Whenever someone asks me about ‘heavy’ music, Okkyung Lee is one artist I often bring up. Na-Reul, her contribution to Corbett vs. Dempsey’s spectacular Black Cross solo sessions (Joe McPhee’s installment is equally stellar), sits in the dark stillness to harness the bleak energy of the current environment and presses it into a collection of contemplative, and at times manic, sonic expressions. Lee is as good as it gets when it comes to stretching the boundaries of possibility with the cello and Na-Reul takes that story even further.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Lee traveled to Korea to be with her dying father and, due to various lockdown restrictions, was then unable to return to New York for months. When she finally did make it back, the experience left her alienated from her instrument and making music. Eventually, when CvD asked her to take part in this series, she channeled the trauma and isolation into a sound world that only she could have created. Na-Reul is an important, powerful statement on what she experienced, and what so many of us experienced, in those stark, uncharted months of 2020.
Scratches and rattles vibrate all around the twisted resonances of the strings on “Drifting,” where it feels like being pulled apart at the seams. Each crackle, each scrape is another thread come undone as the melancholic harmonies dissipate further into disjointed space. It’s so visceral that each dissonant swell sticks straight into bone. There’s a similarity to “Drifting” deeper into the album on “Burning,” with all its intricate textures and odd angled plucks, but the latter is more of a backward-facing lament. It reflects the painful cuts of “Drifting” through an emotive prism and tries, though hardly succeeds, in letting the sorrow disappear into smoke.
Lee has been at this for over 20 years and she continues changing my perception of what a solo cello album can be. Anxious rhythms plot out a hurried path on “Lorelei” as Lee taps them out on the body of her cello while a simple yet effective plucked bassline moves quick and holds it all together. Stretched runs are bowed in dizzying tonal combinations, rising and falling like a heartbeat racing under duress. There’s something even weirdly catchy and, I dare say, groovy on “Lorelei,” but it’s all buried under a thick layer of blackened ash.
Na-Reul is as poignant and moving as anything in Lee’s incredible discography. Ending with a duo of wistful remembrances, “Pisces” and “Grey,” we are left sitting alone in an empty room, finally forced to reckon with our grief. Both pieces are saturated with a funereal glow, but they breathe with purpose and determination. Lee’s despondent melodies are beautiful even with their sorrowful sting. When “Grey,” the closer, finally descends into a chorus of chimes and quiet subsonic oscillations, the weight lifts slightly and the nothingness that remains becomes a bearable part of our every day.