** Small repress, absolutely astounding! ** Anyone encountering the efforts of the cellist, Okkyung Lee, faces an unavoidable truth. She’s an unreckonable force. Few players in the contemporary landscape relinquish themselves so completely to the practice of free improvisation, adapt with such ease without sacrificing the distinctions of self, or exist in the moment so completely, not to mention her awe inspiring technical skill. Her latest LP, Yeo-Neun, issued by Shelter Press, stands as towering proof of what a remarkable and versatile an artist she is. A profoundly intimate, tense meditation in sonority that’s unlike anything we’ve heard from Lee before, it’s a strong contender for the best album of the year.
Okkyung Lee has been a vital presence in the global landscape of experimental music for the last 2 decades, receiving equal acclaim for her solo efforts, collaborations, and work within the ensembles of others, distinguished by her astounding instrumental sensitivity, exacting intellect, and visceral emotiveness. Yeo-Neun, recorded by Yeo-Neun Quartet - an experimental chamber music ensemble founded in 2016 and led by Lee on cello, featuring harpist Maeve Gilchrist, pianist Jacob Sacks, and bassist Eivynd Opsvik - takes a radical departure from much of the experimental language for which she has become widely known, doing so without sacrificing anything that makes her the artist she is.
Representing the culmination of a career long creative arc, the roots of Yeo-Neun trace their way across the last 30 years of Lee’s life; from her early days spent away from home studying the cello in Seoul and Boston - the time during which she first conceived of the project - to her subsequent move to New York and the displacement rendered by a near endless number of tours. Far from an exercise in nostalgia, it encounters an artist taking risks that few are willing to approach, abandoning the presumptions implied signifying aesthetics by diving toward the more complex expressions of self, played against the diminishing boundaries between cultural identity, time, place, and home.
Binding modern classical composition and freely improvised music with the emotive drama of Korean traditional music and popular ballads, Yeo-Neun, while remarkably approachable - unfolding like gauzy dream - is radical in concept, action, and form. Infused with a profound sense of humanity and life, its meandering melodies - from the deceptively simple to the tonally and structurally complex - slowly evolve, take form and dissolve; the harp, piano, and bass forming an airy, liminal non-place, through which Lee’s cello freely drifts. An immersive and remarkably honest body of composition that rests beyond the prescriptive boundaries of culture, genre, geography, and time. Unflinchingly beautiful and creatively challenging, if there was any question regarding Okkyung Lee’s importance in the landscape of experimental music, Yeo-Neun puts them to rest. Not only one of the great achievements of her career, but possibly the best album we’ve seen emerge this year. An absolutely astounding piece of work that stands as a resting challenge to how we recognise and define music for what it is. Out now on LP via the always amazing Shelter Press. If you buy one record this year, this should probably be it. Not to be missed.