Raw Cello

SOMA012cvr

The exceptional cello work of Okkyung Lee is well represented on Ghil (IDEOLOGIC ORGAN SOMA012), an album of solo pieces recorded in Norway by Lasse Marhaug in 2012. Although we’ve had some of her earlier records pass this way before – for instance, her duet with Phil Minton Anicca (Dancing Wayang) and her contribution to the four-way improv-noise thing Cold/Burn – this particular release is the one that has really struck home with this listener. I feel we’re getting a raw dose of Okkyung Lee, her ideas and her performance as she would wish, beaming in with zero interference. She’s a well-respected collaborator with some of the Kings and Queens in the improvising world, but perhaps her skills are best appreciated in a solo setting, because she’s doing things on this record that few musicians could possibly keep up with. I don’t just mean the speed of her thinking and execution (although admittedly her fingers do work with the implacable precision of an industrial sewing machine on some tracks), but there’s something about the inventive, wild leaps of logic which her creative spirit has ordained. Down these strange paths a Korean must go, seems to be the motto driving her music, and without doubt she’s skilled enough to execute every command from her inner Colonel Kurtz, no matter how extreme or ludicrous. At one level, there’s just much to enjoy in her sound, which is completely unique – I can think of few acoustic players who have arrived at such a distinctive and out-there sound as Okkyung Lee, where she’s not afraid to stretch the instrument to the limits of possibilities and yet she still somehow remains true to the genuine voice of the cello. There used to be improvising guitarists who hated the guitar so much that they would set out in their playing to undermine the characteristics of what they regarded, in their ideological way, as a “loaded” instrument. Lee has no such agenda. The bold and wild sounds she’s reaching for are necessary, natural, and when heard can tend to show us new possibilities, and expand the mental horizons of the listener.

Then of course there’s her multiple techniques; it would be instructive, I’m sure, to see her playing in the room; conventional classical cellists would faint dead away at the sight, and conductors would be eating their own batons with cream cheese. What is Okkyung Lee doing with her fingers and hands to produce these crazy “tearing” sounds, as though the strings of her cello were like elasticated tendons embedded in the calves of a cadaver, and she’s the surgeon trying to extract them…how does she generate those gorgeous harmonics that vibrate in sympathy and provide subtle drone effects to accompany her intense sawing actions…how does she arrive at this unique twilight area between music and noise, as though she’s a spirit able to exist in the air and the water at the same time..? 1 It’s mightily impressive, but nowhere do I get the sense she’s showing off her advanced techniques for their own sake, and it’s all in the service of beautiful music, somewhat melancholy, complex to the point of neurosis and also utterly simple, blessed with poetic titles such as ‘The Space Beneath my Grey Heart’ or ‘Hollow Water’, alluding to mysterious states of mind and wonders of nature. It remains to mention the sound of the recording on this release, which is simultaneously intimate and vivid yet also slightly limited and with the occasional dying fall, as though the aural perspective were being flattened out. This is deliberate; Marhaug used a 1976 cassette recorder for the sessions, experimented with less-than-conventional microphone placement, and did it in a range of locations around Norway (including some outdoor sites). He explicitly states that he wished to record Okkyung Lee’s music “in an expressionistic way” and likens his decision to using black-and-white photography. Fellow NYC-dweller C. Spencer Yeh provided the cover photograph, and Stephen O’Malley overprinted this image with one of his characteristic grids printed in clear ink. A beautiful LP. Now I need to investigate her 2008 solo LP for Ecstatic Peace…

  1. This takes the cake for the most laboured sentence I’ve ever constructed. Sorry about that.

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