Okkyung Lee (Photo by: Nathan Thomas)
At first, classically trained cellist Okkyung Lee’s manipulation of her instrument could seem abrasive; she plies her bow mercilessly across its strings and dizzily runs her fingers up and down the neck. Her playing, though, isn’t in service of expelling pent-up aggression. It’s just music, Lee says. She’s seeking new voices to pull from the cello.
“The way I’m playing is probably more extreme than what most people would do. It’s not like I’m putting it through some kind of test to see how much it can endure,” she says. “That happens to be the sound I’m drawn to. Maybe that says something [about me], but I’m not trying to play something that’s violent.”
Her 2013 solo recording, “Ghil,” finds Lee’s cello moving through modes that might recall sounds emanating from a clangorous woodshop. Other efforts, as on “That Undeniable Empty Feeling” from the 2005 “Nihm” album, could fit into a contemporary jazz recording.
“I just play the way that I find it best connects to me,” Lee says. “I don’t have any agenda; I play the way I’ve developed over the years.”
What’s remarkable, though, is that the palette of sound she works with is solely in the acoustic realm, a restriction she says provides more of a challenge than relying on electronic manipulation. It’s a tack that’s taken the South Korea-born improviser from Northeastern conservatories to New York’s downtown scene and to Europe.
On one of those far-flung trips, she met Michael Gira, founder of the wildly volatile Swans, an ensemble that might squeal industrial sounds one moment and touch on strains of folk the next. Much like the quicksilver nature of Lee’s playing, the encounter landed her in a scenario she’d never envisioned: a tour bus with Gira’s ensemble.
“This is how I live my life. It all comes in different shapes — festivals, different venues, playing solo,” she says from New York, amid a flurry of planning for upcoming performances. “I’m playing a rock club. It’s a totally different audience. The more varied it is, the happier I get.”
Lee seeks out and burrows into what’s unknown in improvisation and in her career, finding artistic nourishment in new ideas, people and places.
“I’m trying to make music; I’m trying to make sense of it,” the cellist says about exploring her instrument’s capabilities in front of an audience. “That interaction — I think the audience is there to feel with me, share with me.”
Okkyung Lee opens for Swans at The Broadberry on July 27 at 8 p.m. $30. ($25 in advance). 353-1888 or thebroadberry.com.