Interview: Okkyung Lee

Photo by Xavier Veilhan

Movement and vigour. As a performer, Okkyung Lee is seldom still. Her improvisations seem to manifest from the agitation of body and material: the convulsing body of the artist, the swaying body of the cello, the scraping bow against the string. It’s an urgent, two-handed throttling of the present tense; a transient action that does its utmost to leave a permanent mark upon space, upon time and upon the listener.

As a touring artist, Okkyung is always moving too. In the past couple of months she’s taken part in a recording project at the Venice Biennale; performed solo at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart; collaborated with electroacoustic ensemble MAZE in Amsterdam. Next month she’ll be performing at Berlin’s A L’ARME Festival in a quadrophonic collaboration alongside Chris Corsano, Christine Abdelnour and Magda Mayas. Below, Okkyung and I discuss her relationship with the cello, her experiences with quadrophonic performances and her time at the Biennale. Photo by Xavier Veilhan.

I’ve been running back over your recent activities/performances in preparation for this interview, and I’ve been blown away by the amount you’ve managed to pack into 2017 already: festivals in Russia, Norway and Sweden, a mini tour in Australia, a solo set at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, a collaboration with Rashad Becker in Berlin…how has the first half of the year been for you?

Haha – it’s been super fun, although I feel like my schedule’s been like that for the last few years, which I’m more than grateful for. I was hoping to have more time to practice while at this fantastic residency – Akademie Schloss Solitude just outside stuttgart – but after the first month, which was this April, I haven’t been too successful. But I’m based there until the end of September, so maybe I will get more practising done…

On top of all that, I understand that you’re at the Venice Biennale at the minute. The project sounds incredible. How have you found the experience so far? What’s the French Pavilion like as a place to perform?

Yes! I just did four days of recording sessions at this fantastic French Pavilion built by this amazing artist Xavier Veilhan. Also, having such a great engineer such as Tibo Javoy, along with wonderful people working there, really made the whole experience such a pleasure. To be honest I really didn’t know what to expect going into it but once I was in the space, I was so inspired by it; the space is just absolutely gorgeous and sounded amazing. I got to use the piano, vibraphones, cristal baschet (look it up – it’s a cool instrument i didn’t know about!), Moog, harpsichord, Vermona analog synth and of course the cello. It was not a performance but really a recording session which happened to be open to public. It was kind of amazing that I ended up playing all these new instruments and working on new pieces right in front of people yet felt totally free. I have to mention how grateful I am to Christian Marclay who brought me into this exciting adventure. My very first European gig was at the Venice Biennale with Butch Morris in 2003, so the city always will have a special place in my heart…

Was that enough name dropping for you.? Haha, yikes…

You’re soon to be playing A L’ARME Festival in a quadraphonic performance alongside drummer Chris Corsano, pianist Magda Mayas and (saxophonist) Christine Abdelnour. Have you ever played in a quadraphonic setting before, and do you expect that there will be any challenges or opportunities presented by this aspect of the performance?

I’ve done quadraphonic pieces mostly using pre-composed/recorded sounds. I just did a piece at Borealis Festival in Bergen, Norway in March this year, where I used four channels with the sounds of the end pin of my cello. Also at the same festival, I made a piece titled “still hoping for a miracle…?” with four musicians – Angharad Davies, Rhodri Davies, Chris Corsano and myself – sitting on each corner of the space, which was an essentially quadraphonic setting. I’m not sure how this will work at A L’ARME knowing the room where we will be playing, but surely it will be an interesting challenge to have that thrown into the mix. But playing with these three musicians will be surely exciting, and the bottom line is that it’s really all about your ears and staying open to let things happen and responding the best way you can.

I see that you’ve played with Chris and Magda before. Have these previous experiences led you to accrue any expectations as to how the show might pan out?

Not at all actually. I try not to have any preconceived idea of what might happen, especially for improvised music. All I know is that they are all wonderful musicians and human beings.

You’ve been working with the cello for many years now. I’ve spoken to other musicians who have worked with the same instrument for a long period of time, and often they talk about how their relationship with it has undergone and ebb and flow; some days they’re thoroughly enthused by their instrument, other days the inspiration runs dry. Have you found this as well? How do you feel about your relationship with the cello at the minute?

Um, I’ve been playing the cello for 36 years already. Haha. Of course it has to go through the ebb and flow. For the first 19 years I didn’t want to play it at all. I still do love playing my cello but not because it’s a cello, if you know what I mean. Once in a while I think about stopping playing when I feel like my playing is just not that interesting and redundant, but that usually doesn’t last for more than a couple of days. I think it’s most likely that I’ll be playing the cello until very very late in my life.

I’d love to know more about the instrument itself. How long have you owned the cello you have currently? Have you found that your approach to performance is informed by the characteristics of the particular cello that you’re using?

This cello is quite an old French cello that was brought to me when I was 12 years old. I was in a serious music and art school in Seoul, which meant I needed a decent cello. A friend of my father was delegated to buy an instrument while he was on a business trip to New York. When it was bought, it hadn’t been played for a while and was not in a good shape with lots of big and small flaws – however, with some serious repairs and after being played for a few years, it really started to speak quite beautifully.

I have to point out that also my playing is influenced quite a lot by my bowing techniques as well. Also experimenting with different hair on the bow changed lots of sounds I could create. Then on top of that, having a great pick up such as Schertler really broadened my palette. However i’ll never use pedals – i just went through an overdrive pedal at the French Pavilion just for fun and my feeling was that I really didn’t need it that much.

Of course, all of my so-called techniques are developed based on how my cello responds. I’m just glad that, considering how rough I can be with it, it’s been quite resilient (knock, knock) except a couple of accidents and what-not over recent years.

In an interview with The Quietus, you talked about how moving to New York was key in your development as a player, as you started to perform with a wider array of musicians. Were there any particular performers or performances that led you to re-evaluate about your approach to playing?

With some people, I was just pushed to do something different or go little bit further than before. I think especially playing with electronic musicians or drummers really got me think more about different sounds than so-called cello sounds. Then also playing with so many different people and not wanting to repeat myself too much was helpful in terms of developing different approaches. I cannot say there was any particular person shaped my playing, but more like my ears got more refined.

What records have you been listening to lately?

I’ve been listening to Glenn Gould almost nonstop for last three months, haha. I still get so excited over all those small phrases he played so exquisitely. It’s really incredible. I’d go through listening to work by one composer intensely then nothing for a while. Today is Ligeti.

What else is coming up for you and your music?

Last October I was commissioned for Donaueschingen music festival in Germany through SWR2 to compose a piece which turned into a suite titled “Cheol-Kkot-Sae (Steel Flower Bird)”. It was performed by five improvisers (John Butcher, John Edwards, Lasse Marhaug, Ches Smith and myself) with two traditional Korean musicians (Song-Hee Kwon and Jae-Hyo Chang), which had been a dream for me to bring those elements together. The live recording of that piece will be coming out on Tzadik later this year. I also have a new solo piece to be performed at National Sawdust in Williamsburg at the end of July as a part of the Stone Commissioning Series. These days I’m dreaming of making some kind of a special costume for solo performances along with a new videos. I have to dream up stuff to do beyond just playing the cello – not that there’s anything wrong with that.