Review: Okkyung Lee (Cafe Oto and Vortex)

Okkyung Lee, Steve Beresford, John Butcher and Christian Marclay
(Cafe Oto, Saturday 21 May 2011)
Okkyung Lee, Phil Minton and Mark Sanders with Steve Noble and Alex Ward (Vortex, Sunday 22 May 2011). Reviews and drawings* by Geoff Winston


This was Okkyung Lee's Dalston weekend. The New York-based Korean cellist showcased her formidable talent with a mature confidence in two different contexts, alongside musicians drawn from the cream of the free-improv scene.

First she was heard in a quartet that has performed together once a year at Cafe Oto for the past three years - Christian Marclay, a frequent collaborator, Steve Beresford and John Butcher; and at the Vortex, coinciding with the launch of her studio album with Phil Minton - 'Anicca' (Dancing Wayang, vinyl only) - playing with him in public for the first time, joined also by Mark Sanders.

Lee is an improviser of acute sensibility, and in the range of her execution and interplay she gave the lie to her frequent casting as a dark, brooding, noise-oriented player. To each of the ensembles she brought a refreshing energy and clarity of musical vision, rooted in her classical background which she sensuously exploits in combinations of contrasting abstract and conventional techniques. She was, in this formidable company, both catalyst and complement.

At Cafe Oto each musician was pushed to the limit in duets and with the full quartet. Marclay was at his most intensely oblique, treating his turntables and array of LPs as one instrument to extrude peripheral glitches and dense washes of sound. Crackles and echoes coalesced in dramatic style, with glimpsed recordings of orchestral strings and florid piano providing uncanny juxtapositions with Lee's drawn, stretched and anguished cello.

Beresford, at one with his armoury of multifarious tabletop gizmos contributed elastic chameleon changes to the panorama - a fairground organ's chimes, springy bloops out of the 60s, a chunky hip-hop beat, interference, a distant radio signal. Butcher parped, lightly gargled through his soprano sax, tapped the mouthpiece and the keypads of his tenor and took his part in a melee of high-pitched cicada-like activity.

Marclay, in response to the heat generated, picked up two LPs and waved them, fan-like by Butcher to create a breeze and a rare moment of laughter, before all four joined in clattering rhythmic dialogue and a tense passage of delicate creaks, odd signals, scrapes, chimes and washes, ending with a final hovering breath.



At the Vortex, a stirring, focussed set from Alex Ward and Steve Noble set the tone for Lee's trio. Ward wrenched out the notes and flew all over the registers, forcing squealing echoes from a separated mouthpiece; Noble, in his element, slick, then bumping and grinding, changing mallets to utilise unconventional interfaces of materials, a constant dynamo.

Playing seated, the Lee/Minton/Sanders trio eschewed stillness, their two-number set a statement encompassing the underplayed, the distant, the underheard, with the visceral and the hauntingly immediate. Minton is about exertion, and the forging of languages - animal, human, the almost human - a vocal shaman, a sounding board for the emotions and the troubled landscape of the times. Lee caressed the body of the cello with fingers and hands, applied her bow in sweeps and light vibrating bounces, darted up and down the fingerboard, responding in kind to Minton's whistlings, gulps, intakes of breath, whooshes, muted cries and whispers. Sanders was inspired, intensely alert and engaged. He tinged tiny bells, pattered brushes, and found needle thin sticks to drag over the skins, ceaselessly filling out the rhythms with obscure percussive accessories, the perfect foil to Lee and Minton.

In a momentous passage they conjured up the ominous approach of an indefinable storm - from the disquiet of barely audible sound, Minton introduced a light breeze from the back of his mouth with Lee lightly rumbling in the deeper registers. Sanders struck a tambourine placed on the large cymbal. The threatening air brooked no relaxion; a natural and terrible vox emerged - sounds which found a coherence in those close to incoherence.

The rapt audience at the Vortex was treated to music deserving of 'sold out' signs, rounding off this short season of precariously balanced chemistry.

Images copyright Geoff Winston 2011. All Rights Reserved.

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