Live at Café Oto
Okkyung Lee has hardly been resting on her laurels since 2013’s critically-acclaimed album “Ghil”. Her four-night residency at London’s Café Oto is a case in point: in addition to improvised sets with long-term co-conspirators such as Christian Marclay and Lasse Marhaug, the run also saw the cellist début collaborations with Bill Orcutt, Rhodri Davies, and Stephen O’Malley, score a new piece for string quartet, and perform with reverb for the first time. Her solo set on the Friday night showcased all the signature devices of “Ghil” — swarming bees, palm-muted rattles, rhythmic stabs, and furious thunder; however, she showed greater willingness to hover around the quieter and more melodic end of her range than when I last saw her two years ago. Lee is an undisputed master of noise, but for her charting the vast and hazardous territories of silence is still fraught with a productive danger, and her explorations here are opening up new ideas and new possibilities for her music.
Lee’s duo with Sheffield laptop guru Mark Fell was perhaps the most intriguing-looking collaboration on an intriguing bill. Fell is better known as a crafter of stripped-down leftfield electronica for labels such as Raster Noton and Editions Mego than as a noisemaker or improvising performer, but it’s often the less obvious pairings that tend to bring out the best in both, and such was the case here. Their first set began with thudding, off-kilter beats from Fell, with Lee’s cello prowling and circling the deep like a shark. When Fell’s beats thickened, Lee sensibly went high, producing a grating, powdery whine. Although seemingly brick-wall flat at first hearing, Fells’ beats turned out to be remarkably well-formed, with subtle tunings and harmonics adding grace to their stuttering patterns; he later introduced a very beautiful bell-like ring. When he pushed to go louder, however, Lee resisted taking the safer route, instead bringing her contribution right down and allowing the dizzying electronic clatter to take over.
In their second set, Fell swapped beats for ambient chords, again teasing Lee to go faster and louder by increasing the oscillation rate of his glassy drone. Again the cellist declined to play it safe, gently scrunching her bow against the strings to release tiny pinpricks of sound, like light rain on a corrugated plastic roof, amazingly tense and beautiful, a sort of silent noise. Boom. After an age of hush, Fell upped the oscillation of his chord, and this time Lee went with him, both ending in a pounding, obliterating shriek that pushed past the boundaries of standard free-improv clamour into something even more rarefied and direct. Two extremes, equal in energy, intensity, and affect, demonstrating the remarkable talents of the two musicians.