As a norm, I try not to get overly governed by liner notes when tackling a record to review. However, what cellist Okkyung Lee wrote to introduce these nine tracks – composed and autonomously performed by overlapping all the parts – struck me personally and profoundly as the most unfeigned self-analysis from an artist about mental positioning in the current mayhem, and propensity to react in a cursed period for ingenious minds.
The music in question materialized following many months of not being in contact with that cello which, over the years, has been defining Lee’s sonic, expressive, and inner universes. For the near-entirety of 2020, the Korean virtuoso was unable or simply not wishing to play. This state of reclusive numbness subsequent to important losses had become – unbeknownst to her – a symbol of the distress of sensitive people suddenly looking at life as something useless, stuffed with horrible occurrences generated by sick brains. Not everyone is capable of smiling fake in the name of an “it’s gonna be alright” philosophy one doesn’t believe in. There are also insightful realists around.
The last resort for a committed musician is trusting the ability to reconnect with sound, the only entity that never betrays those who respect it. After having been commissioned this recording, Lee’s renewed drive gradually started to yield ideas and compositional cues. She went on without dwelling too much on “finesse”, trying instead to follow the signs of rebirth that would have pulled her out of the creative stasis, an extremely dangerous condition when the quicksand of depression tries to swallow you up. The resulting episodes, one more beautiful than the other in their often melancholic linearity, represent quite graphically Lee’s first steps towards a complete recovery of the management of an inventive act. The cello’s full timbral gamut is exposed, from solid pitches to murmurs and undertones, up to the purely rhythmic or noisy components; even the latter possess a deeper intrinsic musicality than usual. The instrument seems to respond to the old friend’s touch with emotions of its own, as if grateful to have found again the quintessential energy required for its wood and strings to sing.
I could easily ramble on exquisite pieces such as “Mountains”, or the ominously droning ebb and flow of “Grey”. But that would be a disservice to the need of considering NA-REUL as a whole body suggesting the reaction force and discipline necessary to continue on a chosen path under frightening circumstances. You will not find gratuitous cheerfulness or cheap positivism herein, certainly not. The influence of suffering made Lee bring out her best just when everything appeared doomed to utter stillness. It’s the lone possible answer to those who trigger mass extermination while pretending to be concerned about survivors, and sorry for the dead. A valuable listen and a lesson for us: nothing can erase the healing properties of sound, as long as we can keep our aerials free from the lowest level of human interference.