C. Spencer Yeh performs at the Museum of Modern Art Warsaw in March 2014. Photo: Bartosz Stawiarski
For Sound Horizon, our series of free in-gallery music performances, we’ve invited critic and Tiny Mix Tapes editor Marvin Lin to share his perspective on each installment of this three-part program. While his first two pieces were informed responses to work by musicians Mary Halvorson and Vicky Chow / Tristan Perich, he concludes with an in-person interview with Sound Horizon 2016’s final artist, C. Spencer Yeh, who performs three sets on April 28.
C. Spencer Yeh is one of my favorite artists, but I’ve always had difficulty recommending his music to newcomers. Not because I don’t think they’d like it, but because his reach is so broad, his skill set so expansive, his conceptual inquiries so varied that plucking just one or even a few examples from such a rich body of work is inherently incomplete. In fact, the work I’d feel compelled to recommend most would actually be a fleeting live set at the End Times Festival (curated in 2006 by Minneapolis hero Matthew St-Germain), at which the very heart of the world erupted impossibly out of Yeh’s mouth through a simple setup of microphone and electronics, opening my eyes to the seemingly infinite possibilities of the voice while reducing me to a complete sobbing mess.
I first came across C. Spencer Yeh in the early 2000s. At that time, Yeh was still making a name as Burning Star Core, a constantly-shifting, ever-evolving project that quickly amassed a daunting heap of albums, CD-Rs, cassettes, and more. But while the project was often heard in the context of the then-burgeoning neo-noise scene, Burning Star Core’s fearless adventures into musique concrète, drone, and psychedelia, coupled with Yeh’s frantic, idiosyncratic use of violin—the instrument that has largely articulated his modus operandi—made the whole project feel much more than just an anomaly within an oftentimes suffocating, reified framework.
In fact, Yeh has spent a lot of the last decade proving as much. While Burning Star Core is currently in hibernation, the Taiwan-born, New York-residing artist has since become a key solo artist and ensemble player in a variety of compositional and improvisational settings, collaborating with everyone from Paul Flaherty, Weasel Walter, and Nate Wooley to Okkyung Lee, Colin Stetson, and Tony Conrad (RIP). But it’s his solo works and performances that have best captured what he’s all about (as much as he can be “about” something), which include such ideas as sound as gesture, genre as compositional opportunity, and amplification as instrument, with physical and conceptual investigations into texture, narrative, and disassociation. Whether it’s through crafted albums like Solo Violin (Tone Filth, 2007), pop experiments like Transitions (De Stijl, 2012), or incredible vocal workouts like Solo Voice I-X (Primary Information, 2015), Yeh has expanded not only the sonic and performative possibilities of voice, violin, and electronics, but also what kind of feelings they can evoke, what kind of sensualities they can take on, what kind of provocations they can incite.
Covers for Burning Star Core’s Challenger (Plastic Records, 2008), C. Spencer Yeh’s Transitions (De Stijl, 2012) and Solo Voice I-X (Primary Information, 2015)
Ahead of his April 28 performance to cap off this year’s Sound Horizon series, Yeh takes time out of his busy schedule to talk music, art, and film, the latter of which he studied at Chicago’s Northwestern University and has explored through installations and video work. His answers are as thoughtful and stimulating as his art, with grace, humor, and so little ego that it’s no surprise that one of his conceptual inquiries involves his own physical disappearance.
Marvin Lin: You’ve talked about horizontal composition versus vertical composition in the past. Can you speak about how these modes play out in your art?
Spencer Yeh: In sound and music, I often think about these modes in terms of improvisation and the idea of avoiding the usual arcs or peaks or ways in which these things play out. Thinking about the idea of walking into a situation that’s already in progress and however long you may wish to engage with it, and being able to walk away without a resolution or ending (climax, stop, applause) to commemorate or validate the experience. This isn’t to say one way is better than another, because certainly something more horizontal, like A to B, presents its own frame and challenges to have fun with. However, it’s interesting to enter into an improvised music situation thinking that you’d already begun performing and that when you end, the music and sound will go on without you.
In the case of an installation, the reader may spend only a few seconds to a few hours with a work, so maybe the idea is to create a sort of vibe where the idea or experience is communicated relatively instantly. One can get deeper into the experience, spending more time with it—if the work is “good,” of course. But, putting that aside, one could consider the open-ended ability of a reader within an “art” context to be as constricting as a horizontal presentation (concert, screening)—I don’t consider it compromising, but rather having to think about engagement differently. I think about this in my personal attempts over the years to engage with narrative film in this nonlinear way, which I’ve had difficulty with—the idea that someone would want to just crack a beer and watch their “favorite scene” in Goodfellas or something, and have that experience be that. Though that gets into the idea of a complete work becoming these smaller units and therefore new shorter works with their own trajectory (thinking again about how “favorite movie scenes” get propagated far beyond their original context and become the more popularly known iteration of the original).
Still from C. Spencer Yeh’s Travelogue: Cairo Egypt, 2015
So, this recent video work of mine Travelogue: Cairo Egypt had been screened a few times in its current form, a 30-minute video in four parts, A to B to C to D. However, the way those parts were set up and realized could easily become vertical—and effective, I think. Likewise, with the Solo Voice I-X record, ideas from that have been presented in installation environments recently and [that format] perhaps better realizes the ideas behind them. I’m thinking mostly the A-side, where you have these demonstrations of the ideas that are ideally free from duration because I’ve talked about removing the “brackets” around a phrase or voice. The modulations and variations within each vocal mode are part of realizing the idea effectively and aim to keep things from being too boring and looped: the installation may take 10 minutes before it loops, but you can get the gist within a minute or so. If you wanted to drive yourself crazy, you can hang around longer.
Lin: In your music, you’ve played with disassociation, and in your film work, you’ve played with the repurposing of cultural references. What interests you about disassociation and appropriation?
Yeh: I’ve spoken before about my disinterest in the act of appropriation as a political act instantly in-and-of-itself, but I should clarify that I wouldn’t consider myself, or my work, apolitical. It’s just that that isn’t the exclusive driving force behind working with existing or found material. I’m definitely interested in how works are put together, how visual and audio language are constructed, what expectations are fulfilled from the audience’s side—tropes, genres, narrative, what’s considered “abstract”—all that. But, I don’t think my work is about those concerns exclusively. I’m curious what the next step is in accepting appropriation as just another strategy to be folded into whatever we consider “original” strategies. I’d like to think that inquiry is just another lane of dialogue to play within, another element to consider. I think it’s funny when a politician appropriates some rock jam for their rally, and it just feels so off. I think it’s funny that for your kid’s birthday party you can take a snippet from The Revenant or whatever spectacle that cost millions to create and throw it into your budget iMovie video. I wish there was a word other than “funny” to best describe the feeling of something that elicits many emotions, oftentimes conflicting.
In the case of my Spectacle Theater movie trailers, it’s actually more interesting for me to think about the mode of being “within” the cultural references, to attempt to work within our own guidelines as well as the tradition of movie trailers, which has always been sensational and disruptive, and taking liberties with the original material and the promotional mission at hand. I hesitate to declare them all “improvements,” because of course they’re created under circumstances designed to encourage rough and weird results; it’s a particular texture and cadence for an intended audience, but the movie trailer form is accessible to most.
C. Spencer Yeh’s trailer for the Spectacle Theater screening of American Hunter (1988)
Lin: Since you started making music, the predominant conception of the ever-nebulous term “avant-garde” has changed, as it always does. Do you feel any particular affinity with or antagonism toward narratives like these? Is there a narrative or lineage that you feel a part of or at home within?
Yeh: I guess I understand the function of these terms in various conversations, but at the same time find them to be difficulties that you can bend some thoughts on. I suppose I’ve been wrestling with this “sound art” term for a while, and it can get antagonistic on my end, but perhaps that’s because it’s also fun and thought-provoking to push against these things. Like, you could say “freak folk” to someone, and while they may cover their ears and run, they’ll know generally what you mean. I don’t think “avant-garde” immediately connects me to others who say those things any more than “mouthfeel” connects oatmeal to bacon. Maybe that isn’t a decent metaphor. Rather, maybe it’s a certain enthusiasm or belief in whatever it means to proclaim yourself a particular thing or part of a particular idea. I do think I’m within a lineage and/or narrative, but I’m not sure exactly what that is any more than perhaps those who helped define and expand that zone. I fucking hate the term “foodie,” for instance, but I’m also curious why I hate it so much. I’m not in denial that I enjoy a good meal. Maybe it’s something to do with the idea that if you appreciate food, then you certainly must believe in or practice certain things—like having a table at Noma being just the ultimate goal. I think it would be annoying if I were asked what I did by someone maybe not in the dialogue, and me [in response] being all squirrelly and weird about terms instead of just coming out and saying “experimental.” At the same time, your “experimental” is not my “experimental,” but I understand what it is about having to organize the world, at times. Maybe it’s just a sense of worth and currency, of privilege that is expected when someone proudly declares their work “avant-garde” that I can find troubling.
Lin: Much of your music is partly defined, if not in opposition to, then at least in the absence of conventional melody and rhythms. Even the reception for the uncharacteristically pop-driven Transitions was partly defined by this relationship. Do you feel like melody and rhythm still inform what you do and how you approach your music? When there’s no audience in front of you, what role do they play in your life?
Yeh: In the past, when there was no audience in front of me, I felt freer to play around with these elements, despite whatever was going on in the scene, which is how some Burning Star Core works got developed, and maybe why at first they were snuck out in limited runs (thinking about Wildcats or Amelia). I would say my music isn’t in opposition to conventional melody and rhythm so much as it is trying to achieve alternate senses of tone and pulse—these alternate senses are perhaps niche popularly, but they can be just as fulfilling and sensual and meaningful as it is for some people to hear an Aerosmithian jam. Things get weak when conventional melody and rhythm becomes like mayonnaise, and Mom panics that whatever “weird” non-conventional dish she’s making may not be pleasing to the guests and throws mayonnaise on top of everything. You know what I mean? A really spicy Thai papaya salad isn’t being made solely to give the finger to a Caesar salad, with or without grilled chicken on top.
Burning Star Core performs live at New York’s Club Rehab, January 2008. Photo: Nikki Sneakers
The Transitions record—speaking of appropriation earlier—was partly a function of being curious how the music works and thinking about how I could construct something similar. However, that’s being done on an expert level by people fully working within the pop world and industry, and sometimes to dazzling results. For me, a lot about the project was also seeing what would happen if I put myself in a situation where I had the means to record a pop or songs record, just to see what would come out—a situation not dissimilar to the creation of vanity or private press records I felt inspired by. So on one hand, it was a bit of a detached exercise in looking at a process of creating songs and albums, but on the other hand, it was an engaged, almost psychoanalytic exercise. Like, what personal event am I writing cryptic lyrics about? I felt fully invested in those aspects, as well as trying to write something that I thought fun to listen to.
I’ve been thinking lately about what the model is for what ties together all these efforts, in sound, music, video, etc., and one thing I came up with was that I was creating in this backwards sense. Like, I came up a consumer, writing my own logical and emotional connections and systems from whatever I devoured—imagining, say, I encountered these formative works in some kind of future where our current histories and methods aren’t available. So I would go about figuring out how to achieve these results when all the available information was on the same level—like not having a sense of what the priority would be (most would instruct first that you should learn your instrument, right?).
Lin: A lot of what you do nowadays has continuity with your early work, but mythology and mystery seem to have receded into the background. Do you feel like they still factor into what you do these days? Why might that have changed?
Yeh: Basically, I started seeing terms like “personal mythology” popping up more frequently in many descriptions and text, and so I began to feel numb towards using such terms myself. The next step was then wondering what the heck I meant by using that term in the past—and I didn’t really have a good answer. I knew what it was supposed to do, which was hint towards this whole other system of thought and symbols and stories that I wasn’t willing to tell. No one I knew really seemed to be reading into and making connections about the bits of “personal mythology” that were scattered through recordings, track titles, etc., and it became clear to me that I didn’t really know what I was doing with all that in the end. But you run into that a lot—this intentionally obscuring thought that somehow that was exciting and alluring for an audience. You can wait around in the rain outside of a clubhouse for only so long before you wise up. It felt like some smoke and mirrors shit, and I had become increasingly bored or irritated with myself and this idea of not having to explain anything or to be able to talk about the work I was trying to do. Instead of keeping things mysterious and exciting, it felt unfocused and noncommittal, but I could get away with it by just waving “personal mythology” in the air. So I became more interested in trying to find connections between what I was trying to do musically and sonically, and also with other mediums, and in the process I found it led to more interesting narratives, which in turn led to even more stimulating thoughts that achieved what the past “myth and mystery” thing was attempting. All this being said, I do think there were some solid ideas at work in the past, and I don’t think that there was any better way to get on with whatever I’m doing now.
C. Spencer Yeh, 7, 2013
Lin: As sensual as it is, your work seems to spring from philosophical or theoretical frameworks, an investigation of sorts. How do you approach these investigations? Is there anything you’d like to explore that you haven’t yet?
Yeh: Well, one thing a few years ago I decided was to figure out how to basically “not be there” when presenting work. So, some of that goes into video or visual work, some of that goes into composition; it’s for some practical reasons, such as not being able to tour all the time, but it’s also where I find the work heading. Of course, I realize I had done a lot prior by mainly working on studio albums, which arguably is composition. I had tried performing as still as possible, performing obscured from the audience, being a slobbering maniac in front of an audience, etc. But I suppose the difference is that I’d like to go back and try all those again, but with more of an ability to know what I was trying to accomplish and why. To be secure in those decisions. I’m not ready to turn to what may be conventional methods of approach—I’m more interested in taking what may have been intuitively-developed working methods and then thinking about how they could grow or develop relative to themselves. A big part of that was to just accept that I was or wasn’t able to do certain things and finally move on from there. I suppose, though, that the investigation still seems very basic and similar to when I first set out doing stuff, which was creating stuff that I wanted to see and hear, to be a part of a conversation and see what I had to add to it.
In terms of things to explore, hmm, I’d have to break that into specific things. For example, this idea of “drone disco,” a term I’ve used forever; it would be interesting to actually try to fulfill that in this current climate of music. It would be a challenge to try to do another Burning Star Core record, to see what that would be like. I’ve been working to see what would happen with a committed investigation into other mediums, to see if there really is any reason for me to be there. Again, maybe these are bases which seemed like I’ve touched, but in the replay you see that maybe I only put a toe or two on.
Still from C. Spencer Yeh’s video Baby Birds (2009)
Lin: I’ve seen you play shows big and small, most often with collaborators, and the performances are often wildly different from each other. But in a solo context, you have much more control. Given your range as a performer, how much is your live show determined by the venue or context and how much is guided by your predominant interests at that specific time? What can we expect from your performance at the Walker?
Yeh: For the Walker, as I described to Doug Benidt there, I wanted to imagine that these shifts would be the times I would be allowed to occupy the space, that I have opportunity for any activity from whatever o’clock to whenever o’clock. I would be present and on view, of course, as attempting to obscure that would complicate things in a way I’m not desiring. But this framing helps me think about the verticality we discussed earlier and also pushes me to present performance in a way I usually don’t have the chance to. Thinking that I would start and immediately exist there as one would walking into the gallery in mid-performance. I feel a weight of “performance” expectation, the idea of doing A to C three times, and we’ll see where that goes in terms of how the audience (occupying the space as well) informs the decisions made. For example, if most people are just passing through, then that frees me up to do something less “linear,” something less about having to show all this shit I do within each shift. Maybe the only thing that would be cool would be an ability to just appear and disappear instantly, or to somehow start before any audience walks in. For now, though, I guess I’m aiming for maximum verticality and immersion—which currently would be organized by shift in varying approaches to the voice/violin/electronics formula—and if people would like to listen to the whole thing, they can, and maybe it would be an opportunity to hear the same saw sing differently. Or maybe it would be a passerby getting the impression that my life’s work is to imitate a popcorn maker and a bong.
C. Spencer Yeh performs in the Walker galleries at 6, 7, and 8 pm on Thursday, April 28, 2016.