Getting the Oboe (et al) to Stand on Its Own, Catherine Lee


    Connections can be fascinating and not long after publishing my review of Emily Doolittle’s  release here I received, in addition to a stunning number of readers for that article, a CD by one of her fellow musicians featuring another of Doolittle’s interesting works alongside four other works for solo oboe (or English Horn or Oboe d’amore).  Though certainly kind and timely I did not relish the idea of being subjected to even this short CD single of a soloist with no accompanying musicians playing a series of unknown soliloquies.  My concern was that of having to endure the sincere efforts of a musician who is convinced of her instruments’ solo potentials and who labors to prove this to all but hardly gets past technical achievement like a recording I once heard of the Bach Cello Suites played on a Double Bass, interesting as a technical achievement but…

My fears were clearly unfounded as I listened to each track.  Patience turned to excitement and I think I’ve now heard a sort of new breed of instrumental specialist.  Lee plays oboe as well as the closely related English Horn and the very little known Oboe d’amore with expertise.  But she is not a specialist in the “period ensemble” genre per se. Rather her focus is on the potentialities of her instruments as vehicles for new music, improvisation and solo performances.  There seems to be little threat of a forthcoming rendition of the Telemann Flute Fantasies played on one or all of those.  Instead we have a gifted musician who seems poised to shepherd these instruments into new adventures in the 21st century.

The album consists of 5 tracks, all less than nine minutes in duration but each is a fully realized composition lovingly interpreted by this performer.  I am only familiar with one of the composers here, Emily Doolittle whose Social Sounds from Whales at Night (2007) is the only track which features any accompaniment.  It is a good example of Doolittle’s potentially groundbreaking work with animal sounds.  The other tracks manage to rise above the level of mere effects-ridden etudes to the level of compositions that define their own sound world and subjugate that world to artistic expression.  Very interesting listening.

From the first track it is clear that this is a musician with a deep understanding of the expressive possibilities of her instruments in both traditional and extended techniques as well as a clear sense of how to find music of substance.  Her playing sounds effortless suggesting that she puts a great deal of time into honing her virtuosity but she clearly moves beyond the technical to master the expressive range.
I would certainly be willing to hear just about anything Ms. Lee chooses to play including the relatively obscure repertoire for the oboe d’amore but I have my fingers crossed that we may get to hear her tackling concertos by Morton Feldman, Vincent Persichetti, Witold Lutoslawski and Hans Werner Henze, big projects that are nice to hope for but we do see that her ear for the smaller projects is clearly golden.

all spring, Music of Emily Doolittle


 

doolittle

Emily Doolittle (1972- ) was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  She earned a B. Mus. from Dalhousie University in 1995 having studied with Dennis Farrell and Steve Tittle.  She went on to earn an M. Mus. in 1999 from Indiana University where she studied with Don Freund.  She completed her Ph.D. at Princeton in 2007 studying with Barbara White, Steve Mackey and Paul Lansky.  In addition she studied with Louis Andriessen from 1997-1999.

Doolittle now lives in Glasgow, UK having just left a faculty position at the Cornish school in Seattle, WA.  where she taught since 2008.  A quick look at her CV reveals a very busy composer and academic with an extensive list of compositions, performances, research, teaching etc. such that this reviewer is amazed to find that the present release is the first CD dedicated exclusively to her music.

I was pleased to be able to get a perspective from the composer that helped me understand the context of this disc in terms of the rest of her work.  She wrote:

“As I was making choices of what to include on this CD, I realized that my music divides itself into several (sometimes overlapping) categories. Over the next few years, I’m hoping to be able to record two or three more CDs. The one that I sent you is the one for fairly standard-ish chamber ensembles, with pieces that would sit fairly comfortably with chamber music of any era. At the moment I’m applying for funding to record a CD of pieces for one or two instruments/voices — these pieces also have a fairly similar musical language to the pieces on “all spring”. After that, I’d like to record a CD of my bird and animal song influenced music, which tends to be more experimental (in terms of sounds used and structure), and often involves some improvisation. And then I have a number of pieces that are harder to figure out how to present to a larger audience — site-specific pieces, pieces for amateurs or children, etc. So I guess I see this CD as both the culmination of one project, and the beginning of a larger project. And I think that getting this sort of overview of my compositions to date will help give me ideas about the directions I’m most interested in going in in the next few years. (I’m at a bit of a transitional time — I just left a full-time teaching position at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle to move to Glasgow. I’m hoping to find part time teaching here, but mostly I want to devote a lot more time to composing than I’ve been able to in the last few years.)”

I was also unaware that there was such a thing as “zoo-musicology” or the study of things musical generated by the members of the animal kingdom.  Who knew?  I was familiar with Olivier Messiaen’s transcriptions and use of bird song but until now I was not aware that work was still being done in this area.  Alas, that will have to be the subject of another review as this disc, while later analysis might reveal zoomusicological influences, is ostensibly more in the category of absolute music or perhaps metaphorical music.  What is quite clear is the picture of an artist with wide-ranging interests who is working to shape her oeuvre and her research interests into a more unified effort which promises potentially fascinating results yet to be heard.

The CD is a very pleasant listening experience.  Nothing here sounds experimental, rather these works are beautifully composed and lovingly played by the Seattle Chamber Players (and friends).  All were composed from 2000 to 2014 and share a sort of romantic and nostalgic flavor and demonstrate the delicate nuances of this composer’s palette.

The first two works, “Four Pieces About Water” (2000) in four short movements and the single movement “falling still” (2000/2009) are purely instrumental as is the fourth piece on the disc “col”(2002/2014).  (Please note that all spellings are as they appear on the disc.)

Tracks 6-10 comprise the album’s title piece, “all spring”(2004) features the poetry of Canadian poet Rae Crossman and the final and longest piece, “Why the parrot repeats human words” (2005) features a text by the composer in which she tells her version of a Thai folk tale (think perhaps of a Canadian Peter and the Wolf maybe).  Both these works feature the beautiful spoken and singing voice of Maria Mannisto.

The ample and lucid notes are by the composer.  The recording was engineered by Doug Haire at the Jack Straw Cultural Center in Seattle and mastering was by John D. S. Adams at Stonehouse Sound in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia for this Composer’s Concordance label release.

Certainly this writer will be looking forward to hearing more from this fascinating artist as she reveals more of her work on recordings and goes on to who knows what new and interesting areas in this (now) post-Boulez world.  Brava!