Born in South Korea to Korean parents, Su-a Lee lived in England, Hawaii, and New York before settling in Scotland. It was there, at the age of eight, that she discovered her passion for music.
“I initially started on the violin because it was offered at school, but I lasted less than two weeks because I didn’t enjoy it one little bit,” Lee shares via email from her home in Edinburgh. “The instant I heard the cello, I fell in love with the tone. When I was first allowed to bring a cello home from school my parents couldn’t get me away from it.”
Her interest in the instrument blossomed as a teenager and young adult. Classically trained, she attended a number of notable arts schools – including Chethams School of Music in Manchester, U.K., and Juilliard in New York City – and has been a member of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for over 25 years.
Today, she continues to play for many of the same reasons as when she first began.
“I still love the sound of the cello, but I also love the feel of the cello. In fact, I love everything about it. The fact that you can encompass the whole thing in a big hug and that you feel the whole instrument vibrate when you play. It is so versatile in terms of melody, counterpoint, rhythm, and bass. It is the closest instrument to the human voice and even feels like a human spirit. It is an incredibly beautiful work of art in-and-of itself…”
Lee – who performs both independently and with her band, Mr. McFall’s Chamber – describes her sonic style as “versatile.”
“I have an unwritten policy of mixing widely different styles in the same program – anything from progressive rock, tango, cartoon classics, folk, jazz, early music to contemporary classical. Since that time, and throughout my career, I have explored other cultures of music, studying Indian and Arabic music, and I work regularly with artists from different traditions such as folk, jazz, and world music.”
She admits that a career in music is not without its challenges, noting specifically the need to juggle multiple responsibilities at once.
“A musician can’t just be good at their instrument or craft; they also have to be good at social media, business, administration, digital technology…the list is endless. It is hard to find the time to be creative and practice.”
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns have proved to be another test of character.
“It is absolutely tragic that all our gigs were cancelled overnight. I had a wonderful tour to Korea, China, Singapore, and Taiwan planned last May; a nine-city tour of the U.S. in October; as well as some wonderful festivals and a jam-packed schedule. Hamish, my partner, was supposed to launch his third solo album on the first day of lockdown.”
Despite the difficulties, Lee notes that Scotland’s music scene remains in strong standing.
“COVID-19 has not been very widespread in the Highlands, as we have been quite isolated and careful. I have been busy working with the (Nicola) Benedetti Foundation to deliver workshops and classes online. It is a whole new set of skills to present to hundreds of children all over the world on Zoom! But despite all of that, there has been some (necessary) questioning of what is important to each of us, and maybe some consideration about what we have learned in this pandemic to be able to take forward with us.
“Musicians and organizations are rallying to find imaginative ways of connecting with their audiences online,” she adds. “There have been some tremendous results, including the Celtic Connections Festival, which ran a packed festival of stunningly recorded gigs online. Many other groups have been keeping an impressive online presence for their locked down audiences. Individual musicians have been learning new skills to stay connected digitally and there is no doubt that this will enhance possibilities once live music can happen once more.”
To that end, Lee says 2021 will be an eventful year for her creatively.
“I am working on a really exciting project, which is challenging me to be creative and to learn new skills. The rewards are boundless when making music with kindred spirits and getting to visit so many cultures across the world.”