Q&A: Okkyung Lee On Playing With Laurie Anderson, Drum Commentary Tracks, And New York's Changing Landscape For Experimental Musicians

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).

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Hardly any of the places Okkyung Lee mentioned in Manhattan or Brooklyn, if any, pay musicians decently, if at all.  It's either a percentage of ticket sales, with little or no publicity done by the venues (which means, in effect, you have to bring in your own crowd and then pay the place to play there besides), or some places only pass a tip jar and maybe provide a plate of pasta.  The Stone pays 100% of ticket sales, but whether a lot of people show up or not depends on a wide variety of factors, almost all of them out of the musician's control.  People who play in these places under these conditions apparently are amateurs and / or have their bills paid by their parents or hold down a day job or have some other source of income and just play music "for fun."  Professional musicians, like professional chefs or professional electricians or any other professionals, need to get paid a decent living wage to compensate them for their artistry and their years of training and their instrument costs and all the rest.  Loving music means supporting musicians, not exploiting them.  Before attending these places, try to find out how they treat musicians, and if you are spending money to go to these places and the musicians aren't taking enough home at night to live on for at least a few days, in my opinion, these places should be shut down.  They can apply for grants and sponsors and benefactors to fund their concert series if they can't make it financially and also pay the musicians decently.  That's my take on this.

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