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Artists Lee Pui Ming

Lee Pui Ming’s music is about going beyond boundaries. It is about transcending the myriad genres, niches, and pigeonholes that trap music and seek to name it and tame it. Lee Pui Ming is accustomed to being defined as indefinable. Critics, presenters and audiences often ask: What kind of music do you play? Is it classical, jazz, world music, folk music? Lee Pui Ming could simply answer — Yes! For all these styles have contributed to her compositions and improvisations. What does she play? European, North American, and Asian music from the most traditional to the most contemporary; music that is sometimes composed and often improvised; music that uses the voice, body and piano in unorthodox ways that challenge preconceptions about what music should be. Lee Pui Ming plays music of her own creation that is filtered through the mind, hands, and voice of an uncommonly fearless artist determined to make her very own way in the musical world.

Lee Pui Ming was born in Hong Kong in 1956. Her mother was a voice teacher who taught popular Chinese songs. At the age of three she started to study piano. In 1976 she left Hong Kong for music studies in the United States, acquiring a Bachelors, Masters, and most of a Doctorate. There she discovered jazz. McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock joined Prokofiev and Bartok in her galaxy of influences. But as she grew musically, Pui Ming decided she wanted to make her own music rather than reading the scores of others. In 1985 Pui Ming came to Toronto and a new life as a composer, teacher, and performer. In Toronto all the music in her head came together—Chinese traditional and pop music she had heard growing up, the European classical music she had spent almost her entire life studying, and the jazz she had been listening to more and more of. She finally found the freedom and confidence to play on the keyboard what she felt in her heart. In 1991 she released her first recording, Ming. She was launched.

The years since that debut have been good ones.

In Toronto, Winnipeg, Montréal, and Vancouver, Pui Ming found other experimenters, other refugees from the predictable. She also found audiences at festivals and concerts, from Whitehorse and Halifax to Berlin and Zurich—audiences who "got it", who were prepared to open their ears to something unusual and special, music that defies all borders. In Vancouver she met the Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble and percussionist Sal Ferreras, with whom she toured and recorded, winning a JUNO nomination for their recording. In 1999 she made a long journey to different regions of China where she studied, composed and recorded with Chinese traditional artists. The result, Taklamakan, won rave reviews, including the "Top Ten of 1999" list of Vancouver’s Georgia Straight. In Toronto she has performed with percussionist Mark Duggan and violinist David Prentice, and composed for and played with Forty Fingers Saxophone Quartet. Montréal’s musique actuelle community has embraced her. She has worked with luminaries including Jean Derome, Pierre Tanguay, and Rene Lussier and recently has collaborated on a number of performance projects with saxophonist/vocalist Joane Hétu.

In 2002, Pui Ming released her latest CD, a series of improvisations, mainly for solo piano, voice and miscellaneous objects. who’s playing was released on Montréal’s Ambiances Magnétiques label and is finding a rapturous reception both at home and abroad. “Une révélation—ni plus, ni moins!” (A revelation—no more, no less!) is how one reviewer from France summed it up. The same year, in February, she presented her CD launch concert in Toronto before heading west to play a series of solo concerts in small Manitoba and Alberta communities in March. April was taken up with the creation of "Hundun". It marks the most ambitious project Pui Ming has yet undertaken. Based on an ancient Chinese legend, "Hundun" features eight musicians and dancers. "Hundun" played for three nights in Toronto in May and was performed at the Guelph Jazz Festival in September. In May, Pui Ming also performed at the Musiques de creation festival in Jonquiere, Québec, and at the Canvas«+» event in Montréal. In June she returned to Montréal to perform at the first Off Jazz festival and in October her commission for solo zheng was premiered at Vancouver’s New Music Festival where Pui Ming gave her own solo piano concert as well. In 2003, Pui Ming composed the music and performed in a commission from the CanAsian Dance Festival (Toronto). Shortly after, she gave a concert of composed and improvised quartet music in Toronto before heading off for a successful nine-town tour of Saskatchewan that was sponsored by the Organization of Saskatchewan Arts Councils. The rest of the year, she was busy fulfilling commissions from Kokoro Dance (Vancouver) and The Evergreen Club Gamelan Ensemble (Toronto).

2004 saw the premieres of commissions from erhu virtuoso Chen Jiebing (San Francisco) and The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. In the fall, Pui Ming will be performing improvised music concerts at the “suddenListen” series in Halifax with Norm Adams (cello) and Erin Donovan (percussion) and in Montréal with Jean Derome (sax/flute) and Joane Hetu (sax and voice). She will also be showcasing in CAPACOA and CINARS.

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Lee Pui Ming

Hong Kong (China), 1956

Residence: Toronto (Ontario, Canada)

  • Composer
  • Performer (piano)

On the Web

Lee Pui Ming

Main Releases

Ambiances Magnétiques / AM 098 / 2002
Pochee Records / PR 003 / 1999
Pochee Records / PR 002 / 1993

Appearances

Ambiances Magnétiques / AM 124, AM 124_NUM / 2004

Complements

Dorian Recordings / DOR 90206 / 1994
  • Out of print

In the Press

  • Jennifer Kelly, Splendid E-Zine, July 15, 2002
    … 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
    Rompue aux techniques du piano, Lee Pui Ming joue avec une grande intensité…

Review

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.

Disques

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…

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