THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 045
Good day, friends and loved ones. I hope this finds you well - and well on your way to being fully vaccinated. My two weeks post-shot #2 happened this past Sunday and though the world hasn't exactly opened its doors wide to me, I'm still feeling a lot better about the future. So long as I avoid reading the news.
Today, as you likely already know, is another Bandcamp Day, that wonderful 24 hour stretch when the music retailer waives the fees it takes from every transaction so all the money winds up in the bank account of your favorite artists. If it's Portland music you're after, I have some suggestions in my monthly Oregon Arts Watch column.
I don't have much work of mine to share, other than what's below. I did knock out a Classic Review for Consequence on the first Bill Withers album, but that's been about it. This is on purpose. I'm slowing down in hopes of freeing up time to work more on our home and to do better with the writing work I will be taking on. When I say this out loud, this is usually when folks start pouring in to offer me writing gigs. We'll see if I am strong enough to turn some of them down.
For this week's newsletter, I have an interview with a favorite Portland musician, Catherine Lee, and a pair of film reviews. I hope you enjoy them all.
Artistic responses to the pandemic are already plentiful, and there are surely more on the way. But I doubt that many will have the force of impact and emotional resonance of Remote Together, the latest solo endeavor by Portland musician Catherine Lee.
Though much of it was recorded before the world shut down, Lee’s new album (out on May 21 through Redshift Music) is unmistakably shaded with the experiences of the past 14 months.
The six pieces that she performs—using either oboe, oboe d’amore, or English horn—work through themes of evolution as they place the reedy tones of her instruments against very modern sounds like synthesizer (played by Golden Retriever member Matt Carlson on his composition “Chiasmus”) and electronic soundscapes. The discordance and beauty throughout are a perfect reflection of finding flickers of peace and comfort amid the nonstop madness.
Remote Together culminates in a remarkable closing statement. “Silkys,” a collaboration between Lee with composer Juniana Lanning, was initially meant to be performed live but became, as he calls it, a “fixed media work,” recorded during each the two artists’ isolation.
In the piece, Lee’s oboe drifts through a bed of thrumming field recordings—an attempt to musically re-create the development of a silkworm into the strangely beautiful domestic silkworm moth. It is as alien and initially unsettling as being caught in a box surrounded by the creatures, all of which are trying to find their way in. As with all of Remote Together, once I was acclimated to these sounds, I found a strange comfort within “Silkys” and have been returning to it regularly.
Ahead of the release of Remote Together, which includes an online event taking place at 5pm PT on May 21 through the Creative Music Guild's Extradition Series YouTube channel, Lee was kind enough to answer some questions via email about her new album, her study of her chosen instruments, and the work she does exploring the effects of improvised music on the human brain.
What drew you to the oboe, oboe d'amore and English horn?
Sibling rivalry! My older brother played the oboe first, and as the younger sister, I wanted to be better than him at something! That said, the first time I picked it up, it just felt right in an inexplicable way. I had played the violin for years, but when I picked up the oboe, a light switch went on. I still remember the feeling. The English horn and oboe d'amore kind of go with the territory, I’ve always played a lot of English horn, and I began playing a lot of oboe d'amore about ten years ago. I especially like using the oboe d’amore when I improvise.
Did you always have a mind toward performing contemporary work and improv pieces or is that something that evolved as you studied your instruments?
I have kind of gone back and forth. During my Bachelor’s degree, I played a lot of contemporary music and did some improv, and during my Master’s and Doctorate, I was a lot more orchestrally focused. As I was writing my doctoral paper about 18th-century performer composers, I became interested in their respective musical languages and their relationships with their audiences. This led me to question my voice as a performer and drew me into the world of free improv.
Much of the material on this album was composed for you specifically. Are these pieces that you commissioned or simply people offering up work for you?
The composers featured on Remote Together are composers whose work I admire and have worked with in the past. They are people that I feel a certain kinship with, and I asked each of them because I love the music they create. I’m so grateful that they composed these pieces for me.
If they were commissioned, were you seeking out something specific or leaving it completely open to whomever you conscripted to write for you?
I was interested in commissioning works that combine composition and improvisation practices with the addition of some sort of fixed media or electronics. Generally, it started with a conversation to see where we were both coming from, and if they had time, etc. As they are all people that know my playing well, I felt they knew where I was coming from, so I stepped out of the way. I was excited to see how each took their own approach; in many ways, the pieces are quite different, but they form a family and work well together.
In the notes for "Chanson de Fleurs," you talk about how it was created "through a collaborative process." Is it a common practice to work in close collaboration with composers like this?
In the case of "Chanson de Fleurs," Dana created the oboe part, and as she was making the soundscape, she sent me sound clips, asking which I liked and which I thought might work with different sections or phrases in the score. We went back and forth on the soundscape, adding little bits and making slight adjustments. I had not worked that way before; it was enjoyable and exciting to hear the soundscape that I could interact with come to life. It’s not necessarily common practice to work in close collaboration with composers like this, but most of the works on Remote Together have collaborative elements.
In the notes for "Silkys," you mention that the piece was conceived as a live performance. Was this a work that allowed for a lot of improvisation on the part of yourself and your collaborator Juniana Lanning?
Our original thought was that "Silkys" would be a live performance relying heavily on improvisation. I gave Juniana two field recordings I had made of the silk moths, one of a droney munching sound that they make during the instar stages and one of the buzzing sound created by the wings of an adult male silk moth. The idea was that Juniana would use those recordings as the basis for her sounds, and I would develop my part drawing on aspects of the silk moths that I was drawn to and that could interact with Juniana's sounds. We planned to get together to play and improvise to see what worked. During the performance, we would just go for it, listening to each other and improvising based on the ideas we had developed while at the same time freely moving beyond those if we felt the desire.
What was the process like recording and developing the version of "Silkys" as both yourself and Juniana were in isolation?
The process of developing "Silkys" during isolation was a new experience for me. We quickly adopted email as our mode of communication. It allowed us the freedom to create materials in our own time and was also workable with our respective family situations. We began by exchanging recordings of ideas and thinking about the overall arch of our scores. Juniana made some explorations with each of the field recordings I had given her, and then I tried out different things to see what I could do to interact with them. Using her sound studies, Juniana created a draft of a soundscape. While listening to it, I recorded an oboe improvisation based on my score and then roughly edited them together so she could hear how the ideas I was playing with interacted with her sounds. Juniana then made adaptations to her soundscape and sent it back to me. By listening, making suggestions, and working back and forth, we continued to refine our respective parts. This working method allowed each of us time to reflect and integrate our part with the others. Something was comforting about this call and response process where we reacted to each other, but not in real-time.
How has the pandemic and the halting of all live performances affected your day-to-day life and career as a musician?
Like everyone else, all my live performances were either canceled or postponed, and I’ve missed playing with other people. I’ve been fortunate that my teaching could transfer online, and I love having that connection with my students. I’ve always been interested in creating and pursuing my own projects, so I focused on my personal work. Some of my projects shifted to an online format, such as a Point of View Exhibit at the Hallie Ford Museum at Willamette University. The shift to virtual/online events made things more accessible, and I could participate in conferences/workshops I’ve wanted to attend but have been unable to travel to in the past. For example, we premiered "Silkys" at ISSTA: Sonic Practice Now, hosted by the Irish Sound, Science and Technology Association from Cork, Ireland, and I participated and watched SoundBox 4: A Zoom of One’s Own with my young son.
Working on my CD Remote Together has been something I’ve enjoyed focusing on during this time. I’ve especially savoured being immersed in the sound worlds created for me by each composer. I’m used to playing a live CD release, so creating an online release event is a new experience, but it also means that people close to me that live far away can be part of it all, which is pretty cool. Getting used to recording remotely from my living room has allowed me to collaborate with other musicians from a distance and is something that I look forward to doing more of as we continue to navigate our way forward. I just feel incredibly fortunate to be playing music that I love.
I'm curious too about your practice of teaching body mapping and coordinate movement. When did that become an interest of yours? And what benefits do those present for musicians in particular?
During my Master’s degree at IU, I took a course on the Feldenkrais Method and its application to music by the noted developmental psychologist Esther Thelen. We spent half of the class learning about the science supporting the Feldenkrais and other somatic methods and the other half on movement explorations called ATM's. I’m so grateful for her introduction to the Feldenkrais Method, as it has provided the basis for most of my work in teaching body mapping and coordinate movement. Studying how we move is helpful for all musicians as we use our bodies for a living, and it can help us avoid and recover from injury. Our movements create our sound, so the better we understand how to use our bodies, the more choices we have as musicians to express ourselves, making our message clearer for our audiences.
You've also done a lot of research into the impact of improvisation on musicians and audiences... what led you down that path?
My interest in the impact of improvisation on musicians and audiences circles back to my doctoral work on performer composers of the eighteenth century, specifically, how they used the concertos that they wrote for their own performance to highlight their skill as performers and also interact with their audiences. I was particularly drawn to the oboist J.C. Fischer (1733-1800) who lived in London; he used popular folk songs as the basis for the final movements of his concertos. These consisted of melodies that everyone would have known; he then placed dramatic pauses and virtuosic passagework to play with the audience’s expectations. Fischer’s concertos demonstrated humor, spontaneity, and a sense of being together, which I found very appealing; this led me to question what I want to share as a performer? What is my voice? And what type of relationship do I want to have with my audience? I’ve searched out and commissioned compositions that include aspects of improvisation to investigate this. The blurring of boundaries invites an openness to the moment that the audience can feel a part of. I also like moving about the performance space, allowing the audience to become aware of different effects while changing their perception of sound.
What comes next for you following the release of this new album? Any immediate plans you could share?
My chamber group, the Lee+Hannafin Duo with percussionist Matt Hannafin, is putting together a recording that I’m excited about. I’m interested in commissioning some more composers to write for me, and I’m curious to learn how to manipulate sounds myself. I’m also getting ready to raise my next batch of silk moths and am looking forward to seeing where they lead me.
Boys From County Hell (2020, dir. Chris Baugh)
The world of horror cinema post-Shaun of the Dead has been a rough one with dozens of filmmakers trying to hit that same balance of hilarious and legitimately frightening. And the success rate hasn’t been good. Director Chris Baugh’s second feature Boys From County Hell is another noble attempt on that front that just misses the mark. The young men of the title are residents of a small Irish town whose only claims to fame are that Dracula author Bram Stoker once spent the night there and there’s a mysterious cairn that is supposedly hiding some darkness beneath it. That evil gets unleashed, natch, and begins to drain the blood right out of people and it’s up to a plucky and terrified bunch of residents (including Jack Rowan of Peaky Blinders and Louisa Harland of Derry Girls) to stop it. There was fun to be had with this scenario but Baugh, who co-wrote the film with Brendan Mullin, tips the scales too far into the macabre and morose. The main characters are a sad bunch, drinking their nights away in their local and unwilling to move forward with their lives. None of them seem particularly worth rooting for as they scramble and plot to protect their fellow townspeople. And any metaphors to be found about modernity sucking the lifeblood of these centuries old communities are swept away by the streams of actual blood on display. The film allows for enough excitement and moments of charm to keep me with it until the end and for me to recommend it but with some reservation. Keep the subtitles on and don’t expect greatness. (available to stream on Shudder)
Queen Marie of Romania (2019, dir. Alexis Sweet Cahill)
There’s precious little about this abysmal historical epic that works. First-time filmmaker Alexis Sweet Cahill wants viewers to thrill at the triumph of a beloved, empathetic royal, Queen Marie of Romania, as she represents her country in the post-WWI Paris Peace Conference, while dealing with all manner of domestic drama. What gets in the way of this goal is an inability to tell this story with any facility with the well-established cinematic language. The cast was poorly chosen as they pitch and yaw between furrowed introspection and bloviating fury—a misstep not helped by some witheringly rote dialogue. And for all the sumptuous beauty of being amid the palaces and polished conference rooms, it’s difficult to get a bead on them as the film was maniacally constructed. In one four minute scene of heavily eyebrowed men insisting that Queen Marie be kept out of the negotiations, I counted at least 60 edits. The only element of the film that kept me rapt was every moment that actor Anghel Damian was onscreen, playing Prince Carol II. I was certain that, at any moment, his fake moustache would fly off his face during one of his furious monologues. A far more thrilling and dramatic experience than anything else happening in this film. (available in theaters and to rent through DirectTV)
Thank you, as always, for reading my little newsletter. I hope you enjoyed it. I'm back again next week with more. If you've made it this far, drop me a line on Twitter (@roberthamwriter) and tell me what you think is the best cover of a Bruce Springsteen song. Here's my pick.
Artwork for this week's newsletter is by Parul Gupta, whose exhibition Still, on the verge... is on display at Nature Morte Gallery in New Delhi through May 31.