Before arriving in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1993, cellist and composer Okkyung Lee said she knew little of the jazz and experimental music for which she is now known. Born in South Korea in 1975 and educated in classical piano and cello, Lee first heard of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and other jazz greats when she came to Berklee College of Music. She quickly bought CDs to listen to the music she was trying to understand. After graduating from Berklee in 1998 with a dual degree in contemporary writing and production and film scoring, and then earning a master’s degree in contemporary improvisation from New England Conservatory of Music, Lee moved to New York City in 2000. She soon became part of a downtown scene stretching the conventions of music.
Lee has worked with Laurie Anderson, Lasse Marhaug, David Behrman, Ikue Mori, C. Spencer Yeh, and John Zorn. The recipient of a Foundation for Contemporary Arts grant in 2010 and a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award in 2015, Lee is known for a sound that draws on her traditional roots and then freely improvises. Her albums include Ghil (2013), Noisy Love Songs (For George Dyer) (2010), and Wake Up Awesome, in collaboration with Marhaug and Yeh (2013). She plays throughout Europe, Asia, and the United States; teaches workshops; and curates programs and festivals such as the Music Unlimited festival in Austria.
In a 2015 interview in London, Lee talked about her reasons for playing as she does, even sometimes shredding the bow of her cello during performances: “I started playing noise on my cello because I felt a deep personal connection to it. It’s only when I play certain sounds I know that the cello presents who I am.”