Okkyung Lee and Christian Marcklay-Amalgam: Album Review

Amalgam is a tightly-knit jam session for the future between improvised-music cellist Okkyung Lee and turntablist Christian Marclay.  Opening with a particularly dense five minutes of music, the album takes a series of rather unpredictable ups and downs with various textures and rhythmic ideas coming into play over the course of the single, 36-minute track.  Although Lee is, arguably, outmatched by the sheer magnitude of Marclay’s fire power, the project thrives on the certain singularity that the musicians find in the sonic landscape.  Rather than battling it out to make the most noise, the duo confides in one another at every turn almost sounding like a single instrument.  The resulting work successfully merges the electronic-music notion of avant-garde with the jazz-rooted instrumental realm making for an intriguing sketch of possibilities for future intersections of these idioms.

The album is bookended by the two heaviest sections of the session.  First off, squeezing and scratching sounds come into play from both sides with a huge range of pitch making for a brick of sound.  Besides the depth of sound, Lee quickly engages in rapid back and forth bow strikes to completely put the listener on edge.  This section gives a full glance at the sound-making possibilities of the duo and although specific sounds are explored in more depth in the middle portions of the piece, the audience is left waiting for another full out climax until the very end.  At around the 30-minute mark, the duo reaches near silence before Lee’s raw cello tone slowly picks up steam with crunching electronics emerging from Marclay’s set-up.  The end of the album does contrast the beginning a bit—in particular the longing melody that comes into play beneath the surface of chaos.  This creates an interesting juxtaposition as the end of the piece both epitomizes the general tension so rampant on the album, but also finds some inner peace to tie up the session nicely.

Between the two sections with the most firepower, the duo plays with the listener quite a bit, suddenly building up tension then quickly releasing it before the listener is ready.  Soon into this unpredictable landscape, Lee and Marclay trade ideas on some angular high-note melodies.  Obviously this reaches an intense state, but what differentiates it from the chaos of the beginning is the lack of foundation; high and wiry, this section avoids the “brick of sound” in the beginning of the piece.  Lee later gives us a taste of her rhythmic sense in an oscillating back-and-forth melody that she rips from her cello.  This base gives Marclay a great deal of space to play with textures and melodies, but just before the groove becomes a full-fledged loop, the whole structure is lost to the abyss.  In another instance, Marclay plays around with beats quite nicely.  First, a quirky, playful beat accompanies Lee’s quick melodies, then a drastic change comes with a rugged, industrial beat taking over.  This midsection shows how versatile each of the musicians are and—when considering the bricks of sound at each end of the piece—it’s interesting to hear how the duo is able to throw all of their sounds out there at once, then spend more time developing specific sounds on their own.

Another success of the album is the improvisational feel to it.  Although the incorporation of electronics in an improvised-music idiom is not an entirely new concept, Amalgam captures the real-time interaction of free jazz in a way not often heard in this type of duo.  Instrumentalists—when they develop extended techniques—maintain the ability to quickly return to their original state, but for turntables this is a bit more difficult.  Whereas Lee is put at a bit of a disadvantage in terms of sheer sound-making ability, Marclay—I would argue—is put at a disadvantage in his ability to quickly jump between his arsenal of various sound effects.  Making up for this requires a great deal of talent from both sides and it seems that Lee helps the process by sticking to one aesthetic framework for long periods of time.  For example, in one section, Marclay introduces a crackling bass foundation with a higher electronic melody.  Lee matches this by constantly bowing a lower string and interrupting with brief melodic ideas higher up on the instrument.  The end result also contributes to the singularity that the duo achieves.  Because both musicians must find enough room to develop ideas within a general aesthetic, it sounds a bit like one entity is making the decisions; a real relationship is formed on this record.

Amalgam doesn’t overstay its welcome.  The structure of the record is very good for maintaining a high level of intrigue and anticipation.  Also, the ability of the duo to find a sort of common ground to develop their ideas makes for a unifying overall sound that can be sometimes lost in duets between melodic instruments.  I look forward to hearing more from this duo—and others like it—in the future.


-Donovan Burtan


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