Okkyung Lee is a cellist known for her intense, piercing style, heard in both her electrifying solo work and in her collaborations with many of the giants of improvised and experimental music. Besides being a critically-acclaimed visual and media artist, Christian Marclay makes music using vinyl records, mixing and manipulating them with the skills of a scratch DJ and an ear for experimental noise. The pair have been performing together for a number of years, and “Amalgam” documents their set at London’s Café Oto in April 2014.
The sounds produced by Marclay include fragments of distorted piano, bright saxophones, atmospheric double bass, and echoing gongs or chimes, buried in amongst a cacophony of squealing and crackling noise. When Lee saws and scratches at the high end of her instrument’s register, it’s often difficult to tell her cello apart from Marclay’s distortion. But the two performers blend their sounds in other ways as well: at one point a recorded cello is heard tuning up, and is joined by and merges ambiguously with the live cello; later, a bass reed instrument and cello play call-and-response. No equilibrium lasts for long, with Lee often diving deep into the depths for some woody bass growls, or quietly keening over Marclay’s rumble and whistle, before leading him back into the maelstrom of noise.
Energy, density, intensity: these are qualities that “Amalgam” has in spades. But also evident in the way Lee and Marclay weave their sounds together is careful listening and keen intelligence. Each knows when to give way to the other and when to respond in kind, when to lead and when to follow; their mutual trust, without a hint of competitiveness or duelling, permits an inventiveness and a fluidity lacked by many other duos. This is intensity with a purpose, energy directed towards the goal of arriving together at a certain sound — a sound that is always in the process of sounding, and thus a continual arriving. The beautiful quiet bowing and flute-like melody that ends the recording is the prelude to the next surge of noise.