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In Extremis

Two To Your Right, Five To Your Left: Okkyung Lee Interviewed
Adam Potts , March 26th, 2015 14:42

Before she plays the Southbank Centre tonight, the experimental cellist talks to Adam Potts about the evolution of her highly physicalised style of playing and refiguring her instrument as a noise-making tool

Photograph courtesy of Nathan Thomas at Fluid Radio

'Two To Your Right, Five To Your Left' is not only a track title from Okkyung Lee's 2013 record Ghil, but it might just be where to find her music. A cellist from Korea who began her music-making from a traditional musical background, Lee became interested in improvisation and has since gained an international reputation as key player in the scene. Rather than leaving her traditional roots behind, Lee instead draws on them to make music that is off-centre; her sound is as tense and strained as it is free and easy. It moves effortlessly from the stretching, pulling and straining of strings to ethereal sounds rising and fading like smoke wisps, a sound that resonates from the gap between two discourses, resisting both 'traditional' musical territories and the idiom of 'free improvisation'. This unique approach, explored via tireless collaborations with the likes of Chris Corsano, Evan Parker, Peter Evans, Christian Marclay, Lisa Ullén, Lasse Marhaug, and C. Spencer Yeh, and solo efforts, including Nihm (2005), I Saw The Ghost Of An Unknown Soul And It Said (2008), Noisy Love Songs (2010) and Ghil, has proven Lee as one of the most exciting and challenging figures in contemporary improvisation and performance. Before a performance with Mark Fell at the Southbank Centre tonight, we caught up with Lee to chat about her unique brand of noise making.

Before moving to Boston in the 90s, you were involved in more traditional, classical composition. Was your move in part to escape this tradition and explore more experimental ground? Or did this interest come later?

Okkyung Lee: Oh, while growing up in Korea, I never even heard of the term 'experimental'. I moved to Boston in 1993 after finishing Seoul Arts High School and was just sick and tired of the strict teaching style which is still the norm in Korea. I started playing the piano when I was three then changed to cello at six, and my cello teacher and I never really got along and I just dreaded the whole thing throughout my childhood and adolescence. Meanwhile in middle school and high school, I lived on my own in Seoul because my hometown was about two hours away, which allowed me to watch lots of movies. One of my obsessions was the movie Tequila Sunrise directed by Robert Towne (who wrote Chinatown!) with music by Dave Grusin that had lots of saxophone, which meant "jazz" to me. Basically, I didn't know anything other than classical music until starting at Berklee College of Music in Boston. At the beginning I had no idea even who Miles Davis or John Coltrane were, but when I heard other students and teachers talk about them, I'd run to Tower Records, which was just around the corner, and buy a bunch of their CDs. I did my best to 'like' or 'get' it. That surely took me a while but gradually I got into it. I think it was during my second semester. Many people were super excited that Ornette Coleman was giving a concert at Berklee so I bought a ticket without knowing anything about him. I was probably one of the few who didn't give him a standing ovation. I just didn't get it then!

I think the 'experimental' thing didn't come to me until I went to New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in 1998 to do a master's degree in contemporary improvisation. Well, I guess I was 'experimenting' with my cello by enrolling on an improvisation course in the first place but I never really went any further than altering the tuning to the occasional detuning. But I think a very physical way of playing came out through those two years. It was only after moving to New York in 2000 that my playing went to a whole different level, because I started to play with so many amazing musicians coming from very different backgrounds.

What's so interesting about your music is that there are ghosts of this traditional background in what you do. The cello is such a beautiful instrument and one that is not typically used for noise-making - can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with the cello and how you feel it works as an instrument for making dissonant and noisy sounds?

OL: I guess I'm interested in pushing the boundaries of the cello without giving up on the idea of playing the cello, if that makes any sense. I have no real interest in putting the cello through different effects to make it sound like a guitar or other instruments. I started to play noise on my cello because I felt a deep personal connection to it. I mean, I still love all the beautiful sounds of the cello as much as anybody but it's only when I play certain sounds I know that the cello really presents who I am; not my emotions but who I am as a person. I also just get so ecstatic hearing and feeling the noise in general and it still makes me giggle inside playing certain sounds. One of the downsides is that in order to produce certain sounds, I'm totally using my arms the wrong way and sometimes that worries me. But then that physical strain puts me in a different state of mind to bring out different dimensions in the music, I suppose. 

You quickly found yourself part of the New York downtown scene after leaving Boston. Your first solo effort, Nihm, was released on John Zorn's label Tzadik. How much of an influence was this scene on your music?

OL: I didn't know anything about the so-called New York downtown scene until early 2000. Trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas came to the New England Conservatory of Music where I was doing my master's to give workshops. I was playing in one of the ensembles there. I could really relate to the mix of classical, jazz and "free improvisation" in his music, so I started to listen to other musicians' music who were involved with Dave and John Zorn was one of them. Then when I went down to New York to go to his concert at Tonic in Lower East Side, I realised that there was an actual community down there which was super exciting, because it felt very close to what I wanted to do. I was never interested in labelling what I did and down in New York, nobody seemed to care either! So after I moved to New York, I went to concerts almost every night at Tonic and soaked up everything and met all those amazing musicians which was really fortunate.

Ghil is a very raw and exciting piece of music. It was recorded on a portable tape machine by Norwegian noise musician Lasse Marhaug. Can you tell us about this recording process?

OL: All of my solo records were completely improvised. The recordings on Tzadik have improvisations but mostly within written or structured frames. I really have to point out that Ghil is Lasse's record as much as mine. He initiated the recording and I gave him 100 per cent of my trust because he's a great friend of mine who happens to be an amazing musician. I only played my cello how I would've played normally and the only difference was that I'd normally play a 30-35 minute-long piece in concerts but for this record, I played mainly short pieces. Lasse then chose which ones to include on the record. That's why he's the producer of the album, not me. The only challenge I had was that I sometimes was asked to play outside which was not the most comfortable situation. When we decided to go to my friend, and experimental film artist, Greg Pope's cabin up on a hill in Nesodden, just outside Oslo, to record, I walked up on the hill for quite some time with my cello on my back while gigantic mosquitoes were attacking - only - me. Then by the time we got up there I was so annoyed and frustrated, probably you can hear all of that in the music! There, I played what I was feeling! Then after 20 minutes, we rushed down to catch a bus, then a ferry back to Oslo only to set up in a parking lot outside nyMusikk office to record another track. But other than that, it was very easy and simple. I think it was a lot harder for Lasse to listen to the tracks over and over and over to make selections. I didn't have any input in how it was recorded since a) I trusted him completely and b) I just don't know shit about recording. Then as a pure coincidence, Stephen O'Malley asked me to do a solo record for his label a couple of months later so it worked out rather perfectly.

Collaboration is a big part of what you do. Most recently you worked with Lasse again, and also C. Spencer Yeh, for the record Wake Up Awesome. Is there something in particular you look for when choosing who to collaborate with? What excites you when listening to and playing with other musicians?

OL: Well, I'd say that I'm mostly drawn to people who are genuine and willing to take a step to the unknown. So when I play with these people, usually there's this sense of that 'yes, we are doing it together right at this moment without any agenda' feeling which is so exciting! It means that there is this sense of trust, that whatever I throw in the music that's happening, they will make it work and send something to work with in my direction. Hopefully they feel the same about me. Also, I just listened to the duo of John Butcher and Andy Moore at Cafe OTO. These two were not relying on any stylised vocabularies of 'free improvisation' but really jumped into the moment to make music, drawing on everything they had in them. Experiencing music that's so alive and adventurous, especially in a live situation, totally fills me with a sense of affirmation in music and life.

You have already mentioned the physical strain involved in your playing - even the bow ends up in shreds when you play! I have also seen you meander through the crowd with your cello and bow. Can you tell us a little more about these performances?

OL: The very first time I moved around while playing was when I was invited to play at the ISSUE Project Room in downtown Brooklyn back in 2011, before they had moved to their current location officially, and the space had this really crazy acoustic. I also wanted to work with my amazing dancer/choreographer friend Michelle Boulé. So playing with the acoustic of the space and Michelle's movements, it just came naturally that I should move. Also I had been sick of the 'typical' concert setting and wanted to break the boundaries between the audience and me by pushing people out of their comfort zone. Since then I've been exploring that more and more in different situations, particularly in my solo sets and work with Michelle.

Your first two releases on Tzadik were part of the Oracles, series which celebrates the creativity and diversity of women in experimental music. I know this is something you are very passionate about, so can you tell us your thoughts on the position of women in the experimental scene?

OL: Oh, gosh, I can go on and on about this for hours! Well, I can sum it up by telling you a story. It happened in London after I played at the Freedom Of The City festival for the first time with two male musicians. Afterwards, I happened to read a 'review' of it somewhere online in which it went on about how amazing the other two musicians were. Then the reviewer, who I can safely assume was male, mentioned me at the end by saying 'meanwhile the cello player looked so unhappy on the stage, although I just couldn't understand how she could be miserable playing such exciting music' or something like that. That was the only thing he wrote about me. So there you go. That's what I have to deal with in so many situations. Enough times it comes out as 'harmless' or even 'positive' sexist remarks but still with the same demeaning effect, such as describing everything I play as somehow related to my 'moods' or 'emotions' or an expectation of me to be 'nice' in person. I guess it's even more shocking when it comes from other female musicians or audience members. I guess it simply reflects the society we live in unfortunately. We are still ridden with all the gender stereotypes and expectations and there isn't any simple solution. The only thing I can do is to keep making music that's true to myself while continuing to bring this issue up on the table whenever I get a chance. Also, whenever I curate or programme concerts, I always try to present many great female musicians. But we all need to work on this together.

What's next for you?

OL: I really want to start a band with a couple of Korean traditional musicians writing music that's connected to that heritage. It's something I've been thinking about for a long while and finally I found this fabulous Pansori singer named Song-Hee Kwon to work with. I have a six-week-long residency at Civitella Ranieri in Umbria, Italy this summer. I'm giving a workshop on improvisation at Mètèo festival in Mulhouse later in August on top of playing three different sets. I'm planning on a four-day residency at Cafe OTO in September that will include many new collaborators, such as Mark Fell and Rhodri Davies. I'm currently involved in bringing music to the DMZ area working with Artsonje Center in Seoul, Korea. Oh, and I'm opening for Swans in May for three weeks. It'll be my first time going on that kind of tour on a real tour bus! And I just turned 40 this month. Woo hoo!

Okkyung Lee will be performing with Mark Fell as part of the Harmonic Series at the Southbank Centre in London tonight; for full details and tickets, head here

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