so you wanna get into... c. spencer yeh
"How about if Mr. Big Face actually goes for it like Mr. Big Face?"
|Mar 9, 2020|
(photo by bartosz stawiarski via the minneapolis walker art center)
welcome to issue #8 of “tusk is better than rumours,” a newsletter featuring primers and album rankings of experimental and ‘outsider’ musicians. artist primers are published every second and fourth monday, and on the first and third mondays i publish a variety of articles ranging from label and genre primers to interviews to guest writers. this week we’re covering c. spencer yeh, violinist, electronic musician, video artist, guy who makes weird sounds with his mouth (compellingly, as you’ll see).
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alright everybody i have a good feeling about this one. i think that this issue will be looked upon fondly in coming years. i think that when the newsletter inevitably falls off in quality from “rambling” to “incoherent” y’all will cite this as an example of me at my prime. but ummm we’ll see.
this week we’re talking about c. spencer yeh, who operates within noise circles but doesn’t make music that you would call Noise with a capital N. by this i mean that he puts out a zillion albums, eps, cdrs, and cassettes and collaborates like mad with prurient and john wiese and the wolf eyes folks but his music is not grating. sometimes it’s downright pleasant. more than anything i would call it experimental.
i use the word experimental in the tagline of the newsletter (“primers and album rankings of experimental and ‘outsider’ musicians”) but i am very aware that it means next to nothing. most folk’ll slap it onto a record that is not experimental but simply “weird.” yeh himself has reservations about calling himself experimental, as he told tiny mix tapes’ marvin lin in an interview:
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.
but here’s what i mean by the word experimental. i’ll put it in classic dictionary definition format:
experimental (adj.): (of music) centered on the pursuit or exploration of new or untested techniques or methods of controlling sound for use in composition or improvisation
so you can tell i’m hedging my bets with all those “or’s” i threw in there but the main idea is that the artist is figuring out how a specific aspect of sound works by creating performances or recordings that explore it outside of any other technique. i’m thinking of alvin lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room, which explores natural reverb, or ellen fullman’s Long String Instrument, which explores how to create sound with longer-than-usual lengths of metal wire, or maryanne amacher’s “head rhythm 1 and plaything 2” which explores a psychoacoustic phenomenon called “otoacoustic emissions.”
very few musicians are actually experimental musicians according to this definition, including folks that i’ve already covered in the newsletter. but yeh is because he uses his violin and his voice to create extended techniques that produce new sounds, which he then uses in compositions or in live settings. this is obvious on albums like Solo Voice I-X or Solo Violin 1-10 but in his work with burning star core you can often hear early hints of such experiments.
finally, in a way, yeh’s entire oeuvre represents an experiment with the limits of artistic identity. this ongoing meta-experiment asks questions like “what defines a musical project?” and “what defines a person?” and in the case of solo careers “what is the difference between the two?” he began by labeling anything he produced “burning star core,” expecting that name to cover any new direction he would take. but eventually the signifier began to weaken under the weight of the disparate types of musical forms it was meant to refer to, so he switched to his own name. and maybe this is the Big Lesson to Take Away From All This: that there is no conceptual center that defines an artist, but only a physical one, and whether that physical body is leading a live band or making burbling mouth noises to itself, that is where we have to look for coherence. except, spoilers for anyone who’s keep track: can’t find it there either, so all we can do is make noise.
this guide is very straightforwardly broken up into three parts: Burning Star Core, which was yeh’s band; then his solo material; then a selection of collaborations. then a lil surprise at the end if you’re good and read every word.
Burning Star Core
burning star core was yeh’s band from the mid-nineties to about 2010. sometimes it consisted of just yeh, other times it would include up to seven people. too noisy for post-rock, too traditionally musical for noise, they’re best listened to as a vehicle for yeh to make statements about concepts that aren’t related to genre at all. that said i’m definitely going to pigeonhole a few of these albums into genres in the following:
Challenger (2008): let the pigeonholing commence: this the most post-rock, i.e. “pretty,” bsc album, and the one to put on if you’re trying to get an otherwise uninterested person into them. take it from someone who has tried to get many an uninterested person into them. it’s built like an album, with eight songs from three to six minute each, and there are melodies and identifiable instruments, which is saying a lot. trick somebody to get into the band with this one and then gradually turn the big cartoon knob towards “gnarly.”
(tied for first) Blood Lightning 2007 (2007): this one is tied for first because it’s the one i would actually recommend starting with if you don’t share any of those normie qualms about “melody” or “song structure” or “maintaining the health of your ears.” most indicative, i would say, of the violin-led semi-contained noise freakouts that defined bsc against the majority of similar acts of the aughts. the 10+ minute songs give you plenty of that, but two shorter tracks create a subtler and more sinister atmosphere around distorted voice and ping-ponging metallic sound effects.
Papercuts Theater (2010): this album is sourced from 66 live concerts that yeh edited into four 16-minutes pieces. it’s the “noisiest” album and so the most attractive to fans of prurient and wolf eyes and all them but its real interest comes from the questions it asks about our relationship to live + recorded sound—for instance, can you retroactively turn a bad show into a good record and if so how do you think about performance in the moment? untethered from notions of quality by the knowledge that you will eventually cannibalize the sounds you’re making, you have more freedom to take risks and therefore perhaps counter-intuitively make better improvisational choices. anyhow, aside from all that, it rips.
The Very Heart of the World (2005): this one may be the most representative of bsc, in that its four tracks each take one of yeh’s approaches to sound as its starting point. “benjamin” is an uneasy drone, “nyarlathotep” is an early experiment in nonsensical mouth noises, “catapults” is a perfectly cromulent post-rock piece, and “come back through me” is a noisy improvised freak-out. i’d say actually forget all that stuff that i just said about the first three albums and start with this, and then pick your favorite song, and then treat the rest of this guide as a choose-your-own-adventure based on that preference.
A Brighter Summer Day (2002): two songs, each about 16 minutes long. the title track is one of the rip-roaringest, uncompromisingest, climax-delayingest freakouts i’ve heard put to tape. the whole thing sounds like the peak of a lesser bands’ final song at their best concert. track two, “baybe it wasn’t meant to me,” is goofier and more uneven but still an a+ piece of staticky drone.
Operator Dead… Post Abandoned (2007): given the title and the artwork of this one i wouldn’t blame you if you thought that it existed in the orbit of do make say think and explosions in the sky and all them but in fact it is much better than those. well actually “me and my arrow” wouldn’t feel out of place on their albums… and “the emergency networks are taking over” either. BUT the first two tracks, the incredibly long ones, are in that Old BSC Style We Know and Love: big washes of distorted amelodic sound that are only held together (and barely) by trevor tremaine’s lurching percussion.
Everyday World of Bodies (2007): this one has some of bsc’s best songs (“shoot me out of the sky”) and also some of the songs that let’s say i could do without (“in love with a promise”). for completists only perhaps.
Mes Soldats Stupides ‘96-’04 (2005): if you were part of the noise resurgence of the early- to mid-aughts you simply have a shit-ton of cdrs and cassettes to your name. there’s no getting around that. an effect of this is what i’ve called elsewhere the “taxonomic drive” of noise fans, which is that urge to collect, categorize, and draw connections between noise musicians who are wildly prolific and collaborative. i’d go so far as to say that this is a fundamental element of the noise scene, but it ain’t for everyone. which brings us to Mes Soldats Stupides ‘96-’04, which is yeh’s sort of peace offering: it collects some, but not all, of the tracks that he released on these now-hard-to-find physical media. if you are simply interested in what old-school bsc sounds like, this is the place to start. if you want to hear absolutely everything they’ve released, though, You Might Just Be a Noise Fan. it’s place on this list is not related to its quality, just its lack of Essentialness.
yeh’s solo work foregrounds the most explicitly experimental aspects of his overall artistic project. these albums have a theme or a gimmick that slaps you across the face. if you’re more interested in “pure sound” than rock n roll start with these:
Solo Voice I-X (2015): i’m not sure if this is really yeh’s best solo record—my wife, who god bless her has to hear an unending stream of outlandish noise pouring from my headphones as i research these things—certainly doesn’t think so. but it is absolutely the record you will forever associate with him after hearing it. i know that there’s Nothing New Under the Sun and all but this comes close. yeh, for whom self-consciousness must not exist, invented a sequence of sounds with his mouth like those you make when you’re a kid bored by yourself in your room. he told bomb magazine:
Well, they’re specific to my own body and mouth. I had to figure out what I was naturally built for. For instance, I have a big face with big cheeks. I can make blubbery sounds. So I’ve developed what I’m able to do based on those qualities. It’s been an ongoing investigation to see what my natural abilities are, and, of course, how they decay over time. On those reality talent show programs, audiences are often delighted when someone with a big face and big cheeks sings like a hummingbird. How about if Mr. Big Face actually goes for it like Mr. Big Face?
the first half of the album is simply a recording of the extended techniques he invented, motorboating and slurping and smacking and popping. then the second half combines these techniques into more traditional (still not traditional) compositions. let yourself listen to it as pure human sound and it is hypnotic and unsettling and strangely relatable. try to make some of these sounds yourself, especially if you’re alone. i can’t do it, not for lack of skill but because i get embarrassed. wonder why that is?
RCA Mark II (2017): i wrote about this one for tiny mix tapes a few years ago so i’ll keep this brief but basically yeh found an old rca mark ii synthesizer at columbia university and used the physical object itself (it didn’t work anymore) to make an album. he recorded himself clicking and clacking buttons and rubbing the metal exterior to create a palette of sounds that he later edited into an album that sounds something like a cross between oval, snd, and autechre—if all those guys had to make do with a heap of broken wires.
Solo Violin 1-10 (2007): Solo Violin is like Solo Voice in that yeh creates extended techniques for his instrument of choice. the first section of the first track sounds like yeh is a giant who got mad at a violin and crumpled it up like a gum wrapper. it scrapes and crinkles and whines, and then later gets calmer and quietly hums, and still later whirrs like a food processor that you can faintly hear two doors down. the second track is generally much quieter, as if yeh is putting his violin to bed and having some trouble, until it ends with a booming bassy drone. listen to these first three albums listed here and then go back and listen to burning star core and you can see a through-line in yeh’s career as he picks out elements of raucous live improvisation to later quietly experiment with, and then re-insert into future live shows. rinse and repeat and get weirder and weirder.
1975 (2011): i like this one because it tells you what you’re in for: drone pieces (“drone”), voice pieces (“voice”), guitar pieces (“two guitars”), water dripping (“drips (skit)”). the only mysteries here are “au revoir…” and “…et bonne nuit,” which are meandering electronics pieces. oh, and “shrinkwrap from a solo saxophone cd (skit)” which now that i’m thinking about it is actually shrinkwrap from what happens to be a solo saxophone cd.
Transitions (2012): ok so alright so this one here is just let’s say Not For Me. it’s yeh’s “pop album” and sure it proves he’s got some lyrical chops but if you really dig this sort of thing just go to a john vanderslice or magnetic fields concert. i’m sure there’s a meta-genre argument to be made about how yeh is playing with the signifiers of the pop genre while simultaneously undermining them but i’m not the person to write that essay.
c. spencer yeh is both an inveterate collaborator and a veteran collaborator. if you go to his discogs page, which i’ve had reason to do over the past few days, you see an intimidating list of folks from tashi dorji to paul flaherty to okkyung lee to chris corsano. below i’ve picked just four such albums to get you started, focusing on Big Names in Noise and Minimalist Music, but according to my count there are uhh… too many to count. unranked:
Tony Conrad / C. Spencer Yeh / Michael F. Duch - Musculus Trapezius (2010): this is a recording of the trio of yeh with norwegian improviser and bassist michael f. duch and the iconic minimalist violinist tony conrad. the trio played in the sofienberg church in oslo without ever having played together before. the result is a quiet, pleasant, meditative exercise based around sparse piano parts until violin drones take over, as they are wont to do with conrad and yeh sharing space.
John Wiese / C. Spencer Yeh - Cincinnati (2008): this set of songs is pretty noisy, mostly electronic, featuring yeh’s voice and violin and informed by wiese’s predilection for piercing, startling tones. its short track lengths make for a lower barrier to entry because you have quite a variety of upsetting sounds to choose from if you don’t like what you’re currently listening to: you might prefer the cartoon vomit sounds of “weekend pass ii” or the dial-up nightmare of “coconut’s dream,” for example, to the brutal cacophony of “jungle jim.”
Aaron Dilloway / C. Spencer Yeh - The Squid (2007): in my day job i teach 19th century american literature so this one is right in my wheelhouse, with its moby dick references and general nautical theme, so maybe i have some preferences you may not share here but this is a good album. i like to imagine ahab finally appears abovedecks on the pequod and this is playing and he says “look here, i’d smite the sun if it insulted me, and… [visibly confused] where is that sound coming from? …what the fuck is a ‘bluetooth speaker’?”
Burning Star Core / Prurient - Ghosts of Niagara (2008): this was originally released as a set of 10 cassettes, each side of which is about five minutes long. the original run was only 100 copies so now when people talk about this they probably mean the digital version. i imagine that having the cassettes would make the whole thing more interesting because you would be forced to sit down and pay attention to each five-minute section before flipping the tape, whereas now you just throw it on and forget it a la ron popeil.
one thing i’ve noticed is that yeh seems to have a calming or restraining effect on these noise artists he works with, as any given wolf eyes release is 1000 times more abrasive than The Squid and any sissy spacek release is maybe 100 times more abrasive than Cincinnati. although things like Modern Jester are relatively tame. hmm i bet there’s a whole theory that could be cooked up re: noise musicians’ careers evolving according to a sort of said-ian “late style” trajectory. i’m going to work on that right now, be back in about 20 years. in the meantime, here’s a…
Extra Bonus Surprise
alright so like i say yeh solo and burning star core both put out an insane amount of releases and are therefore of interest to discography-chasers. the rarest of the rare are things like burning star core’s Hello? cdr which came in a limited edition of, i kid you not, six copies. but a relatively rare find is burning star core’s A Definitive Party Atmosphere/Teen Hearts? Theme Parks! reissue that yeh’s dronedisco label put out in 2002. these were originally dronedisco’s first and fourth releases, which puts them between 1996-1998. you can hear some curious stuff here—tracks like “christmastime (on colony cpl5938)” and “hi! i’m p.e.e.h.” suggests that Transitions is not a completely new endeavor but a return to slightly damaged pop songs that yeh was writing very early in his career. “blood lightning pt. 13” is maybe the earliest evidence of what would become burning star core’s modus operandi. again, this is juvenilia that is interesting for the insight that it gives to yeh’s future work more than it is great music on its own, but it’s not without its charm.
if you want the album, download it quick because the wetransfer link dies in one week. also, if you have any information about it lemme know because its provenance is very sketchy—the main evidence i have linking it to yeh is this wfmu radio show and this 2002 blog post :( but it sure sounds like an early yeh pop project.
finally i’d feel remiss in my duties as Guide to Yeh if i didn’t share this fantastic and fantastically-shot live performance that he put on at the contemporary arts museum houston. in it he demonstrates extended techniques that he developed for both mouth and violin. watch it and enjoy and see you next week: