In process of stocking. Ravishing, dream-like debut by Okkyung Lee’s chamber ensemble, placing a rarely paralleled instrumental guile and imagination at the service of Shelter Press’ beautiful series of carefully hand-picked editions. Rendering Lee’s first recordings with the Yeo-Neun Quartet, an experimental chamber ensemble established in 2016 and also comprising Maeve Gilchrist (harp), Jacob Sacks (piano), and Eivind Opsvik (bass), ‘Yeo-Neun’ distills the multiplicities of Lee’s decades of solo and collaborative work and diffuses it thru her cello and fellow players to realise a radical mixture of contemporary classicism and fearless experimentation. It’s the ultimate example of Lee’s inimitably calm but unpredictable style, wrapping up myriad aspects of chamber, jazz and folk musics with sentimental melodies and melancholy touches that betray a core influence from the popular Korean ballads and emotive traditional forms of her youth. Under a title that loosely translates to ’the gesture of an opening” in Korean, Yeo-Nuen is focussed on discretely lush arrangements, but prone to combust at noisy, avant angles that keep the album safely clear of concrete genre taxonomy. Lee and her ensemble work tightly within a broad set of sonic reference points, elegantly navigating the far flung cues she’s absorbed over decades of intensive touring schedules that have seen her play across the world with everyone from Mark Fell to Ellen Fullman, and appear on recordings by artists as diverse as Jenny Hval and Swans.
In those contexts, Lee has developed preternaturally-heightened instincts for improvisation, but the recordings of ‘Yeo-Neun’ appear to consolidate this finely honed grasp of spontaneous combustion with a newly realised, stately feel for composition that’s at once calm and gripping. Born of a life on the move, the music understandably helms to its own sense of time and pace and allows listeners into the rich inner life that sustains an artist on the road. Between the tender resignation of ‘here we are (once again)’, the Alice Coltrane-Like sweeps of ‘another old story’, the visceral tonal ruptures of ‘in stardust (for kang kyung-ok)’, and the enchanted vision of ‘facing your shadows’, it’s hardly felt more like a privilege to bear witness to an artist laying her soul bare, and so sharply articulate and express her sense of individuality and connection to the world. Frankly. it’s jaw-dropping stuff.