Between the song form and the abstract sound world

Marilyn Lerner
A fine balance


For MusicWorks Issue #107

“Part of me loves the song form and another part of me—just as large—loves abstract creative improvisation,” muses Marilyn Lerner as she restlessly walks around her cozy apartment on the third floor of a downtown Toronto home. That duality is why, more so than many other creative musicians, her life is all about integration and balance. Although the composer and pianist is equally at home with the creative energy between the two the breadth of her creativity involves more than that.

On the song-form side of the continuum, she performed and recorded as a member of the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, the Marilyn Lerner/Dave Wall Duo, and as a solo pianist on her Romanian Fantasies CD. Meanwhile on the improvised music front, she has been involved in projects that range from Cuban-inflected jazz with pianist Hilario Duran to New Music Improv group Queen Mab with clarinetist Lori Freedman. Wanting to expand her creative palate to include sounds in the environment, she started creating audio art in 1998. “It was a natural progression from my work with synthesizers and samplers," she notes. And, if all that wasn’t enough, in 2004, she satisfied an interest in psychology and inter-personal relationships by qualifying as a trained psychotherapist. Currently she meets with clients two days a week.

“Everything I do comes from the same wellspring of creativity,” she states one day in early winter, as she carefully sways back and forth in an overstuffed armchair. Nearby, a large computer work station shares space with a record player, books, CDs, wall mounted photos, and on the other side of the room, a galley kitchen. Although she resides on a street just north of Jean Sibelius Park and took classical piano lessons as a child in Montreal, ironically a career in notated music was never an option.

“In improvising I employ a myriad of internal resources to ultimately be in the moment,” she says, describing her process. Over the years her career has been dedicated to integrating her interests—most noticeably the lyrical and abstract tendencies. The genesis of this concept transpired during the formative years she spent in Winnipeg from 1987 to 2000.

“I began to discover who I was as an artist while living in Winnipeg,” she says reflectively. As a small, isolated city, with abundant arts funding, Winnipeg, she found, allowed creative people to be involved in more than one aspect of the arts. It was there for instance, that she began composing for film, theatre, radio, and television, started her affiliation with local poets, most notably recording two CDs with Patrick Friesen, and did her first radio-art collages.


While growing up in a Montreal suburb, she was always the pianist for high-school-theatrical productions, Lerner, fifty-three, says that initially she never imagined a career in music. Instead she studied psychology at Toronto’s York University for two years, only taking piano courses with Reginald Goddin “to keep my classical chops up.” Not that her dual musical tendencies weren’t already evident. As a child she filled notebooks with poetry and songs trying to write like Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro. Yet at the same time her earliest memories are of listening to the Jewish records that her father played on his weekly radio program “Songs of Our People.”

That wasn’t all though. As a youngster she explains, she was always “attuned to sounds.” Once as a teenager, listening to the transistor radio late one night in bed, she was revelling in what she thought was a fantastic drum solo. When it showed no sign of ending after 20 minutes, she turned on the light to find transmission had been stuck between two stations. “I call it my introduction to musique concrete,” she jokes.

As a self-confessed angst-ridden adolescent at York, she would stay up all night improvising on her dorm’s piano. Impressed by the university’s jazz curriculum, and drawn to the playing of pianist Bill Evans (“I thought that he sounded like Ravel . . . and that jazz was combining improvising and classical music”), she switched disciplines. Gigs on the local jazz scene with players such as flautist Jane Bunnett – working more often than not as an accompanist – occupied her time until she moved to Winnipeg.

Back to her roots

In a roundabout way, a Cuban recording project with Bunnett in 1997 led her back to Jewish and Yiddish music and to rediscovering her Jewish musical roots. While forging relationships with Cuban improvisers with whom she and Bunnett would record the CD Birds Are Returning, she was impressed that the players knew everything about the history of their island’s music. This awakened in her a desire to “know and play the music of my culture,” she recalls.

Soon after she formed the Klezmer band From Both Ends of the Earth, where she began adding her improvisations to the traditional tunes. Her duality, however, was further extended when the band played Toronto’s Ashkenaz festival. There she met performers who approached performing Jewish music in different ways. On the traditional side, there was New York-Yiddish vocalist Adrienne Cooper, with whom she has since worked steadily at Klezmer-oriented gatherings in North America and Europe. Here she consciously tries to preserve the essence of the melodies and rhythms of age-old material. On the other hand, her confidence in Klez-improv came from other Ashkenaz associates who were more exploratory such as New York trumpeter Frank London. He is as committed to jazz-improv as he is to Klezmer music and like Lerner was working to fuse the two. As part of her work in this genre, Lerner conducts her own classes that guide participants in creating free improvisations from standard Klezmer melodies. “No matter what style of music you play, improv can help you,” she states.

The most important musical development

While in Winnipeg Lerner became involved with what she calls her “most important musical development” – Queen Mab. Named after the fairy queen of dreams in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the duo initially came together after Lerner heard clarinetist Lori Freedman perform at a local new music concert. Moved by the vulnerability in Freedman’s playing, Lerner invited the woodwind player over to improvise. Each found the other’s skills complemented her own. Formally partnering in 1996, Queen Mab toured North America as a duo and became a trio with the addition of Dutch violist Ig Henneman after 2002. Since that time the group has toured Europe and North America as a trio. Henneman’s presence has also tipped Queen Mab more towards composition, rather than on-the-spot improv or sets based on singular concepts the players had agreed upon earlier. The trio’s most recent CD for instance, finds the three revisiting and improvising on Hector Berlioz’ “Queen Mab Scherzo”.

More importantly both Freedman’s and Lerner’s approach to performance changed as a result of the partnership. While the clarinetist’s playing moved further away from pre composed new music and closer towards organic improv, Lerner feels that she was affected even more. “I was at a point where I had a bad relationship with the piano,” she recalls. “Lori could bend notes and play things that made the brain vibrate, yet here I was with this elephant.” The transformation occurred, she says, when “I realized I was only playing one-quarter of the piano because I was only thinking of it as eighty-eight keys. Instead I got inside the piano to play – and by doing that was finally able to come back to the keys.”

With Henneman in Amsterdam, Freedman in Montreal, and Lerner in Toronto each also maintain a solo career. Then there’s Lerner’s psychotherapy practice. Returning as an adult to the life-long interest in psychology she left behind at York, Lerner says she now brings life experience to her practice. “Being in the moment with intention, listening deeply and responding—these attributes correspond exactly to my life as a musician and therapist,” she explains.

As someone who often finds herself lying in bed at night processing thoughts through music rather than words—“music to me is as natural as breathing,”—Lerner’s many roles satisfy her need for creativity in both the verbal and non-verbal realms.

At the same time the integration of these aspects of her life helps maintain the balance for which she strives. And each relates back to improvisation. “To me what makes a great improviser is personality: the ability to take the sum total of your experience and distill it. That’s your voice. That’s what I make my living doing. That’s what I live for.”


Audio Art

“I’m a computer nerd,” admits Marilyn Lerner, “I like sounds and the process of weaving together and altering recorded sounds.” Having become familiar with synthesizers in 1970s, Lerner found that the potential existed for her to expand her sound palette. “With the advent of samplers I realized that I could use any sound I wanted—voices, foghorns, fireworks, sewing machines, you name it—and I wanted to experiment. It was a new frontier in which I could use my compositional skills.”

•In Lerner’s audio art as in the rest of her practice, her word-oriented and experimental-sound duality is invoked. Some of her works use samples generated from the piano’s keyboard and innards; others mix sampled sounds with extended piano techniques, and the altered voices of family members and others.

•Among them are the following:

• They're All in Families, (1998) was made with Sound Designer, exposed the rhythm of hatred by deconstructing a hate message left on a telephone answering machine.

• The Toll (2002) uses acoustic piano sounds Lerner recorded during a residency at Quebec City’s Avatar that were later assembled using Protools and a multitude of processors and finally spatialized by Darren Copeland using the Richmond AudioBox.

• The Vessel (2005) is a pastiche of archival recordings plus the voices of Lerner, her daughter, mother, father, and aunt edited to present an alternate family history.

• Backtalk (2009) is a soundscape composition that captures the rhythms of sewing machines, steam irons and scissors plus the voiced memories of Jewish, Italian, Korean, and Hispanic seamstresses.


Two contrasting solo piano works

Each of Marilyn Lerner’s solo piano CDs explores in great musical detail one facet of her lyrical and abstraction duality. Luminance (Ambiances Magnétiques AM 115 CD), is a 2003 session concerned with the nuances of extended piano technique and microphone placement. Romanian Fantasy (Marilyn Lerner ML 001), is made up of 2005 and 2006 improvisations based on Eastern European Jewish melodies.

The outgrowth of a residency Lerner spent at Quebec City’s Avatar, an artist-run centre specializing in audio and electronic art, Luminance’s sixteen improvisations range from one minute to almost 11½. During the course of the two days of performance, Lerner improvised using different techniques on various parts of the piano keys; plucked, stroked and struck the internal strings; smacked the wooden sides of the instrument and performed after disengaging the hammers from the strings. To capture additional timbres, many different microphones were used during the sessions, positioned at various times behind the piano, close to the soundboard, over the bass strings, in the sound holes, near the tail piece and alternately in a small room nearby. “I had often been the victim of questionable piano miking in the past, so I decided to make microphone placement the creative focus of this project,” she explains. Some of these sounds were subsequently used to create The Toll, a piece of audio art (see sidebar one).

With a more conventional audio set up and recorded in four sessions in 2005 and 2006 in Toronto’s Glenn Gould studio, Romanian Fantasy consists of re-interpretation of 11 traditional melodies. Arranging and improvising on these almost-ancient airs took intense concentration, Lerner reports. “It was a tricky kind of re-composing because I had to dig deeply into the tradition. I had to figure out what to change and what to keep. To develop the focus I had to process the music inside me, come up with an exploration of the essence of each piece and stay true to the songs while putting myself in them.” At the same time Lerner, who listened to many early 20th Century versions of the pieces didn’t want to reproduce them or graft styles together.

Ken Waxman is Toronto-based, where he writes about jazz and improvised music. Much of his writing is archived at