Uniquely-talented cellist Su-a Lee shares the limelight in Dialogues, her debut album. Going solo isn’t really her thing, she tells KEN WALTON
The last time I spoke to Scottish Chamber Orchestra cellist Su-a Lee, she had just videoed herself playing alone in a beautiful Speyside forest, surrounded by birds who flocked to her musical soliloquising like those to Snow White in the animated Disney film.
The idea was to emulate the famous “nightingale duet” of 1924, when Elgar’s cellist friend Beatrice Harrison achieved a similar avian response in her Surrey garden, in what was to become one of the BBC’s earliest outside broadcasts. Lee loved the idea, which was to be her uniquely moving contribution to the award-winning Scotsman Sessions, a series launched during lockdown to give a much-needed performance platform to Scots-based musicians.
That same creative originality and that same idyllic part of the world (Lee has, post-Covid, married the partner she spent most of lockdown with in Speyside, folk musician Hamish Napier), were instrumental in inspiring her debut solo album, due for release this week on her own Sky Child Records label. Dialogues, as its title suggests, is not actually a solo album at all; nor – and this won’t surprise anyone familiar with Lee’s eclectic musical penchant – is it genre specific.
In terms of the former, going it alone has never appealed to the colourful but unassuming cellist, despite her 30-year prominence among the front ranks of the SCO and her flamboyant presence as a founder member of the quirky Mr McFall’s Chamber, where her expertise famously extends to solo virtuosity on the musical saw, and musical tastes flit between the earthy sensuality of Argentine tango and the experimental genre-mix of King Crimson.
Dialogues is a free-riding collaboration on an intimate scale. Other than the final solo track, Lee shares the limelight with a progression of friends in music that evolved organically during the recording process itself and reflects the various specialisms, mainly folk-rooted, of collaborators that include accordionist Phil Cunningham, singer Julie Fowlis, Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, harpist Maeve Gilchrist and even husband Hamish, who played a key role in encouraging the project.
The solo route was never on the cards, insists the South Korea-born cellist, who’s early studies took her to Manchester’s Chetham’s School as a talented teenager and to the hotbed of New York and its prestigious Julliard School as an undergraduate, before settling in Edinburgh in the early 1990s.
“It really isn’t a thing I’m interested in doing,” she explains. “One of the very first things I was asked to do in lockdown was a solo concert for Chamber Music Scotland online. At first I thought, I’m not going to do that, that’s really not my thing. But actually a lot of people had been asking in the past few years if I would do village concerts and I thought maybe I should, because it’s easy to go out on your own and you don’t have to arrange for anyone else to do stuff. Then I thought perhaps I could just get Hamish involved. We were locked down together, so maybe we could share the programmes, and that’s how things progressed.
“As for the solo album, that was definitely Hamish’s idea. I was dead against it, and certainly had no interest in writing music, no desire to create a band. But after giving it careful thought, I warmed to the idea of something certainly small and intimate, maybe duos or trios. Would it be classical? I was like no, there were already far too many amazing cellists out there recording all that stuff, but maybe folk would work. The next step was to see if anyone was up for playing with me as an equal voice.”
Unsurprisingly they were, and a process of developing individual tracks – “each a project on its own” – eventually grew into the final product. “I remember sneaking in a studio session just as things were opening up with the lovely Pekka – he had been recording with us at the SCO, so we snuck off at the end of one of the SCO recordings to put this together. It was slightly terrifying for me, time being limited and precious, but that in itself made it so instantly creative, like grabbing a moment.”
Each “moment” produced its own challenges. When it came to working with Caithness composer and pianist James Ross for the track Stroma, the creative process was done remotely by email. “James sent me the original melody, then I would do some improvisations and send them back giving him options to choose where the music would go next. He’d send it back again and we’d morph things. It just went back and forth until we were happy with the final results.”
The same happened with cellist Natalie Haas, who was based in Montreal at the time. “Because we played the same instrument, the main thing was working out how to avoid getting in each other’s way in terms of register,” Lee recalls. “By the time she finally came over to Scotland for a weekend, we clicked instantly, playing together for hours. It felt like a real dialogue.” Thus emerged the hypnotically side-stepping Waltzska for Su-a.
Now that it’s all over, Lee muses on the impact lockdown in Speyside had on nurturing her album. “That environment definitely had a huge effect,” she says. It allowed time and space for ideas to percolate, for me to work in a very different way than before. It felt very new, and gave me me the luxury of not having to be anywhere else, not squeezing things between deadlines. It was a real gift to be surrounded by nature, not ever having really experienced that before. I’d always lived inner city – New York in Manhattan, the centre of Edinburgh.
The Highlands remain a bolt hole, where she and her equally busy husband spend time together as much as they can. “I do still have my flat in Edinburgh, where most of my playing work is based, but for me personally things have definitely changed. It’s a matter of negotiating how much time we spend with each other.
“I’m managing to get a bit more of a balance, but it takes thought, preplanning and commitment. You have to say no to a lot more things, and I am in the process of doing exactly that, coming off various boards, so I can find some time just to switch off. Good stuff doesn’t happen, creativity doesn’t happen, when you’re constantly having to catch up with yourself. The mind does a wonderful thing, though, when you are doing nothing. You start to muse, you start to think.
Does she think there might be another album? She offers a definitive no, but only a fool would dismiss the possibility. “I won’t be doing it again … in a hurry,” she adds. That doesn’t sound like the door being completely slammed shut. Does it?
Dialogues is released on 2 December, available on CD and digital download. Full information at www.sualee.com
(Top picture: Elly Lucas)