Out of Darkness

Superb new solo record Na-Reul (CORBETT VS. DEMPSEY CD082) from the great Okkyung Lee, unique Korean cellist performer and composer.

The year 2020 was not great for any of us in the human race, but Lee found herself in a particularly dark place, suffering personal losses and traumas and undergoing bouts of deep depression and cynicism, all of which she admits to freely in the attached press notes…summing it all up with the stark observation “the year 2020 was horrendous”. Thankfully she found a means of self-expression through her art, when she came back to New York City and received a commission to make this record; and it seems to have acted as a trigger, a catalyst, to release her emotions. Further, it was therapeutic; after a bout of doubting her own artistic abilities and even finding her own music empty and joyless, she was surprised and delighted to find that “crystal-clear musical ideas” started to appear during the recording sessions.

Evidently the making of Na-Reul (subtitled here as Black Cross Solos Sessions 3) has been a turbulent and cathartic experience for its creator, but she has sublimated it into powerful and beautiful music. This kind of transformation is, for me, the essence of true art. This isn’t to say Na-Reul is a comforting listen, and indeed it contains many moments where the turbulent state of Okkyung Lee’s soul and emotional state is made plain, through very extreme cello-playing – including one of her trademarks, the “ripping” sound as if stretching the strings like the tendons and ligaments of a human limb, and startling percussive effects as she strikes the bow against the body of the instrument in highly unorthodox manner. There are moments of melodic beauty too, melancholic and astringent tunes full of pain and longing. As ever, there is ample evidence that she is one of these rare musicians who is not afraid of very direct communication, expressing her thoughts and feelings with very few barriers interfering in the process; and she will elect to undertake this difficult task even at personal expense to herself.

This LP thus equals and perhaps even surpasses the Ghil LP from 2013, for me a benchmark in clarity and honesty in performance; it’s also probably that shade more approachable, with additional accessible melodic moments to help create a contact with the listener, forge a relationship that makes this such a compelling record, one that you will play all the way through as if engaging in a conversation. The process seems to have worked for Okkyung Lee, as she reports that “the future might not be looking rosy yet, but I feel out of the woods emotionally at least”. Essential. From 4th May 2021.

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