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A woman plays a cello

Surface Gamechanger

A virtuoso goes virtual and makes music through the pandemic

Lisa Yihwan Lim had big plans in late 2019 when she returned to South Korea after years of study in the United States. She’d just graduated with a master’s in cello performance from Boston’s Berklee College of Music and was ready to win over new audiences at home with an unconventional playing style and a new sound for her classical instrument.

“I felt like, ‘Ok, I’m back! Big Violin Player is here!’ So, I planned to hold concerts and start everything in early 2020,” Lim says, using her musical moniker.

Then the coronavirus hit her country and all her shows and events were canceled.

A woman with a cello by a piano and a laptop

 

“… the pandemic wasn’t going to stop me from making music. I had a solution in using technology.”

It was a big setback. But this innovative artist soon overcame her disappointment and reframed it as an opportunity to do something really different.

“The pandemic made me ask myself, how can a musician get through this? I decided that the pandemic wasn’t going to stop me from making music. I had a solution in using technology.”

Unable to stage live events or physically get together with other musicians, she went online with her Microsoft Surface device and held virtual sessions via Teams that took her beyond South Korea.

She started playing with musicians she had studied with at Berklee, many of whom were also back in their home countries and grappling with the same question of how to stay creative during the pandemic.

“For six or seven months I just focused on making my own music, working with session musicians who are all over the world – the States, Spain, Iran, Turkey,” says Lim.

Instead of spontaneous jam sessions, she learned that the most effective way for her to engage with other musicians remotely was for each participant to prepare something in advance and then offer it up at the gathering, like a musical potluck.

“My usual online collaboration method is when I make one track, maybe a bassline, I then go and share that. I’ll also transcribe it as sheet music and distribute it to them in advance and see if they can add something.”

 

“For six or seven months I just focused on making my own music, working with session musicians who are all over the world – the States, Spain, Iran, Turkey.”

Lim operates out of her sixth-floor walkup studio in the artsy Hongdae area of Seoul, a university neighborhood that’s regarded as the city’s indie music hub.

When we caught up with her there recently, she switched the lights down low and switched on her Microsoft Surface laptop for a video call with a classical guitarist in California.

After a brief chat, the two musicians embarked on an improvised melody, with Lim adding a mellow, warm background to the guitarist’s picking.

After playing together on a couple of numbers, they spent a few minutes catching up and asking after mutual friends before signing off. 

Lim started to play the cello at age 5, going through classical training. She describes having spent countless hours playing the same sheet music over and over, mastering her technique.

 

“Many people have a stereotype of this instrument and are skeptical that it’s even possible to play different genres using the cello.”

After establishing this base of expertise, Lim felt free to seek her own identity as an artist. She started to contemplate what kind of music resonated with her most powerfully, and what kind of music she would like to make herself. She was drawn to more modern sounds than those traditionally associated with the cello.

“Many people have a stereotype of this instrument and are skeptical that it’s even possible to play different genres using the cello,” Lim says.

“But I quickly learned that the cello can be very cool. It can be used to make various kinds of music. It can play very beautiful music, very exciting music. It can play at a bass or a violin pitch. The spectrum is vast.”

Among the techniques she draws on, Lim uses a bow to create heart-rending classical sounds that would fit as the soundtrack to a romance film.

She then switches gears, using the bow to make short strokes, creating a funky, staccato rhythm that echoes hip hop. Then, going one step further, she puts the bow aside to use her fingers to pick and slap the strings, creating a bass-heavy thump.

 

“… the cello can be very cool. It can be used to make various kinds of music. It can play very beautiful music, very exciting music.”

A woman with a cello

As in any field with a strong sense of tradition, some purists have pushed back against Lim’s innovative use of the cello.

“There are classical musicians who have been mean to me, asking why I play this kind of style, because they have this rigid idea that the cello is a classical instrument and should only be used to make sounds that are beautiful, not funky. But the other half of people find it to be really interesting and cool.”

With vaccinations taking place around the world, including in South Korea, Lim is now coming to see the pandemic as an interlude on her musical journey. While nixing her outside activities, the past year has also allowed her time to create new sounds that she is looking forward to sharing.

“Like me, so many musicians have been inside for the past year just making music,” Lim says. “Now there’s going to be so much music to release, so many new things to do.”

A smiling woman standing with a cello with a city skyline in the background

Photos by Jean Chung.