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Catherine Lee | Social Sounds

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Avant Garde: Classical Avant-Garde Classical: Contemporary Moods: Type: Improvisational
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Social Sounds

by Catherine Lee

Solo pieces for oboe, oboe d'amore and English horn combining improvisation, early music, classical avant-garde and soundscapes.
Genre: Avant Garde: Classical Avant-Garde
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  Song Share Time Download
1. Still (2006) [For Oboe]
4:03 album only
2. Rafales (2007)[For Oboe]
9:27 album only
3. Plainsong (2004) [For English Horn]
4:31 album only
4. Social Sounds from Whales At Night (2007) [For Oboe D'amore and Tape]
8:44 album only
5. A Tiny Dance (2008)
4:54 album only
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes
In this album, social sounds, I am interested in exploring the different levels of improvisation that are present in a musical score. The works I have chosen cover a wide continuum from those that are strictly notated to those that outline different ways in which composers have included elements of improvisation for performers to interpret. I selected these works as I feel a certain kinship with them and find them beautiful in their own distinct ways. They reflect the way I have been thinking about sound and the way I experience the world in the moment.

Still (2006) by Dorothy Chang is inspired by the painting Red-Black (1967) by Lawrence Calcagno, which hangs in the Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York. What I particularly like about Still and what made it immediately appealing was the way that Chang embellishes a beautiful simple melody with a variety of textures of sound that are created though the use of timbral tones and pitch bends. The broadened tonal colour spectrum enhances and adds depth to the line without ever overshadowing it. Chang’s subtle manipulation of timbral texture is reminiscent of Calcagno’s play with the perspective of the viewer in his painting. Throughout, the effects are evocative of the dizi—a side-blown Chinese flute—and feed into a Zen-like atmosphere.

Rafales (2007) by Jérôme Blais is inspired by the many different types of wind he experienced after moving to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 2004. Blais uses conventional Western notation to create a framework of pitches and gestures for the performer to improvise with, as well as a mise-en-scène that includes directions for the performer’s movements. Some sections are bookended with silence while others lead directly into the next. None have a strict time imposed; rather Blais leaves the balance of the formal structure up to the discretion of the performer.

I approach Rafales as a sound exploration of my instrument: each performance is different, and that is the point. My process included exploring the sounds and qualities of the oboe that I am drawn to, such as the dark woodiness of the tone found in certain timbral fingerings, and how using my breath in different ways can affect the sound. As I widened my lens to include new sound possibilities, I became more comfortable and could reach further. Throughout, I thought about the possible connection between the sounds I was creating and the types of wind they could represent. In recording Rafales, I intentionally decided to include the choreography suggested by Blais. In the opening section this is particularly noticeable, as my movements toward the microphone and changes in the angle of my oboe on a held pitch are made audible by the change in the tone. One of my favourite aspects of Rafales is that there is a piano just behind the performer with the sustain pedal depressed throughout. The sympathetic resonance of the piano is also audible, feeding into an ethereal quality.

In Plainsong (2004), composer Tawnie Olson draws on structural aspects of the different kinds of chant included in the Night Office, “the longest and most elaborate of the eight ‘hours’ of prayer observed by monasteries and cathedrals in the Middle Ages” (Olson, program notes in score). While in this work there is no literal quotation of plainsong, it definitely seems as if there is. The effect is emphasized towards the middle, where a change of character is reminiscent of a leader chanting a reciting tone. Throughout, Olson emphasizes the vocal nature of the English horn with the choice of register and the nature of the melodic line, which contains quick passagework evocative of improvised vocal ornamentation. The overriding effect is of monks singing a very beautiful pure line. I felt that it was appropriate to place Plainsong as the central recording on this CD as it acts as a grounding stone after the exploratory nature of Rafales.

In Social sounds from whales at night (2007) by Emily Doolittle, we are invited to join in the night soundscape of the ocean. Social sounds was originally composed for soprano and tape; at my request, Doolittle transposed the vocal part for the oboe d’amore, and this is the version that I have recorded. Throughout the majority of the score, Doolittle outlines a melody, but allows the instrumentalist to decide how far to alter the pitches with timbral fingerings and pitch bends. The tape—which features a humpback whale song as well as grey seal, sperm whale, and musicians wren sounds—and the instrumental part are closely interwoven, with one of the most beautiful moments being the duet between the oboe d’amore and the humpback whale in the middle. Towards the end of the work, the performer is invited to improvise freely, drawing on any of the former materials or ideas or introducing and developing new material.

In working on Social sounds, I was guided by my ear and instinct, searching out sound possibilities that would bridge the gap between my world and that of the sounds on the tape in order to create a joined sound world. I began to approach my oboe d’amore as a sound producer and found myself less tied to notes and pitches. As I became more comfortable and confident in my ability, the sounds featured on the tape began to seem like voices that I could interact and play with. As a side note, performing this piece also requires some choreography where the performer is required to play the ocean drum and the bamboo chimes as well as the oboe d’amore.

a tiny dance (2008) is my own composition, created for the dance piece Wet? by POV dance and performed at Ten Tiny Dances South Waterfront Project in Portland, Oregon, in August 2008. Two dancers were restricted to moving within a space of four square feet that also contained a cement ledge, a banister, and a section of a small waterfall. The dancers used their bodies to demonstrate the variety of movements that were possible in this restricted space. They incorporated all of the elements, including the waterfall, sometimes dipping their toes in the water or splashing. I wanted the music to reflect the obstacle of being confined while at the same time finding beauty and self-expression within those confines. The movement of the water was an inspiration; it ripples, flows, splashes, evaporates, and reflects. I tried to show these aspects in the music. I based the work on three things, the note b’, which has the most timbral fingerings on the oboe; the interval of the tritone, to create a feeling of reaching; and finally, the whole-tone scale, which includes both these aspects. I created a structure that was free enough that I could reflect the timing of the dancers’ movements and we could be joined as a united entity.

—Catherine Lee, January 2013
Portland, Oregon



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