Marilyn Lerner

Le résultat est une aventure sonore pleine de variations de timbres et d’effets, servie par un jeu fin et volontaire. Revue & Corrigée, France

Luminance is notable for its friendliness and inclusiveness. Splendid E-Zine, USA

Luminance is pianist Marilyn Lerner’s solo debut on Ambiances Magnétiques. Recorded at Avatar in Québec City, the work is a collection of improvisations that reveal the depth and breadth of Marilyn’s creative mind – a distillation of her influences from the jazz and classical worlds, along with a twist!Luminance has an extra dimension. A project borne out of the challenges and frustrations involved in miking and recording the acoustic piano, Marilyn decided to be creative with this problem, making it a strong feature of the work. By setting up different microphones in various configurations, and using the quality of sound as a springboard for her improvisations, Marilyn, an avid film enthusiast, has in effect, created a series of musical “scenes” each with different sonic lighting. In collaboration with the brilliant artist/sound engineer Steeve Lebrasseur, she has gone into the audio darkroom to sculpt and highlight, magnify, distort or just plain bring out the inherent sound qualities of this bourgeois parlour instrument, the piano. Microphones used in this work range from Neumanns to an RCA mike from the fifties to a 4” speaker. Comprised of 16 tracks, the work ranges from pieces like Wolfen and Rife, (explorations of more classical and jazz-derived musical ideas and harmonic possibilities) to Codec Moment, which utilizes the pin-sized microphone on the Casio Palm Pilot and thereby distorts the sound to imitate an old man yodelling! In Plucky Marilyn plays pizzicato. Attends features the harmonic series found at various points along the low strings. With latex gloves on, Marilyn strokes the strings in Eerie and also in the rock-influenced piece Glovys. In Road Tango she uses the pedals to enhance the musical landscape. Marilyn’s approach to the piano is defined by her love of the qualities of sustain and resonance, of space as well as density. She moves effortlessly between the simple and complex to create a work of breadth, depth and imagination.

CD (AM 115)

  • Label: Ambiances Magnétiques
  • AM 115
  • 2003
  • UCC 771028111527
  • Total duration: 58:09
  • Sympathique case
  • 126 mm × 126 mm × 5 mm
  • 45 g

On the web

Some recommended items
In the press


Pierre Durr, Revue & Corrigée, no. 60, June 1, 2004

De son côté, la Montréalaise Marilyn Lerner nous convie à une approche différente de l’instrument, au-delà de sa propre maitrise du clavier. Certains évoqueront vraisemblablement l’idée de piano préparé, et il y a certes l’appropriation des démarches initiées par d’autres pianistes et/ou compositeurs. Elle y associe d’autres types d’interventions, liées notamment au travail d’un preneur de son et à l’emplacement de divers micros. Le résultat est une aventure sonore pleine de variations de timbres et d’effets, servie par un jeu fin et volontaire.

Le résultat est une aventure sonore pleine de variations de timbres et d’effets, servie par un jeu fin et volontaire.


Brett McCallon, Splendid E-Zine, May 20, 2004

Francophone experimental/improvised music is not always the easiest sell. Even in these Freedom Fries days, I like to think that the reason for that difficulty rests with the “experimental” and “improvised” side of the description. If the preceding conjecture is indeed true, it’s hard to fault even the most open-minded listener for thinking long and hard before purchasing something like Magali Babin’s metal-scraping-against-other-metal-at-low-volumes opus Chemin de Fer.

On the other hand, however many times you’ve heard that old saw about music’s universal appeal, it’s nice when an instantly arresting yet thoroughly novel and interesting album reminds you of that concept’s veracity. Luminance is the kind of album that can, with proper exposure, gain converts to the improvisational and experimental side of music.

Warning: opener Plucky would be enough to convince any fence-sitting potential listeners that Lerner is just as obscure and dedicated to avant garde principles as anyone else in her field. The track, consisting of rhythmic piano-string pluckings, is unmelodic, arrhythmic, cerebral and not particularly endearing to the ears (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Immediately, though, the angular shapes it creates are metaphorically washed away by Deluge, a series of close, chromatically moving chords that jump thither and yon over the range of the keyboard. This latter track is far more representative of the tone and sound of the album as a whole; while Lerner certainly intends to explore musical concepts less formal than listeners acquainted with classical piano music might expect, she is not moving entirely in the direction of formless sonic experiment.

The best showcase for her balancing act comes with the album’s longest tracks. Rife, an exploration of a melody that seems constantly to be tripping its way toward a greater understanding of its underlying composition, incorporates chords that call to mind Cole Porter, scale passages that evoke Rachmaninov, and tonal meditations that could come from cool-period Miles Davis. Wolfen, the other centerpiece, is far more interested in a narrower range of tones; from the contemplative opening to the quasi-industrial, contrapuntal middle-period, to the calmer resolution, the tonal space that the piece inhabits seems narrower than that of Rife, lending the latter piece a more cerebral, less physical feel.

There are many other fantastic moments here, including the interestingly miked and teasingly titled Codec Moment (see the audio clip; this track is better heard than described) and the case-thumping La boxe. Mostly, though, Luminance is notable for its friendliness and inclusiveness. If you’re on the fence about whether or not experimental/improvised music is for you, here’s a little experiment. Pick up this album and listen to it a few times. If you can’t see why you should have it in your collection, you’re probably just not cut out to listen to the more “out there” side of musical expression.

Luminance is notable for its friendliness and inclusiveness.


Randall Mcilroy, Coda Magazine, no. 315, May 1, 2004

The first time this writer heard Marilyn Lerner he was galvanized by her hard attack; if memory serves, he expressed some concern for the piano at hand. Subsequent exposure to her playing in a variety of situations, from a cool quartet with guitarist Larry Roy to the fearless improvisations with bass clarmetist Lori Freedman in Queen Mab, revealed far more measure, forethought and deep listening than first suspected. Luminance finds her alone at the piano, but such a description misses the imtimacy; this is really the art of a musician seeking to collapse the distance between performer and instrument, to the point where both piano and pianist are transformed. Working closely with engineer Steve Lebrasseur, Lerner changes the sound of the instrument and the instrument itself by a variety of strategies, from arranging the microphones to redefine the sense of aural space, to playing on the strings and frame to disengaging the hammers from the strings to turn the piano into a multi-headed keyboard drum -John Cage’s prepared piano, now prepared for even more. Only one track, Codex Moment, uses the most immediate electronic transformation, with a Casio keyboard divining trombones, elephants and uncatalogued underwater events from her playing. Interesting though that is, she prefers more subtle changes - tight patterns bright and brittle as March morning ice, menacing percussion, an impression in Road Tango of Mal Waldron’s bass rigor at half the speed. Although the detailed technical notes do not address it, you sense Lerner never wants to lose the essential “pianoness” of her instrument.

… Lerner never wants to lose the essential “pianoness” of her instrument.


Dolf Mulder, Vital, no. 418, April 6, 2004

Marilyn Lerner (Montréal, 1957) is pianist and composer and has been active in the Canadian scene for the past twenty years. She has performed with a very mixed company of musicians, like Paquito D’Riverera, Tito Puente, Jon Faddis, Steve Lacy, Christian Escoude, Jane Bunnett, Vinny Golia, etc. Her jazz work includes the solo cd Miss Overboard and Birds are Returning - Marilyn Lerner in Cuba. Also she produced a series of audio art pieces using computer technology. For the last few years she formed a duo with bass clarinet player Lori Freedman, named Queen Mab. Together they try to build bridges between new music and jazz. The last ten years she made a lot of recordings and wrote music for film, television, theatre, etc. All this does not have to imply that you ever heard of her before. In my case Luminance is a first encounter. What may not surprise us of someone with such a reputation and experience, is the virtuosic playing that illustrates her extensive knowledge of grammar and repertoire. She is also a very capable and original composer and improvisor. What is more, her music has also depth and is passionate. A great variety of techniques, idioms, color, moods, etc. pass by. In each track she investigates different aspects of music. In many pieces she is into timbral possibilities. In other pieces melodic and harmonic ideas are investigated. In La boxe, Glovys and other pieces rhythmic excursions are dominant. Besides, in one piece, like Plucky, she uses many extented techniques, making the piano sound like the prepared piano of John Cage. Whereas in other pieces she limits herself to the keys of the piano. If the idea of a solo piano cd is frightening you, let me assure you that you won’t be bored by this one. It’s a very personal work on the borders of new music and jazz by a talented player and improvisor. By the way, an interesting aspect of this release is the recording technique. For each track is indicated what microphone is used and where it is placed.

It’s a very personal work on the borders of new music and jazz by a talented player and improvisor.


Geoff Chapman, The Toronto Star, March 11, 2004

This Toronto-based pianist is comfortable in jazz, new music, Klezmer and Latin and lately has tried collaborations with poets, computers and video artists. Here are 16 improvised solos that experiment with sound, various microphones set up in different configurations that help create vivid musical images and highlight sonic options. She draws from jazz and classical styles, explores inside tbe piano, strokes strings wearing latex gloves, works pedals furiously and uses the instrument as a drum. Two relatively long pieces, Wolfen and Rife, let her expand ideas, Glovys is rock-ish and all of it is fascinating. One snippet witb the nifty title “Codec Moment” involves using tbe tiny mike of a Palm Pilot.


EN, JazzoSphère, March 11, 2004

C’est dans les studios d’Avatar à Québec que fut réalisé ce nouvel opus de la pianiste canadienne Marilyn Lerner; dans les mêmes studios qui ont vu René Lussier créer Déboutonné (le deuxième fragment d’un bilan solitaire avec son instrument) selon des procédés de prise de son semblables. La technique: multiplier les oreilles. Plusieurs micros aux qualités sonores variables sont disposés dans divers lieux du studio, dans l’instrument ou dans des pièces adjacentes. La création du disque devient alors un processus à deux phases: la création de la musique, l’improvisation, et la création d’une écoute, la focalisation. Ce procédé, Glenn Gould ne l’aurait pas nié. Travaillant sur les textures, par l’amplification, sur le mouvement et le déplacement du lieu d’écoute et de ses caractéristiques acoustiques, Lerner fait aussi preuve, sur les seize plages de Luminance d’une intelligence de l’instrument, flottant sans brisure entre une connaissance évidente de la littérature contemporaine pour clavier et une improvisation sentie, héritée de créateurs originaux du piano jazz. Marilyn Lerner signe ici un disque très personnel sur lequel le procédé technique prend une certaine importance, mais ne sombre jamais dans le gadget, venant plutôt servir une musique qui s’écoute de différentes façons. Une grande pianiste nous raconte comment l’écouter, en quelque sorte.

… Lerner fait aussi preuve, sur les seize plages de Luminance d’une intelligence de l’instrument…


Phil Ehrensaft, The WholeNote, no. 9:6, March 1, 2004

Microphones have been integral to “acoustic” jazz since the 1920’s: without amplification, the bass fiddle would drown, the New Orleans tuba would still oom-pah away and singers could not be star soloists. Skilled soundmen enabled audiences to hear what musicians intended. Pianist Marilyn Lerner takes this full circle. She’s extended her knowledge of suitable miking for piano recordings to include different types and placements of microphones as an extension of her keyboard. The instrumentation is really piano plus Neumann U87’s, Sennheisers, Rodes, Audiotechnica, RCA BKSB’s, a classical guitar contact mike, razor mike, 4” loudspeaker and Casio EM500 PDA codec. Luminance is really a duo performance by Lerner and sound engineer Steve Lebrasseur.

It’s worth buying Luminance just to hear Codec Moment, which incorporates resonance from the tiny mike in a Casio PDA. And that’s not the only golden track. Other experimenters drum on their pianos, but La boxe goes further: Lerner plays a mean Afro-Cuban jazz piano reminiscent of Tito Puente. She transforms her piano into an astounding Yoruba drum. Most tracks are 78-era short. Whether plucking, strumming, striking the innards of her instrument, or imagining new soundscapes for her keyboard, Lerner gets right to the point. There’s not much New York Bad Boy elbow-pounding on the keyboard, virtuosity and imagining new acoustics do the trick. Jazz luminaries like Steve Lacy, Sonny Greenwich, and Gerry Hemingway seek Lerner out. On Luminance, we hear why.

Lerner gets right to the point.

Piano’s Inner Life

Nilan Perera, Exclaim!, January 1, 2004

Back in the ’60s and into the ’70s, there was a style of painting that came into popularity called hyperrealism. True to its name, it portrayed fairly mundane objects (cars, storefronts) in ferocious detail, paying obsessive attention to reflective surfaces and colour. The results were perspectives that the human eye could not reproduce if it looked at the same object, due to the physical limitations of the eye itself. Marilyn Lerner has presented an album of solo piano music that uses various recording techniques to give us audio snapshots of music that you could not hear in real life unless you managed to get inside the piano itself. In this way she has taken an interesting approach that gets into the realm of electroacoustics and remixers. The music itself is a fascinating mix of tuned percussion, electronic glitch, orgies of overtones and blazing technique. The debts to Messiaen, Cage and Debussy have been paid off with interest and Lerner manages to avoid the trap of having the piano preparations and extended recording techniques sound like gimmicks. It’s a real treat to hear piano music as it’s heard by the musician, in all its detail and at the same time realise that she is responding so closely to subtleties that a live listener could only guess at. A remarkable piano album in which the piano itself becomes a truly significant other.

What inspired you to record an album this way? Lerner: Well, first of all, recording piano has always been a pain in the ass. I had been interested in audio for a while and what different mics can do, so l wanted to work with the shadings and colours of sound and work through some of that stuff. We also worked with compression in the mastering stage to bring out some of the harmonics in particular pieces, but it’s mainly about improvising. It’s all improvised. The mastering and recording were kind of like developing photographs, where you bring out certain things in that process, but it was the musical integrity of each piece that I was going for. In that way it’s a very personal snapshot of where I am right now when it comes to the piano and improvising, but it’s also a chance to get a listener’s ears right inside the piano.

Do vou plan on taking a similar approach to live playing? Yeah, if I could find someone who was hip to do it with, but it’s also tricky because it’s such a specific situation. You can’t just go into a club and make it work. You need a good PA and mics and a technician who’s also a musician, a good piano and a good room. I mean if I could find all that in one place, I’d love to do it.

A remarkable piano album in which the piano itself becomes a truly significant other.


François Couture, AllMusic, October 7, 2003

This first solo outing for Queen Mab pianist Marilyn Lerner takes a somewhat different form, but you will have to be very attentive in order not to miss it. The improviser has worked with Avatar Studios’ resident sound engineer Steeve Lebrasseur to try to coax out of the old Grand some new sounds without resorting to preparations that involve extraneous objects. Lebrasseur, who had already worked his magic on guitarist René Lussier’s two late-’90s solo CDs (Solos de guitare électrique and Déboutonné), uses a number of different microphones — from hi-fi to very cheap — that he places in creative locations. In this particular case, some pieces have been recorded with two microphones put very close to the strings, or behind the performer, or in an adjacent room with a 4” loudspeaker relaying their capture under the piano for extra resonance. The most surprising piece in that regard is Codec Moment, where a cheap dictaphone microphone is placed across the room, providing a distorted image that interferes with the one captured by the two hi-fi mics placed inside the piano. And truth be told, it is also the only track where Lebrasseur’s touch is easily witnessed. Most of everything else will be lost on a regular living room stereo system. Luckily, Lerner’s music doesn’t require creative sound engineering to be engaging. Her background in jazz and Klezmer resurface at various points in the course of these short pieces, giving her more abstract improvisations and experimentations a human face. She performs La Boxe (“Boxing”) with her fingers knocking on the frame of the instrument while keeping the sustain pedal depressed. In Eerie she scratches the strings to produce long growls. But in the other pieces she plays the piano, letting her very personal language unfold, a language that recalls both Paul Bley and Irène Schweitzer.

… her very personal language unfold…

Heard In

Brian Olewnick, The Squid’s Ear, September 1, 2003

I was previously unfamiliar with Lerner’s work though from her discography I had the impression that she often works in more mainstream lines and has collaborated with several Cuban musicians. Noting that this disc was on the Ambiances Magnétiques label, however, I expected some more adventurous fare and that is indeed the case (though arguably a little conservative by the label’s standards). Unfortunately, Lerner employs a somewhat scattershot approach in these mostly brief pieces, venturing down this or that avant-garde by-way, remaining in one place seldom enough for the listener to derive an accurate or deep impression of “Lerner“, as opposed to just another exploratory pianist. She delves into the by now routine panoply of effects including string strumming, box pounding and piano preparing and, on Bordeaux, makes a regrettable decision to bring a Casio keyboard into play. She’s at her best on the lengthier numbers like Deluge, Wolfen or the impressively rhapsodic Black Tulips, where an absorbingly expansive character can be heard, somewhere to the right of Cecil Taylor and the left of Paul Bley. In fact, although it may be too easy a comparison, I couldn’t help but think of another Marilyn, Crispell, much of the time. Lerner tends toward a similar dark rumble and tumble that sometimes gives way to bombast but often enough draws in the reins and conjures up some nicely sensitive and thoughtful moments. Whereas in years past, one looked for musicians to shed the unwanted baggage of tradition, the current “academy” of the avant-garde, largely threadbare after the last several decades, often has one yearning to hear players simply play and not worry so much about being in the vanguard. Luminance gives me little doubt that Marilyn Lerner is a fine pianist capable of creating some strong music. If only she wouldn’t try so hard.