Interview with Oliver Lewin

On January 13th, Kaleidoscope will kick off the new year with an eclectic array of new chamber works. Oliver Lewin, one of the three composers featured in this concert series, will have his World Premiere of Dialogues alongside Patrick O’Malley’s Paths Penumbra and Yuan-Chen Li’s Wandering Viewpoints. Generously donating his time, I was able to sit down with Mr. Lewin and not only talk about the inspirations and influences that went into writing Dialogues, but learn that his philosophical pursuit to emphasize the innate humanistic qualities in music, as well as his focus in introducing others to classical music, has bolstered his voice and presence as a composer in today’s world.  

Carrie Rexroat: How’d you get started in music?

Oliver Lewin: There was a piano in my house and when I was young I enjoyed fiddling around on it, and my parents listened to classical music and encouraged me to listen as well. By the time I was eleven or twelve I started learning about notation and composition, and it just grew from there.

CR: When did you get more serious about music, choosing to pursue it as a career?

OL: In high school I read a lot about the lives of famous composers and that planted the idea in my head. Instead of pursuing a conventional conservatory education in college, I did a mixed degree of composition and other topics. This made me worry sometimes that I wasn’t as serious as other composers, but in the end I think it has helped my music.  

CR: That’s great! Out of curiosity, which composers were you reading about that sparked the want to study composition?

OL:  Schubert was one of the first composers that I became very fascinated with and read about. Ravel became a God to me early on, and then I found Bach, who became my main man.

CR: *laughter* excellent. In relation to the Call for Scores, what motivated you to submit a piece?

OL:  When Kaleidoscope started their concert series in Santa Monica I was keen to check it out. I went to a concert, and was really appreciative of the vibe and their mission. After the concert I checked out the website to see if the third season had been released, and saw they had a Call for Scores. I almost never submit to things, but because I really identified with the orchestra’s philosophy I decided to apply.

CR: Can you talk about your piece,
Dialogues? What are some of the inspirations behind it?

OL: I love other mediums such as theater, poetry and literature, and those mediums were very influential in this piece so I wanted the title to express that. One of the things I love about theater is the importance of a human body in front of the audience, and with chamber music you can apply the same idea. Dialogues is a piece for two violins, but the way I see it if it’s a piece for two violins then it’s a piece about two violinists, or two human bodies. I really like the idea of chamber music emulating a form of human conversation. Sometimes I think of music just like I would think about writing a letter to someone in my life.  

CR: It’s really great when pieces try to be interdisciplinary with dance, theater, art, other kinds of music too. So are these violinists, these bodies speaking to each other through the music?

OL: Yes. I hope it isn’t to a gimmicky level, but there’s definitely an occasional call and response, or a question and answer type of form in the music. That can be said of lots of chamber music, as most pieces you could probably subtitle dialogues. The relationship is more an aesthetic that I think is innate within music that I wanted to emphasize with that title.

CR: What would be one thing you’d try to focus the audience’s attention on while your piece is being performed?

OL: I wrote this music so that it would necessitate communication between the players, and so that they couldn’t just follow the scripts of the written music. Its success hinges on understanding and connection between the players. The first and last movements both have direct geographical associations that the audience will be aware of, but what I’m really interested in communicating is the human potential of music and musical phrases, and how it parallels human emotion or conversations between people.

CR: Talking to you it seems like this particular subject is one you’re very passionate about. Is this something you would consider to always be a part of your compositional style?

OL: Yes. When I write music I focus 100% on fundamental basic emotions; in that sense I have a simple and very straightforward approach to writing music. When I’m writing a piece I imagine that a piano line is going to kiss this cello line, and I’m not being poetic, I’m being 100% literal. In terms of the sonic sense I would say I have a love for disparate types of music. I love traditional musics from around the world, like Irish traditional music, which is very apparent in Dialogues. Overall, the human quality of musical phrases seems to me very much a Baroque philosophy, and being that I love Baroque music it’s probably one of the reasons that most of what I write is chamber music. But I don’t know, like they say, do you want to show someone how the sausage is made?

CR: *laughter* well I’m definitely interested in how you compose! I especially think it’s wonderful that these philosophies you so deeply believe in directly relate to your pursuit as a composer. Kaleidoscope is really invested in the Los Angeles community, putting on performances in different kinds of venues, providing free concerts, and this year they’re implementing a “Pay What You Can” model and eliminating ticket sales. This is because a core value of the ensemble is that music can and should be provided to all people regardless of social and economic status. What are some of your own personal goals to try and connect to a community through your music?

OL: I think about outreach a lot. For the last couple of years as a composer I’ve been thinking about new listeners, thinking about what might be exciting or pleasing for them in addition to the people I know who are familiar with the canon. As composers, that’s a helpful and meaningful thing we all can do. My whole life, most of my peers were not part of the classical realm, so I am always trying to figure out how to expose my friends to classical pieces, what pieces to show, what not to show them, when to show them the pieces, what context is best. Have you experienced that?

CR: Of course.

OL: Yeah. There is an entryway into classical music, and I think being really aware of that can be helpful when it comes to outreach. I mean, I remember my own entry into classical music, and when I first heard Messiaen I didn’t get it. Same for Ligeti and Brahms. The right programming is vital to the success of exposure, trying to figure out what pieces speak to people, and which ones don’t. I’ve done a lot of trial and error with my friends, and have had some moments of real pride when someone not well versed in classical music loves a piece I encourage them to listen to. As a short anecdote, I remember going on vacation with a friend of mine and his family, and his mom wanted to know what I was listening to in my headphones. It was Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus. When I gave her the headphones, in that moment she really deeply felt and understood the music as much as any Mozart scholar ever would. That was such a big point of pride for me, that I helped introduce someone to a piece of classical music and I got to share that with them.  

CR: That’s incredible! Outreach is the perfect outlet to do that. Everyone has an innate ability to understand what music is doing in an emotional and intellectual way, regardless if they’re a music scholar or just beginning to be exposed to this world.

OL: No doubt. I also believe that chamber music plays an important role in this context, which makes me even more excited that a chamber piece of mine is being premiered by a group that also believes in sharing music in this way.

CR: We’re very excited to have you, Oliver. More to you, what are your hobbies?

OL: Can I say gardening even if many of my plants die?  I love watching soccer; Chelsea FC is my team.   

CR: *laughter* Why not? Do you have a favorite quote or mantra?

OL: I find a lot of inspiration in this image I have on my computer of a kitten looking into a mirror, and the image in the mirror is a lion.

CR: Excellent. Any specific charities or causes that you’d like to raise awareness to?

OL: Casa Libre, which is an organization and a home that offers safety and guidance to unaccompanied immigrant children who have nobody to help them out. They do a phenomenal job of helping the kids to go to school, find career paths, and giving them a home to come to and much more.  

CR: Any final statement you’d like to make to our readers?

OL: Just thank you! I’m really grateful to be a part of this series, and am honored to be a part of this community of musicians, composers, and audience members that form Kaleidoscope. It’s an exciting time, I think we’re lucky to have a group like Kaleidoscope who is being creative and innovative with the way classical music is shared.

CR: Thanks Oliver! It was a real pleasure getting to speak with you!

OL: Thank you, Carrie!



Carrie Rexroat is a freelancer writer for the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra’s blog, and is also the Founder of the storytelling blog, A’tudes & Brews.



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Carrie Rexroat