Soyeon Lee is a new face on the classical music scene, and has been making quite a stir with her environmentally conscious CD package Re!nvented. What would normally have been a mixed recital of transcriptions, standard concert fare and one new work has been rendered into a unique product by virtue of it's cover, molded together out of recycled potato chip bags; Lee's interest in recycling has even extended to her concert attire. Needless to say, we were interested, and AMG's Uncle Dave Lewis spoke to Lee by telephone to her home in New Jersey.
AMG: Since your relatively new to the classical recording audience, could you tell us, in your own words, a little about yourself?
Soyeon Lee: I was born in Korea, and I came over to the United States with my family when I was nine years old; he was studying political science at West Virginia University in Morgantown. I had taken piano lessons in Korea from my neighbor, so when I moved to the US, I started taking lessons from a wonderful Romanian teacher named Marina Schmidt who taught me for free for six years! She also made me all my dresses for student recitals and local competitions, and it was in one of these competitions that a teacher from Interlochen Arts Academy told me to come study with her there. So I got a scholarship and studied at that amazing place up in the middle of nowhere, and then spent the next eight years at Juilliard; took the whole course -- undergrad, masters and performing artists' diploma -- at Juilliard. I was very fortunate to win some prestigious competitions during my studies, and it has allowed me to perform a lot since then.
AMG: Although E1's Re!nvented is such a striking package that it bears the weight of a debut, you have a previous disc for Naxos of some Scarlatti Sonatas, right?
SL: Right. Being my first recording, it was a wonderful learning experience for me. Fortunately, I had great people to work with, Norbert and Bonnie Kraft, and although I was a bit hesistant at first to do a disc of all Scarlatti as my debut recording, it turned out to be tremendously helpful with so much positive feedback and served as sort of a launch pad for my interest in recording.
AMG: I'm sorry to say I missed that one.
SL: Since I made it, I've become more interested in Scarlatti, there are so many sonatas that have not even been read, let alone recorded! But this new album for E1 is about as different from Scarlatti as you can get; I'm always trying to do different things.
AMG: So where did you get the idea for Re!nvented?
SL: As you probably read from the booklet, it was inspired by the Live Earth Concert for Climate Crisis at Giants' Stadium, which I attended. Not long after I noticed a garbage can overloaded with juice pouches, which aren't recyclable, and then I learned that in the Philippines there is a women's collective who make crafty items out of them. That's when I had the idea that we could reuse the juice pouches into a concert gown -- for me. I love involving children in my work, and this was a great way to bring environmental awareness and music together by having them collect the juice pouches for me. I was lucky to have the help of Honest Tea, Inc, TerraCycle, and a handful of other eco conscious companies to sponsor my concert and the dress. It was a really unique experience, and actress Daryl Hannah flew in from LA to introduce the second half of the concert at which point I unveiled the dress. I think it was the first time trash was worn at Carnegie Hall!
AMG: How did the gown made out of juice pouches feel when you played? Was it comfortable?
SL: It was okay to walk in, but it wasn't comfortable to sit in; first of all, it was so much heavier than my other gowns. But once you start playing, all of those concerns kind of go out the window. I think people were actually quite surprised at how elegant and beautiful it a juice pouch dress could be.
AMG: Was there some sort muslin or form underneath the gown?
SL: Yes, there was a "silk taffeta" I think you call it. The designer, Nina Valenti, was really in tune with what I needed; she scaled it so I would have a little breathing room, otherwise at the end of the concert I would have been completely drenched in sweat!
AMG: Sort of on your way to being like actress Shirley Eaton's character in Goldfinger?
SL: Yes! (laughs) Exactly.
AMG: So when you recorded the Zankel concert program for E1, you decided to carry over the recycling idea directly into the packaging?
SL: Since I was recording the same program, I wanted also to bring to it the same level of awareness of reusing and reinventing trash. For awhile I was going through a painful process of considering whether since we're in this internet age to just go digital, take the recording directly to the web and leave no carbon footprint at all. But, I guess I am just a little conservative in that when it comes to a recording I want to own it, to feel it, to touch it and to have it. It needs to be a real piece, not a download. I wanted it without the plastic typically used for CDs, which is really bad for the environment, even worse than other kinds of plastic that are commonly used in making products.
I am married to the CEO of TerraCycle, and every day my husband comes home with a different kind of garbage. I don't always appreciate it mind you, but one day he came home with some metallic pieces that I thought were really interesting and I asked him, "What is that?" And he said it was "techno vomit;" a really horrible term they use at TerraCycle, but that's what they call it. However, from there I got another idea: each CD cover of Re!nvented is made out of 20 chip bags, which are shredded and then fused. I'm pleased by the way they turned out; no two copies are the same.
AMG: So how did you go about adapting your concert program into the finished Re!nvented product?
SL: For the CD, we shuffled around the order a little bit. In the concert, we unveiled the dress in the second half, which featured the works by Bach-Busoni, Huang Ruo and Ravel's La valse. All of these works were "recycled" in some way. With the Busoni transcription of the Bach Chaconne (from the Partita No. 2 in D minor for solo violin, BWV 1004) some really conservative people say, "That's not Bach! That is not a faithful transcription!" However, I really love Busoni's glorious, organ-like sonorities and his sense of the grand piano and what it can do -- I love his grand concept and how he puts himself into it. I love that he really "reinvents" the work and gives a different meaning, and I think that's what transcriptions are about, and why they are so appealing. It gives you a new look at a piece.
AMG: There are some musicologists nowadays that prefer to treat "Bach-Busoni" as a separate composer, as though the name represented an individual! However, that still leaves Huang Ruo and Ravel --
SL: Right. Huang Ruo was kind enough to take his Chamber Concerto for five instruments and transcribe it for solo piano, just for this concert. Ravel's La valse was, I guess, reinvented two times, as the original was for orchestra and there is also a four-hand piano version. The first half of the concert was a little more standard, and that is one reason we decided to shuffle the order around somewhat, to balance things out. Preparing an album is rather different from planning a concert.
AMG: Any future plans?
SL: Well, there's another album for E1, and I can't tell you what it's going to be yet, because I don't know. I want to do another album like this one, as there are so many interesting transcriptions out there that haven't been recorded. I actually have a long term goal of learning and performing, and hopefully recording the entire Iberia by AlbÃ©niz. That would be so satisfying.
AMG: May I make a suggestion? How about Busoni's "Ten Variations on a Chopin Prelude?"
SL: I looked at that one! Actually, one thing I was working on for the concert was his Carmen Fantasy [also known as the Sonatina No. 6 or the Sonatina supra Carmen.] I worked on it, but didn't have time to prepare it in time for the concert. That's okay; there will be room for it on a future concert or recording, I'm sure.
Soyeon Lee, piano -- Bach-Busoni: Chaconne in D minor
Soyeon Lee, piano -- AlbÃ©niz: FÃªte-dieu Ã¡ Seville from "Iberia"
Soyeon Lee, piano -- Prokofiev: "Precipitato" from Sonata No. 7 in B flat major, Op. 83
Soyeon Lee, piano -- Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in D major, K. 96