by Walter Simmons
LEE PUI MING: SHE COMES TO SHORE ● Lee Pui Ming (pn); Jed Gaylin, cond; Bay-Atlantic Symphony ● INNOVA 796 (64:20)
to …. coils. turning. open. dive. she comes to shore.… she. shimmers
Lee Pui Ming was born in Hong Kong in 1956, immigrating to the United States to pursue her musical studies in 1976. For the past 30 years or so, she has been based in Toronto, where she has developed an enthusiastic following for her piano improvisations. She is also a Biodynamic Craniosacral therapist. None of the foregoing information is available anywhere on the CD package. (From what I was able to glean from the Internet, Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy is a mystical/New Age-flavored variant of massage therapy. But that is not what concerns us here.) Not only is the package devoid of informative notes, but what verbiage appears is barely legible, thanks to gray type on a blue background. Admittedly, this presentation did not exactly create a sense of positive anticipation for the music contained therein.
However, Lee’s music is quite pleasant, revealing a fertile creative imagination. Though I am not deeply immersed in the world of piano improvisation, her pieces call to mind the highly esteemed piano improvisations of Keith Jarrett, and I would think that those who are fond of that aspect of Jarrett’s work would respond favorably to Lee’s. Like Jarrett’s classic improvisations, Lee’s are not based on the familiar harmonic language of jazz and its elaboration of popular songs; instead, her work draws upon the styles of Impressionist and post-Impressionist classical music, some remote suggestions of Asian influence, and what is generally thought of as “New Age.” But these influences are well homogenized and integrated into a meditative, tasteful, yet highly virtuosic musical flow.
The “big piece” here is the 23-minute Concerto for Improvised Piano and Orchestra, dating from 2009. The work is divided into three movements, which elide smoothly one into another. Obviously, the fact that the piano part is improvised, at least to some extent, suggests that the orchestral contribution must be generic enough to accommodate whatever fancies Lee decides to pursue. The first movement is therefore rather simple, but not simplistic or insubstantial, contributing to the sense of motion as well as some harmonic support, creating a foundation for the piano’s attractive filigree. In the second movement the orchestra introduces some two-part counterpoint that probably displays the clearest suggestion of Asian influence, while cluster ostinati in the brass effectively inspire the piano to increased intensity. The third movement blossoms into a luscious melody featuring both piano and strings.
The solo selections offer some variety within the generally consistent style: some are more mellow, others are surprisingly feisty, with cluster dissonances, others utilize unconventional sound sources, such as percussion effects created by striking the body of the piano, and harmonics achieved by striking the keys of strings dampened by the hand—an effect pioneered by Henry Cowell. Altogether, the CD is authentically musical and attractive, and, as noted, is likely to appeal to listeners who will self-identify by reading this review. For this listener, while the talent of the composer-pianist is unmistakable, a little goes a long way.