I first met Michael Lee when I was a student at Azusa Pacific University. I had the pleasure of playing his piece "The Magi Ride Eastward" for the annual Celebrate Christmas Concert. I loved it! So much energy and enthusiasm -- and after performing more of his work he was an obvious choice for the Operation Cadence album. He graciously agreed to join us for an interview!
AH: What music inspired you as a child? What got you into composing?
ML : I started out as a classical pianist, in that very strict model of always drilling, always competing, never really stopping to listen to the music. By the time I was 12 I hated the piano, and didn't really enjoy music at all. For my birthday that year my aunt sent me a tape of Thelonious Monk, and it completely blew my mind musically. I didn't know music could DO things like that. I wore the tape out, learned all of the tunes and solos by ear, then began exploring what else I could do with this new vocabulary. I started writing for small jazz combos, then for big band. I didn't really start composing concert music until much later, in my early 30s. I was asked to write a choral setting of The Lord's Prayer. That experience took me into listening to to contemporary composers, and trying to figure out how to use this expanding set of sound possibilities to create something meaningful.
AH: What is one of the most interesting projects you have worked on?
ML: I was commissioned to create a new musical instrument that involved a keyboard being split note by note and sending different pitches to loudspeakers mounted on different moving cars. As the keyboardist played, the cars moved, and the Doppler effect meant that nobody heard exactly the same piece of music. I wrote the software and oversaw the team that built the instrument, and Philip Glass composed the first piece for it.
AH: What suggestions do you have for someone interested in listening to contemporary classical music for the first time?
ML: My first piece of advice would be don't try to hard. Just float in it for a while. You don't have to like. Don't put that obligation on yourself. You don't have to understand it. That's absurd. Just swim in for a little while.
Picture yourself being immediately transported to some country you've never been to before where everyone around you is speaking the same language. Then remove all the stress from that situation. You don't have to talk to anyone. You don't have to solve anything. You don't have to get to your hotel. Just sit at a coffee shop in a country you've never been to before and let the language kind of wash around you. After awhile you'll start to hear things. You'll start to hear phrases over and over again. You'll start to hear a cadence to the speech. Your ear already knows how to do this job. It'll start to grab hold of things and those things will start to connect together. And they will start to have meaning for you. And it may not be the same meaning as the person speaking the words intended. And that's totally fine. Listening to new music, especially new concert music, is like that. You have to just swim in it, and let the sounds wash over you until you start to hear connections, and they start to have some meaning to you.
You kind of have to do that piece by piece, but then eventually you'll start to realize that these composers don't exist in a vacuum. They're listening to each other. They're listening to the same sorts of things. So even though pieces now are really developing their own language along the way, it's still a language that has a grammar and some constructs in common.
Remove the burden of having to like it. Remove the burden of having to understand it. And just swim in it for a while. Just float. And just see what connects in your own ear. That's the fun of it!
AH: What are some of your favorite pieces of contemporary classical music?
ML: Right now I'm really enjoying:
"Partita for 8 Voices" by Caroline Shaw
"Son of Chamber Symphony" by John Adams
"The Confession of Isobel Gowdie" by James MacMillan
AH: What are your sources for new music?
ML: There is a podcast out of New York called “Meet the Composer.” It's hosted by the Nadia Sirota; she interviews contemporary composers and then will often include performances of their work on the podcast. They cover a wide survey of music, from John Adams and Meredith Monk and to Paul Simon and everything in between.
I also follow Questlove on Twitter because he's tied into really great music that's coming out. And late one night he was buzzing about this track that Kanye West just dropped on SoundCloud, “Say You Will,” that Caroline Shaw took and remixed and did her thing with it. It brought me to the rest of her stuff. I heard her “Partita for Eight Voices” and was hooked. She wrote the piece for her contemporary vocal ensemble, A Roomful of Teeth. The group brings together singers of different styles: throat singing, yodeling, etc. So she started by expanding the palate of what the singers were willing to risk. Then she wrote this collection of pieces that pushed the vocal boundaries.
AH: What interests you about the Operation Cadence project?
ML: Anything bends the lines of what music is, and what it's for, is interesting. In this case, music as metronome for running is an idea that really appealed to me, an inversion of the normal way I'd think about a metronome.
AH: Do you run?
ML: I don't run, but as part of my rehab for a broken shoulder, I've started walking about 5 miles a day, and I'm really loving it. I may try running once I am back to full health, but right now the impact is just too much.
AH: Once you decide to try out running, I recommend running at least 180 bpm, to reduce the impact you take with each step.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
ML: Thanks for inviting me to be part of this project! I'm looking forward to it.