Steven Lewis
Class of 2024 graduate, Steven Lewis, Ph.D., integrated composition, improvisation, and technology. (Steve Zylius/UC Irvine)

Steven Lewis is a professional musician – a jazz drummer to be exact. And a producer. And an audio programmer. And he puts all this together to create innovative and accessible technological music. Lewis will be earning a Ph.D. from the elite integrated composition, improvisation, and technology program in the Department of Music at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts. And asformost graduate students, it’s been a long and winding road leading to this point.

Lewis’ love of music started at an early age. It seemed natural, since his grandfather was a concert pianist and his grandmother an opera singer. As a teenager, he left behind concentrating on the piano for the drums. “The bands at my school didn’t need a piano player,” Lewis remembers. “And my stepfather said, ‘Well, why not the drums?’ And from the first day I played drums, it resonated with me – the feel, the tactile and sonic feedback I was getting from the drums.”

He took his growing love of percussion to college and studied jazz performance and composition at the University of South Florida and the University of Miami. Next Lewis went to New York, where he spent a few years as a professional musician, he says, “with no intention of going back to school ever.”

But after a brief move to Portland, Oregon, “I went into a period of intense study of music technology to try to figure out exactly what this massive and wide-ranging field meant to me specifically,” Lewis says. “And then I figured, well, maybe I should just go back to school.”

He entered the music technology master’s program at New York University. “And things really took off in terms of … learning how the drums, specifically, could be a conduit through which I could experiment with this very advanced and emerging field,” he says.

And all of this led to UC Irvine, where, for the past four years, Lewis has been expanding his knowledge and abilities to employ AI technologies not created for musical expression and integrating his percussion and other voices and instruments to create ethereal soundscapes (see the “Ephemeral Frontiers” video). And he’s completing his dissertation, which looks into the historical and economic factors involved in the development of the drum set as a quintessential music technology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Lewis hopes to continue in academia and is interviewing for faculty positions at other institutions. His goal is to expand the frontiers of music technology while teaching the next generation of intrepid music students, ones much like himself.

Who at UC Irvine has been an influence or made a significant impact on you?

There are so many people to thank in this regard. Chief among them would be my dissertation chair, Michael Dessen, who has been instrumental in guiding me through the last four years of my scholarly development and helping me tightly frame the broader topics of my dissertation within my creative practice. There are many others as well, including [professor of music and director of the integrated composition, improvisation, and technology program] Mari Kimura and [professor of music] Christopher Dobrian, who have provided me with opportunities to both enhance and refine my technological literacy. Additionally, my discussions with [associate professor of music] Stephan Hammel have been indispensable in deepening the theoretical foundations of my dissertation. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the rest of the faculty of the integrated composition, improvisation, and technology program as well, including [professor of music] Kojiro Umezaki and [assistant professor of music] Rajna Swaminathan, whose guidance has had a profound impact on my development as a musician and technologist. Lastly, I would be remiss to not thank the students of the integrated composition, improvisation, and technology program for their collaborative spirit and creative work, which have been a wellspring of inspiration. 

What advice would you give to a student starting their academic journey at UC Irvine? 

Make an attempt to enjoy your time here. This is a singular point in your life – a period of time that is finite and fleeting. While there are many responsibilities and potential stressors associated with graduate school, being able to have the opportunity to explore and experiment is an immense privilege and one that we should relish at the moment. 

What makes you a proud Anteater?

I’m most proud of the relationships I’ve been able to foster here over the past four years. I’ve met some exceptionally curious, creative and kind people during my time at UC Irvine, and I hope to continue these relationships in the future. 

“Steven is doing original work integrating computer vision and AI with jazz drum set performance. As part of his project, he invited four creative jazz drummers from L.A. to experiment with the software, and the results were fascinating. He’s building a tool that is intuitive to use but also wide open with imaginative potential – something each drummer can adapt in their way. I’m excited to see where the software goes in the years to come as Steven continues to expand and refine it, while also working with more and more artists to get additional input. His dissertation work is also a great model for the kind of integrated artistic research in our ICIT Ph.D. program, which offers students space to develop their individualized creative vision and professional pathways.”

– Michael Dessen, the Robert and Marjorie Rawlins Chair in Music

Read more #IamUCI – Class of 2024 stories