Alicia Lee’s Conversations With Myself Resonates from the Depths of Isolation

Although pandemic-related isolation is threatening to become a subgenre, clarinetist Alicia Lee’s new album Conversations With Myself succeeds in putting the experience of the unaccompanied instrument recital in a context of brooding meditation. A specialist of contemporary music and an expressive performer on the bass clarinet, Lee looks on the New Focus Recordings release as an interior monologue, “chronicling a year of artistic activity in isolation.” And yet, her performances are more expressive and yearning for connection than the album’s title might let on.

In an introductory video for a performance at Colburn School — her alma mater — Lee says that growing up listening to Western classical music taught her to think about tone and harmony in a specific way. But on family trips to Seoul, where she would become acquainted with traditional Korean music, the Michigan-grown clarinetist learned to appreciate the emotional intensity of the music, even if she couldn’t call it “beautiful.” Isang Yun’s Monolog for bass clarinet (1983) is a case in point: the 20th century Korean composer “wants to push the idea of what you think of as beauty in tone and timbre,” according to Lee. “He encourages you, as an instrumentalist, to push the boundaries of what you’re comfortable with.”

On the listening end, that boundary pushing doesn’t necessarily result in music that is uncomfortable, even if it’s no smooth sailing. Monolog resonates stridently in the lowest end, punctuated by clicking noises from the keys — Lee’s nimble finger work — and sharp gasps for air. There is a climax in the middle with forte declamations in the highest register — Yun is not subtle about juxtaposing extremes in pitch — which strains the ear as much as the lungs. It is an arresting moment of expressionistic melodrama, which Lee performs with enough precision and commitment to elicit a nightmarish vista. The piece dramatizes a slow buildup from an abyss that erupts into a desperate shriek, captured by tense high notes that project ever upward from the depths.

Alicia Lee

Alicia Lee

In Dai Fujikura’s Contour, serene tones give shape to a searching, snaking line that ascends and quickly drops to the bottom of the bass clarinet. But the clarity of the shape begins to dip its toes into instability, as the melodic contours — hence the title — are repeated in variation and pushed beyond their limit. Close to the middle, the piece assumes an air of assuredness with quickly alternating notes that trill and crackle; Lee makes the bass notes vibrate with a bitterly nasal oscillation, almost sounding like an electronic buzz. But the melodic contour returns, though now cast in a nonchalant, almost carefree mood. The wonderfully balanced piece ends with the drawn-out notes of the beginning, and an amusing two-note outro, like a wink that assures us that none of this is to be taken too seriously.

Like Contour, Hideaki Aomori’s Split was composed in 2020. It leapfrogs in short spurts, combining a punchy motif cast in a lumpy, stop-go rhythm with hisses from Lee’s jittery overtones. By the time Lee reaches the end, she has subtly integrated these two overriding elements — rhythm and timbre — into a coherent whole.

Advice From a Caterpillar by Unsuk Chin is cut from a different cloth. There is a hesitant, guarded mood that soon turns irreverent and sardonic; based on a scene from Alice in Wonderland, the piece echoes the nonsensical playfulness of that world. Chin explores that perverted sense of humor with blurting overtones that sometimes sound like a wrong-answer buzzer. But she also uses the low rumblings of the bass clarinet as a foundation for stability throughout.

Unsuk Chin--Photo by Thor Brodreskift

Unsuk Chin–Photo by Thor Brodreskift

The only Western composer in the program, Pierre Boulez supplies ballast to the album with the lengthy Dialogue de l’ombre double (“Dialogue of the double shadow”). Wielding a B-flat clarinet, Lee achieves the illusion of the performer playing against herself in real time. The work represents a dialogue between the clarinetist and her “shadow” — a pre-recorded track by the same player. Boulez’s modernism strings together pesky, atonal yelps that wend their way up and down a course to nowhere, until the clarinetist comes face-to-face with herself: a doppelganger that blurs and lags behind her, playing a murkier, ersatz instrument. With peaks of spiky, vociferous overtones, Lee creates a multi-spatial atmosphere for a live performer confronting an evanescent specter in the mirror.

With Conversations With Myself, Lee’s lone clarinet finds a way to express an inner longing that is mysteriously alluring. In the most contemplative moments, Lee’s pondering silence is louder than the strained high notes she wrests out of her clarinet, until the energy that emerges from her rumination takes on different qualities: from caginess and cautious restraint to overtone-rich irreverence. At the end of those interior monologues and quiet conversations, the album crosses over to the other side of isolation, our side.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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