Clarinetist Alicia Lee releases Conversations With Myself, a collection of works for solo clarinet with and without electronics, chronicling a year of artistic activity in isolation. Works by Pierre Boulez, Dai Fujikura, Isang Yun, Unsuk Chin, and Hideaki Aomori make for a program that highlights music by composers of Asian descent and Boulez' iconic work exploring the dichotomy between live performance and pre-recorded material.
|Alicia Lee, bass clarinet||7:07|
|02||Dialogue de l’ombre double|
Dialogue de l’ombre double
|Alicia Lee, clarinet & electronics||19:15|
|Alicia Lee, bass clarinet||10:37|
|04||Advice From A Caterpillar, from Alice In Wonderland|
Advice From A Caterpillar, from Alice In Wonderland
|Alicia Lee, bass clarinet||8:40|
|Alicia Lee, bass clarinet||5:47|
In her program note for Conversations With Myself, Alicia Lee writes that the works presented feature her “monologuing dramatically” and “delivering advice to anyone who would listen.” As with so many albums being released in 2022, this release has been deeply shaped by the isolation of the pandemic and the restrictions on performing music with others. And yet, Lee’s musical voice reaches out consistently throughout the album, presenting these pieces not as distant, unreachable gems but as tangible musical parables and narratives. Framed by Pierre Boulez’ iconic Dialogue de l’ombre double for clarinet and electroacoustic doppelgänger, Lee shapes a program that engages with the dichotomy between dialogue and monologue. The clarinet, in its B-flat and bass clarinet incarnations, manifests itself as a sage companion, its rich fundamental, hints of breath noises, and subtle sounds of depressed keys creating an ideal blend of the cerebral and the expressive in this thoughtful collection.
The opening track, Dai Fujikura’s Contour for bass clarinet, originally written for tuba in 2018 and revised for contrabass clarinet and bass clarinet versions in 2020, begins the album with a monologue. Flowing lines undulate up and down, the gravity of the melodic contour occasionally accelerating the pace towards a goal note. A passage of repeated double tongued pitches opens into a contrasting section that is more impetuous, eventually highlighting playfully syncopated rhythms. The piece ends with an alternating major second toggling back and forth in indecision as it fades away.Read More
Fujikura’s final gesture segues perfectly into the uneasy irregular gestures that open Boulez’ Dialogue. The work was dedicated to Luciano Berio on his 60th birthday and places the live clarinetist in dialogue with a “double shadow” electronic version of themselves, spatialized to lend a sense of physical interaction. The mixing on this recording captures this spatial quality beautifully – one minute we hear Lee as if she is right in front of us, while the next she is placed further back in the stereo field, seemingly in a corner, evoking the piece’s mercurial twists and turns. Boulez’ exploration of texture and material on the clarinet is deft and exhaustive, as the dialogue turns into a terse argument between the increasingly agitated live clarinet and its persistent double. As with so many masterworks of the electro-acoustic genre, the relationship between live and pre-recorded becomes dynamic in its own right, evolving over the course of the piece. The work ends with the electronic shadow largely neutralized, extending a sustained high arrival pitch in the live part as the clarinet launches into a furious cadenza. In a final effort to snuff out the interloping doppelgänger, the live clarinet plays that same pitch while walking “off stage.”
Isang Yun’s Monolog was also initially written for bassoon and later set in a new version for bass clarinet. Despite its title, the work establishes a quasi dialogue within the parameters it sets up. Implied counterpoint between registers, long notes versus figuration, and the use of bends, trills, and quick dynamic contrasts all establish a series of dualities that express a delicate internal balance that is constantly in flux.
Unsuk Chin’s Advice from a Caterpillar, from Alice in Wonderland contains some of the album’s most extroverted material. A light hearted gesture opens the piece and sets the tone for a series of sweeping arpeggios, sudden multiphonics and comical phrase ending smears. The brash character shifts in Chin’s score might be interpreted in the context of the caterpillar’s advice to Alice to eat mushrooms to adapt to her environment in the famous novel.
The split in Hideaki Aomori’s piece of the same name is between the simple bass line articulated in the opening bar and its echoes heard in delicate fifth partial harmonics in the high register. The harmonics function almost as a kind of bloom for the fundamental pitch, not unlike the feedback on an overdriven guitar amp. Aomori contrasts this idea with a section of mellifluous arpeggiated figures. These elements are combined, interchanged, and examined in this short, mysterious piece.
Alicia Lee navigates the wide ranging demands of this repertoire with command and quiet, narrative power. Indeed, Conversations With Myself reveals in so many ways that all musical expression is a dialogue – with a performer’s own complex artistic personas, with those who they are in relationship with even when out of direct contact, and with the composer who has provided the material which frames the artistic experience.
– Dan Lippel
Clarinet and bass clarinet performed by Alicia Lee
Engineering and session production by Ryan Streber
Recorded at Oktaven Audio, Mt. Vernon, NY (2021)
Digital editing, mixing, mastering by Ryan Streber
Assistant editing by Charles Mueller
Produced by Alicia Lee
Album artwork by William Arnold
Photography by Austin Hargrave
Clarinetist Alicia Lee enjoys a diverse musical life performing old and new works in solo, chamber, and orchestral settings.
Before her appointment at the Mead Witter School of Music, Alicia was a resident of New York City for over a decade where she performed and toured regularly with a variety of groups including The Knights, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Alarm Will Sound, and NOVUS NY. She is also a member of the composer/performer collective, NOW Ensemble, since 2015, with whom she has premiered dozens of new works written for the ensemble.
She is a founding member of Decoda, the Affiliate Ensemble of Carnegie Hall. Founded on the principles established during their time as fellows in Carnegie Hall’s Ensemble Connect program, Decoda’s pursuits places equal emphasis on artistry and community engagement. Alicia has participated and led residencies in Merida, Mexico, South Africa, and the Guildhall and Colburn Schools. She also serves as the Festival Director of the Decoda Skidmore Chamber Music Institute, one of ensemble’s flagship educational programs.
She has performed at the Lucerne, Spoleto (Italy and US), Yellow Barn, Festspiele Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and Marlboro Festivals.
Alicia was formerly the associate principal and E-flat clarinet player of the Santa Barbara Symphony, a position she held for seven seasons. She also performed as solo bass clarinetist of the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway during the 2013-14 season.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in French Language and Literature from Columbia University, and pursued musical studies at The Juilliard School with Charles Neidich and Ayako Oshima as a part of the Columbia-Juilliard exchange program. She earned additional degrees from the University of Southern California and The Colburn School, where she was a student of Yehuda Gilad.
Born into a musical family, Alicia grew up in Michigan, where she began her early studies on violin and piano and eventually made the switch to clarinet by age 12. She currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband, bass player and composer, Kris Saebo. She is Assistant Professor of clarinet at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she also performs with the Wingra Wind Quintet.https://music.wisc.edu/faculty/alicia-lee/
The title of clarinetist Alicia Lee’s new solo album suggests its pandemic-era genesis, but her brief program note makes it explicit: “The pieces on this album were prepared and recorded in isolation when the world changed, and the prospect of collaboration became impossible,” she writes. “I chose pieces where I was in dialogue with myself, where I was monologuing dramatically, and where I was delivering advice to anyone who cared to listen.”
The album opens with a bass clarinet version of “Contour,” a piece Dai Fujikura originally wrote for tuba that swings between placidity and agitation. Its melodic generosity is occasionally upset by turbulence as if there’s an internal exchange taking place within the piece. This quality is also shared with Isang Yun’s “Monolog,” which was also composed for a different instrument (bassoon) initially. Pierre Boulez’s “Dialogue de l’ombre double” offers a kind of shadowy interplay, as electronics produce a spatialized quality. It feels like Lee is interacting with the space around her when it’s her own lines she’s responding to. The opening upward trill in Unsuk Chin’s “Advice from a Caterpillar, From Alice in Wonderland” has a Gershwin-like thrill. Still, the piece transforms into a shape-shifting mélange in which the titular character coaches Alice (or Alicia) how to adapt to her environment. The album concludes with “Split” by Hideaki Aomori, its title referencing the dance between the stern bass tone in the opening line and the harmonics eventually wrung from it.
— Peter Margasak, 3.08.2022
Clarinetist Alicia Lee wanders through meandering rhythms and melodies across Conversations with Myself like she’s speaking her random stream of consciousness. While recording the album, she felt like she was monologuing: speaking to herself and to no one and everyone at the same time. The music she chooses here, which highlights modern composers of Asian descent and a work by post-war pioneer Pierre Boulez, feels interior, built on meandering rhythms and unexpected patterns. Her playing probes the multiple, at-odds feelings of isolation—from inner turmoil to meditation and everything in between.
— Vanessa Ague, 2.10.2022
Interview with Dave Lake of WRUU
— Dave Lake, 6.12.2022
There is hardly a more specialized niche than an album of solo bass clarinet music written by contemporary composers who all share an Asian background. As a capsule summary, this one is literally accurate but emotionally and artistically vacuous. There are many aspects of Alicia Lee’s prolonged monologue that hold a listener’s ear and involvement. Of immediate appeal is her virtuosic technique. Long a specialist in new music, Lee is expert in every imaginable technique, some of which are conventional (trills, overtones, double- and flutter-tonguing, glissandos), while others sound eerily inexplicable.
The only piece on the program by a Western composer, Pierre Boulez’s 1985 Dialogue de l’ombre double (Dialogue of the Double Shadow), features a panoply of unusual sounds. At nearly 20 minutes it is the major work here and the closest to standard repertoire—four previous recordings have been reviewed in Fanfare, including the composer’s own on DG. The essence of the work is to blur the distinction between soliloquy and duet by having the soloist (in this case a B♭ clarinet instead of a bass clarinet) shadowed by a prerecorded Doppelgänger on tape. On a CD one cannot always distinguish distinctly which is which, but the sonorities being used for effect (yelps, squeaks, screeches, buzzing) create vivid contrasts in the most intriguing way.
Boulez was a generation older than conceptual composers, but he was certainly intellectual, and here his imagination works with space as much as sound. The original staging, I gather from online reviews, featured the taped clarinet bouncing around among six speakers while the live soloist wandered the stage from left to right or back to front. One account speaks of the soloist walking on and offstage. As a multi-spatial experience in concert, the idea can receive its most effective presentation.
On disc there is no literal space to exploit as there would be in a theater, but Lee and the recording engineer move the music around from side to side and back and forth. Here some questions arise, however. I don’t know to what extent Boulez asks the soloist to invent what is heard on tape, or even what the “live” performer plays (in quotation marks because, of course, on disc noting is actually live). Lee’s version is less embellished and imaginative than Boulez’s. Moreover, his DG account with Ensemble InterContemporain (Alain Damiens, clarinet) has a subtler and more enticing taped part, not to mention that each of the work’s 13 sections, generally titled Transitions and Strophes, receives a separate track while Lee’s performance is on a single track.
I feel obliged to point out the superiority of Boulez’s recording, but two things need underlining. First is the excellence of Lee’s playing, and second the continuous interest of the music, which is fully accessible to a general listener. Dialogue de l’ombre double has held its own over time, and the varied ingenuity of the clarinet writing sets a high bar for the four current composers on the program, not least because their works are genuine monologues. By itself, the bass clarinet can emit strange and wonderful sounds, and it is intrinsically a moody, atmospheric instrument.
Verbal description becomes futile here, but each composer has found an angle to pursue. Dai Fujikura’s Contour was originally composed for tuba in 2018 and later revised for contrabass clarinet and bass clarinet. Something close to a flowing melody dominates, but the contrasting textures are timid by contemporary standards. Isang Yun’s Monologue for Bassoon, later arranged for bass clarinet, is intriguing on paper because Yun develops a quasi-dialogue by exploiting jumps in registration, but unless you have the advantage of a violin or cello, as Bach did in his unaccompanied string works, the illusion of dialogue or harmony really doesn’t come across. Nor does Yun show much imagination in exploiting the bass clarinet’s individuality.
Unsuk Chin’s Advice from a Caterpillar is much more evocative, aided by knowing that the caterpillar in question is the languorous, hookah-smoking character from Alice in Wonderland. Chin uses slides, raspy squawks, and screeches to embellish a vaguely Oriental melodic line and in the process achieves something at once intriguing and jarring, an opium dream that is actually entertaining for the listener. Hideaki Aomori’s Split is perhaps the most conceptual work here, since it “splits” the bass clarinet between its normal voice and a higher, overblown echo in semi-harmonics. The piece also benefits from offering a more engaging solo line to begin with; extraneous clacks from Lee’s fingering deepen the textures.
This album was a project undertaken during the lockdown and isolation of the pandemic. Lee’s personal note speaks of the emotional and musical challenges the situation presented, but she isn’t melodramatic about her plight and those of so many others. The best things that emerge—the imaginative program and virtuosic playing, along with the variety of ideas and sounds—have lasting value beyond the sad present context. What might seem to be a release aimed solely at aficionados of the bass clarinet will be rewarding to anyone with a slightly adventurous ear, and the Boulez piece is an outstanding anchor for the whole enterprise.
— Huntley Dent, 10.02.2022