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Ingrid Lee  Mouth to Mouth

Interview with Ingrid Lee

Can you tell us about your background and how you came to experimental music?

I came to experimental music first as a performer and listener. Just before I left Hong Kong to study at CalArts, I was lucky enough to meet an improviser and recording engineer, Peter Scherr, who plays and records what he calls “creative music” in China. I took a few bass lessons from him and he lent me a number of influential CDs and books including music by Ornette Coleman, John Cage’s Silence, and John Zorn’s Arcana. Until then my musical experiences mostly came from playing classical piano and going to hardcore shows.

I thought I would quit piano when I got to CalArts, but after taking my first few required lessons, I was hooked on playing contemporary classical music. A couple of years later, I took Michael Pisaro’s experimental music workshop. I had always loved Dada and Punk, and was at the time interested in noise in my own compositions. So the way that noise and sounds were regarded and used in a lot of the music that we played in that class appealed to me. While learning to perform Cage, Wolff, Yoko Ono, Radu Malfatti, Antoine Beuger etc, I found that many of the pieces required a stillness that allowed me to access a state that felt quietly powerful. That made a significant impact on me as a performer and gradually began to influence my writing.

Stepping back a second, did you grow up in Hong Kong? And how is/was its music scene, then and now?

Yes, I lived in Hong Kong from age 3 to 17. I can’t tell you what the music scene is like now and I’m not sure I can tell you about the music scene then. There was canto-pop and there was the Hong Kong Philharmonic, but I think most people were interested in hearing what was going on outside Hong Kong. The only local music scene I was interested in then was the growing hardcore scene founded by a bilingual band called King Ly Chee in the late 90s. Peter Scherr was the only musician I knew who organised and played free improvisation and experimental concerts in Hong Kong. He played with a lot of local and American musicians.

Did you come to CalArts with a clearly developed interest in experimental music, or was a lot of it new to you?

I used to consider more things (or maybe just different things) to be experimental than I do now. When it came to experimental music in the mostly-American-and-non-European-classical-tradition-influenced-art-music sense, I merely had a curiosity for the small amount that I was exposed to, and mostly for the novelty of it. I think I was more interested in the ideas behind the music than the music itself. It wasn’t until after two years of being at CalArts that I became interested in listening, talking about, and practicing experimental music. It was difficult not to get excited and swept away by the many experimental (and I use that term to encompass any scale of experimental impulse) projects that were going on around me in music, video, puppetry, art, theatre, and all of it was new to me.

Moving on to Mouth to Mouth, first of all why that disc title?

I have been working conceptually with ideas of contagious movement and its social implications: the spread, replication, and mutation of ideas, memes (‘going viral’), between groups and individuals. As with biological viruses, cultural units simultaneously replicate and mutate endlessly. The concept of an idea mutating to the point that it is indiscernible from its original, in addition to an image of collective movement and social interaction resulting from contagion, is of particular interest to me.   For me, these ideas extend to the sonic realm in the acoustic phenomena of beatings, a result of two or more frequencies tuning to or deviating from each other; and sympathetic resonance, a body resonating in response to the vibrations of another similarly tuned body. The sounds that result from beatings and sympathetic resonance are hybrid sounds, assemblages combining two or more sounds that interact with each other.   Contagion means “to touch closely” and as the pieces on this album all touch on aspects of my thinking through contagious movement, the image conveyed by the title Mouth to Mouth seemed fitting.

Moving to the particular pieces, can you take us through them and explain how these interests are played out in each of them?

All the pieces look at collective movement, hybridity, and assemblage in some way.

Of Monsters plays with resonance and tunings between the accordion, the piano keyboard, and the piano overtones (hybrid, monstrous instruments). As each sound is patched together from different sources, the result is a series of hybrid sounds.   

Bead, Spit is similar in that the instruments in the ensemble are treated at first as one unit. Pitches in the guitar and crotales are derived from overtones extracted from the piano chords, creating sounds that emerge, sustain, and end at different points. This collective mode of producing sound creates sound amalgams that vacillate between moments of indistinction and more noisy and independent voices.

Cells deals more directly with the concepts of collective and individual experience within contagious movement. While all the vibrating bodies involved are snare drums, each responds differently to the same triggering vibration (a feedback loop created by an amplified snare drum). As the snares on each drum are switched on and the resonance of the first drum affects (infects) an increasing number of drums, sounds that were once restricted to an individual body dissipate and recompose, culminating in a single assemblage of sound and rhythm.

Another also explores collective movement but is mostly concerned with ideas of nature, normativity, simulation, the construction of dominant standards and systems, and the interchangeability of these concepts. The piece takes the standard tuning reference of A4=440hz and shifts between other standards and systems while playing with the interchangeability of nature and simulation (for example, the vibraphone vibrato imitating and extending beatings between the strings).

It’s very interesting to hear how the pieces are related conceptually, even though they sound pretty varied. Does composing for you always involve working out from an initial interest in a concept in this way, or do you sometimes, say, just start from a particular sound that appeals to you? I wonder this partly because I know that as well as composing, you are also an improviser.

The pieces on Mouth to Mouth mostly stemmed from a conceptual framework and were shaped and structured by the sounds I used. I also sometimes work outward from a single sound, gesture, or visual image. These often come from improvising or playing with instruments and objects. For example, the initial idea for Cells came from attempting to amplify drums for a performance of Alvin Lucier’s Music for Piano with One or More Snare Drums. When I found that feedback was inevitable and would set off the other drums, an image of sound passing outward from one drum to many popped into my head. I was thinking a lot about viruses and diasporic movement at the time and so the piece was written with those ideas and images in mind.

Is Lucier an important figure for you generally, or are there other musicians whose work has opened doors for you as a composer?

Lucier is definitely an important figure to me. The seemingly effortless way that he dissolves the line between science and art, and invites listeners to listen in ways that they are not accustomed to, or in ways that they have forgotten, has made a profound impact on me. There are many other musicians whose work and writings have influenced the way I write, play, and think about music: Michael Pisaro, his music, and the conversations we had while I studied with him have been influential; John Cage, particularly his piano music; improvisers such as Cecil Taylor, Joëlle Léandre, Barry Guy, Wadada Leo Smith, and Vinny Golia; noise and machine composers like Lachenmann, Merzbow, Annie Gosfield, Adachi Tomomi, and Russolo. Of course there are also many Los Angeles based musicians who have deeply affected my work including pianist/percussionist Danny Holt, for whom I have written a couple of pieces and who introduced me to the idea of concert programming as a form of composition; and Kevin Robinson and James Brandon Lewis, two composers and woodwind players who I have played with a lot, and with whom I have had many conversations about music that are still important to me. There is also a long list of non-musicians whose work and writings have shaped the way I write.

That’s a pleasingly wide-ranging list of influences. The pieces on Mouth to Mouth were all written in the last couple of years, but I wondered if you had a sense of the direction in which your music is likely to move in the immediate future? What are you working on now?

I have been curating a small experimental concert series and focusing on solo pieces. I have also been thinking a lot about forgetting, improvisation, and the physicality of sound. For the most part, I have been following and hollowing out the same lines of inquiry.  

Ingrid Lee

at68r  Ingrid Lee - Mouth to Mouth

1. Of Monsters (2012)               7:30

Ingrid Lee (piano) Merima Kljuco (accordion)

2.  Cells (2012)                          10:04

Ingrid Lee & Rowan Smith (amplified snare drums)

3.  Bead, Spit (2013)                 8:02

Ingrid Lee (piano)  Max Kutner (electric guitar) Tony Gennaro (percussion)

4.  Another (2013)                  17:47

Erik KM Clark & Andy Studer (violins)  Heather Lockie (viola)  Melody Yenn (cello)

Jake Rosenzweig (bass)  Tony Gennaro (vibraphone)

Recorded in Valencia, California 2012 - 2013


Youtube extract


“It takes a whole life to be a composer. It's a difficult craft in which the finishing line keeps moving afar, with periods of apparent stagnation and reassessment. It may seem, then, that the work of a young composer in her twenties is only the promise of greater things, but there's something to be said about the swagger of youth: one thinks of Mendelsohn and other composers who made a big splash early on in their careers. The push and unharnessed ambition of youth can bear nutritious fruit if done with discipline and good example. Also, there's something to be said about the instincts of a composer, aware of the need for peer evaluation and exchange. Lee's instincts brought her to Michael Pisaro's workshop at CalArts and her works on this CD bear not an overt influence, but rather evidence of Pisaro's ability to unlock the potential in a young composer without directly stamp his mark on her views.

Many things make this release stand out. In fact, each piece seems to address a specific concern rather than an attempt to present a coherent whole. One can tell that Lee is in an expansion phase and that the pieces in this CD are just a small part of her approach. The highly contrasted approach to each of the pieces points to an aesthetic still in formation and experimenting with a very seductive mixture of wild abandon and steadfast focus. The titles themselves offer a clue. Mouth to Mouth, Of Monsters, Bead, Spit. There's a sexual undertone to them, and the pieces reflect this in an oblique manner. The music can be tender one moment and quite harsh the next. A lovely passage sounded once, followed by a figure on ostinato that seems to say the opposite of the previous passage. Lee's music seems to exist alongside this dynamic, but the flow keep things unpredictable and this extreme dynamic seems to inform the spirit of her music rather than its structure.

Of Monsters, a duo of piano and accordion, shows singular patterns that travel all the distance between gentle and aggressive, which is not to say that the aggressive sounds are violent at all. In fact, this dynamic is what makes her music alive. Cells, for acoustic and amplified snare drums, is the harshest of the pieces here. There's little of the subtleties in Lucier's works for the same instruments, which may be explained by Lee's interest in hardcore punk. In any case, the piece offers a curveball and makes one curious about what's next from her. Bead, Spit is lovely.  The combination of piano and guitar remains one of the most difficult to balance. Lee solves this by using electric guitar and percussion, bowed vibraphone, perhaps, alongside her piano. A clever contrast of timbre alongside the same pitches and a few bitter intervals make this my favorite track on the CD. Another is the longest piece here and the one that uses the greatest contingent, still only six musicians, and it's the one piece in which the composer sits out of performing duties. Here, percussion takes a larger role, reminding me of some of the techniques used by Nick Hennies.  In a way it is a string quartet augmented, and is perhaps the most succesful piece on the disc, or at least the one that allows us to witness her powers on medium scale works. Beautiful glissandi on the strings puntuated by the wavering pitch of the vibraphone, the seventeen minutes of the piece go fast and we are left wanting more.

A fine disc by a composer from whom I would like to hear more; there's no way of knowing how far can she get, considering her youth and impressive aesthetic maturity.”

Gil Sansón

“Ingrid Lee est une jeune improvisatrice et compositrice originaire de Hong-Kong, qui est venue s'installée à Los Angeles à 17 ans environ. Arrivée sur la côté ouest, direction CalArts, où comme de nombreux jeunes compositeurs et musiciens (Devin DiSanto, Julia Holter), elle a pu suivre les stages de musique expérimentale dirigés par... Pisaro. Ceci-dit, Ingrid Lee, outre son intérêt pour Cage, Tenney, Wandelweiser et la musique contemporaine, est aussi quelqu'un de très marquée par le hardcore et la noise, ainsi que la musique improvisée, ce qui en fait une personnalité singulière qui tente d'aborder le son et la composition avec une certaine notion de puissance et d'intensité.

Pour Mouth to Mouth qui est sa première publication, Ingrid Lee propose quatre pièces très différentes qui abordent pourtant toutes un même thème : la fabrication du son par contagion. Cette notion, aussi bien sociologique que biologique, s'applique effectivement très bien à la musique où les résonances par sympathie comme les vibrations dues au frottement de deux fréquences sont des phénomènes sonores uniques qui ne peuvent être produits que par la relation entre deux phénomènes sonores (à l'image d'un comportement collectif qui ne peut résulter que de phénomènes individuels, ou d'un virus qui ne peut se développer qu'à partir de la rencontre avec un organisme vivant).

La première pièce de ce disque intitulée Of Monsters ressemble à une sorte de chanson sans voix, à une sorte de mélodie qui semble sortir tout droit de la série des Tombstones de Pisaro. Pourtant, à y regarder de plus près, tout s'accorde entre le piano de Lee et l'accordéon de Merima Kljuco. Les mélodies produisent des résonances dans le corps du piano, résonances sur lesquelles se calquent les accords de l'accordéon. Un principe qu'on retrouve également sur Bead, Spit, réalisée par Lee au piano, Tony Gennaro aux percussions, et Max Kutner à la guitare. Là encore, je pense à certaines pièces de Pisaro où les sinewaves semblent être directement les résonances de la guitare. Mais ici ce sont la guitare et les crotales qui s'accordent directement sur la suite d'accords au piano et forment une sorte de résonance artificielle au piano. Je parlais de l'influence du hardcore et de la noise plus haut, car avec cette pièce, les accords fondamentaux du piano sont de plus en plus dissonants, de plus en plus forts et de plus resserrés dans le temps. La pièce forme un crescendo, une masse qui devient de plus en plus tendue, de plus en plus dense et forte, où le son acquiert une puissance et une intensité particulières. Il en va de même pour Cells, une pièce pour deux caisses claires amplifiées et acoustiques, réalisée par Ingrid Lee toujours et Rowan Smith. Deux caisses claires sont ici mises en résonances par des objets, à plutôt faible volume, et le son devient de plus en plus dense et fort en fonction d'un larsen produit par l'amplification d'une caisse claire. Si la pièce est parfaite pour tester le volume général du disque (on y trouve les deux extrêmes), elle montre aussi l'intérêt que Lee porte au bruit et à la puissance du bruit.

Another, pièce pour six instruments et jouée ici par Eric km Clark (violon), Andy Studer (violon), Heather Lockie (alto), Melody Yenn (violoncelle), Jake Rosenzweig (contrebasse) et Tony Gennaro (vibraphone), est l'oeuvre qui se distingue le plus des autres, de par sa formation instrumentale (pas de piano et cinq cordes) et sa durée plus conséquente (17 minutes alors que les autres n'en durent pas plus de dix). Another approche la fabrication de sons singuliers à travers la résonance par sympathie de manière encore différente. Cette fois, il s'agit de jouer sur les différents types d'accordage en la, de jouer autour des 440hz et des différentes normes qui ont eu cours au fil des siècles. Une pièce très linéaire où les musiciens jouent de longues notes étirées qui se frottent ou entrent en résonance selon leur "justesse". Et maintenant on pense évidemment aux travaux de Lucier, mais aussi à Logical Harmonies  de Richard Glover qui est sorti simultanément sur le même label... En tout cas, cette pièce est certainement ma préférée, de par sa profondeur, sa richesse, et sa réalisation fine, précise et subtile.

Des pièces vraiment variées et différentes, qui sont pourtant toutes dirigées par le même principe de fabrication du son. Un principe qui semble inépuisable et infaillible en fait, on en redemanderait. Pour cette première publication, Ingrid Lee dévoile une exploration singulière de la composition (elle écrit avec une même idée, déclinée en une foule d'univers sonores), mais aussi une relation singulière au son et à l'écriture qui est assez loin du calme, de l'économie de moyens et du silence prépondérants chez beaucoup de compositeurs récents. Ingrid Lee propose une suite inventive et créative avec des atmosphères chaleureuses et poétiques, une approche physique et organique du son, et une singularité aussi riche que pertinente. Vivement conseillé.”

Julien Héraud, Improv-Sphere

“Lee is part of that splendid torrent of ex-Cal Arts students who worked with Michael Pisaro, James Tenney, etc. and whose own music has evolved from there. One of Lee's abiding interests is in "ideas of contagious movement and its social implications: the spread, replication, and mutation of ideas, memes (‘going viral’), between groups and individuals". Her music, as represented here (her first release) exposes these processes very clearly, somewhat akin (in a limited sense) to Richard Glover's approach as indicated on his contemporaneous recoding on the same label, though Lee's result is very different. As with the lineage which served as a source of inspiration for Glover (Tom Johnson, Lucier, Tenney), there's the risk of "only" (with all the complexity that term implies) reproducing sonic phenomena, making the leap of faith that beauty, in some form, will emerge. To my ears, Lee's work succeeds about half the time, though it's fascinating to try to discern why, for me it does or doesn't.

The first piece presented here, "Of Monsters", for accordion (Merima Ključo) and piano (Lee) is also the most overtly approachable and, perhaps, successful. Sumptuous accordion swells ooze between single piano notes (sometimes using preparations), the overtones mixing with clarity and serenity. Traditional (and lovely) tonality is nicely dampened by those thudding notes where a string has been waylaid as well as by the chordal variations played by Ključo, that wander away from the initial lushness. There are all manner of fine balances here, between the superficially attractive and deeper beauty, between pure tones and rudely compromised ones and more. This generates a welcome mystery, all the better when the elements are laid out so plainly, causing the listener to wonder at the complexity that emerges. For myself, "Of Monsters" would make the disc more than worthwhile.

"Cells" is for two amplified snare drums (Lee and Rowan Smith) and, again, the process is right up front. A sympathetic vibration is initially caused by a reaction to a pre-recorded, amplified snare and this resultant vibration, already on the first go-round increasingly buzzy, is reintroduced several times, each iteration producing a fuller, noisier outcome, generally speaking related to the classic "I Am Sitting in a Room" procedure though again, with wildly differing results. I'm not sure what Lee and Smith are actually doing during this, I must say, but no matter. One hears, then, several sections of an accumulating feedback/buzz, often quite harsh. It might well be due to the recording, but I found the sound field to be somewhat flat and lacking in the kind of varied detail I'd expect to hear; the sensation may well have been different in the room. For me, this piece fell on the other side of that divide mentioned above--it's interesting, in a limited way, to see/hear what happens but after it does, I'm left with not so much unlike the Lucier piece, say (granted, an unfair comparison) where entire sound worlds miraculously emerge.

"Beads, Spit" is for electric guitar (Max Kutner), percussion (Tony Gennaro, I think on bowed crotales and, perhaps celesta or glockenspiel) and piano (Lee), the first two creating tones that "are derived from overtones extracted from the piano chords, creating sounds that emerge, sustain, and end at different points". We hear the slow back and forth between the instrumental elements, solo and duo, each sequence lasting about eight to ten seconds. The piano becomes a bit more forceful as the composition continues, its companions also shifting their attack slightly, gradually adding subtly different colors. The frequency of the chords increases, setting up clearer rhythmic cells, eventually achieving a level of urgency that borders on the strident. As in "Of Monsters", the processes form the basis of extra-procedural aesthesia, a good thing. Here, the strongly plucked guitar reminded me a bit of Michael Gordon's music form back when ("Thou Shalt!/Thou Shalt Not!", for instance) but much better. I prefer "Of Monsters" but this is also a strong piece.

"Another", the longest work here, almost 18 minutes, is for sextet: violins (Erik KM Clark and Andy Studer), viola (Heather Lockie), cello (Melody Yenn), bass (Jake Rosenzweig) and vibraphone (Tony Gennero). It deals with shifting tunings, ideas of dominance and the simulation of naturally occurring acoustic phenomena by intentional playing. I've been listening to this a lot, trying to find a way in. Not that it's difficult or unattractive on the surface--that's not the issue--it's more determining for myself the whys and wherefores of the piece, especially over its duration. The strings perform microtone-encountering glissandi, up and down though with an overall downward trend, I think, often over a relatively steady vibraphone pulse. These occur in two to three minutes segments and the layering between the strings and vibes seems to vary, overlapping at different points, sometimes not at all. I've no doubt there are subtleties of tuning that are escaping me, but by the work's end, I'm feeling that little was encountered that hadn't been in the first few minutes. It did open somewhat for me upon repeated listenings, but still left me unsatisfied--perhaps that's the point or that my ears simply require more exposure.

Overall, then, I come out half and half on "Mouth to Mouth" but leave open the possibility that the music will more clearly reveal itself to me over time. And I am very interested to hear further work from Lee.”

Brian Olewnick - Just Outside

“Pronounce the name “CalArts” these days, and ghost voices crying “Tenney” and “Pisaro” will immediately haunt your surroundings. Ingrid Lee — who started her musical adventure with a mix of punk and classical piano as a youngster — belongs there, Mouth To Mouth being the first recorded expression of a music influenced by conceptions and individuals residing in the same piece of land. Still, she does attempt to look into something (slightly) different inside the realms of imperturbable movement and soundless concentration, including in-between vacillations.

If anything, Lee appears earnestly intrigued by the conflicts (and potential resolutions) of upper partials in diverse instrumental configurations, and is not afraid of propelling the mechanisms with a higher degree of momentum when necessary, besides treading not-exactly-new paths through the psychological enhancements of muteness. In that sense, “Of Monsters” is a gently charming, yet rather characterless Wandelweiser derivation for piano and accordion, whereas “Cells” utilizes the sonorousness of a pair of snare drums to shift from Lucier-like subtleties to invasive vacuum-cleaning drones.

The finest work is situated in the record's second half: “Bead, Spit” begins as a commonsensical study in pitch decay and meshing overtones to end into nervous reductionism; regrettably, an unnecessary element of percussive irregularity at the endmost extremity detracts a bit from the score's overall rigorousness. The final “Another” is a beautiful string quintet plus vibraphone, investigating varying nuances of austere growling, gradual wavering and aslope adjacency, occasionally evoking remote memories of composers such as Ingram Marshall and John Luther Adams (superficial comparisons, confessedly; but that's what came to mind when trying to discard the condemning thoughts frequently associated to albums coming from a “school” which, in this writer's position, is not as historically relevant as someone would love us to believe).

In spite of everything, this is a solid enough outing deserving absorption and patience. The composer's freshness adds that little quid of “listener's involvement” to scores that — in other circumstances — might probably represent the umpteenth case of inadequate acoustic consequence following an inordinate quantity of suppositional profundity.”

Massimo Ricci, Squid’s Ear

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