“I make noise…” reads Okkyoung Lee’s twitter bio, and right she is. Lee’s avant-garde, experimental cello improvisation literally shook the structure of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum earlier this May. The performance was in conjunction with Charlotte Moorman’s “A Feast of Astonishments” exhibition, which has inhabited the Block for the past few months.
The two cellists share elements of post-modern style, which includes no restrictions in technique, tone or pitch, but Lee’s nondescript black sweater and jeans departs from the wild, eccentric outfits, or full nudity, of Charlotte Moorman.
Lee also stated that she has more of an international influence, drawing from Korean traditional and popular music as well as Western classical and jazz.
Ghil, her recently released solo album, was produced in collaboration with Norwegian noise musician Lasse Marhaug. Lee trusted Marhaug with complete artistic control of the album’s cut, arrangement and sound edits.
The evening began on the second story stairwell of the Block with a range of guests in attendance, from elderly Evanston residents to tastefully dressed Europeans to a handful of bleary-eyed, midterm-fraught Northwestern students. Lee ceremoniously strut through the gallery’s double doors and assumed her starting position on a plastic chair somewhere between the first and second floors. The crowd quieted as she began with a series of dissonant harmonic notes, progressing to deep carvings into her instrument with long, full bows.
The focus and ferocity with which she played astounded me, and her gaze was often focused on some indeterminate point ahead as her hands lay into the cello. One movement of her improvisation featured continual strokes of the same note, akin to the rhythmic thrums of an airplane propeller. Often, her left hand crawled down the fingerboard to produce higher, more discordant notes as her right hand plucked wildly at the stings, sometimes encroaching on the left hand’s territory. Lee used many techniques popular in contemporary improvisation such as rapping her fingernails against the strings, and making audible strokes and rubbings on the body of her instrument with her non-bow hand.
The performance art portion of the act came when Lee moved to the first floor entrance of the Block. She took a short break to towel off the shower of rosin her cello received while she was furiously bowing, and then she plugged her instrument into a small, portable electric speaker.
At this point, the audience poured out from the second floor and took positions leaning against the stair railings and sitting cross-legged on the floor. Lee grasped her cello by the neck and begin playing while walking towards her seated audience. Anyone who displayed a slight bit of exerted interest, whether with a craned neck or widened eyes, was treated to a cello performance just a few inches from their face.
After completing a full circle of the lobby, Lee continued playing glissando notes past the stairwell, intermittently thwacking the wooden part of her bow against the metal railing, until the thwacks overtook her playing, and the music was overtaken by applause.