Lee Pui Ming
1 Apr 2001
Q: What've been your recent activities?
A: I just finished that dance commission I just told you about, for the Chnz Cult'l Ctr. for their millennial dance project... So it was like a half hour piece, titled, "The Five Elements." And the choreographer is Lee Su Fei, and the piece was premiered on Mar 24 and 5 in Vancouver... Right now I'm in the middle of starting the next... well I've started the first recording session for the next recording. And the next recording will be completely improvised... with myself solo, and some duos with several musicians... and the musicians would be:
- Joan Hetu from Montreal, a saxophonist-voice person
- Lori Freedman, bass clarinetist, based out of Winnipeg right now, but she's gonna move to Montreal soon
- and then Romano Danilo is a percussionist originally from St. Johns, Newfoundland, and now in Toronto...
So the recording project would take place over the next... gee... 5-6 months at three different times... and in some ways I really wanted to get away from my usual practice of scheduling the recording session intensely for a week and going in and putting down the stuff and that's it. I wanted it to be more organic over time, especially because the whole thing is improvised... in some ways to track how things move... 3 months, 6 months down the road... So there's that project happening, and... I'm also in the planning stage of a project I suppose you would call a multidisciplinary project, with choreographer/dancer Peter Chin, who also is a musician... and visual artist and craftsperson Kai Chen... and the collaboration is roughly, or briefly... the working concept of it is to explore the theme of death and transformation in some ways thru really old mythological figures that exist in Chnz culture. What would be unique about this collaboration is that we're gonna cross over disciplines, which means that the musicians involved will also be moving... and Peter, who is dancer/choreographer, will also be participating in the music, so we're not going strictly dance / strictly music, but really trying to weave the two... and Kai Chen would come in and perhaps... I don't know exactly what he'll do... probably some body decorations, maybe even stage pieces, I don't know... so this thing is slated for next spring, and we've applied for government funding. If we're successful, we'll be touring in May next year.
What else can I tell you?... I've got a composition commission for myself and a saxophone quartet called Forty Fingers. The commission is for about 20 to 30 minutes worth of music with myself and them. The premiere will be in July in Toronto. These are the sort of creative projects...
Q: You mean this July?
A: Yeah... And performances, well:
playing in the Montreal Jazz Festival... playing in St. John, New Brunswick... in one of their regular series... It's called the Imperial Theater.
The regular series... the programming for them is usually quite conservative, so they decided to hire me, which is good for them. So I'm going out there in May...
And I'm playing the showcase for Pacific Contact next week in Vancouver.
Q: I'm sorry, what's that?
A: Pacific Contact is essentially a showcase for the West Coast of Canada, primarily for the province of B.C., and I think there may be some Americans from Washington who will go up, I'm not sure.
A: Wow, okay. That's quite a full plate.
Here's a simple question, but there're many ways you can answer this: Would it be accurate to ask, 'Where is your creative spirit or the music taking you?'
Q: These days I feel like a many-headed monster... in the sense that I'm actually at a time in my life where my creativity feels like it's just bursting forth. And it's bursting in ways where it's no longer confined to just playing music. So I'm bulging into...
- I'm sorry. I'm not going to use proper words like 'interdisciplinary' because I'm not interested in that -
So, for example, I work with sounds a lot more these days...I collect them, I create pieces out of them. I've always been interested in sounds so I'm incorporating more of them into my performance.
I'm moving. You know, like in the showcase I decided that, for lack of a better word, I will dance... with the focus that the movement is to create sound.
Q: Could you explain a little further how you're creating the sound or music...
A: So, for example... It's a little bit of footwork, like tap people would do, but I really don't do tap dance... but it's the contact of shoes with the surface of the stage. It's the movement of shoes when you move on the stage. I suppose the closest genre is maybe tap, maybe flamenco, where people focus on rhythmic movements with their feet. I'll also be wearing clothing that would make nice sounds, so maybe leather. And I'll make the piano totally resonant by keeping the pedal down so I'll be integrating sounds from all parts of my body with the piano... so I'll be tapping on it percussively... Have you ever seen me use the piano that way?
A: So basically I've got blocks of wood that I can wedge at the back of the pedal, so the pedal's down, so I'm totally free from having to keep my foot down on the instrument. Then the instrument becomes a completely resonant soundbox, and you can do whatever you want with the different surfaces there and you produce different... sonorities
Q: Are you going to, what do they say?, prepare your piano?
A: No. I never prepare my piano because it's too much work.
It takes too long.
Q: Itís funny... in fact, I have a picture on one of my leaflets of Margaret Leng Tan removing the little stickers that sheís put on the strings and dampers, to help her in her performances... so this laborious process after performing to remove all this stuff off the piano so itís back to the way it was.
It sounds great... Iím just curious, technically... maybe this is a male thing... are you going to be surrounded by mikes? How is the sound going to...
A: Iíll be wearing a lav, a body mike... so Iíll be wearing a body mike, and the floors will be miked by PCM mikes, taped on the floor... So the floor is resonant; Iím resonant; and the instrument is resonant, because the pedal is down. And the piano will be miked however it is miked. So Iíll be vocalizing as well... moving, dancing, whatever... -what else am I doing in that piece? I donít know... But to answer the question, Ďwhere am I going with music?í Iím really being driven more by the energy of expression, in whatever form the energy takes. Be it vocalizing, be it moving, be it playing... be it treating the piano as a percussion box... be it any of those things. Itíll take what itíll take.
Q: Kind of a corollary to that... and you touched on it a little bit... you said youíre dealing a lot, now, with sounds... and certainly on your answering machine you have some interesting sounds on it... In wlhat ways are you exploring technology or different gear, shall we say.
A: Not at all. Iím a technophobe.
Q: So is it more or less in the... If you want to use or shape sounds, then are you going to be playing with a mix in any way?
A: Everything I do is totally acoustic, so I donít work with electronically-generated sounds at all. But then sometimes I may take an acoustically recorded sound and play with the EQ a bit so that distorts a bit. But in live situations, no, I havenít at this point played with tape. So I donít know if thatís where you were thinking.
Incidentally, the little music that you heard on my voicemail... thatís totally just harmonics on different instruments. So thereís nothing electronic at all about that little segment.
Itís really bad reception of my phone of trying to get this off the speakers, so it may sort of wonky, but, no, itís totally acoustic...
A: Well, I mean, itís great, whatever... if itís not intended to be one way, it still sounds striking.
How do you incorporate your emotions into your performances? Do you approach it with certain emotions in mind, or just whatever happens at that moment?
Q: Well, it depends on whether Iím totally improvising in an open way or if there are actually structured improvisations. So, in public performances, Iíve gone mostly for structured improvisations, up to this point. But in this recording that Iím telling you, which is totally open, it was actually a very interesting experience for me. I just did it 2 weeks ago. Where I went in 3 nights in a row, and just... just played. And in that sense it was very interesting in relation to what youíre asking, your question. Because... I walked in with a certain desire to explore certain, letís say, emotions or states. And I go in there and I couldnít get there. I just couldnít get there.
So I have my desires. I want this album for me to be playing from "this" space. Itís a space that I play from at home, letís say, quite easily.
I go there... Thereís another pair of ears in the room. Thereís a mike there. I canít get into that space. So after struggling with 2 nights, the third night I decided I would just go with whatever is. I mean thereís no point fighting it, so I would just go with whatever the moment is. So what happens was, I became like a hen... and I just plopped one egg after another... You know, I would play one piece... itĎll be done. And when that piece is over, practically immediately, another impulse would emerge for something else. So I was, like, plopping egg after egg, you know.
So it was a really intteresting experience for me. Iíve never really experienced that. Cause Iíve never really played an entire concert thatís totally open.
Q: You mean youíve played a mix of improvised and structured...?
A: Structured improvisations is a lot of what I do. So I have a structure and within it I improvise.
So you still walk in knowing this is your structure, right?
In this case, itís very interesting. Thereís no worry for everything sounding the same. Once this emotion is explored or this space is explored, and you finish saying what you have to say, in that piece. Itís over. It truly is over. You sit there. And the next thing, goes... Boom! Something else happens and then you go there.
So itís instructive for me. It was great.
Q: Do you do a lot of free improv, as well?
A: Thatís what I do.
Oh, I should tell you this story. You may not want to hear it, but Iíll you this story. (Chuckles)
All these years, Iíve done music that touched on the periphery of so-called Ďworldí music (in this case, Chinese music)... Iíve touched on the periphery of jazz... Iíve touched on the periphery of new music, improvised music...
Last summer I was at this great gathering (and if youíre ever interested, you should go) called the Sound Symposium. It happens once every 2 years in St. Johns, Newfoundland. The most east point in Canada, right by the Atlantic.
And itís really a symposium that truly is shaped for the musicians that are there. Basically you go out and you hang for ten days... you hang out.
Like nobody hangs out, you know? People go into festivals... they go, and Boom! They do their gig. They leave, right? So thereís not really a chance for people to just hang with a whole bunch of pretty different musicians.
And who were present in that symposium were musicians from the world music genre, from improvised music, new music, and all sorts of experimental arts.
And at the end of those ten days, I was so happy. I was able to be there for a lot of different concerts and I played... and I played with different people.
At the end of it, I said, the vehicle that I feel most comfortable expressing myself is improvisation. Most comfortable... open... so it made me really happy. So I found myself. (Laughs)
I donít mean find...you know what Iím saying...all these years... Itís sort of schizophrenic for me. Because I go into jazz festivals and world music festivals, and I always have to explain why I am and, at the same time, why I am not. It gets tiring.
So itís sort of schizophrenic. So it felt really good that thereís one unifying mode of expression that Iím most comfortable with, whichever genre it goes into, and the mode is improvisation.
Q: Talk about your recordings. How many have you put out and what were you doing at the time you recorded them?
A: Iíve put out 4 recordings to date.
The first one is a little cassette, that remained a cassette. And in some ways itís the dearest to my heartÖ because it was the most unpretentious little recording. And I did it at the end of the Ď80s. Where, at that time I only had the impulse to go out there and do music. That was all I knew. I had no concept of what kind of music it would be and where it be placed in a record store and who I would go to see who would hire me Ö so on and so forthÖ
So it was totallyÖ it was an innocent recording. Whatís nice about it after all these years is Ė I go look at it Ė and it actually contains all the seeds of things that got developed throughout the last decade. So itís really nice to see consistency, to see that certain things had been there and had actually flurred. [Flourished?]. So for that reason, That remained special to me.
And the next recording I put out was one with me and a percussionist and quartet of Chinese instruments. So itís a sextet.
And that recording got a Juno nomination. And Junoís are the Grammies equivalent for Canada.
Q: What category?
A: Global. We donít call it "World". They call it "Global", so itís Global.
It didnít win, but Ö it was in the early 90ís or the mid-90ís. At that time I wanted to contemporize Chinese music using the instruments. So thereís that project.
And then the third recording was a solo one put out by Dorian, in the States. And that was a strange one, because they didnít want me to do anything else but play the piano. And even then I was already not just playing the piano. I was vocalizing and I was doing other things with the piano. That was an interesting recording.
The last recording was one where itís a huge project, was where I went to China, and went to the desert, and all that. That oneís called, "Taklamakan."
And that one was a bicoastal recording. Parts of it were laid down in China and parts of it were laid down in Toronto, and we put them all together. I hired musicians from Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Shanghai to be part of that recording. So they came from where they came from, and we all gathered in Shanghai, in a really fancy recording studio. In the Shanghai Broadcasting co. or whatever they call it, you know, the official radio station building. And they had a really expensive fancy studio that nobody used. Somehow we got in there, paying very little, so we were very happy. So I wrote stuff for those musicians. They laid them down. We came back and did overdubs, here. I liked that recording a lot.
An interesting thing isÖ (at this time I havenít resolved it yet) thereís always a dichotomy between my public performances and the recordings I make. So itís very frustrating for people who come to my concert and they want to get a recording of what they just heard, because I donít have one like that. My recordings tend to be sort of spaces I go into where I create what I want to create. Sort of as a separate experience, than a documentation of a concert.
Q: Following up on that, are you going to put out some videos?
A: Well, I should. (inhales, and then bursts out laughing)Ö I should and maybe, IÖ
Q: Well, itís an effort. I asked this question of a very animated percussionist from Philadelphia, Toshi Makihara, whoís really funny to watch when he performs. Heís in the improvisational vein, and he tours all over.
He has the same reaction. He agrees that heís a very visual person, butÖ itís a bit of work to pull all of that together. I think he does have some video of himself, but itís a process ofÖ
I guess if youíre trying to make things happen in your town, as he is, trying to arrange gigs and whatnot, you donít have time to produce yourself.
So you have this dual existence of putting out recordings that are examples of a progression through different phases and also a live performance thread.
A: I think this next recording that I talked to you about, that Iím in the process of making, will probably bridge that gap. Cause that recording will be simply playing rather thanÖ like a concept album as such (I mean I never do concept albums)Ö probably the next one would bridge the gap a bit moreÖ
Q: Talk for a moment your relationship to Chinese musicÖ How you explore thatÖ If you think thatís something that youíve finished with for the time being, or there are still more things to look atÖ
A: In some ways, I do feelÖ for now, that is not my burning area of interest. Iíve done quite a bit of work with that (and thereís a lot more work to be done, still), but right now itís not a burning area of interest. However, I do still love some of the blown instruments.
Q: For example, what?
A: Gwan-dzi. I love gwan-dzi the best. Gwan-dzi is a tube with a reed, like an oboe reed. Itís a Northern instrument.
Thereís not a lot of people that play that. In some ways, itís a very specific northern style.
Itís a very beautiful cross between an oboe and a soprano sax.
So for that instrumentÖ I would love to keep writing for it. There are definitely instruments that I love, and I donít see my work stopping with them.
Itíll come back. As serious work, itíll come back. I knowÖ
Q: Could you talk about the exploration of the northwest of China. What was going on there?
A: Itís a combination of my psyche and the psyche of an immigrant. I tend to always place myself at the periphery of things, at the outside, at the edge of things. Whether I need to or not, I do out of habit.
When I go to China I find myself not terribly interested in the majority Han culture, even though thereís tons there, and lots of stuff I love. But I find myself drawn to all the other ethnicities that are populating the boundaries. And in this case, in the NorthwestÖ that is the bed of so-called Silk Road civilizations. And really, beyond that term, what it is is just eons and eons of people from that whole part of the land (maybe even extending as far west as Greece)Ö traveling back and forth. And all the cultural cross fertilizations that happen. Itís a beautiful thing to see and experience.
When I went there. I just felt really touched, knowing that here I was standing on layers and layers and thousands of years of peoples lives that had come from far, and left there marks there, and gone back, and so and so forthÖ
And even now, you could still tellÖ the richness of the cultural history of that region is still very vivid in the way people lookÖ and if you knew the languages you could probably tell all the different variance of the languages that are there.
That has a lot of different ethnicities that live there, in that region.
Itís an area thatÖ quite a lot of it is desert, and people normally donít think of desert as being rich places, but these deserts are very rich. (I guess most deserts are rich. People die there. Leave there mark there.)
Q: Did you travel thru parts of the Taklaman Desert?
A: I didnít have the time, nor the resource to cut across the entire desert. That would be quite a trip. I basically went from different places in the desertÖ like points, right? I didnít really cross the whole thing.
Iím born in the Year of the Monkey, and I feel very identified with the monkeyÖ the whole monkey king thing. I got to actually see that Flaming Mountain, that is the Sai-Ow-Kay, the Journey to the West classic. Where, technically, that was a famous story in that taleÖ where you had to cross what was called the Flaming Mountain. When you go there and look at itÖ yeah, of courseÖ the sand is red, and itís damn red hot. So when the Monkey went, continued on to the west, he passed that particular pointÖ so I got to see that. It was like a little special place.
Experiencing the oasis is a sort-of bizarre phenomenon. When youíre surrounded by dryness, all of a sudden, thereís this greenery. It feels really bizarre. You also get to appreciate water a great deal.
Q: What are your thoughts about CanadaÖ your relationship to things Canadian?
A: Iíve been in Canada since í85. For the longest, longest time (it can be as long as even last year) I would not, and I could not, call this place my home.
I left HK for a long time. I left it in í76. In many ways, it still feels like an emotional home, though in a physical way I wouldnít live there.
But emotionally, I hadnít really connected with this place, Canada. But I think itís beginning to shift. For several reasons. One is, the balance of time is beginning to shift. By now, Iíve actually spent more years away from HK than I have spent there, so itís only going to add up on this side. And also that, what I really appreciate about CanadaÖ because I lived in the States for 9 years, I have a sense of what itís like to live in the StatesÖ I really appreciate this about Canada, especially as a distinction from the StatesÖ Canada is literally wide-open space. Thereís so much space here, that, as an artist, the skyís the limit. You can do anything. I feel like in the States, thereís so much more population.
Weíre about a tenth of the population of the States (Iím not sure). Weíre really not a very populated country. So when thereís so many people doing so many things, itís a different sort of creative environment, where you probably spark off each other a lot. You know, that kind of creativity.
And for me, I actually do prefer the creative space where you have the sky, and thatís what you haveÖ and you can just take whatever space you need to take. I find that in Canada I can do that, and I appreciate that. More than anything, my connection to this country is really its support of my work. Thatís my main connection to Canada. Itís been there for my work.
Q: Could you describe what you mean by that support. I think I know what you meanÖ
A: For example, on a terribly practical level Ė funding. Governmentís been there, consistently. So without that kind of support, I couldnít do my work. I mean, Iíd probably have to, like, go work somewhereÖ (laughs at the irony) I mean, Iíd still have to work! You know what I mean!
That itís allowed me to do the kind of work and exploration, and that Iím very appreciative for.
And also I love the diversity of the geography here and the land. Iím beginning to get into that more and more. In time, I think once I get connected to the land, Iím here.
Q: Picking up on something you just mentioned about being able to afford to create in the manner that you want toÖ Iím curious about the things you do to survive. Iím wondering about the life of the artist, sometimes having to separate into different effortsÖ For example, when you talk about being a gun for hire, or a composer for hire, do you do things like jingles? What are we talking about here?
A: Okay, I will describe my life to you in very practical ways.
I do teach 2 days a week, so I have an amount of income that pays my bills.
Q: What do you teach, by the way?
A: Piano and composition.
And then I do take on gigs, where I write for theatre. I write for film, independent film. I write for dance. So I get some money there.
And other sources of income would be thru performance. I mean, I donít perform a whole heck of a lot all the time. Itís usually spurts, here and there. But thereís income from that.
Then I get grants. Sometimes these grants allow me toÖ sometimes I get money from them to subsist, right? So thereís some money, there.
When I sell records, I make a little bit of money from there.
When I get commissions to write good music, then I get money from there.
Q: Has each recording been put out by a different entity?
A: 3 of the 4 recordings were self-produced with government funding. After all the costs are taken care of, then whatever I make from selling is mine.
And then the one from Dorian is Dorian. I get like 12cents_something, (you know?!) per CD. Iím not going to make a lotta money. (laughs)