For more than a decade, cellist Okkyung Lee has been an integral figure in New York’s experimental music scene. The Korean native moved to Manhattan in 2000 after studying at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and quickly became a fixture at venues such as Tonic and the Stone; she played with the likes of Ikue Mori, Vijay Iyer, and Laurie Anderson and made albums for John Zorn’s Tzadik and Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace.
On her latest release (and second for Tzadik), Noisy Love Songs, she leads an ensemble that includes trumpeter Peter Evans and pianist Craig Taborn; Lee crafts a wordless narrative, shifting seamlessly from subdued reverence to chilling atmospheres to cathartic aggression. Her cello playing is equally capable of melodic subtlety and unfettered abstraction, but it is always grounded in consistent moods and–more than ever before–accessible melodies.
We recently talked to Lee about writing Noisy Love Songs, how New York has changed in the past decade, and her current Artist-in-Residence gig at Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room.
Tell me about writing Noisy Love Songs – did you compose these pieces all in one period of time?
No, it’s actually similar to the first Tzadik album [2005’s Nimh]-it’s a compilation of music written at different times. I don’t write every day-I wish I could! Maybe I could do one measure an hour (laughs). Usually I just write little parts. Sometimes they become a piece, and sometimes they just stay as that.
How did these pieces fit together for you?
They all ended up being rather emotional sounding pieces. I think the reason why you get into music in the first place is that you had some kind of emotional response to it. It’s not just that you like it, but you have a reaction to it, even if it doesn’t have lyrics or something to tell you what it’s about.
Is that what inspired the name of the album?
I actually came up with that name a long time ago. I had a quartet about eight years ago with Alan Licht, Anthony Coleman, and Tim Barnes, and I called what we were doing “noisy love songs.” So I decided it should be an album name someday. When I finished this one, I thought, “Well, these are songs, they’re emotional and they’re kind of love songs. Romantic, in a way.”
I’ve noticed that the album doesn’t have a lot of drum beats. Every song has a strong rhythm, but it usually comes from something other than drums.
Hmm… I don’t think that was a conscious decision. But it is true that I don’t feel perfectly comfortable with drums playing regular beats. I’m getting more comfortable with it, but with more acoustic-based music, when drums play a beat, it tends to get in the way. So I have to think of other ways to make a beat.
I think it’s a challenge for some people, at least rock fans, to listen to music without a drum beat.
Maybe next time I should have optional drum beat! Two choices, you can listen to just the song or the song with a drum beat (laughs).
Like a drum commentary track?
Is there improvisation on every song on this album?
Yes. Well, the first piece [“One Hundred Years Old Rain (The Same River Twice)”] isn’t so much improv as it is layering in different sounds. So it’s not about responding to what others are doing, but more just different sounds layered together.
How do you fit improvisations into written pieces?
I write out forms that explain where to improvise and give them to specific players. These are people I’ve worked with before, so I know what they can do. Not that I can predict everything, but I have a general idea of where they will take the music, so that helps.
How challenging is it to lead a group, since you more often play solo or in collaborations?
It’s difficult. Telling people what to do is a little daunting. I’m sure people might disagree with me, but I find that I say “ok, sure, great” a lot and I need to get away from that. I don’t want to be one of these people who yells “That’s wrong!”, but sometimes I feel like I need to be a little more assertive. I just have to do it more. It’s a skill. That’s why I often think I want to start a band. I’ve never really had a band that I’ve played together with for a long time. I heard this amazing free-jazz quartet recently, and they were just so tight. It was so organic, everything just fit perfectly. I thought, they must have been playing together for years, and that must be nice. But it gets difficult in New York because everyone’s so busy.
What has playing for other people taught you about directing?
Mostly it’s helped me realize that there are many ways to ask people do something. It’s just so much about social skills sometimes. That’s the kind of thing that nobody really teaches you at school. You just have to do it and make mistakes and hope you can correct them next time. One thing I’ve learned not to do is shout at people (laughs).
During your time in New York you’ve done one-off session gigs, everything from playing in orchestras to backing up teenage pop stars. Do you still do that?
I think the last one I did was almost two years ago. I feel lucky that I don’t have to do those a lot. But sometimes it is an interesting experience playing pop music. Usually when I do a gig like that I don’t say anything, I just play the notes and that’s it. I try not to stick out (laughs). The last one I did was a big gospel thing at Carnegie Hall. It’s a totally different world. I was watching the music director and he was almost militant. He reminded me of people I went to school with at Berklee who went on to work on Broadway. It’s interesting to think that I could have gone that way too. But I think I would have had to split into two different people.
What did you learn playing with Laurie Anderson?
What struck me most is that she’s very good at turning a very simple idea into something quite beautiful. She starts with very small things, and then somehow she makes them become something quite touching. I don’t know if it’s something you can learn to do, but it is important to remember you don’t have to start from something complicated and big.
The other thing she made me think about is the power of lyrics and words. Her texts are so beautiful. When I toured with her, we were playing material from Homeland, which had lots of commentary on the Bush administration and the post-9/11 world. For somebody like me who doesn’t do music with words or lyrics, it made me think about, when I play music, how do people perceive it? Since there’s not this meaning in words that people can understand, what does it mean to someone beyond just the fact of whether they liked it or not? What’s the value of it?
How has being an experimental musician in New York changed since you moved here in 2000?
I don’t want to sound old, but it probably was easier back then. Just the fact that there were places like Knitting Factory and Tonic, which were great ways to meet people and connect. I used to go to Tonic almost every day. Sometimes I would go with no reason other than to have a place to be and get exposed to new things. The fact that you could go to one place and check out so many different things helped a lot. Right now, there are smaller places like the Stone, and places in Brooklyn. But I don’t think people go there just to be there. They go there for a specific concert or event. Tonic was a place to just be a part of things. Now, venues are farther away from each other. If you try to go see something every day, it can be difficult, just with all the distance you have to cover – you have to run around all over the city. But I still think New York is a lot more open than other places I’ve been to. It’s still an exciting place to be.
Even with less venues, it seems there are still as many experimental musicians in New York as there were in 2000.
I think there are even more. It’s just that there are no central locations. There are lots of different pockets, and if you don’t know them all, you might be missing lots of different scenes or whatever you call it. That’s a shame. The reason I’m playing with someone like Vijay Iyer, who comes more from the jazz world, is because I saw him play at Tonic. At a house show in Bushwick, it’s unlikely that you’re going to meet someone that’s more from a jazz background. So I think there’s less communication across the different scenes.
But it will change. I heard about this new place on Avenue A that Todd P. is booking, and he wants to make it like Tonic. That would be nice. I can’t really think of any venues like that in Manhattan, other than the Stone, but you have to get invited to play there [by a curator]. It’s great that way, but it doesn’t replace what Tonic did.
Speaking of Vijay, you’ve been playing with him for a while.
Yes, I started playing with him in concerts for [his 2003 album] In What Language?, and then on the performances of Still Life with Commentator. We are working on a new project called Holding it Down. And he’s doing a project for Summerstage, which I will be a part of.
What’s it like playing with him?
His music is very complicated rhythmically. Sometimes I can’t even count the rhythm, so I have to memorize it (laughs). These are the kind of things he internalizes. They are intricate and complicated, but also very melodic, more than you’d expect.
What does your current residency at Issue Project Room entail?
I’m doing three concerts there–I already did one at the end of April, [with Tom Rainey. Liberty Ellman, and Skuli Sverrisson]. I’m doing one in September with a dancer and a violin player, and another one in December with a singer. I want these not to be not about the product, but the process. I might come up with something totally lame, but I just want to try something different, to break away from what I’ve done before.