When we arrive at James Lee III’s home in Baltimore, sounds of the composer at the piano leak through the front door, making it difficult to ring the bell and interrupt the music. He is gracious when he greets us, however, explaining that he’s trying to get his own piano music under his fingers again in advance of an upcoming trip to Brazil as a Fulbright Scholar.
Lee was a piano performance major as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, but these days practice often slips to the bottom of his to-do list. Since shifting his attention to composition for his graduate work, he is now generally focused on writing his own music and meeting his teaching obligations at Morgan State University, where he is associate professor of composition and theory.
Yet Lee traces his current career to his early experience at the piano. The lessons his father signed him up for at 12 turned into serious interest in high school. During his first years at Michigan, he wrote a lot of things “on the side,” but when Michael Daugherty and Gabriella Lena Frank pushed him towards pursuing a master’s degree in composition at Michigan over heading to the East Coast for more piano study, he realized what a better fit that would be.
Allegro from Piano Sonata No. 2 “The Remnant”
Available on Alkebulan’s Son: The Piano Works of James Lee III (Albany Records)
“I always liked the creative aspect a little bit more than the idea of playing the same program the whole year round,” Lee explains. “As I was thinking about playing the piano—Chopin etudes and Beethoven sonatas—I always wanted to write my own etudes and my own sonatas.”
A selection of works Lee has ultimately composed for the piano have been collected on the recent Albany release Alkebulan’s Son: The Piano Works of James Lee III, performed by Rochelle Sennet. Lee’s catalog, however, also contains a number of pieces for much larger forces, and his music has been premiered by orchestras in Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Conductor Leonard Slatkin, who Lee approached with the recommendation of his Michigan teacher William Bolcom, has been a particular champion of his work.
Lee’s writing for orchestra tends to open with percussive announcements and pack in a number of colorful flourishes and dense textures. He also has a notable affection for what he terms the “more soulful” instruments of the woodwind family, such as the oboe and English horn—a propensity he has noted among a number of African-American composers—and for the emotional force of Shostakovich’s writing, which “really gets in there and just goes over the top.”
Audio and score sample from Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula by James Lee III
Though Lee’s music is sometimes connected to particular topics or storylines, as was the case with his 2011 Baltimore Symphony commission for a work inspired by the life of Harriet Tubman, he doesn’t tend to write in an explicitly programmatic way. After a period of reading and study when a work is meant to be about a specific topic, he’ll sketch out graphs and timelines of possible events. Particularly for large-scale works, he tends to create a kind of self-drawn map to guide him. A Seventh-Day Adventist, Lee is also influenced by his religious faith. For works with a more spiritual grounding, he’ll pray about the piece before he begins composing. Then things tend to take a more technical turn, with more abstract musical ideas taking over.
“I have a big interest in the rhythmic aspects of the music, but I’m also really interested in having these evocative colors in the orchestra like Takemitsu or Adams in My Father Knew Charles Ives,” Lee clarifies. “But I also have a very strong interest in the Biblical books of Daniel and Revelation, and my first piece which was ever programmed publicly, Beyond Rivers of Vision, was something that was inspired by those prophetic books. So where I was interested in the rhythmic aspects, I was also interested in giving a musical commentary on the events spoken about in those texts.”
Lee is troubled by the lack of diversity associated with concert music—particularly in the orchestral field which he feels still has “a long way to go….I think there should be a little bit more openness and acceptance of really trying to promote good music by all composers, whether they’re women, African American, Latino, or Asian.”
Though he understands that members of under-represented groups who do hold positions in the field don’t want their background to take precedence and distract from their artistic work, he urges decision makers at all levels and areas to be proactive about seeking this work out and advocating for it, while being mindful of personally held stereotypes.
“It seems to me that there are certain roles that [administrators] see certain people fulfilling,” explains Lee. “Like, if I were a jazz pianist, then it would be cool if I’m composing jazz ballads. But if I’m writing Western classical music in a contemporary language, then they might think, ‘Well, I don’t know if he is really who we want.’”
When he runs into such prejudice in his own career, he’s careful not to let it distract from his larger goals despite the frustrations it can bring. “You just have to move on and do your best and get other opportunities,” he stresses. “Usually I don’t miss a chance. If there’s a person at an orchestra or a pianist I want to meet…I don’t waste any time.”