Sook-Yin Lee is improvising this Long Winter

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When Sook-Yin Lee greets me at her front door, it is not with the face I became familiar with watching MuchMusic in the ’90s. She smashed her face off some sidewalk after encountering a particularly unforgiving patch of black ice on her bike just the day before, but Lee still invites me to sit down in her kitchen for a scheduled interview. As Lee speaks with me, her words pass through a fat lip and cross over a bowl of soup she’s mixing chia seeds into. On Friday (December 13), her new band LLVK plays The Great Hall as part of multidisciplinary community art hydra Long Winter, but right now her teeth are so tender she’s consigned to a diet of soft foods. In LLVK, Lee sings and plays a variety of mouth-operated instruments like recorders, melodicas, or repurposed PVC tubing she uses to sing and emulate trumpet sounds through. But as dictated by what others enduring similar circumstances might regard as a callous cliché, the show must go on. Lucky for Lee, the new group is an improv band. “It’s pretty darn exciting,” says Lee. “The way that our band works so far, it’s always morphing and it’s always changing. It’s never been the same thing twice.” Lee also does some “loose” conducting onstage, but as she explains, the music is not “loosey-goosey improv.” “I’ve done a lot of that where it’s just constant searching and you feel like ‘Oh God. This is too much searching,’” Lee reflects. Instead, the band plays from “setlists” comprised of what she calls shapes. “We sort of have maybe an idea or a tadpole that’s there that’s a word – a shape – and we sort of let that guide the performance.” Formed out of necessity when she and Rebecca Fin bandmate and prolific Toronto improviser Brandon Valdivia (Mas Aya, Not The Wind Not The Flag) were approached to play a show but couldn’t deliver due to conflicting schedules with other members, the new band finds Lee and Valdivia joined by Lee’s steady collaborator Adam Litovitz as well as Benjamin Kamino, who collaborated with Lee on an experimental theatre piece called How Can I Forget. As far as their contributions are concerned, Lee says all of the band participates in playing a miscellany of noise makers, but consistently Litovitz plays a Moog and assorted keyboards, Valdivia stations himself at a drum kit and various electronics, and Kamino – whom Long Winter regulars will perhaps recognize as the leader of a “slow motion dance party” at last month’s event – dances. “We’re sort of defying the [traditional] line-up of a band,” Lee acknowledges. “Sometimes we’ll start a piece where Ben will begin to dance and we’ll do the live score of his dance. So we’re watching him and he’s playing an instrument but the instrument is his body and his movement.” Lee says that although she played in more traditional bands in her teen years, she was reluctant to continue pursuing them after leaving MuchMusic in 2001 because she found the performances and the touring to be “representational.” “There’s something about doing the same setlist over and over. No matter how big of a crowd you were [playing to] or who were cheering you on, I felt after a while that it was a little boring for me.” Playing in bands like CCMC and immersing herself in the community of The Music Gallery, Lee embedded herself in the improv scene upon first moving to Toronto, but she describes the atmosphere of the city’s larger music scene as lacking in its willingness to welcome diversity. “Toronto always to me kind of sucked in a lot of ways until more people started coming here … When I first moved here it was like this really black leather town and everything was ‘rocker’ and kind of posing. Everybody had to wear black and it was all ‘super cool,’ and now it doesn’t feel like that at all.” Lee is more optimistic about the scene’s present climate. “It’s not like [faux-pretentious voice] this is Paris or London or New York City. It’s a bit of an armpit. And the places that are a bit of an armpit have these wonderful sort of creative bursts.” “I think this thing that Long Winter is creating or tapping into, I feel like many of the boundaries are sort of melting away. And that’s just indicative of where the city is right now. It’s really great.”

Interview by Tom Beedham