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.