Who’s Playing

Lee Pui Ming

… a veritable showcase of Lee’s artistic versatility and ingenuity… Musicworks, Canada

Rarement, en effet, un enregistrement a su rendre aussi présent dans nos salons d’écoute un mouvement, des gestes, des pas, des pratiques musicales. Revue & Corrigée, France

Improvized music using piano, objects, alto sax, voice and body. Music that is strange, expansive and elusive.

CD (AM 098)

  • Label: Ambiances Magnétiques
  • AM 098
  • 2002
  • UCC 771028109821
  • Total duration: 63:44
  • Jewel case
  • 125 mm × 142 mm × 10 mm
  • 95 g

On the web

Some recommended items
In the press

A showcase of pianistic versatility

Mark Sutherland, Musicworks, no. 86, June 1, 2003

One of the more compelling aspects of postmodernism is found in the hybridization of style, media, and the cross-pollination of disparate cultures. In particular, the fusion of the oriental and THE occidental in tandem with the dialectical tension between formal composition and improvisation has proven to be a fertile breeding ground for those venturesome artists aspiring to make it new.

As a classically trained pianist in the Western tradition, who integrates jazz, Chinese music, and free improvisation in her protean performances, Lee Pui Ming more than satisfies the contemporary desire for novelty. Her latest CD, entitled Who’s Playing, captures the energetic and inventive musician live at the Music Gallery in Toronto on two separate occasions; March and October of 2001. This CD features seven solo pieces as well as three improvisational duets with saxophonist-vocalist Joane Hétu.

The human body and its various motor functions constitutes the conceptual conceit inspiring and informing Lee’s recent performances and this CD. Following a very brief and playful vocal duet with Hétu, entitled Greetings, Ming unleashes her considerable talents on the aptly titled Steps. Syncopation, underscored by a muscular stride rhythm in the left hand, propels this composition forward into half-time and melodic enjambments that achieve an unstable resolution in an extended ritardando. On Silica, Ming explores the interior of the piano, plucking and sweeping the strings to create harp-like glissandi and sonic washes, punctuated by a single koto-like tone. Bones is an eighty-eight-key tour de force: quicksilvertrills and chromatic runs occur in rapid succession, from one end of the piano to the other, with the keyboard lid being opened and closed for added percussive resonance.

The physical and material presence of the piano is a pervasive theme in Lee’s creative practice, and the track entitled Torso is exemplary of the full body-contact pianowork that is quickly becoming her creative signature. Torso begins with Lee using her hands (or maybe mallets) to percussively probe the wooden body of her grand piano. The composition suddenly explodes in an exuberant display of pianistic dexterity and harmonic intricacy, and then breaks into a series of obtuse rhythms created by the pianist stamping her feet.

Belly of The Beast shifts the emphasis from the artist’s feet to the foot pedals of her piano. In this composition the full reverberation of a depressed sostenuto pedal disguises the tonic note as a rumbling drone that anchors a flurry of dense chord clusters. Delicate subtleties of Satie-like modalities are subsequently jolted into the twenty-first century by Lee’s aggressive use of fortissimo.

For the final cuts of this CD, Lee focuses her attention on voicework and, in the process, tempers the sturm unddrang of her previous solos for spatially discursive duets with Joane Hétu. Vocables, whispers, shouts, and incantations, mixed with saxophone and piano accents, are the sonic materials used in the construction of these mysterious and expansive improvisations.

While Who’s Playing is a veritable showcase of Lee’s artistic versatility and ingenuity, it is her infectious energy and enthusiasm that engages the listener and ensures that the nomenclatural postmodern is not simply a euphemism for post mortem.

… a veritable showcase of Lee’s artistic versatility and ingenuity…


Pierre Durr, Revue & Corrigée, no. 53, September 1, 2002

Est-ce l’illustration de la pochette? Est-ce réellement l’impression que suscite l’écoute de cet enregistrement? Toujours est-il que les sons, leur crépitement, leur vivacité ne sont pas sans évoquer des flammes étincelantes, des feux follets qui virevoltent dans une sarabande enjouée. Cette musique improvisée, à partir d’un piano dont l’interprète explore de nombreuses possibilités de la voix mais aussi du corps est des plus visuelles. Rarement, en effet, un enregistrement a su rendre aussi présent dans nos salons d’écoute un mouvement, des gestes, des pas, des pratiques musicales.

Lee Pui Ming, chinoise expatrice de Hong Kong, et installée à Toronto, n’en est pas a sa première production. Who’s playing serait sa cinquième. À sa formation classique et à l’intérêt qu’elle conserve pour ses origines asiatiques, elle rajoute des pratiques plus contemporaines issues de ses rencontres, depuis son arrivée en Amérique du Nord, avec le jazz - elle a travaillé avec Marilyn Crispell - et les musiques actuelles. Il n’était que temps de la découvrir. Merci donc à Joane Hétu - présente au sax alto sur trois titres - et au collectif québécois de la proposer à nos oreilles que l’on croyait saturés.

Rarement, en effet, un enregistrement a su rendre aussi présent dans nos salons d’écoute un mouvement, des gestes, des pas, des pratiques musicales.

…autour des 10 ans du distributeur québécois DAME…

Luc Bouquet, ImproJazz, no. 88, August 1, 2002

Taylor d’un côté, Cage de l’autre et le cœur au milieu, telle pourrait être la devise de Lee Pui Ming. De Cecil Taylor, la pianiste a retenu la force tellurique, l’assise charnelle, la respiration corporelle. Dans Steps, des blocs émergent, se soudent, se séparent, se retrouvent, livrés au hasard de l’instant. De John Cage, Lee Pui Ming a gardé la fluidité, les silences constructeurs, les glissandos et structures mouvantes. Silica évoque une ruche bourdonnante; la sensation qu’ici tout est à sa place, contrôlé par l’on ne sait quel invisible mais immuable mécanisme. Sur Belly Of the Beast, le piano se fait massif, continu, obsessionnel puis se délie peu à peu, tout en gardant la même densité et la méme dureté (on pense plus d’une fois à Christine Wodrascka) d’un bout à l’autre de l’improvisation. Percussions indéfinies (la musicienne utilise son corps comme caisse de résonance), convulsion duelle (trois duos avec Joane Hétu), improvisations tranchantes, tout ici enchante et ravit. Une révélation, ni plus ni moins.


Jennifer Kelly, Splendid E-Zine, July 15, 2002

Listening to this record of free improvisational piano is a little like watching a group of bored children on a swing set. They’ll spend a few minutes actually swinging, then the ringleader ventures to hang by his knees from the top. A few minutes later, they’re walking a hazardous tightrope across the top of the swing set, then building a fort underneath. If you leave them alone for the time it takes to drink a single cup of coffee, you will return to find them gathering firewood in preparation for burning the whole thing down.

Like these kids, Lee Pui Ming applies her restless intelligence to devising ways of playing that the piano wasn’t designed for and probably wouldn’t survive on an extended basis. She plays, she bangs on the lid, she lifts the cover and runs her car keys (or something) along the exposed strings, she keeps the pedal down for most of a 10-minute track… and that’s just the piano parts. Lee and her partner Joane Hétu also use their bodies as instruments, breathing, speaking, moaning, slapping and thumping. In the process, they extract an extraordinary array of sounds from themselves and their instruments, and create a landscape of furious, questing, contentious beauty.

Who’s Playing starts with Greetings, a half-minute interlude of slaps and moans and sing-song spoken word. Then we move to the demented, freeze-frame cakewalk of Steps, a prickly jazz improvisation that sounds more like music you’ve heard before than anything else on the album. Silica, the third track, finds us opening up the piano cover and discovering a slithery, metallic menu of sounds inside. Bones returns to the piano as it’s usually played, with a tentatively played conversation between high notes and low, but then Lee leaves the keys behind and drums insistently on the cover for Sinews. The thwacks and thumps continue in the dance rehearsal rhythms of Torso, and, in hearing it, I first began to think it would be more fun to watch Lee play than to listen to her. Belly of the Beast, the album’s best track, layers piano sounds by holding the pedal down. You hear a swirling cigarette smoke miasma — not just the note that’s being played, but the ones before it and the ones that weren’t played but have somehow been picked out of the ether. What follows, Uvula, is certainly the album’s oddest cut — a rhythmic blend of slaps and deep, fractured breathing, moans and tonally diverse nonsense syllables. I’m tempted to be flip and say that it sounds like two asthmatics having sex, but there is such a variety and multilayered texture of sounds that I can’t dismiss it so readily.

The title of Who’s Playing comes from a short, unattributed poem in the liner notes, which asks “When one is completely present in the moment — / Playing, or listening / — Who, then, / in that moment, / is playing / and who / is listening?” I can’t recommend playing like Lee does — it sounds like it might be painful — but if you like to push the boundaries of what music is, then you should definitely try listening.

… they extract an extraordinary array of sounds from themselves and their instruments, and create a landscape of furious, questing, contentious beauty.


Réjean Beaucage, Voir, no. 16:7, May 2, 2002

Qu’elle en joue avec le clavier, en triturant directement les cordes ou en frappant dessus comme sur un tambour, Lee Pui Ming ne se sert jamais du piano d’une façon que l’on puisse qualifier de standard. Rompue aux techniques du piano, LPM joue avec une grande intensité, et son imagination ne se limite en effet que rarement à n’utiliser que le clavier de l’instrument. Le disque est lancé ce 3 mai au Centre culturel Calixa-Lavallée dans le cadre de la série de concerts de musique improvisée Canevas (c’est gratuit).

Rompue aux techniques du piano, Lee Pui Ming joue avec une grande intensité…


Paul Steenhuisen, The WholeNote, no. 7:7, April 1, 2002

In the sparse text adorning the inside cover of her new CD, Lee Pui Ming writes “when one is completely present in the moment - playing, or listening - who, then, in that moment, is playing, and who, is listening.” This statement propagates subtle questions of communication, transference, projection, osmosis, intuition, and collectivity, establishing a soundscape-building process inclusive of critical extra-temporal reflection. Not only is she questioning what is happening, but how, and the multifarious contributions of time, moment, and influence. Having lived and studied in then-British Hong Kong, Minnesota, and Washington prior to settling in Toronto, diversity of influence is a key (though jagged and unkempt) factor in her work, revealing the acknowledged involvement with the music of McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Prokofiev, Bartok, and Chinese traditional and pop musics.

Interestingly, the success of the improvisations documented on this recording directly corresponds with Lee’s distance from the piano keyboard (her primary instrument). The most keyboard-centric pieces display rigidity and reliance on perpetual motion that primarily focuses attention onto the permeating square rhythmic grid negatively imprinted with syntheses of Webern, Nancarrow, and Sorabji. With distance from the keyboard, and movement onto the strings and wood of the instrument, using the body and voice as sound sources, comes a liberation of expression. The de-emphasis of pitch allows for the successful confluence of further-reaching, expressive, organic and magnetic, timbre-based gestures that display a playful and exploratory approach to sound. Overall, the weaknesses are mildly diffused by the sensitive ordering of the whole, but not dissolved by the otherwise inventive diversity.

… successful confluence of further-reaching, expressive, organic and magnetic, […] playful and exploratory approach to sound.


Kevin Hainey, Eye, February 21, 2002

Lee Pui Ming moulds piano and vocal into a gleeful avant-garde concoction that is all her own. She playfully dances upon her keys, strings, framework and octaves with the bombastic grace of a slam-dancer in a rodeo. Sometimes perplexing and always intriguing, her style exudes an exhilarated and innocent freedom that makes it unique, an elegant simplicity hidden within complex expressive release that isn’t oblivious but natural. Ming’s energetic spontaneity (surely a sight when she’s performing live) is Who’s Playing?’s forte, though it often threatens to drown the end results in exuberance. What might benefit Ming is a little more restraint to emphasize her mastery and control of the boxed cables.

Lee Pui Ming moulds piano and vocal into a gleeful avant-garde concoction that is all her own.


Éric Norman, JazzoSphère, January 1, 2000

L’improvisateur se doit de se le demander: qui joue? Est-ce moi qui joue de cet instrument ou cet instrument qui se joue de moi? Est-ce moi qui contrôle le bruit ou le bruit qui me contrôle? Il existe, selon Derek Bailey, deux types d’improvisateurs: ceux qui jouent contre l’instrument et ceux qui jouent avec l’instrument. Le premier type est celui pour qui l’instrument n’est qu’un médium imparfait qu’il doit faire disparaître (dépendant aussi de la technique) pour exprimer des idées musicales. Pour le second type d’improvisateur, c’est justement l’imperfection, le parasite amené par l’instrument qui est l’intérêt; son jeu se construit alors autour des textures et des déliés que lui impose son outil et qui l’entraînent dans la recherche proto-mélodique d’une musique que certain taxeront de primitive. Dans ce contexte, la texture devient de première importance comme étant le rythme corporel de l’instrument qui entraîne le musicien dans une danse où il ne sera pas la vedette et où la virtuosité (telle qu’on l’entend habituellement) n’a pas sa place. Le duo Lee Pui Ming/Joane Hétu pousse cette voie à un certain extrême - aux confins du primitivisme si on tient à parler ce langage - car les instruments sont ici les corps entiers de ces deux ardentes improvisatrices. La voix sèche et narrative de Ming se mêle aux triturations rythmico-vocales d’Hétu: les corps comme percussions, les objets, le piano préparé, tout y est pour nous faire oublier qu’il s’agit d’un duo entre une pianiste et une saxophoniste, et ça nous fait plaisir. C’est plein de fureur et d’invention et ce n’est jamais gratuit. Voilà deux musiciennes qui, loin de l’ego trip du soliste, s’abandonnent entièrement à cette musique: cette musique, c’est elles.

C’est plein de fureur et d’invention…