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.

Art and the Reclamation of History: Akropolis Reed Quintet’s “Ghost Light”


New Focus FCR-292

Let me say that this disc represents one of the most integrated releases that I have seen/heard. This has the gravitas of a well conceived and executed prog rock concept album (remember those?). This young group of musicians from Detroit present themselves in a photo in the accompanying booklet in casual dress flouting the old fashioned traditions of playing in tuxes much as another creative chamber ensemble (The Kronos Quartet) did many years ago. The Akropolis Reed Quintet is a group of instruments not commonly known (I’ve never heard of any repertoire for this combination of instruments, any musicians/musicologists want to chime in here?) in classical chamber ensembles. Whereas the Kronos began work a with a long held standard ensemble comprising two violins, a viola and a cello, the classical string quartet which can easily trace a long standing tradition going back to Haydn and very much alive today, the Akropolis consists of oboe (Tim Gocklin), clarinet (Kari Landry), saxophone (Matt Landry), bass clarinet (Andrew Koeppe), and bassoon (Ryan Reynolds), an unheard of combo. Its history begins here.

Illustrator Ashton Springer

Unfamiliar music by an unfamiliar group of reed instruments doesn’t exactly shout, “Buy me, listen to me”, but the prospective listener need not fear. The program here consists of all new music for this ensemble. There are no competitors, at least for now. But all this music in truly excellent performances/recordings along with remarkably integrated collaboration with visual artist, British artist and illustrator Ashton Springer, and poet/writer Marsha Music combines in an apparent attempt to reclaim the artistic history that, in the days of the booming automotive industry and the success of Motown Recordings made Detroit a creative center known round the world. Ms. Music (a nom de plume for Marsha Battle Philpot), a Detroit native, is in many ways the heart of this album. Her father was a producer for Motown and her poetic reflections on local history infuses the album with a certain authenticity. The poet states she was “born in a record store”. Indeed it was the Joe’s Records which appears in Ashton’s album cover art to which she refers (metaphorically of course)

Ghost Light brings a variety of things into focus in this paean to Detroit, the home of these artists whose work very organically includes promotion of the arts in local schools and other venues. In works generally focused on themes of birth, death, and rebirth this album tells a sad story of lost history, of razed black neighborhoods, of fond memories, of a once thriving economy now struggling but fully embracing pride of place while seeking resolution of (and forgiveness?) for past injustices while looking optimistically to a better future.

Poet Marsha Music

The art work itself is a nostalgic example of fine cover art which successfully reflects the content and the character of the music contained within. The illustrations which so beautifully attract the eye to the cover are continued in the accompanying booklet which provides concise notes which place the music in the context of the composers’ various intent and processes as well as the nearly cinematic efforts made to represent the intended content of each piece. Though neither the poet nor the illustrator are known to this writer it is reasonable to assume that we will see/hear from them again. That would be my wish.

This is the fourth album by this prize winning chamber group which was formed in 2009 at the University of Michigan. It contains five musical compositions and three poems (which precede movements I, II, and IV of the final work). All the music, as noted above is generally on themes of life, death, and rebirth as well as “ghosts” of the past.

The first work by the only composer here that was known previously to this writer is “Rites for the Afterlife” (2018) by the amazing Stacy Garrop whose facility with melodic invention and subtle use of tone colors permeated her exciting Mythology Symphony. The four movements are roughly analogous to the classical sonata forms with a longer more complex first movement followed by a slow movement, a scherzo-like movement, and a finale which ties them all together. Here she titles her movements: I. Inscriptions from the Book of the Dead, II. Passage Through the Netherworld, III. The Hall of Judgement, and IV. The Field of Reeds. The composer provides a scenario which is recounted in the booklet. Let me say that her tone painting is that of a true master and I advise listeners to collect anything she releases. You will not be disappointed.

Second is “Kinds of Light” (2018) by Michael Gilbertson. This piece, in four brief movements attempting to metaphorically treat each instrument as a pigment. The movements: I. Flicker, II. Twilight, III. Fluorescence, and IV. Ultraviolet utilize timbres and combinations of timbres to represent the visuals implied by the titles. This is probably the most “experimental” of the pieces here but the experiment engages rather than repels.

“Firing Squad” (2018?) by Niloufar Nourbakhsh. If I’m reading those liner notes correctly, the performance of this work is accomplished with the ensemble playing with a recording of themselves playing the work. This is the most overtly political of the works represented here in its intense single movement.

“Seed to Snag” (2018) by Theo Chandler is cast in three movements: I. Sprout, II. Stretch, and III. Sow. Here is a metaphoric evocation of the cycle of life from birth to death utilizing baroque musical structures.

The album concludes with “Homage to Paradise Valley” by Jeff Scott. This is the largest work here clocking in at over 30 minutes including the poetry. Its four movements attempt to describe forgotten neighborhoods of Detroit. The movements are titled: I. Ghosts of black Bottom, II. Hastings Street blues, III. Roho Pumzika Kwa Amani, and IV. Paradise Theater Jump. Movements I, II, and IV are preceded by Detroit poet Marsha Music reading from her work. The beautiful title of the third movement is a phrase in Swahili which translates as, “Spirits, Rest Peacefully”. The other movements channel the ghosts of these nearly forgotten neighborhoods and that third movement invites those ghosts to a place of rest and the peace of knowing that they will not be forgotten.

I’ve placed links throughout this article so that readers can find more detail about the composers and other artists involved. All of the artists involved here deserve at least a second look if not more. Kudos to all who were involved in this project.