Recently, I’ve started playing music again. Thus follows a long period during which I only wrote about it. Even though I’m back on my chosen instrument, one I’ve been practicing on and off since I was eight years old, it’s amazing how difficult it is to feel natural again. Trying to reach that focal point, where you can close your eyes and lock in with your instrument, is something I took for granted for most of my young adult life where I was in a continual cycle of rehearsing and performing. It also meant that I was largely unforgiving of those artists who seemed not to be up to scratch; vocalists that sung out of key, drummers that lost time. Now, as I try to reconcile my ambitions to my dormant ability, I’ve started to appreciate not only the amount of effort it takes just to be a passable player, but the countless hours it takes to be a virtuoso.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot since I saw Kelsey Lu’s live show a few weeks ago. Lu is undeniably in a rarified field of musicians that could justifiably be described as peerless. Her primary sound source is the cello, which she uses with such elasticity its like genre never existed. It’s matched with an absolutely divine voice which borders on operatic, though her compositions sounds more avant-garde indie than anything else. Though she regularly tosses off glissandi and perfect harmonics like they’re a walk in the park, the truth is Lu has likely practiced her butt off to get to a point where she feels comfortable enough to improvise across already complicated writing.
Many of Lu’s compositions seem to be shaped by an inner driving force rather than the constraints of time. During her performance, which took place in a Paddington Church, many of her compositions bled into one another, bound only by the complete silence she managed to draw from a crowd ostensibly there to socialise and drink cheap beer. ‘Morning After Coffee’ is a good example, a piece which is as much about the quiet between the notes as it as about the notes themselves. Driven by sets of harmonic pizzicato (see, I told you I could write better than I could play) notes, it sets a ripple of quiet waves over which Lu’s voice glides into frame.
There’s something very special about Lu’s melodic control, similar in some ways to Thundercat, who can sing lead lines which sit with his bass progressions but never seem bound to it. As with her live performance, Lu seems only to respond to the vibrations of her internal metronome. This allows her the license to slide across notes, recalibrating her embouchure mid-phrase so that each phrase flows with expressiveness. It’s so unlike anything I’ve heard in a long time that it stayed with me, particularly the freedom you can hear in the performance. Though it eventually coalesces into something you can hold onto, there’s a lightness to it that’s liberating to the listener. So much contemporary music is pushed into neat boxes, cut down to easy, memorable chunks. This is very much of its time, but also timeless – in both sense of the world.
That’s something to be inspired by.