I’ve always loved the Cello. Not that I’m a connoisseur of Classical music or anything, but there’s a dark, moody and romantic quality about the instrument which has always appealed to me. Its guttural, groaning and percussive sounds can be amazing. See the soundtrack to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho if you want to know what I mean.
But I have never heard the Cello being played like this. Okkyung Lee completely warps your preconceived ideas with a playful desire to explore the instrument’s unknown sonic frontiers. Across nine improvisations Lee scratches, stabs, scrapes and bows an astonishing array of noises out of her wooden muse. On the Crow Flew After Yi Sang she kicks off with frenetic energy, veering wildly up and down the fret board striking notes at whim and signs off six minutes later droning gently on a single note. On Two to Your Right, Five to Your Left she channels Primus’s Mr Crinkle with a circular low-end rumble that eventually disintegrates into croaky, rusted bed springs. Later on, in the closing moments of Meolly Ganeun a distortion pedal allows Lee to make her Cello sound like the sweat fuelled madness of a Lightning Bolt gig (minus the drums).
How the fuck does a Cello traverse this sort of terrain? There are moments on here that rival some of the damaged noisegasms of artists playing far less conventional instruments. It’s awesome.
At the risk of taking away from Lee’s talent, part of the record’s charm is the smart and eccentric production of Norwegian noise-monger Lasse Marhaug. He recorded Lee jamming the fuck out in a variety of locations, using a 1970’s cassette recorder and some meticulously placed microphones. The result is a series of recordings that amplify the Cello’s intricacies and give the feeling that you’re in the room, right beside her. You can actually hear her bow on the strings, sound vibrating within the instrument’s hollow body, her fingers sliding along its neck and scraping along its strings. Despite the madness and abandon of her improvisations, the overall vibe is warm and full of life.
Okkyung Lee has more than 20 releases to her name but I’m ashamed to say that this is the first time I’ve heard of her. She has a back catalogue of collaborations with an astonishing list of music’s experimental adventurers, that will definitely be worth checking out.