Student protests provided George E. Lewis with Pots impetus

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It’s not exactly a secret, but in a minute you’ll know more about George E. Lewis’s Pots than the musicians who are scheduled to perform it next week.

“I didn’t really know if I wanted to get into this, but I guess I might as well,” says the Chicago-via-Manhattan trombonist, composer, and historian, on the line from his New York City home.

And what he’s initially reluctant to reveal is that his new long-form composition has both a Canadian connection and an explicitly political subtext. On the surface, it’s just the latest in a line of important pieces originally written for such Vancouver ensembles as the NOW Orchestra and the Turning Point Ensemble. But the idea behind it wafted in through Lewis’s hotel-room window during a visit to Montreal last May.

“Every day and every night, they had demonstrations at random times,” he recalls of Quebec’s student-led Maple Spring protests. “You’d be having dinner, and a group of people would come out banging pots or whatever they were doing.…The funny thing was, I had a pretty good-quality digital recorder with me. So I recorded hours of that material—and, in a way, the piece is based on those field recordings.”

Lewis recalls being knocked out by some of the spontaneous beats kicked up by the kitchenware-wielding protesters. “You hear some sophisticated stuff in those field recordings, like pretty competent sambas and march-time rhythms—stuff that you wouldn’t want to have a band just playing along with. So I tried to make a piece that would be open, that would allow the band to play itself and not get entrained to the electronics. Often you find that the electronics tend to take over and then they’re like the star, but I just wanted to have a more fluid situation.”

The funny thing is that, at press time, Lewis had yet to tell this to Orkestra Futura bandleader and saxophonist Coat Cooke, who had commissioned the piece for the New Orchestra Workshop Society’s 35th-anniversary celebrations. Not that Cooke and the other players would mind: both Orkestra Futura and its earlier incarnation, the NOW Orchestra, make the kind of radical music that goes well with radical politics. And in any case, both parties are in some ways working blind: Lewis’s first real exposure to Orkestra Futura will come next Friday (November 23), when Pots will get its premiere as part of the Hear It NOW festival.

He is intimately familiar with the Vancouver arts scene, however. In addition to working with many local musicians, he’s maintained a long relationship with the Western Front artist-run centre, and has collaborated on interdisciplinary projects with Vancouver-based visual artists Stan Douglas and Eric Metcalfe.

Like his own adopted hometown, our city benefits from “a continuous renewal of artistic energy,” Lewis says, adding that the local creative-music community is as much a part of that as our better-known painters, photographers, and novelists. “The continuing vitality and fecundity of the Vancouver scene has had this worldwide impact—and, for me, NOW is one of its crucial parts. I find that if you take any part of it away it starts to become somehow less vital—but, luckily, you don’t have to do that.”

Hear It NOW takes place at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from next Thursday to Saturday (November 22 to 24).

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