Café Oto, London
Okkyung Lee arrives in London on the heels of critical acclaim for her record of solo cello improvisations, Ghil. Recorded in Norway with noise artist Lasse Marhaug, it’s an astonishing record, the intensity of Lee’s playing made more visceral by the deliberately crude recording technique (the album was recorded on a second-hand portable tape machine at various sites around Oslo).
Tonight Lee is playing two sets, one solo and one with avant-garde old hand Charles Hayward, he of This Heat, Camberwell Now and latterly About Group. For both sets, Lee is positioned front and centre of Café Oto’s small performance space, almost in the first line of audience seating. A breaking down of the barrier between audience and performer or a demonstration of an artist taking control of her space? This my instrument, my space, she seems to be saying.
The first set is an awesome demonstration of Lee’s singular technique. Keeping the level of intensity high throughout, she often plays with her left hand close to the bridge while the right hand frantically bows, result in continuous, screeching waves of sound. It’s like one of Evan Parker’s circular breathing-fed solos, or late-period Scott Walker blocks of sound, beamed through a beat-up transistor radio.
I’m struck by the electrical quality of Lee’s sound. Her cello is miked, and the amplification removes the warm, organic-sounding qualities of the cello, instead giving it a disembodied, metallic tang. But this also enables Lee to use volume to balance the tempo of the performance, contrasting a full-on attack with sudden, focused lacunae, made up of clicks and squeals as she scrapes the bow along the strings or gently rubs them with her fist.
She is more restrained for her duet with Charles Haywood after the break, while still deploying the intriguing strategies that made her so exciting. Both Lee and Hayward are generous players, listening and responding to what each other is doing, rather than blasting off into their own headspace.
At first, Hayward languidly bangs his toms while Lee deploys short plucked phrases. If they seem to be warily sussing each other out, they soon get going. For most of the session, Hayward plays a kind of a disjointed, deconstructed jazz, laying down spare, limber rhythms which still leave plenty of space for Lee to fill, often with lower frequencies this time around.
At one point, Hayward drops a clomping, tranquilised glam beat and Lee matches it with a queasy, abrasive drone, which, after a minute or so mutates into a series of repeated stabbing cello chords. It’s a discombobulating but utterly absorbing spectacle.
The sustained applause at the end of the performance for both artists is well deserved. With Ghil, Okkyung Lee has set the controls for the outer limits of improvisation. Tonight, Charles Hayward has been a steadfast companion for this latest leg of Lee’s voyage – one that promises to be unsettling, strange and deeply groovy.