Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Remote Together”


Redshift Records

I make reference to “Gabriel’s Oboe” (from the Morricone score to The Mission) in a slightly ironic way to introduce an album in which the artist, Dr. Catherine Lee is on a Mission of a different sort from that of Gabriel in the film. Lee’s mission is the liberation and expansion of the role of her chosen instrument(s).

While many instruments fit comfortably into a solo role such as keyboard instruments, violins, and cellos this is not the case with the oboe and it’s double reed relatives the oboe d’amore and the english horn (Lee is a master of all of these). Indeed many instruments which have populated orchestras and chamber groups for ages have seldom if ever stood on their own. In a phenomenon which I term, “refugees from the orchestra” there have been many instances in which artists have taken their instruments out of the context of those ensembles and began to establish a performing tradition and commission a repertoire suitable for such a venture. In fact there are two west coast musicians who are renowned for their work in liberating their respective instruments from orchestras and into their own domains: Bertram Turetzky (professor emeritus at UC San Diego literally wrote the book on expanded techniques for double bass) and Stuart Dempster (trombonist extraordinaire who also “wrote the book” on the modern trombone). Dr. Lee is poised to make a similar mark on the musical world.

Lee’s previous album reviewed here, “Social Sounds” (2013) focused on music by Canadian composers. The present album (released May, 2021) parallels the tenor of these crazy pandemic times in both title and content. Recorded mostly in 2019 it arguably has some prescience the way good art tends to achieve. Here she includes composers whose milieu includes northern California and the Pacific Northwest in addition to Canada. The six compositions represented here touch on many mythological and actual beings from whom the artists derive their inspiration. Dr. Lee was apparently pleased with my review of her first solo disc graciously sent me a copy of this new effort.

Hurricane Ridge

Now for the last 18 months I have been on a travel contract living and working near Tacoma, Washington. My tenure in my “day job” has run pretty much concurrently with the rise of the pandemic and its attendant restrictions. As a result I had not explored this beautiful area of the world until recently. I decided to remedy this by taking a car trip to explore a bit of the Olympic Peninsula, the westernmost portion of the lower 48 states, and I took this CD along to provide a soundtrack for my trip. This journey of two days took me around and through parts of the Olympic National Park and through various tribal lands where native peoples have lived for thousands of years. Throughout the drive I let the disc play repeatedly and found it curiously satisfying as a soundtrack for the images I saw through my windshield (I did not bring music along on my hikes). Metaphorically Lee accompanied me on this journey.

Mount Olympus, WA

This disc also appears to derive inspiration from several musical mythologies and persons which are also associated with the regions which span from the San Francisco Bay Area north into the Oregon, Washington, and Canada. John Cage, Pauline Oliveros (Lee holds a certification in Oliveros’ “Deep Listening” techniques), Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, spectralists (Wyschnedgradsky, Haba, Radulescu, etc.), Morton Feldman, Raymond Murray Schaeffer, Henry Brant and professor Lee who shares one of her own compositions much as she did on the first disc. There are six tracks containing six compositions which, though of different character, share a connection via the historical and mythological dimensions that comprise their roots. This is more about drones than rhythmic complexity and about images more than linear narratives.

The recording begins with the only actual solo composition, Jordan Nobles‘ “Nocturne” (2013). This is in fact a realization of a composition for a “spatialized” chamber group in which the instruments play “self paced melodies”. This track is a somber Cagean etude realized from this material for solo oboe. Spatial dynamics are the realm of both Raymond Murray Schaeffer as well as Henry Brant.

The second track is by the only composer on this recording with whom I have some familiarity, Dana Reason, a pianist and sound artist with roots in (the now mythological) Mills College and who is also certified in Oliveros’ “Deep Listening”. It is Pauline Oliveros whose spirit presides in this work. Her “Chanson de Fleurs: Eleanor of Aquitaine” (2017) is a sort of sonic narrative for oboe and soundscape evoking the mythology of the medieval French Queen. This is music that skirts the boundaries between didacticism and program music. It evokes images of the archetype of the eternal feminine. It is a lush and evocative work that brought images to this listener’s mind.

Taylor Brook‘s “Alluvium” (2017) is for oboe d’amore, a slightly lower pitched version of the modern oboe which was popular in the baroque era. It includes an electronic accompaniment and plays on the tuning problems common to these woodwind instruments. The recorded tape is the foil against which the soloist plays and deals with the tuning issues which in turn results in spectral harmonies which are rich and beautiful.

Julian Snow‘s “Red Eyes, Green Lion’s Teeth, Golden Heads” (2017) is also for oboe d’amore and recorded sounds. Here is a piece which ostensibly evokes the sprites and devas of “the flies and dandelions” of the composer’s back yard. Snow seems to channel the world music explorations of Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison in spirit.

Matt Carlson‘s “Chiasmus” (2018) for English Horn and Synthesizer attempts to metaphorically use the literary device of Chiasmus (a type of repetition for emphasis like “all for one and one for all”). This piece is, at 14:20, the longest piece on the disc. It consists of several short movements utilizing a minimalist dearth of materials to create variation structures. It is virtually a concerto whose virtuosic demands are interpretive rather than technical. It is a highly engaging piece that gave this listener joy in both passive and active listening. He seems to channel musical deities like Morton Feldman and Alan Hovhaness, a lovely experience.

The final conjuring on this disc is by Catherine Lee who presents “Silkys” (2020) a meditation for oboe and environmental sounds, a collaboration with sound artist Juniana Lanning. This is a meditation on the life of the domestic silk moth, again a soundscape rather than a narrative. Dr. Lee’s fascination with the natural world is also reflected in the cover art which is the artist’s own photomicrograph of the exoskeleton of a bombyx mori.

This is a subtle but widely embracing collection of music seems to be a logical next installment in Professor Lee’s mission to lead her tribe of double reeds to a new vision appropriate to the new century. Brava! Long live Catherine’s Oboe.

The Varieties of E#, a new Elliott Sharp Release on Starkland


Elliott Sharp

Elliott Sharp

I think the first time I heard of Elliott Sharp was when a friend played a vinyl copy of 1988s Larynx. I later got hooked on the delightfully noisy string quartets of 1987s Hammer, Anvil, Stirrup. With 89 albums to his credit (according to discogs.com) Sharp writes and plays music in a range of styles and for a range of ensembles.

Only two years older than John Zorn their musical paths are similar in that they both learned multiple instruments as children. While they are both incredibly creative, intelligent and productive artists, Sharp initially took a more traditionally academic path while Zorn is largely self taught (an amazing feat in itself).

Sharp studied music, anthropology, improvisation and electronic music with teachers like Benjamin Boretz, Roswell Rudd, Morton Feldman and Lejaren Hiller. His music frequently uses Fibonacci numbers, fractals, chaos theory and genetic metaphors. His collaborators have included blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin, Qawalli singer Nusret Fateh Ali Khan (and many others) and practically a who’s who of the Downtown New York scene.

He produced the Nonesuch album of Ornette Coleman covers by John Zorn (Spy vs. Spy, 1988) which is definitely worth a listen. It is one of a series of such recordings of covers of various artists which have also included Ennio Morricone among others.

The present recording comprises works written between 2004-2008 and, like the previous release of music by Martin Bresnick (reviewed previously in this blog here), comprises a sort of snapshot of the composer’s recent work. Like the Bresnick disc this recording samples Sharp’s writing for a variety of ensembles and is an effective portrait of his mature style.

As a long-standing performer in the New York downtown scene Sharp experimented with a variety of compositional and  instrumental techniques consistent with his scientific interests.  Now such experimentation by itself is of little interest except on a theoretical level but what we hear in the works in this recording is a composer who has integrated these techniques into a sound that is pretty uniquely identifiable as Elliott Sharp much as J.S. Bach’s techniques are easily recognizable in identifying that composer.

The first work (and the one that lends its title to the album) is The Boreal (2008).  It is the most recent of the compositions and is another chapter in Sharp’s reinvention of string quartet writing.  Written for the noted JACK quartet, it involves the use of different types of non-traditional bows fashioned by the composer and creates sounds full of harmonics. It is probably unlike any string quartet music you have ever heard and it expands the notion of what that traditional classical ensemble can do.  The recording, though recorded live at the Ostrava Festival, is remarkably free of ambient noise which allows the listener to hear the subtleties of the rather wide dynamic range to be heard without the interference.  The work resides in more or less the same sound world as his other quartets and its four movements seem to follow logically creating a conceptual whole as with any of the more conventional quartets in the repertory.

Jenny Lin

Jenny Lin

The second work, Oligosono (2004) is for solo piano.  As the liner notes tell us it is Sharp’s application of extended instrumental techniques which he developed on his guitars to the piano (a pretty interesting accomplishment).  It is written for and played by the wonderful Jenny Lin who navigates the inside of the piano as well as the keyboard in some rhythmically complex and virtuosic playing.  She executes the three movements with seeming ease.

Paul Erdös "Erdos head budapest fall 1992" by Topsy Kretts - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Erdos_head_budapest_fall_1992.jpg#/media/File:Erdos_head_budapest_fall_1992.jpg

Paul Erdös

Now we come to the composer’s work for larger ensembles.  Proof of Erdös (2006) is named for the mathematician Paul Erdös (1913-1996) perhaps most famous for the Erdös Number which is an indicator of the degree of separation a given person has with another (Erdös’ number would be a zero and his direct collaborators would be a one.  I’m guessing my Erdös Number with regard to Mr. Sharp would probably be at best a three for having reviewed this album).

Proof of Erdös is a four movement work written for Orchestra Carbon (one of Sharp’s various ensembles) and it is ably conducted by the American composer/conductor David Bloom.  It is a studio recording.  The work shares some of the sound world of the last piece on the album but the ensemble is more of a chamber group than the full orchestra but produces a similarly large and complex sonic image.

On Corlear’s Hook (2007) is a work for full orchestra and, for this reviewer, it is a great opportunity to hear Sharp’s ability to write for large orchestra.  It’s title is taken from a the lower east side neighborhood in Manhattan where Sharp resided with his family.  As the composer says in the notes there is no attempt to be programmatic or pictorial that the music is, “a reflection of the spectra of my existence (there) from one frequency band to another”.

The performance by the fine Janacek Philharmonic is conducted by the German conductor Peter Rundel (1958- ). Rundel, whose credits include a Grand Prix du Disque for his recording of the works of Jean Barraque (1928-1973), delivers a convincing performance of this tour de force.  The four movements, reflecting Sharp’s “spectra” coalesce to a unity which suggests that this piece could easily be called “symphony” if one wanted to use that apparently dated term.  The audience seems attentive or at least respectfully quiet which makes for a pretty definitive recording.

A great debt is acknowledged here to the fine work of the Ostrava Days festival under the guidance of Petr Kotik (1942- ) for curating this amazing annual new music event.  There are very useful liner notes by legendary boundary defying cellist (and sometime Sharp collaborator) Frances-Marie Uitti.   Sharp himself provides notes in the accompanying booklet. As usual with Starkland the recording is of very high quality and Tom Steenland’s gift for graphic design (using an 1888 photo of electrical “effluvia” from the surface of a coin) is well suited to represent the contents of the recording.

The Boreal Starkland ST-222

The Boreal
Starkland ST-222

Like many of Starkland’s releases this album challenges the listener but meeting that challenge and giving this a serious listen is ultimately very rewarding.  This is a fine example of a composer whose work deserves to be better known and this is a good sampling of some of his most refined work.  Hopefully this release will help to position Sharp as a composer with roots in the downtown improv scene who has taken his experimentation successfully into the larger world of the contemporary classical scene.