In Conversation: Ikue Mori & Okkyung Lee

this interview was conducted at a cozy teahouse in east village on a cold but not freezing january day. ikue drank versaille lavender earl grey tea while okkyung drank masala chai tea. 

okkyung lee (ol): it was about 17 years ago since we met for the first time. think it was at tonic playing cobra, which was also my very first gig in new york.

ikue mori (im): wow, yes, time surely flies.

ol: i know you were playing drums and drum machines beforehand but by the time i met you, you were playing only the computer. could you please tell me how those transitions happened?

im: i started making music by playing drums in bands such as dna, sunset chorus, jungle geisha, toh bandjan and electric fukuko. interestingly enough many of them were girls bands and collaborations with other female musicians. later on i also played drum machines with viblaslaps and death praxis.

ol: wow, didn’t realize you were in so many different bands. are there any recordings available?

im: yes, most of them were released on records but recently i found some cassette tapes that had all these 1 minute long tunes.

ol: oh, you must release it! that would be just amazing!

im: maybe. there are definitely some interesting tunes. in 1993 when dna was finishing off, i met and started to play more with improvisers such as john zorn and fred frith and many others. there was this amazing community of musicians back then. we all came from different backgrounds and really were open to try anything together. i wasn’t really confident in my improvising skill then since i was playing songs with set parts but surely playing with all these amazing musicians really helped me develop as an improviser.

ol: it’s really hard for me not to romanticize that period. it all sounds so open and exciting which i don’t find anywhere these days.

im: oh, you don’t think so?

ol: i think that now everybody is so busy running around and also very much schooled through formal training which changes the whole aesthetic quite a bit. also i think many people like to label and feel more comfortable for some reason. well, that’s at least what i think.

im: yes, people are busier and preoccupied these days for sure.

ol: also this sense of community is really hard to find. i mean i feel like that my friends are all over the world and hard to pin down which community.

anyway, getting back to the subject, what was the reason you wanted to move onto the drum machines?

im: when i began to play more with improvisers, i felt the need to expand my sounds and also orchestrate the sounds and play and respond quickly to other players. in 1996, “garden” was released which was made with only drum machines and recorded totally live. then in 1999 when i received prix ars electronica award in austria, i met fennesz and peter rehberg through jim o’rourke, they told me it should be very easy to transfer my entire drum machine set-ups to a computer since it was already in digital format. since it seemed so much easier to only carry a laptop, i thought i would try it out while i was doing a short residency at steim in 2000.

ol: wow, that i had no idea. so when i met you, it was the very beginning of your laptop period but you really had your very personal sounds totally established already.

im: around then i also started mephista with susie ibarra on drums and sylvie courvosier on piano, then phantom orchard with zeena parkins which really cemented the laptop as my own instrument.

ol: wow, again two groups with only female members! i rarely get to do that. i’m usually the only female in mostly male groups.

im: yes, that’s usually how it is unfortunately but still i manage to collaborate with many female musicians.

ol: that is very important indeed. just to back step a bit, when did “one hundred aspects of the moon” come out?

im: it was recorded in 1999 when i received a commission from roulette to write music for voice, electronics and a small ensemble.

ol: that music is so incredibly beautiful! and also how your melodies were so haunting and personal! i’m totally generalizing it but it’s rare to talk about melodies when talking to an electronics musician. it’s mostly about sounds and textures but with your music i always hear melodic and emotional elements first.

im: to me it’s quite important to generate emotional response from the listeners. it is about touching them through music.

ol: see, that’s exactly the opposite of what i do. ha ha ha.

im: really? what guides you when you are improvising?

ol: mostly the sound that’s happening right then. i think it is indeed emotional because it is very personal but then i don’t really “express” the “emotions.” to be really honest i’m tired of people describing what i play through emotions or narratives. speaking of emotional melodies, when i heard your solo “myrninerest”, i remember thinking how sad and human your melodies were even played by a computer generated sound.

im: oh, i’ll take that as a compliment.

ol: yes, please! i always find your work so authentic in everything you do, there’s absolutely no way of denying its power. to me that’s what really makes an artist a real artist. now i’d like to know more about how you developed your visual works as well.

im: since started using computer it also opened up the possibility of making visual art. while i was was working as a graphic designer for tzadik label in the late 90’s, found myself equally immersed in creating visual along with music. in early 2000 i was invited to do a residency in california by naut humon and with his help, we developed a jitter patch for the visuals to integrate with my music patches.

ol: wait, you mean they are all interconnected?

im: yes, i’m also improvising with the visuals live.

ol: that’s incredible. really had no idea. i’d be totally confused and screw up right away.

im: around then i was shooting lots of footages myself everywhere i went. then i’d combine the material with found images then put them through different filters while performing live. then went on to 2-d animation using scanned characters and move it like shadow puppets in 2007.

ol: ah, yes, i remember watching them at roulette and other galleries. you had this story about japanese folk tale which was really fascinating and beautiful to watch.

im: yes, that was kibyoshi probably from 5-6 years ago. then eventually i started to make my own dolls that i’m using for most recent videos.

ol: your dolls look really incredible and so expressive. it’s amazing how you managed to make all of them by yourself then even make stop motion animations.  it must take so much time.

im: that’s what i usually do when i have some downtime. i don’t make a full length stop motion animation but mix it with other materials and play them live.

ol: did you really teach yourself how to do everything?

im:  at the beginning there were many people who helped me with the basics but then i would arranged all the elements by myself and developed them in a way i needed.

ol: so basically you developed your own system by doing it. i suppose that’s how you can really learn anything anyway. in a way you don’t need to be able to do everything on a program as long as you know what you want it to do. the same with me and logic or sibelius!

meanwhile i’m very proud to say that now i’m in your new band obelisk! when we started to rehearse last year for our first concert, i was struck by how you were able to transfer your sounds and melodies onto acoustic instruments without losing any of the characters of your music generated by computer. also assuming you taught all the notation stuff yourself? it’s really impressive. is it safe to say that this is your first band as a leader in a long while that play your compositions?

im: yes, the first group that i composed for other instruments using notated music was the ensemble for “one hundred aspects of the moon” back in 1999 which performed live only once.

ol: that is some time ago indeed. was there any specific reason you wanted to start a band now?

im: after working in phantom orchard, which was a mixture of improvisation with composition, then recently on john zorn’s bagatelles project, i was quite inspired to start my own group utilizing all that experience i gained. also it was a big plus that over the years i’ve played in many different settings with sylvie courvoisier, jim black and you which gave me enough confidence that it would work very well as a group.

ol: yes, i think it already works like a real group even after a couple of live performances and recent recording session we did. think we are just all so excited to be in your group! the record will be coming out later this year?

im: yes, it will come out on tzadik label in next few months and i hope we will get to perform live very soon.

ol: ah, yes, that would be great! think the music on this new record is quite unique and personal which is a killer combination! thank you for sharing your time with me today.

im: pleasure!

over the conversation, ikue and okkyung consumed 4 small cookies with their tea then okkyung ordered a cup of pumpkin chai to take away. it was still not too cold outside.

Ikue Mori performs for Second Edition on Friday 10 February 2017 in duo with Steve Noble.

Okkyung Lee performed twice at First Edition in 2016: a duo with Rashad Becker and one with Ellen Fullman.