REVIEW: Okkyung Lee / Marhaug / Davies / O'Malley at Cafe Oto

Okkyung Lee, Lasse Marhaug, Rhodri Davies at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2015. All Rights Reserved

Okkyung Lee with Lasse Marhaug, Rhodri Davies and Stephen O'Malley
(Cafe Oto, 29th October 2015; night one of Okkyung Lee's 4-day residency; review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

New York-based cellist Okkyung Lee, originally classically trained in South Korea, has built her reputation on innovative, rigorous improvising performances and composition, and on her refreshingly open approach to collaborative ventures with like-minded musicians. The way she can subtly transform performance spaces to become an integral part of her art adds another dimension to the live experience.

For the first night of her Cafe Oto residency she cleared all the chairs from the central area to create a circular space, which the audience both surrounded and colonised, to heighten the immediacy of her first set trio with fiery electronics from Lasse Marhaug and the electrifying harp of Rhodri Davies. Her intense, measured, second set duo with guitarist Stephen O'Malley, performed in virtual darkness, had each musician positioned at points east and west in the midst of the floor-seated listeners.

From incremental, amplified touches on Lee's cello strings the trio's combined force eschewed further graceful build up and piled straight in to a shredded, slithering onslaught, with something of Led Zep's power rhythm without the tunes. Marhaug's raw electro-collage underpinned Lee's emotional, slewing cello attack and wailing seagull feedback squalls coaxed out of Davies's custom triangular harp with overtones of Jimmy Page on a roll - a giant step from the micro-audio often associated with Davies!

The trio pulverised the tempo, drove in to a dense groove which Lee determinedly bowed them out of, to lead in to a wave of thundering, grinding distortion. A stream of urgent distress signals and crashing percussive interjections were arrested in dense, claustrophobic space - airliners held in a queue waiting to land - only to be thrown back to meet juddering turbulence where notes were bent, ground and pneumatically drilled - a lava flow meeting mechanical dystopia in a rag and bone junkyard - to be dissipated with the pristine clarity of Lee's singly struck strings.

Stephen O'Malley and Okkyung Lee perform in low-lit darkness at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2015. All Rights Reserved 

After Lee's light banter about her new, shiny silver shoes - "I'm desperate for any kind of attention!", the intimacy of the ambience created by the absence of illumination for the Lee-O'Malley duet cast a spell over their telepathic interaction across the floor. O'Malley, not so the typecast doomster, ploughed a nuanced, echoey, repetitive furrow, a confidently firm base for Lee's expressive explorations, in turns sliding and splattering the notes, hauling them in with pinball punches. The duo shared crunching chords, sweeps, swoops and deep calls, and zoned in on a hive of amplified insect activity which might have been echoing in a benign, underground cavern, finally to draw to a close on intense soaring unison.

Lee is a uniquely strong talent and intelligence in the demanding world of improvisation (see also her concert in Christian Marclay's series earlier this year – link below) and invariably brings something extra to each performance to which her well-chosen collaborators (and for this concert, a truly multinational group, hailing from Norway, Wales and the USA) are so well attuned to respond. I was only sorry not to be able to attend the other three nights of her residency.

LINK: Review from March 2015 - Okkyung Lee in the Christian Marclay series at White Cube

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