Brooklyn musician Robbie Lee is, as the saying goes, a man of many talents. Having spent his salad years as an improvising saxophonist, Lee has gone on to intersect fruitfully with all manner of musicians. As a keyboardist, guitarist, and master of many woodwinds, he’s worked with a who’s who of New York indie rock, including Neil Hagerty, Dax Riggs, and Eleanor Friedberger. Alongside the similarly protean Charlie Looker, Lee played woodwinds and portative organ in Seven Teares. More recently, he’s pursued similar lines with the guitarist Mary Halvorson, and in a recently constituted acoustic group fronted by the singer-songwriter Glasser.
Lee’s predilection for the extensive possibilities intrinsic to winds archaic and arcane comes to the fore definitively on a new album, Opalescence, released June 22 on Telegraph Harp, the consistently fascinating label Lee operates. Performing alongside one of the world’s foremost experts in historic wind instruments, the German flutist Norbert Rodenkirchen, and New York bassist and composer James Ilgenfritz, Lee sounds off on contrabass recorder, chalumeau, gemshorn, sopranino saxophone, Beaudin and medieval flutes, glissando Kingma-system quarter-tone flute, and Kotato F flute.
To introduce the album, National Sawdust Log is honored to share a video for the album track “Society of the First Snowfall,” filmed during the album recording session at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, while outside a blizzard howled.
Much of Opalescence hails from this session, recorded on January 30, 2015. Additional material was recorded live on May 2, 2017, during an enchanting performance at First Unitarian Congregational Society, opening for the improvising organist Jean-Luc Guionnet in a concert presented by Blank Forms.
On a sunny recent weekday afternoon, Lee grabbed a bench on the Williamsburg waterfront with National Sawdust Log to talk about his creative journey, his myriad projects – including Seed Triangular, a duo album with Halvorson, due Sept. 7 on New Amsterdam – and how he came to view the Baroque flute as the world’s most responsive analog synthesizer.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: I’m curious about how you came to be interested in historical wind instruments, especially in the context of new-music and improvisation. What set you off down this path?
ROBBIE LEE: It actually started very early, because I grew up in a great traditional jazz environment just outside of Boston. My early saxophone teacher, Douglas Yates – who’s around here now – is an amazing alto [saxophone] and bass clarinet player. In my second-year saxophone recital, when I was 10, he had me playing Sun Ra. I was predisposed, and I didn’t have a pop phase before then, so I went into a very heavy jazz/art music… I was funneled in that direction to begin with. It was only in college that I discovered any sort of popular music at all, so I really did it the opposite of most people, in that regard.
Even in high school, I was more interested in horizontal moves than vertical moves, in terms of spreading out into different woodwind instruments. From alto saxophone, I spread into different saxophones and flutes. I used to go to the instrument shop and rent an oboe for a week. So, the Boston Globe had a Q&A where you could ask any question. It wasn’t even in the arts section; it was just, ask some question you don’t know. And probably when I was 15 years old, I said, “I got a CD by Yusef Lateef and he’s playing an instrument listed as a shehnai – what is it?” I wrote this into the paper, and they answered me! So something in my brain was tuned into finding new and interesting sounds early on.
If you were listening to Yusef Lateef, then perhaps you were also attuned to Anthony Braxton and the other A.A.C.M. players. There’s plenty of precedent for spreading out into other woodwind instruments. But I’m really curious about how you were moved to start exploring pre-modern instruments, and then how you did it?
Every day driving to high school, I used to pass the Von Huene Workshop, which was early musical instruments on Boylston Street, on the Boston/Brookline border. I drove past the sign every day, and thought, whatever, I’m not interested in that. But later, when I started exploring early music just as a listener, a lightbulb went off in my brain: What was that place? So one day when I was up in Boston, I stopped in at this place, and it turned out to be the most famous recorder shop in American, where they build beautiful recorders. And they have a showroom filled with all kinds of used leftovers.
I learned more about various early-music revivals; there was an early one in the early 20th century, and then in the ’60s and ’70s it got going again. The instruments that were built to be played on were mostly these German factory instruments – a company called Moeck made a lot of them, Adler, places like that. They were great for their day, completely well constructed professional instruments. Then in the 1980s and ’90s, there was a revolution in the way instrument makers studied instruments in museums, and built more exact copies – not trying to smooth out the flaws, but trying to play with the flaws the way the original players played with the flaws.
So the instruments that were built in the ’60s and ’70s basically became useless, and nobody played them anymore. However, they were still totally complete instruments in a jazz sort of “pick it up and play it” kind of way. You could really use them; it just wasn’t acceptable for a professional early-music player. Therefore, they were cheap. [laughs] So I stopped in there and bought a hundred-dollar crumhorn, which is a very obnoxious-sounding instrument if played poorly. It turned on my brain – it already sounds like a Yusef Lateef record, or like John Coltrane on soprano [saxophone], which was the thing for me.
Was that the kind of thing you were going for, the jazz horn players who had the distinctive or slightly off-center sounds?
That’s probably at least the germination of it. But this was in my early or mid-twenties, living in New York, playing both improvised music, being friends with a lot of composers, playing in rock bands, and also doing a lot of session work. I realized that it would be amazing to show up to a session where I might be doing horn arrangements and to bring all these other instruments. And they kept getting used – people really liked them – playing secret recorder parts and things like that.
You mentioned that you came to rock and pop music late in the day. How did you start doing sessions in New York?
I think I was trying to get as far away as possible from my roots. I started to play guitar—and I started without lessons, because I wanted to do something that I really didn’t know how to do. I made a deliberate choice to not go to music school because I wanted to retain as much individuality as possible, and I certainly lost out on some things and gained some other things in that choice. I was just ready for a total break and to do something that I didn’t know how to do, and also to try to get to something on a purely emotional level, and be able to put down the chattering mind.
My life and career in music has been this double helix of these two forces that push and pull at each other. Every time I say, OK, I’m just doing this because it’s the smartest career move, the other starts nagging at me, this other side of me. So they really fuel each other, and it makes my life more interesting.
There’s no chance you’re going to settle down and do just one thing, like just playing pump organ with Charlie Looker?
It doesn’t seem to have worked out that way. [laughs] Playing creative music for my whole life is the number one goal. There are more chances to feel engaged in creative music, in improvised and composed music; there are more expectations that artists can continue to grow and grow and grow, whereas working in a pop field, everybody’s waiting for your decline. [laughs]
What was your method of entry into the rock-music world? Did you have friends who helped you in, or did you just decide to make a go of it? In terms of your gigging in a practical sense, how did that come about?
Many little things. Just having friends. When I moved to New York after college, I had a few friends in the rock world and a few in the jazz world. Both of those doors opened up into different sectors—which then started to overlap more rather than less.
It’s interesting now, because you’re poised at a time when these borders are becoming practically meaningless. The drummer for Dawn of MIDI [Qasim Naqvi] is also a commissioned composer who works with analog synths on the side. Brian Chase is exploring long-form drone while also drumming in Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
And Brian and I have played together a lot.
The two of you played together with James Ilgenfritz just last week.
Brian is actually my role model in this department. Whenever I start to think I should have more focus on just one thing, and then I can get back to other things that I love later in my career, Brian is someone who inspires me as a friend.
So speaking of James, then, then how did this Opalescence project come together?
After starting to play some of those older things – the crumhorn, the recorders, the portative organ I played in Seven Teares – then I discovered the Baroque flute. And the Baroque flute was the major one for me, because I’ve always felt a closer connection to transverse flute, sideways flute, as opposed to recorder. I played it a lot and then put it down for a while, and then I picked it up again about 10 years ago and decided to really learn to play it seriously. I had lessons with both Robert Dick and an amazing local player from a traditional classical background—not telling him at all about what I do and what I was going to do with it.
And then I heard a record, this very specific CD I bought… it was solo Bach on Baroque flute. The sound is so different and so interesting. I immediately did a little bit of research about the instrument and realized how extraordinary it is, because it’s six open holes in only one key instead of the full mechanism, but it’s still completely chromatic, and actually microtonal. I have a flute that’s a copy of a flute made by the composer Quantz, the favorite composer of Frederick the Great, much to the annoyance of his peer, C.P.E. Bach.
Quantz flutes, instead of having one key, had two. But it’s not like they had two keys for different notes. Instead of having an E-flat key, they had an E-flat key and a D-sharp key—two notes that in normal modern music are the same—for playing pure intervals. I’d already gotten interested in the New York history of just-intonation music, and then explored different intonations in early music, in Renaissance and Baroque harpsichord music, and had completely flipped out over the idea that composers could use the in-tune-ness and out of tune-ness of different keys, when you’re playing in one tuning system, as a traditional scheme of tension and release—that you could build tension by actually modulating into a key that sounded bad. And I realized, that’s a whole dimension of music that doesn’t exist anymore: the idea that a composer might modulate not just to a key that’s far away from the home key, but to a key that actually sounds bad… and then it sounds good again, and you’re so happy.
It’s a physiological thing.
Yeah, completely. And I spent a lot of time listening – you have to listen to a lot of music in other tuning systems for it to feel natural instead of strange. I realized, this was like being colorblind, and then I got full sight. The Baroque flute, it’s a very simple construction that still is fully chromatic, so the byproduct is that every note has a different tone color, which at the time turns out to have been an asset. Composers were interested in that, and performers were interested in that. People who have perfect pitch talk about how D major has a different tone color than E major; that’s a very subtle and abstract sensibility. But in this case, they really do, because each note has a different harmonic series to it. Some notes are strong; some notes are weak and have a kind of veiled quality. So the placement of that note in a scale is going to result in a scale with a completely different tone color to it. And also, extreme restriction – I was really into the OULIPO writers and the idea of restrictions bringing out creativity as a tool. So the Baroque flute felt really magical to me.
Whose Bach recording was it that set you down this path?
The particular Bach recording was by Wilbert Hazelzet. It’s a solo CD. Bach only wrote one piece for solo flute, the Partita in A minor, and then he does his own transcriptions of the Cello Suites, which are pretty interesting. You have to throw a few notes into the wrong octave, and it’s monophonic.
I’ve always been struck by how not wrong alternate tunings tend to sound, in practice.
Well, it’s actually more right. [laughs] We play in equal temperament, which means that every note is the same amount out of tune. Nothing is ever in tune at all. On the flip side of fluting, after studying with Robert Dick, I ended up getting one of the instruments he plays on, which is this Kingma system quarter-tone flute. It’s a modern silver flute that has extra keys on it, so it’s fully quarter-tone – which in some sense actually goes against the thing that speaks to me, because you’re just dividing out-of-tune half steps in half. But you can do so many things with it; it plays amazing multiphonics. He’s the master at deliberate multiphonics; it’s no longer a monophonic instrument.
So at some point I sort of re-conceived the Baroque flute as a modular synthesizer, when I started learning about the modern trend in modular synths, and realizing that this instrument, because it’s so simple and there’s almost no mechanism, you just breathe this life into it and this complexity. And the amount of nuance… it’s a quiet instrument all around, but the amount of nuance within it is at an extreme level. It articulates much faster than a modern flute.
So I started thinking about it as, here’s a modular synthesizer. It’s an oscillator with a filter, which is the tone color that you give it by playing it with an LFO [low frequency oscillator], which is the possibilities for vibrato—which is a hotly debated topic in early music, but not really playing early music, I am free to do things that are wrong. You can play pitch tremolos; I have eight different notes between B and B-flat, depending on how many fingers I put down. So all of these things together, it really felt like a synthesizer – except that it’s being instantly controlled by a brain instead of something you’re trying to wrangle with patches. And I think I’ve just gotten quieter and quieter in my musical approach, so I like these instruments where – I like playing loud things, too [laughs] – where it’s all focused between quadruple piano and mezzo piano.
So then all this experimentation and contemplation was a preface to what you’re doing on Opalescence?
Exactly. Being interested in making new music with these instruments, especially with the base of the Baroque flute, I came across some music one day, probably just browsing on YouTube, from Norbert Rodenkirchen. I don’t remember where I found him, but I saw this and immediately I loved it… it was a duo that he has with Albrecht Maurer, who is a German violinist who also plays some early music and some contemporary improv and composition. They have two duo albums. And I saw some video clips and said, this is just phenomenal—and he’s playing a medieval flute, which is a whole other kettle of worms.
This was the only thing I’d come across that was remotely similar to what I was trying to do—I later learned about Roscoe Mitchell, who also plays Baroque flute and recorders; he’s the only other person I really know of trying to do something new with these instruments. And I literally just out of the blue wrote to Norbert Rodenkirchen in Cologne: “Hi, I live in New York, I play this instrument and I’m trying to do new things with it, I’m inspired by the music you made, and I just wanted to say hi.” So we corresponded, I sent him some music of mine. And he plays in Sequentia.
That’s Benjamin Bagby’s famous ensemble for medieval music.
Right, the long-running, most high-profile medieval music group. I’d have to look it up, but they had either a gold or platinum record in the mid-’90s with the Hildegard von Bingen album that was such a big deal [Canticles of Ecstasy, 1994]. Norbert joined just after that, but he’s been playing with them for a long time. And he turns out to have had a very interesting path, also, and medieval music has so much more in common with improvised music because we just don’t know as much. There aren’t as many treatises. And so, more is about doing your own research, and a lot is about imagination—which doesn’t mean you can do just anything, but there’s a certain creative spirit that it takes to play that music, that isn’t so tied down by the academy.
Norbert came up in the German music world during the ’70s and was around a lot of new music, a lot of composers and jazz people, and then settled into this amazing gig with Sequentia, but turned out to be this fantastic improviser. He goes around the world playing with Sequentia, and they were playing in New York. We had met one time previously, and I’d said, next time you come back, would you like to try to record something? So I got us into Issue Project Room during the daytime, the final day before they closed for renovation. But I wanted to bring in someone else, a lower-pitched instrument. I had learned about James Ilgenfritz, and I wrote him out of the blue and said, I’m doing an unusual thing, a lot of microtonality, and I think it might be right up your alley—would you like to come join us at an impromptu recording session.
So we set up in there, and of course, that space, when there’s no people in there, has the most incredible reverberation. So I recorded it, I brought over some nice microphones, and it turned out to be an incredibly special moment. There was a blizzard going on outside. We were just sort of hermetically sealed.
Then we had this performance about a year ago that was at the Unitarian church, and there were some things about that performance that came together in different ways from the original album, and the recording came out beautifully from that session. So I actually ended up mixing it in, and I did do a little bit of audio work to tweak it, to take out the coughs and try to match the ambiance so that it doesn’t sound like there’s live tracks and studio tracks. There’s one track on there that begins with a bass solo, and then after the bass solo it comes into this drone, and I’m playing the giant contrabass recorder.
That’s “Mille Regretz.”
Yeah. And Norbert starts playing this theme over the top; it’s a fragment of Josquin, and then it turns into this looping, cyclical thing that repeats in and out of dissonance and consonance. And that, I thought, was really worth having, because the original sessions were entirely improvised. We had some thematic ideas, like a high piece with difference tones and a sort of spectralist ambiance. We were definitely thinking a lot about spectralist composers and Scelsi and Xenakis, especially in the high pieces with the difference tones. But then this piece with the Josquin fragments that weave in and out of it, I thought, was tying the early-music thing back in a little more explicitly. And it’s possible that for future directions, we might integrate more composition into it. But the original sections were pretty much all improvised; I did some editing, which is a favorite way of working for me, just to play pure improvisation and then edit down.
The duo album with Mary Halvorson that’s going to come out in September on New Amsterdam also was like that, where it was improvised music that gets edited. It actually turned into a favorite way of working for me, where editing is not cheating. Editing is turning an improvisation into composition, the same way that some composers would work—essentially, taking your stream of consciousness, taking all of your mistakes, taking ideas that are thought-of ideas – not just running your fingers over the keys randomly, but instantaneous composition in that sort of ’70s Euro free-jazz kind of way. And then when you cut out the pieces that you don’t like, you’re connecting together the things that you do like. Editing is the act of composing, for me.
Putting it all down, and then shaping what’s meaningful.
Exactly. I tend to leave things in a linear direction, so I won’t take something from later and move it earlier. But I do find that if we did a six-minute improvisation and I take out three minutes of it, or even 45 seconds of it, and then you bring all these things together, then it feels like there’s an intentionality to the piece.
That’s a perfect word. You can feel that there’s a linear forward progress.
Right. When you’re improvising with people who are really listening, which is the kind of improvisation we do, then you’re trying to find your common thread together while forging a new path on your own—this push and pull of listening and responding. So one of the things I’ve discovered in making these records is that working in that way isn’t just a way to make a record succeed, but that I actually like it to create music. Then when you go to play that music live, you’re in trouble [laughs], because there’s no way to play it. It’s not really an improvisation anymore, and it’s not a composition, either. It’s some kind of nebulous intermediate zone.
How did your project with Mary come to transpire?
We’ve been friends for a long time. We actually met in college. My best friend and piano player from high school went to college with her, and we met and played a little bit of music together back then. I actually found a DAT tape from college of a one-off free improv that we did in junior, senior year.
Bandcamp bonus track?
Yeah, maybe. [laughs] I found the DAT tape, so… It actually was recorded at the old Roulette by Jim Staley. We’ve been friends ever since then, but had never really played together, and on a whim I came up with this idea of us just doing some recording together. That recording was actually a couple of years earlier, so I had just started playing the Baroque flute. I’d been playing a couple of years then, but it was still pretty new and fresh for me. And Mary is actually playing only my guitars on the recording, and she’s playing all acoustic, a flat top guitar.
The idea was to get her to do something different, where she’s still completely at home. At the same time I was getting into all the weird wind instruments, I had also been playing some unusual string instruments. So I got Mary to play all the instruments that I brought to the session, and they’re all vintage. Each has its own story. The main guitar is a Gibson from 1930. Then she’s also playing a harp guitar from about 1900 that has a big lower bout, kind of a big sound box that comes up from it. This particular one has five bass strings and many little treble strings, which are on piano-pin tuners, or like an autoharp or something. The regular neck of it is normal, and then it has all these bass notes and all these plinky, plucky sounds [imitates high, brittle strings] up there.
Is it a sympathetic neck, or does one actually play those extra strings?
You don’t fret those extra strings; you do play them with your right hand. It was meant for… you could do some kind of polka thing [sings oom-pah polka pattern]. They’re meant to be strings you can play, they’re sympathetic, and also the body is so much bigger, so it has a kind of rich, full quality.
Then the third thing is a banjo, but it’s a six-string banjo – so, tuned like a guitar, but not a modern cheat for guitar players who want to sound like banjo. It’s actually a very unusual one, because it’s from the late 1880s, and it was originally meant to be strung with gut strings, before banjos switched to steel strings as they mostly are today. I actually sourced gut strings for it from a guy in Boston who supplies strings for viola da gamba players.
So Mary, I think probably every review of her, ever, talks about how distinctive her voice is, but that’s because it’s true: she picks up a guitar, she sounds like herself within two notes, in a way that only a few other people who play music today you can say that about. Nobody sounds anything like her, but she always plays on this one guitar that’s hers, or maybe now on this second one that my friend built for her—I introduced her to my friend Flip Scipio, who’s this most extraordinary guitar player and extraordinary human being. She has such a distinctive sound, based on a very limited range of tools; it’s the big Guild guitar with the Green Line 6 pedal that goes [imitates a whirling sound familiar from Halvorson’s playing] at the right moment, and the scratchy knob.
Even in college, she didn’t sound like anybody else. So what was so interesting about making this record is, I am handing her unfamiliar instruments, and each is a very peculiar and strong-voiced instrument – so, to hear her pick them up and make them sound like her, but also still to negotiate with the uniqueness of each of these instruments. There’s just a real spark of discovery with it for her to be just familiar enough with the instruments to be able to get around them, but not so familiar that it’s second nature. And because when that record was made, the Baroque flute was still pretty new for me. I was in a similar place.
The one thing I want to avoid is anybody seeing the use of all the weird instruments as a gimmick, because I came to them just finding them inspiring as ways of making music, opening up new possibilities. I get to access all sorts of new places with these instruments that I then also bring back to traditional instruments. Regular instruments are still an important part of my life.
So it’s not about the instruments, but they’re an easy and fun thing to talk about, because they look funny and people always want to ask. I always have a spectacle of an arrangement whenever I play a show, and I spend most of my time after the show explaining what the instruments are. But I always get really happy when somebody comes up and, despite there being a contrabass recorder in front of me, wants to actually talk about the music we play.
I think of myself as a composer, even though I don’t really compose and I have friends who are serious composers, whose main activity is writing on paper. I don’t do very much of that. But music is a mental process and instruments or tools, and I happen to love these particular tools that happen to be unusual and strange. At this point, I’m not a saxophonist or a guitarist or a Baroque flutist. I play music. I’m a musician.
Opalescence is out now in vinyl, CD, and digital formats on Telegraph Harp.