With more than 30 recording credits to her name, South Korean native Okkyung Lee brings an impressive work ethic to her professional life. Now a New Yorker, the cellist, composer and improviser has released a major new work that marries her cultural roots with the fearless experimentation of a true modernist.
Cheol-Kkot-Sae (Steel.Flower.Bird) is a 44 ½-minute tour de force that incorporates acoustic classical performances, Pansori singing, electronics and straight-up noise.
Pansori is a Korean musical storytelling tradition. Its distinctive style – and Song-Hee Kwon’s lovely vocals with Jae-Hyo Chang’s traditional percussion – gives it a prominent place in this new work. But then each of the ensemble’s performances are remarkable. The disc also features Okkyung on cello, John Butcher on saxophones, John Edwards on bass, Lasse Marhaug on electronic and Ches Smith on drums and vibes.
“As a child in Korea my formal musical training was largely based on the European classical tradition and its ideal sense of beauty,” writes Okkyung in the album’s notes. “It never occurred to me how absurd it was that I was never asked to study Korean traditional music. Slowly I started to rebel against the idea of that beauty imposed upon me by listening habits – Korean pop songs flavored with smooth jazz (which was the only jazz I knew at the time) and bad American pop music.
“Years later while in Boston studying at Berklee and NEC, I found myself singing Korean traditional songs and rhythmic patterns to myself whenever I was alone. This created a tingly feeling inside me. Was I connected to these melodies because I was Korean—were they learned or deeply rooted in my DNA? … Since that time I have explored these feelings and ideas more deeply, especially after meeting some open and generous master Korean traditional musicians. My hope was to some day create something that would resonate in the core of my identity both as a person and as a musician and Cheol-Kkot-Sae took me very close to that place … it is a place worth deeper exploration.”
The work was commissioned by SWR2 and recorded live at the 2016 Donaueschingen Festival in Germany.