[The Knells'] lyrics ponder cosmic conditions and cycles — time, space, dissolution, regeneration — and they are sung by three women, often in cascading counterpoint that can invoke Renaissance polyphony or Minimalism. The songs aren't verse-chorus-verse; they sweep ahead, through passages of tolling solo electric guitar, of elegiac vocal melodies and harmonies, of note-bending quasi-Indian strings and guitar, of progressive-rock processionals. The classical training and female harmonies can make the Knells similar to Dirty Projectors, but this band looks toward Europe and tone poems rather than Africa and pop. Instead of hooks there are sustained dramatic arcs, meticulous and serpentine.
—The New York Times, December 1, 2013
[The Knells is...] A song cycle of quasi-classical, quasi-psychedelic head music by a group led by Andrew McKenna Lee, a rising new-music guitarist and composer.
—The New Republic, December 26, 2013
The Knells' self-titled debut album must be one of the most original-sounding albums released in 2013. The hour-long recording captures the group... boldly collapsing whatever gaps are taken to exist between prog, rock, and classical genres.
—Textura, December 2013
For additional press on The Knells, please go here.
Lee had the audience completely in his thrall within the first few measures: a fast-and-furious, largely-improvised display of technical dexterity that someone like McKenna Lee would call a warm-up and the rest of us would call, well, impossible. Underneath all the virtuosity, though, were thoughtfully interwoven melodic lines and a compelling harmonic sense. The use of a traditional Celtic tuning lent the first piece a folky feel, but there were hints of jazz and American blues, striking dissonance and percussive slaps to the body of the guitar. Nothing felt out of place.
—I Care If You Listen, February 10, 2012
Lee and his percussionist, Michael McCurdy, spun out an imaginative frenzy of notes and effects... Lee showed considerable technical prowess as the piece was filled with devilishly difficult fingerwork. Dense, tight harmonies shifted along with strumming patterns and picked notes filled the air leaving precious little breath in the music, yet the whole was consistently engaging.
Again with McCurdy, Lee utilized electric guitar and three looping machines in a highly effective performance of his Unraveling. In experiencing this work one risks missing the overall effect and groove of the music when caught up in McCurdy's fascinating mallet and bow work on vibraphone among the rest of his battery of percussive tools.
—Sarasota Herald Tribune, September 20, 2010
The Five Refractions of a Prelude by Bach is a staggeringly inventive and virtuosic set of variations... From the very beginning we hear a tremendous musical and guitaristic mind at work in the melodic shapes, harmonic ideas, and especially textural integration of notes played by both hands with those played by the left and embedded harmonics. Parts of the piece are delicately beautiful, while others are aggressive and violent, but integrated into a stunning whole...
the dark out of the nighttime—the title taken from a song by Bob Dylan—is likewise substantial and inventive work. While Lee is a fine guitarist, as a composer he is not limited to the instrument: flute, viola, guitar, and harp are each used idiomatically yet innovatively, with a marvelous exploration of the sonorities which can result from their combinations.
I have absolutely no idea what the composer was going for in Scordatura Suite... There is ferociously violent playing followed by meditative, reflective moments, as well as highly original deployment of non-traditional techniques all over the instrument... I'm not sure if he was going for the rock/classical synthesis, but if he was, it's the best effort of its kind I have yet heard.
—Soundboard, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3
Taken as a whole, the composition [Five Refractions] was intellectually engaging... but also skillfully paced rhetorically to give the sequence of movements a sense of a journey that ends with an energetic toccata.
One might say that, in each of the works he performed, Lee tried to seek out the most appropriate "voice" for his guitar; and he always seemed to succeed, regardless of what he was playing... His approach to performance always summoned the concentration of the listener, but that concentration was always rewarded by the time each work he offered came to its conclusion.
—San Francisco Examiner, May 22, 2010
"I got [Electric Counterpoint] by Andrew McKenna Lee and it's great! A magnificent performance beautifully recorded."
"Andrew McKenna Lee made a strong impression with his early 2009 recording Gravity and Air and now makes perhaps an even stronger impression with his latest collection Solar/Electric. Though the recording's only thirty-five minutes long, it feels more substantial, perhaps because the opener in particular is so densely packed with sounds. What distinguishes Solar/Electric most, however, is the contrast that emerges when the raw unpredictability of the Hendrix homage is juxtaposed against the cerebral lockstep of the Reich piece. Hearing the one immediately after the other may be jarring but not unappealingly so. Instead, the radical shift in tone brings into sharp relief Lee's range and the ease with which he's able to excel in different contexts."
"...a fabulous recording of Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint... this performance seems the way the music has always meant to be. Lee's production and attack are bright and full of verve, the articulation of each note makes the music almost dance and pushes it forward with a supple, flexible feeling for rhythm and tempo... an absolutely beautiful sonic surface and depth. His emphasis on what he hears as the important elements of Reich's counterpoint and beat show a tremendous feeling for and understanding of the music, and his slow middle movement is as lyrical as a great pop song... It's absolutely stunning and is a real masterpiece of instrumental performance."
—George Grella, The Big City
Gravity and Air named one of the "Top Ten Classical Albums of 2009" in Timeout Chicago!
"The fretwork of guitarist Andrew McKenna Lee is nothing short of remarkable. Opening Gravity and Air with an homage to Bach—a sensuous rendition of “Prelude for Lute in D Minor, BWV 999”—Lee continues with five gorgeous “Refractions,” or responses, to the “Prelude.” Discover an altered sense of the passage of time with this remarkably introspective album."
—Doyle Armbrust, Time Out Chicago
"The inventive and exciting guitarist/composer Andrew McKenna Lee... is an astoundingly virtuosic guitar player... and far more importantly, he is a thoughtful and original composer, one who is continually finding new ways to work the guitar's rougher, more sensual textures into classical frameworks... A singular modern voice for an instrument sorely in need of one."
—Jayson Greene, Wondering Sound
"Gravity and Air is a ravishing collection of classical guitar playing and (with one exception) original compositions from Andrew McKenna Lee... On purely sonic grounds, his playing tends as much towards elegant restraint as it does aggressive exuberance... Gravity and Air is no exercise in polite wallpaper music, in other words. At no time is Lee's obviously virtuosic command of the instrument gratuitously showcased; instead, the focus shines equally on his stunning guitar playing and his ambitious large-scale compositions."
"...Andrew played solo, and that constituted the most dazzling portion of the evening... What impressed me most was the amount of textures Lee pulled out of the guitar — rough, sensual sounds, full of percussive tapping and scraping strings; thick strumming; startlingly loud plunks done with the thumb; and lilting, flamenco-ish finger-picking... it was truly a captivating show."
“It’s audacious and effective… Lee capture’s the ear immediately with the sound of shared intimacy, and then proceeds through a series of imaginative, skillful variations that are clearly grounded in their formal Baroque antecedents; Lee is a master of contrapuntal playing and builds on that as each variation gradually moves away from counterpoint into more abstract, improvisatory playing. The music is intriguing and satisfying, opening new questions that seek answer within the piece.”
—George Grella,The Big City
on Five Refractions, January 2009
“Lee, a South Carolina native, is currently enrolled in the Ph.D. composition program at Princeton University, so clearly the man knows his stuff. But does that translate to music you’ll want to listen to? Absolutely… Gravity and Air is a pleasure to listen to… it’s clearly the work of a very talented artist who has a lot to say, and I look forward to hearing more from him.”
—grayflannelsuit.net, January 2009
“Andrew McKenna Lee is a highly technical guitarist who combines snatches of classical, jazz and rock styles in an awe-inspiring display of agility.”
—Time Out New York, January 2009
“Mr. Lee, who writes his own technique-testing showpieces, works in the self-contained tradition of the 18th- and 19th-century virtuoso-composer… with echoes of Tárrega, Falla and other stalwarts of the guitar repertory providing a warm patina to [his] energetic playing.”
—The New York Times, Nov. 21, 2008
“... a flurry of notes from the strings and woodwinds builds until joined by the brass, which falls away to leave the violins on a tense spiccato (quickly bouncing bow) chord... the excitement is undeniable, the three-against-two feel in a late march-like section coming through...”
—Symphony Magazine online, League of American Orchestras
on For Dear Life, May 2008, American Composers Orchestra
“… an oeuvre which has never stood still and has constantly diversified - McKenna Lee is just as adept at scoring within a classical setting as for electronic textures, and his definition of the latter includes Jimi Hendrix just as naturally as the former does Bach… In his solo guitar pieces, counterpoints are just as present as Western guitar techniques and Flamenco influences, while atmospheric passages clash with dazzling virtuosity. The border with his electronic work is fluent: a piece like Sunrise from the Bottom of the Sea again relies on the electric guitar, albeit in combination with pre-recorded material, and fluently makes the transition to a more spacious mix of bent concrete sounds with long, sustained tones. This only goes to prove that Andrew not merely considers diversity as a goal for his overall career, but for the body of his compositions as well.”
—Tokafi, July 2007
“There are recordings for many, many of his excellent works, and Lee’s own performances on guitar are just phenomenal (for a stunning combination of the two, find his [Five Refractions of] a Prelude by Bach or his Scordatura Suite).”
—Steve Layton, Sequenza 21
“... Lee's command of his style must be respected. His orchestration is precise, the composition balanced with clear directional goals and the means to get there."
—The New Jersey Star Ledger, July 25, 2002
on the premiere of Vortices, July 2002, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra
“Andrew [McKenna] Lee is an extraordinary young composer… full of imagination [and] technical expertise… Beyond that, his music has a humanity which I find moving and unusual.”
—David Del Tredici, Composer, Pulitzer Prize winner
“... his creative imagination, technique, and search for what is authentic is most impressive for a composer of any age…”
—Richard Danielpour, Composer, Faculty: Curtis Institute and Manhattan School of Music
Interviews and other bits
Interview about The Knells with New Amsterdam Records
An interview with Andrew McKenna Lee by Gideon Broshy of New Amsterdam Records
Interview on Tokafi (2013)
An interview with Andrew McKenna Lee by Tobias Fischer from Tokafi, a new music magazine a Berlin, Germany
Interview on Textura
Members of The Knells discuss the making of the album in Textura's "Backtracking" feature
Feature in the Sarasota Herald Tribune
A short interview/feature by Susan L. Rife
Feature in the San Francisco Classical Voice
A short interview/feature by Jeff Kaliss
Interview on Tokafi (2007)
An interview that appeared on the new music website Tokafi earlier in the summer of 2007. Many thanks to Tobias Fischer for inviting me to participate, and for his generous introduction to my work.