Korean-born cellist Okkyung Lee has been a mainstay of the New York and international improvisation scene for several years, with a string of high-profile collaborations and acclaimed solo albums to her name...
Although she is the only performer on “Ghil”, she worked closely with Norwegian artist Lasse Marhaug to create the album: Marhaug it was who selected the various locations used for recording, from a back alley in the centre of Oslo to a former hydroelectric plant in the mountains, and who chose to use the cheap vintage tape recorder and unorthodox microphone positioning that give the release its distinctive low-fidelity sound. Each track is wholly improvised, with no overdubs; Marhaug often cuts the recording off with Lee still in full flow, such that the only audible indication of a change of track is a shift in patterns of reverberation as one location is replaced by another.
Had that hydroelectric plant still been in use, it might have supplied a useful metaphor for the torrent of noise that gushes from Lee’s cello, an energetic and energising kinetic force. Directing such a force and turning it into useful work, as a physicist might put it, requires a monumental degree of control. Lee keeps the intensity ramped up across a full dynamic range, to the extent that her music never really quietens, but rather withdraws while increasing in density; the most violent moments never quite lose the sense of someone playing an instrument, albeit in a state of extreme agitation. The variety of timbres is the most immediately striking thing: the distinct sounds of wood, wire, and hair make themselves heard in a seemingly endless array of dialects, each bare footstep on floorboards eliciting a different creak, each scratch and ring with its own accent. I could make reference to a cacophonous rainforest bursting with lifeforms, or a construction site teeming with a diversity of noise-making machines, were it not for the feeling that “Ghil” has little need for such metaphors, or indeed any kind of representational framework, standing alone as an impossible self-contained event, the way a bomb going off just happens. Maybe it was a good thing that hydroelectric plant was decommissioned.
But since I don’t believe in impossible self-contained events, let me beat a retreat in the direction of the overly general and suggest that “Ghil” has a way of presenting itself as all surface, object-like, in the manner of a brick or a blank cube or a wall, covering its own tracks with an excess of there-ness. A there-ness that “baffles everything around it with its radiant, barbed identity”, to borrow philosopher Timothy Morton’s phrase — as if asking what lies inside it, behind the curtain, would be to miss an absolute and radical openness. I don’t need to ponder how “Ghil” makes me feel: it just is feeling, a direct, multi-megaWatt current of it. If you don’t believe me, try plugging yourself in.
Okkyung Lee will be playing solo and in a duo with Charles Hayward at London’s Café OTO on Wednesday 14th August – see the OTO web site for details.