A showcase of pianistic versatility

Mark Sutherland, Musicworks, no 86, 1 juin 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…