Acoustics + Electronics || Okkyung Lee and Hahn Rowe at The Stone

I recently made a trip down to the great city of New York, the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn thereof. While my partner in exploration and experiences Christine has already given a fair bit of information (see the end of the entry for the current-post-relevant bits) about the trip, I wanted to write a bit myself regarding the concert at The Stone, John Zorn’s semi-new performance venue in the East Village.

I’m not sure when or where I read about this place, but it must have been sometime last fall or summer. I recall thinking that attendance at some show there was mandatory for my next NYC trip; a space led by Zorn and used for only the most interesting and intense in the modern avant-garde? A place where I could listen to the newest music without the distractions of loud inebriated folks? A definite treat/dream indeed. Added to this is the innovative means of programming. The Stone is run more like a time-based gallery, with different works of art each night. The shows are set-up by a different guest curator each month, an interesting if possibly-exclusionary and elitist means of selecting who gets to perform.

Christine and I were only in Manhattan for one evening, so that meant we had only one opportunity to hear a performance; no selection of artists here. But just looking over the lineup for March indicated the power of the sounds that have been heard in the space: Elliot Sharp playing Elliot Sharp; Christian Marclay doing his thing on turntables; Walter Thompson’s soundpainting, and so on. Amazing performers who, I would hazard a guess, had amazing performances in the space. On Friday night was the duo of Okkyung Lee and Hahn Rowe, and as we found out before the last piece of the night, had never performed together prior to that evening. So you could say that what we heard was less a performance and more of a jam; there were no stoppings during the pieces as you might expect from a true rehearsal, but the cohesiveness and togetherness of a performance was lacking as well.

The sounds that came forth were intriguing by themselves. Hahn Rowe on guitar, suite of stomp boxes, and laptop provided hesitant accompaniments to Lee’s improvised cello lines. Rowe seemed to be unsure of the power of his setup; plucks by hand or with a pick led to a variety of sounds, some of which were changed almost instantaneously by a stomp of his foot, too audibly given the size of the space and our proximity to the performer as an audience. I had a hard time understanding his reasons for choosing a particular filter or modification of the guitars sounds; not that I was looking for discrete, direct explanations, but rather an intuitive understanding of the connections between the sounds. Before the third piece of the four performed, the laptop part of the equation gave out, with Rowe continuing on the Fender amp hiding behind the curtain (always lying in wait?) Lee replied to this change of plans with “I dont mess with that stuff… that’s why I play cello [because it’s acoustic].”

Lee’s performance on cello showed her mastery of traditional technique, but extended into realms no traditional teacher would teach. All too often I see performers in avant-garde groups playing string instruments but lacking the abilities that only come with extensive practice of the etudes, scales, and bowing exercises that form the basis of study most of us hate as youngsters. Yet Lee took this to a level that, while undoubtedly not completely original, was original enough in the setting to be interesting and desirable. Her modus operandi seemed to be: choose a particularly interesting method of producing sound with the cello, using both the left and right hands, and explore a portion of the space of possibilities. This translated into, for example, extended glissandi along the length of the fingerboard, in varying speeds and amounts, reminiscent of the sweeping sounds of Xenakis. On another piece Lee held the bow near the bridge, in sul ponticello fashion, but proceeded to push with immense force and at a set of angles, all designed to produce a cross between creaking and crackling. These methods of interacting with the instrument not only provided a set of novel sounds but also an engaging visual counterpart to the performance.

The downfall of the performance I alluded to earlier. It was obvious from the sounds heard that what I was listening to was a rehearsal of two musicians, and not a performance of a group. Only rarely was I able to discern the interplay of a developed improvisatorial situation. In the first piece I could detect a hint of riffing based on the visual movements of Lee and Rowe; increased circular hand movement in one led to increased circular hand movement in the other. However, besides this most obvious visual interaction, I was not able to tie both strands of their music together. In fact, I did not see them look at each other once during the entirety of their performance. While they could have looked at each other out of the corner of their eyes, for such a nascent collaboration I expected more visual interaction between the two of them.

While I expect this review comes across as negative, I don’t want to give that impression; my take is that both Rowe and Lee are imminently talented musicians with much to recommend of their individual playing. I eagerly look forward to the development of the collaboration and hope to hear records of later performances.

Published by nknouf

Nick Knouf is the DJ and producer of sigtronica. He's been on WMBR nearly continuously since the Fall of 2004, first on a show called somewhere never travelled, then switching in the Fall of 2005 to sigtronica. He's currently a first-year master's student at the MIT Media Lab in the Hyperinstruments Group. His work and research can be seen on

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