Notes and Editorial Reviews
LEE PUI MING
_to …. coils. turning. open. dive. she comes to shore.
_… she. shimmers
Lee Pui Ming (pn);
Jed Gaylin, cond;
INNOVA 796 (64:20)
Lee Pui Ming was born in Hong Kong in 1956, immigrating to the United States to pursue her musical studies in 1976. For the past 30 years or so, she has been based in Toronto, where she
has developed an enthusiastic following for her piano improvisations. She is also a biodynamic craniosacral therapist. None of the foregoing information is available anywhere on the CD package. (From what I was able to glean from the Internet, biodynamic craniosacral therapy is a mystical/New Age-flavored variant of massage therapy. But that is not what concerns us here.) Not only is the package devoid of informative notes, but what verbiage appears is barely legible, thanks to gray type on a blue background. Admittedly, this presentation did not exactly create a sense of positive anticipation for the music contained therein.
However, Lee’s music is quite pleasant, revealing a fertile creative imagination. Though I am not deeply immersed in the world of piano improvisation, her pieces call to mind the highly esteemed piano improvisations of Keith Jarrett, and I would think that those who are fond of that aspect of Jarrett’s work would respond favorably to Lee’s. Like Jarrett’s classic improvisations, Lee’s are not based on the familiar harmonic language of jazz and its elaboration of popular songs; instead, her work draws upon the styles of Impressionist and post-Impressionist classical music, some remote suggestions of Asian influence, and what is generally thought of as “New Age.” But these influences are well homogenized and integrated into a meditative, tasteful, yet highly virtuosic musical flow.
The “big piece” here is the 23-minute
she comes to shore,
a “concerto for improvised piano and orchestra,” dating from 2009. The work is divided into three movements, which elide smoothly one into another. Obviously, the fact that the piano part is improvised, at least to some extent, suggests that the orchestral contribution must be generic enough to accommodate whatever fancies Lee decides to pursue. The first movement is therefore rather simple, but not simplistic or insubstantial, contributing to the sense of motion as well as some harmonic support, creating a foundation for the piano’s attractive filigree. In the second movement the orchestra introduces some two-part counterpoint that probably displays the clearest suggestion of Asian influence, while cluster ostinatos in the brass effectively inspire the piano to increased intensity. The third movement blossoms into a luscious melody featuring both piano and strings.
The solo selections offer some variety within the generally consistent style: some are more mellow, others are surprisingly feisty, with cluster dissonances; others utilize unconventional sound sources, such as percussion effects created by striking the body of the piano and harmonics achieved by striking the keys of strings dampened by the hand—an effect pioneered by Henry Cowell. Altogether, the CD is authentically musical and attractive, and, as noted, is likely to appeal to listeners who will self-identify by reading this review. For this listener, while the talent of the composer-pianist is unmistakable, a little goes a long way.
FANFARE: Walter Simmons
Her sixth CD release to date, Canada-based Hong Kong native Lee Pui Ming’s
she comes to shore is one of those tricky to categorise musical ventures which might as easily have ended up in the jazz section. The innova website places it under ‘new classical/jazz’, and the only reason it finds its way onto the classical section of MWI is that there is a piece listed with the word ‘concerto’
in the subtitle. Lee Pui Ming’s work here is described as ‘open’ improvisation, presumably in order to distinguish it from ‘free’ improvisation, which has gathered something of a reputation for unlistenability over the last fifty or so years since being recognised as a genre. The sustained intense barrage of notes of
coils will be quite familiar territory to those aware of some quarters of free jazz performance, but in general the musicianship here is more on the sensitive and personal side. It is invidious to make direct comparisons, but one needs points of reference and the spectre of Keith Jarrett and pianists such as Paul Bley is never too far away either, particularly in the gentler pieces such as
to… and the related
… she. Lee Pui Ming’s technique and imaginative inventiveness cast a wide net, and there is always an underlying sense of direction and structure in her improvisations. I’m not so inspired by the piano-slapping of
open, but the string-manipulating harmonic-series resonances of
shimmers has its own appeal.
Turning has something of the atmosphere of Debussy’s
Des pas sur le neige, and the impressionistic undulations of
dive also have a Francophile quality in parts.
she comes to shore is subtitled
concerto for improvised piano and orchestra. The improvised piano part has the freedom to move over the orchestra with only the given tonality of the accompaniment at any one point as a restriction of the kind of material which might arise. As one might expect, this orchestral material does contain a certain amount of static texture and repeating patterns, but the actual musical content turns an interesting idea into a fascinating and emotive work, provided with effective climaxes and a good deal of structural integrity. Imagine something a bit like Gorecki’s
Symphony of Sorrowful Songs adapted to make a richly textured piano concerto and you might have some idea as to what to expect from the first movement, which concludes in an extended solo cadenza. The second movement is a darker affair, with, after a gentle introduction, the string sonorities punctuated by stabbing low brass and close clusters from the piano. Throw in percussion and we’re in cinema land, a cataclysmic event of some kind putting us all in extreme peril. The final movement is a resolution and rescue from this turbulent central section, more lyrical material creating a serene landscape of high mountains and a calm sea. There are no booklet notes, so the imagination of the listener is given free rein to make of this piece what it will, but there are so many associations with a wide variety of film scores that no-one will have difficulty creating their own narrative and internal visual imagery.
You won’t have heard the Bay-Atlantic Symphony orchestra on CD before as this is its debut recording, but by all accounts they make a fine job of
she comes to shore. This CD is well recorded and highly involving and entertaining, showcasing the remarkable talents of a fine musician at their best. I would suggest this is more a disc for fans of the Hollywood grand gesture in the concerto and of the genre blurring work done by musicians such as Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett in the solo piano playing than enthusiasts for intellect-challenging avant-gardism. This said, such personal and emotively charged statements deserve respect, and have certainly gained my admiration.
-- Dominy Clements, MusicWb International Read less
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