2 min

Musique actuelle

Plumbing, strumming, even drumming, the depths of culture

Credit: Xtra files

For composer and musician Lee Pui Ming, recently moving into Toronto’s gay ghetto has not been all sweetness and light.

“I like being able to walk around without worrying,” she says. “But at this moment, I am struggling with neighbours who are complaining about my piano playing. I live in a condo now. There’s the issue of volume, of course, but I think it’s more what I play.”

Lee’s new neighbours aren’t the only ones who have trouble classifying her music, although most critics and fans view it much more favourably. Over the course of her career, the Hong Kong-born pianist and vocalist has studied, played and recorded everything from classical to jazz to traditional Chinese folk music.

Her new CD Who’s Playing, to be launched Sat, Feb 23, takes her even further into the classical avant-garde, mixing her uniquely muscular and percussive piano playing with often guttural and wordless vocals from herself and Joane Hetu of Montreal’s Sauvages Femmes.

Lee promises that the show will be full of the improvised and the unexpected. Those expecting a piano recital will be surprised, she says.

“I’m very physical in my playing. I engage with the piano as an entire instrument, beyond just the keys. I really don’t call myself just a pianist anymore. I’ll be moving around, drumming, I might even be dancing at certain points. All the ingredients are there, what will come out, I don’t know.

“The best context for this is what’s called ‘musique actuelle,’ which started in Montreal. To those familiar with the music, what I do is quite tame. The label the CD came out on [Montreal’s Ambiances Magnetiques] is home to a lot of this music.”

But Lee says her arrival in Canada in 1985 was more a matter of chance than of sympathetic record labels. She was born and raised in Hong Kong, but says she was raised to expect to move abroad ahead of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China. She moved to the US to study music in Minnesota and Washington, where she discovered jazz.

“Having been in the States for a number of years as a student, I wasn’t successful in getting a green card. My family had been able to immigrate to Canada. It really wasn’t a choice. If life had taken a different turn and I had settled in the States, my music would have been different. I don’t know how, but it would have been.

“But just by virtue of the size of the land, Canada really gave me unlimited opportunity to explore what I wanted.”

But Lee says that Canada’s ethnic mosaic wasn’t what inspired her to explore her Chinese musical roots.

“I keep finding that the depths of culture that I need for my music I can’t find here. It’s not contributing to the multi-cultural fabric, it’s finding sources that speak to me.”

But she’s also taking the opportunity to spread her music to all parts of Canada. Next month, she’s playing a series of small towns in Alberta and Manitoba, courtesy of Prairie Debut, an organization that annually selects two artists to tour the west.

“They had tremendous difficulties getting me dates because of what I do. So getting there at all is something of a miracle.”

* Who’s Playing CD Launch.

$15. 8pm.

Sat, Feb 23.

St George The Martyr Anglican Church.

197 John St.

(416) 204-1080.