Ellen Fullman & Okkyung Lee | The Air Around Her
The Air Around Her is a collaboration between two already highly prolific artists – Fullman, she of the infamous Long String Instrument, and Lee, who has teamed up with everyone from Steve Beresford to Mike Ladd. The album is, presumably, an improvisation – both artists spend an extended duration exploring the nuance of their instruments, with Fullman’s strings often providing a thunderous, atonal bed to Lee’s more roaming cello. Stemming broadly from the drone-tradition, the proceedings explore timbral and harmonic relationships at the expense of any perceivable melody, and the result is an often mesmerising and deeply immersive listening experience. Audibly, there are two main effects at play – the instruments either coalesce into a single, otherworldly string part, or illicit a form of call and response, wherein one provides a base upon which the other can extemporise. Whilst the album is propelled by the unquestionable skill of its performers – and as such never dips far below greatness – it is in the former of these two approaches that The Air Around Her truly shines.
Fullman’s Long Stringed Instrument is an already impressive affair, unleashing a plethora of harmonically rich textures, and sounding not unlike a harpsichord, albeit a harpsichord lost somewhere in the circles of hell. ‘Part 2’ in particular succeeds in augmenting Fullman’s instrument with the more rhythmic machinations of Lee’s cello, fostering an emergent space in which both elements, for all their timbral differentiation, take on a singular form. This effect is helped by the acoustic prominence of its site. The room in which their performance takes place contributes hugely to the overall experience, and both players are experienced enough to work with, rather than against, its occasionally oppressive quality.
photo ©Micke Keysendal
Of the pair, it is Fullman who displays the greatest sense of restraint, and things are at their best when Lee matches her countenance. Despite the feeling that this is a very improvised affair, the album relies upon a fairly classical narrative structure – the cello explores a range of extended techniques, new ways of occupying space alongside the long string, before eventually settling into a more plucked and revered mode that eventually unifies the instrumentation. It is here, in the final 10 minutes of the album that The Air Around Her reaches its wonderful, logical conclusion – a timbral dance that is as fragile as it is determined, a wash of interlocked tones that is utterly mesmerising.
The Air Around Her never strays too far from its concise remit – a work that explores improvised string-based drone music, and does so extremely proficiently. The uniqueness of Fullman’s instrument helps to differentiate the album from the several thousand other albums that fundamentally invoke the same dynamic, however it is the palpable depth and performative fragility of its players that truly sets the proceedings apart. ‘Part 2’ is perhaps the more challenging piece, and all the better for it, though the album as a whole is of an undeniably high standard, as anyone familiar with its creators prior work would no doubt expect.