Scott Lee: Through the Mangrove Tunnels

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Inspired by his experiences growing up exploring the swamps and bayous of Florida, composer Scott Lee’s album-length work, Through the Mangrove Tunnels, features the JACK Quartet with pianist Steven Beck and drummer Russell Lacy performing eight genre-straddling movements. Ranging from ominous and eerie grooves with otherworldly flourishes to ethereal, gliding strings over pulsing drums and looping harmonies, the music evokes both the dense, swampy undergrowth of the mangroves and the expansive seascape that surrounds them. 

Audio

Scored for string quartet (JACK Quartet), piano (Steven Beck), and drum set (Russell Lacy), Scott Lee’s polystylistic album-length work, Through the Mangrove Tunnels, evokes the landscape of Florida’s bayous, drawing on the composer’s childhood memories of exploring Weedon Island, a nature preserve in St. Petersburg. The piece takes inspiration from the island’s many legends, including ceremonial gatherings of Native Americans, landings by Spanish conquistadors, burned-down speakeasies, shootouts, bootlegging, a failed movie studio, plane crashes, and an axe-murder.

Lee establishes a diverse stylistic language to evoke this rich history in impressionistic fashion alongside his personal memories of canoeing through the island’s mangrove tunnels. In combining these stories the continuum of past and present is collapsed, resulting in an exploration of the relationships between memory, history, place, home, and the natural world.

The title movement of the work opens with ominous low-register piano chords, evoking the mysteries that lie waiting in the tunnels formed by the mangroves. In an effort to control mosquito populations, the Army Corps of Engineers dug a grid of ditches through the island to facilitate tidal flow in the 1950s, some of which are now maintained as canoe trails. Lee’s music depicts the experience of drifting through these passageways to a hidden past, encountering a series of elusive flashbacks to the forgotten history of the island. The texture shifts back and forth between rhythmic, groove-oriented passages framed by taut drum set work, improvisatory, modern jazz-inflected piano, and jagged, rhythmically free commentary in the strings.

The second movement, “The Man in the Water,” depicts a lone figure out in the bayou, away from any boat or logical disembarkation point. Lee’s music is panicked and unnerved, portraying startled friends racing in the opposite direction after coming upon the unknown man. Quickly articulated descending passages in the strings are punctuated by stabbing piano chords and a propulsive drum beat. The movement ends with gull-like string sounds swarming overhead as dense chords crash around them.

“Narvaez Dance Club” calls back to the time of Prohibition, when speculator Eugene Elliott attempted to entice land buyers by opening a speakeasy on the island named after its supposed “discoverer,” the Spanish conquistador Pánfilo de Narvaez. Lee toys with the idea of a contemporary club on the island, with a DJ spinning different styles of modern dance music, each dissipating before transitioning to the next. The movement opens with an easy, interlocking groove featuring pizzicato, scratch tones, glissandi, and ricochet bowings in the strings before the piano and drums join with syncopated figures. The texture soon becomes heavier with insistent piano dyads, choppy double stops, and squealing high register violin notes over a trap-style drum part. The final section is dreamy and ethereal, with polytonal, reverb-saturated harmonies in the quartet, swirling arpeggios in the piano, and a glitchy, drum and bass-style beat.

The fourth movement, “Flying Fish,” is a portrait of the playful behavior of mullet, a ubiquitous species of fish surrounding Weedon Island who appear in large schools and often jump gleefully out of the water. Short, angular scalar passages are traded back and forth between violins over pointed accents in the drums before the piano joins for similarly spry gestures. In a bracing unison passage, we hear the fish moving as one unit before the movement closes with an impish wink.

“Playthings of Desire” takes its title from one of three disastrous films produced by a studio on Weedon Island in the 1920s before it was abruptly shut down by the federal government for tax evasion. Ethereal piano chords open the movement before growing into a foreboding sequence of cascading gestures. The music then segues into a nostalgic quote from the film’s score, a heart-on-the-sleeve tune from the height of the jazz era. As the movement closes, these two contrasting musical ideas are combined as the haunting chords from the opening return to darken the film’s saccharine melody.

“Engine Trouble” evokes Lee’s experience of taking his family’s second-hand boat out on the water, only to discover later that the failing engine had stranded him. A series of percolating and interwoven motoric figures open the movement, depicting an engine with all of its parts in good working order. Over the course of the movement, the machine breaks down and tries to restart on multiple occasions, depicted musically with gradually slowing pizzicati and repeated scratch tones.

“The Ballad of Willie Cole” tells the story of the wrongful conviction, subsequent incarceration, and eventual exoneration and release of Willie Cole, an African American resident of Weedon Island who was the first to discover the aftermath of a murder and arson committed near his home. In what is by far the longest movement in the piece, Lee writes quasi-programmatically, capturing the chaos of the initial fire, Cole's discovery of the scene, and his suffering at the hands of an unjust society. A sorrowful cello melody featuring plaintive slides grows into an ensemble texture over a piano ostinato and simmering drum groove, before the intensity boils over into violent, accented chords and cymbal crashes. The epic scope of this movement serves to illustrate that Cole’s story, though relatively unknown, is but one of many stories of black Americans facing injustice.

Through the Mangrove Tunnels closes with the poignant, “Floating Away,” a wistful reckoning with a living place that holds deep power over the composer’s memories. The quartet plays tender, expansive passages that capture a Coplandesque Americana, while the piano offers more enigmatic music that grapples with a complex past. Just as the work seems to reach its conclusion, it instead returns to the tight groove of the first movement, a reminder of the island’s inescapable pull.

-- Scott Lee and Dan Lippel

Produced and edited by Scott Lee

Recording Engineer: Rick Nelson

Recorded at Baldwin Auditorium, Duke University, Durham, NC, April 25, 2018

Mixing: Michael Hammond

Mastering: Ryan Streber

Design: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com

Cover Photo: Scott Lee

Scott Lee

Praised as “colorful” and “engaging” (The Philadelphia Inquirer), Scott Lee’s music often takes inspiration from popular genres, exploring odd-meter grooves and interlocking hockets while featuring pointillistic orchestration and extended performance techniques. His music marries the traditional intricacy of classical form with the more body-centered and visceral language of contemporary popular music, creating a complex music of the present with broad appeal. The Berkshire Edge described the world premiere of his Slack Tide at Tanglewood Music Center as having “moments both of calm and maximum tension... we’ve never heard anything like it.”

Lee has worked with leading orchestras including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the North Carolina Symphony, the Portland Symphony Orchestra, Symphony in C, the Moravian Philharmonic, Raleigh Civic Symphony, the Occasional Symphony, the Peabody Symphony Orchestra, and members of the Winston-Salem Symphony, as well as chamber groups such as the JACK Quartet, yMusic, the Da Capo Chamber Players, Deviant Septet, chatterbird, ShoutHouse, Verdant Vibes, and pop artist Ben Folds. Recent commissioners include the Tanglewood Music Center, Aspen Music Festival, Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra, Florida State Music Teachers Association, loadbang, and the Raleigh Civic Symphony.

Notable performances include the world premiere of Lee’s Vicious Circles by Symphony in C and a reading and performance of Anadyr by the American Composers Orchestra, conducted by George Manahan, as part of the 27th Annual Underwood New Music Readings In New York City. Three pieces by Lee – Drip Study, Tourbillion, and Car Alarm Strut – were premiered at a Tanglewood Music Center concert led by Michael Gandolfi with coaching by composer Osvaldo Golijov. He was Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra’s Composer-in-Residence for the 2019-2020 season.

Honors include a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, two ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards, winner of the Symphony In C Young Composer’s Competition, the Grand Prize in the 2015 PARMA Student Composer Competition, and the Gustav Klemm Award in Composition from the Peabody Institute. In 2020, Lee received fellowships from the Hermitage Artist Retreat and the Copland House’s CULTIVATE program.

Active as a music educator, Lee is currently Assistant Professor of Composition at the University of Florida School of Music, and has previously worked as a Lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and an Instructor at Duke University. Lee earned a PhD in Composition at Duke University, and also holds degrees from the Peabody Institute and Vanderbilt University.

JACK Quartet

The JACK Quartet electrifies audiences worldwide with "explosive virtuosity" (Boston Globe) and "viscerally exciting performances" (New York Times). David Patrick Stearns (Philadelphia Inquirer) proclaimed their performance as being "among the most stimulating new-music concerts of my experience." The Washington Post commented, "The string quartet may be a 250-year-old contraption, but young, brilliant groups like the JACK Quartet are keeping it thrillingly vital." Alex Ross (New Yorker) hailed their performance of Iannis Xenakis' complete string quartets as being "exceptional" and "beautifully harsh," and Mark Swed (Los Angeles Times) called their sold-out performances of Georg Friedrich Haas' String Quartet No. 3 "mind-blowingly good."

The recipient of New Music USA's 2013 Trailblazer Award, the quartet has performed to critical acclaim at Carnegie Hall (USA), Lincoln Center (USA), Wigmore Hall (United Kingdom), Suntory Hall (Japan), Salle Pleyel (France), Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ (Netherlands), La Biennale di Venezia (Italy), the Lucerne Festival (Switzerland), Bali Arts Festival (Indonesia), Reykjavik Arts Festival (Iceland), Festival Internacional Cervatino (Mexico), Kölner Philharmonie (Germany), Donaueschinger Musiktage (Germany), Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik (Germany), and Darmstadt Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik (Germany).

Comprising violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Kevin McFarland, JACK is focused on the commissioning and performance of new works. In addition to working with composers and performers, JACK seeks to broaden and diversify the potential audience for new music through educational presentations designed for a variety of ages, backgrounds, and levels of musical experience.

The members of the quartet met while attending the Eastman School of Music and studied closely with the Arditti Quartet, Kronos Quartet, Muir String Quartet, and members of the Ensemble Intercontemporain.

http://www.jackquartet.com/

Steven Beck

Pianist Steven Beck continues to gather wide acclaim for his performances and recordings. Recent career highlights include performances of Beethoven’s variations and bagatelles at Bargemusic, a venue where he first performed a complete Beethoven sonata cycle. In addition, this season he performs with the Westchester Philharmonic and the Alabama Symphony.

An esteemed performer of new music, he has worked with Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez, Henri Dutilleux, Charles Wuorinen, George Crumb, George Perle, and Fred Lerdahl, and performed with ensembles such as Speculum Musicae and the New York New Music Ensemble. He is a core member of the Da Capo Chamber Players, the Knights, and the Talea Ensemble. He is also a member of Quattro Mani, a piano duo specializing in contemporary music.

Mr. Beck’s discography includes Peter Lieberson's third piano concerto (for Bridge Records) and a recording of Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto on Albany Records. He is on the faculty of the Sewanee Summer Music Festival.

https://nyphil.org/about-us/artists/steven-beck

Russell Lacy

Russel Lacy started playing percussion when he was nine. In high school, Russell studied classical percussion under the noted percussionist and composer Christopher Deane; he completed high school at the North Carolina School of the Arts. Russell continued his training at undergraduate and graduate training at North Carolina Central University and Queens College respectively. Russell has shared the stage with John Hart, John Bailey, Frank Kimbrough, Steve Cardenas, Bobby Porcelli, David Berkman, Michael Blake, Branford Marsalis, Joey Calderazzo, Eric Reed, Delfayo Marsalis, Ellis Marsalis, Pete McCann, and Gregory Tardy. Russell also co-led the Trachy/Lacy Collective, which released Lanky (2009) and performed in venues in the United States, most notably the Kennedy Center. A music educator since 2004 Russell opened Russell Lacy Music in 2012 located in Durham, NC which serves over 200 students with private and group instruction.


Reviews

5

Midwest Record

Did crime jazz really get its start in the Florida swamps? The ominous piano work here makes you think that’s where the inspiration for the genre came from. Posited somewhere in that place where instrumental music provides a shield for jazz and classical, pop music heads won’t get it but it has a dexterity that makes it fall well short of egghead stuff. Great stuff for when you’ve got a taste for something deep that won’t leave you cold.

— Chris Spector, 11.14.2020

5

The Art Music Lounge

Scott Lee is a composer who grew up “wandering the swamps and bayous of Florida,” thus he wrote this suite based on “my memories as well as the colorful history Weedon Island, a nature preserve in St. Petersburg that I spent my childhood exploring. The island’s many legends include ceremonial gatherings of Native Americans, landings by Spanish conquistadors, burned-down speakeasies, shootouts, bootlegging, a failed movie studio, plane crashes, and an axe-murder.” So we can surely expect a jolly time as we listen to this music!

Through the Mangrove Tunnels opens with somber, slow bass notes played on the piano, behind which one eventually hears the string quartet making some bizarre sounds, to which the drums are added. Ambient music, perhaps, but ambient music with an edge, and it is developed in an interesting manner. My sole complaint was the bias of the drummer towards a rock beat. This I could have lived without.

But the music is no stranger than Weedon Island itself. Judging from the photo in the booklet, it doesn’t even look like an island, but rather like a series of huge mossy growths sticking up out of the water like fungus. I can well imagine the impression this made on a young boy, especially when combined with tales of criminal activity and violence. The second piece on this CD, “The Man in the Water,” sounds like a riot of psychopaths against sanity—not too far removed from latter-day rioters on both sides of the political spectrum.

The music written for the piano, though edgy, is relatively conventional, but the music written for the string quartet is anything but. The JACK Quartet puts itself through some remarkable musical contortions in each of these pieces, seldom playing as one would expect a string quartet to play; it must have taken them hours and hours to master this music. “Naravez Dance Club” has a rhythm simulating American Indian music but combined with a bit of an R&B swagger before moving, once again, into a rock beat. (Note to modern classical composers: Please can the rock beat. It doesn’t fit in with your music. Thank you.) Finally, in “Flying Fish,” the viola gets something to play that almost sounds like conventional music, albeit atonal music, with the other three instruments occasionally joining in for some swirling figures.

Yet without a score, technical description of each of these pieces is a bit difficult, as one often gets lost in counting beats, as in the opening of “Playthings of Desire” until it settles down into a strangely Chopin-like melody before deconstructing itself over amorphous rhythms and modal harmonies.

When the quartet enters, we suddenly return to echt-Romantic melodies, almost slurpy and soothing. As if to offset this, however, “Engine Trouble” is comprised of chaotic, bouncing rhythmic figures played solely by the quartet.“The Ballad of Willie Cole” is also fast and edgy, starting out with the quartet until the piano and drums enter behind them. The quality of this music is primarily in the modern “shock” style of today, yet with interesting modifications, and in this piece the music suddenly veers towards the soft rock genre. Please, Scott, stop the rock nonsense. Later in the same piece, after a pause, Lee involves the piano quintet in a sort of minimalist fantasy, with the cello playing stretched-out musical lines across the ostinato rhythm…until the rock beat returns and the tempo increases.

In short, it’s an interesting album, full of novel ideas that are for the most part well crafted and extremely fascinating. If your tolerance for rock music is higher than mine, you’ll surely enjoy it.

— Lynn Bailey, 11.22.2020

5

Tampa Bay Times

There is an illicit, late-night DJ set in an abandoned speakeasy surrounded by 3,000 acres of spindly mangrove roots and mosquito ditches swamped with brackish water.

Picture the music floating out to the 1,000-year-old shell mounds left by indigenous Floridians and over the overgrown remnants of the airstrip runway left by those who came much later.

You can’t go to this dance party, but maybe composer Scott Lee can take you there via Narvaez Dance Club from his new album, Through the Mangrove Tunnels, released Nov. 13 on New Focus Recordings.

Lee, a professor at the University of Florida who teaches composition and electronic music, grew up in St. Petersburg on a canal leading to Riviera Bay and the Weedon Island Preserve just beyond that.

He began volunteering at the preserve as a boy and continued through high school, leading canoe trips for summer camps and weekend visitors, and hacking down overgrown branches at the behest of the park’s naturalist. He remembers dipping a net into the muck to dredge up sand so that campers could inspect what kind of creatures it held.

He’d jog and hike the trails, and get stranded on the water in the surrounding bayous when the secondhand boat his father would allow him to take out with friends would putter out.

“We’d be out fishing and the engine wouldn’t start, so we’d always have to find creative ways to pull the boat back to shallow water,” said Lee, now 32.

That memory inspired Through the Mangrove Tunnels’ sixth movement, Engine Trouble, with scratching strings that evoke a running motor that, as Lee put it, “falls apart in different ways and tries to rebuild itself again.”

Performed by the JACK Quartet string quartet, Steven Beck on piano and Russell Lacy on drums, the entire album is inspired by Lee’s childhood memories of Weedon Island, from gleeful mullet to a mysterious man in the bayou, and his later meditations on the preserve’s historical significance, something he did not fully grasp until he began reading about it as an adult.

It’s Lee’s first full-length album, and at 45 minutes, his longest composition to date.

“Most novelists write their first novel about their home, using their own lives as inspiration,” Lee said. “I think that applies here as well. It’s the thing I know best, but it has a wider significance that others can glean from it, with stories about memory, place and the natural world.”

Lee is a modern classical composer, but the album features elements of jazz, hip hop and other pop styles, such as on the track Narvaez Dance Club. In that movement, Lee imagines the Narvaez Dance Club — a real-life speakeasy that developer Eugene M. Elliott used to ply prospective Weedon Island property buyers with bootleg booze in the 1920s — as the site of an eerie, modern-day DJ set in the wilderness, through stylistic allusions to reggaeton, trap music and finally EDM.

In reality, the speakeasy named for conquistador Panfilo Narvaez, whose expedition may have landed around Tampa Bay in 1528, burned down nearly a century ago.

The album’s ethereal title track, Through The Mangrove Tunnels, evokes a sense of gliding over the water beneath the arching mangrove canopy. Weedon Island is natural Florida, but there are always traces of human activity such as long-ago plane crashes and shootouts, and the dashed hopes of capitalism. Even the miles of famed kayaking trails are actually a man-made grid of mosquito ditches dug by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s. The idea was to flush out stagnant water with the daily tide to combat the insects and make the island more desirable.

“There’s a groove that pulls you along,” Lee said of the opening track. “But you’re hearing these interruptions, flashbacks of history wafting through the air in this mysterious landscape, and then the groove kind of pulls you back and you’re moving again.” It can sound peaceful, but those otherworldly flourishes evoke something ominous. Lee said that in this case those feelings are complimentary.

When he visits Wheedon Island, he feels the weight of everything that has gone on there. “You can look at a picture of the mangroves, but it doesn’t quite communicate what it feels like,” he said. “That’s what I try to do.”

Playthings of Desire takes its name from the title of one of three movies filmed at Sun Haven Studios on Weedon Island in the 1930s. The short-lived movie studio had hoped to create a new Hollywood in Florida, but fizzled out.

Playthings of Desire, which Lee laughingly calls, “just a really, dramatically bad movie,” is about a playboy who goes on a honeymoon to Florida. His wife ends up with someone else, and he ends up dead in an alligator pit.

There’s a scene with a swanky, outdoor party, where a string ensemble plays very kitschy, melodramatic music that caught Lee’s attention.

“I actually transcribed that music and used it,” he said. " So you have this swampy music and then music from the film wafts in at a point and fades back out. I was imagining being in the mangrove tunnels when all the sudden you find yourself in the filming of this swanky party scene, with these old timey 1930s people dressed like they would be, but then it fades away like a mirage.”

The most epic story Lee takes on, though, is the 11-minute-long Ballad of Willie Cole, inspired by the story of a black worker living on Weedon Island in the late 1920s who awoke one morning to see smoke rising from a shed where a guest was staying. Cole found the man dead.

The police discovered it wasn’t by fire, but wounds suffered from an ax attack in a likely robbery. There were fingers in the water, and remnants of exploded blasting caps. Cole was blamed, despite no evidence he’d been involved, and sentenced to life. A lawyer took on his case and, years later, won Cole’s freedom in a retrial.

“That case was a very famous regional case in all the newspapers, if you go back and read some of the articles,” Lee said. He still has the clips saved on his computer. “They’re incredibly racist, and contradictory in that they describe Cole as sort of a criminal mastermind, but then say there’s no way a black man could have done this alone.”

The movement has a wide, narrative scope with moments of chaos, intense unease and sorrow. “You can’t tell it without having some dissonant music that illustrates that feeling.”

Lee began Through the Mangrove Tunnels several years ago as his doctoral dissertation at Duke University, but finished the album in Gainesville with support from the University of Florida.

He wasn’t expecting to get to come home to the Sunshine State. “In academia you kind of just have to apply to everything and go where you can,” he said. But there was something “poetic” about returning to release an album about natural Florida.

You can purchase a download of Through the Mangrove Tunnels at scottleemusic.bandcamp.com/album/through-the-mangrove-tunnels, stream it via Spotify or Apple Music or purchase a physical CD through Amazon.

— Christopher Spata, 11.23.2020

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