okkyung lee
the most beautiful noise on earth

by andreas fellinger
translation anna dobringer




“For me, noise is the most personal,
most individual way of making music” Okkyung Lee states in the
course of an interview, specifying her understanding of noise not as
a continuous surge of volume or the process of playing with din but
as a general idea of sound and sough, an idea of “music that can't
be written down or notated.” It's this non-academic approach
towards music that makes noise so attractive for the academically
trained cellist. “Everybody can produce noise but it's the way they
produce it that makes the big difference.”

When it came to choosing guest
musicians and curating the unlimited festival program, Okkyung Lee
was primarily following these aspects. “and”, she admits
candidly, “some purely egoistic considerations. I also invited
musicians that I myself have been eager to see for some time, since
some colleagues of mine are so enthusiastic about them. Le Quan Ninh
for example or Metamkine or The Doneum Ensemble from Korea.”

À propos Korea: In 1975 Okkyung Lee
was born in the city of Daejeon, South Korea. Her wealthy parents
(her then wealthy parents, she's pointing out) enroll her for cello
classes while she's still a child. In consequence of the almost
paramilitary rigour in class, she becomes more and more unhappy. At
18 she's considering to quit, when her parents suggest that she
should continue her studies in the USA and decide to finance one year
of studies at the jazz institute of the Berklee College of Music in
Boston. She there graduates in composition and film music and
continues successfully studying improvisation at the New England
Conservatory in Boston.

In 2000 Okkyung Lee finally moves to
New York, where she's still living for the most part of the year. A
little aside, not without self-irony: “All losers from Korea leave
the country and go to New York!” She soon makes the acquaintance of
Manhattan's downtown scene, mainly of the community frequenting the
Knitting Factory and – above all – the Tonic. She visits the club
almost every day and is fascinated by the exiting music and the
open-mindedness of it's protagonists. Dave Douglas is the first
musicians she gets to know there, she takes part in the workshop of
the Tiny Bell Trio that's working on Douglas' music. Soon after that
she hears Masada for the first time – and thereby gets to know John
Zorn, who will turn out to be of great importance for her future .
She plays in Zorn's Cobraensembles and later often guests at his cub
The Stone. It's also Zorn who publishes two of Okkyung Lee solo
records on Tzadik Records: “Nihm” (2005) and “Noisy Love Songs”
(2011).

On top of this, she meets people such
as Derek Bailey, Fred Frith, Zeena Parkins, Anthony Coleman, Shelley
Hirsch, Thurston Moore, Laurie Anderson and many more – like, for
example, Butch Morris, who invites her to her first European tour,
starting at the Venice Biennale. She takes part in Morris'
Conductions several times from that point on. In order to keep her
musical diet as varied as possible, she also likes (liked) to
collaborate with pop musicians, working strictly by rule (i.e.
musical notation). “Nowadays I'm not doing this kind of work as
often as I used to” she says, “but I like it, in principle,
because it's all happening in a completely different world.”

Okkyung Lee's current musical
collaborations include musicians such as the turntable visionary
Christian Marclay, C. Spencer Yeh, Peter Evans and Vijay Iyer but
also Evan Parker and Lasse Marhaug who also produced Okkyung's latest
solo album “Ghil”, using very old microphones and tape recorders.
“Lasse came to me one day, saying he wanted to record my music, but
surely not to make a smooth cello-album. And as I trust Lasse
completely, both as a musician and as a person, I agreed of course.”
So Marhaug makes her play in obscure spots across the city of Oslo,
but also outside, somewhere in the open between the green hills that
surround the city. “My friend Stephen O'Malley then published these
recordings on his label (Editions Mego; Ed.).”

Okkyung Lee, who by the way still is a
citizen of Korea, says that over the years she has learned to no
longer accept every single invitation, but to also say no at times.
Since then she knows better what to do and what not to. For example?
“I'm just not a free jazz musician, even if I play with people who
derive from that scene.” Music journalists seem to ask her
strikingly often if by playing her music she reveals her inner self
and exposes her feelings. Okkyung Lee: “No, damn it, for me music
is not at all about emotions. They just ask these things because I'm
a girl. Nobody would ever even think of asking a man a question like
that.” It's obvious, thinking and talking at racing velocity, this
young woman has ants in her pants and seems to bubble over with
energy – and regarding her music, the following statements set the
tone: “I'm not so much interested in the final product but in the
process of it's creation” and “ I just want to try something
different, to break away from what I've done before.”

Conclusion: One may indeed trust
oneself to Okkyung Lee when searching for the most beautiful noise on
this planet.


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andreas fellinger aka felix
publisher of freistil magazine
http://freistil.klingt.org