computers called KIMs. They were not exactly my image of what computers were like -- a board about the size of a sheet of paper with a tiny keypad and a few chips.
Roads: This group was the League of Automatic Music Composers?
Lewis: Yes. Each KIM was connected to a sound generation device, and all of the KIMs were interconnected. Musical data was sent between all the systems. Then, the four composers listened to the output of the machines. Occasionally somebody would halt his program to try a new value in memory or maybe jiggle a wire or something.
Roads: How did it sound to you?
Lewis: It sounded a lot like a band of improvising musicians. You could hear the communication between the machines as they would start, stop, and change musical direction. Each program had its own way of playing. I hadn't heard much computer music at the time, but every piece I had heard was either for tape or for tape and people, and of course none of them sounded anything like this. I felt like playing, too, to see whether I could understand what these machines were saying. I got a KIM as soon as I got back to New York and started trying to learn how to make assembly language programs, cheap digital-to-analog converters, and some other electronic doodads so that I could use the KIM with my synthesizer. But I wanted to play, too, so I had to find out something about getting my sound into the computer.
Roads: So from the beginning of your work with computers you've been involved with interactive programs -- programs that interact with a performer.
Lewis: Yes, that's the only thing I've tried to do with a computer.
Roads: How are microcomputers suited to this task?
Lewis: Having your own machine means that you don't have to be tied to a large institution or have a lot of money. And as it turns out, the microcomputer people have explored some areas that are quite different from those studied at the large institutions. That was the interesting thing about David Behrman's programs. You could play beautiful melodies, and they would answer with something that was related to what you were doing. They were interactive. They didn't just respond to input with a predictable transformation. They were very simple, really, but extremely effective.
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George Lewis (born 1952 in Chicago) is a composer and trombonist based in Paris. He studied philosophy at Yale, and from 1980 to 1982 he was music program director at the Kitchen Center for Video, Music, Dance and Performance Art in New York City. This interview was conducted 9 November 1983 in New York, while Lewis was visiting to perform in a concert featuring the music of Earl Howard at the Kitchen.
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Typed by Cheryl Vega 4-23-95