Q&A: C. Spencer Yeh On Self-Definition, The Perils Of Sequencing, And Going Semi-Indie


Tonight, the prolix, improvisation-happy Ohioan C. Spencer Yeh will play a set with cellist Okkyung Lee and pianist Magda Mayas at the Knitting Factory. And while there’s no way to predict what his set might sound like, it’s a fair bet that it’ll differ from the two shows he played last week and from his forthcoming solo album 1975, due out Oct. 1 on Intransitive Recordings. To qualify as an official Yeh stan, one should possess (a) tons of shelf and hard/or drive space, (b) a dedicated credit card, and (c) a strong sense of musical adventure.

From the bicycle-chain scrape of 2006’s Solo Violin I-X to the abstract crack jazz he’s made with Storm of Corpses to the fanged, chronological layer-cake Papercuts Theater (recorded with Burning Star Core, his long-running noise project with members of Lexington, Kentucky grist-atomizers Hair Police) to the giddy sides cut with Cali laptop-noise guy John Wiese, Yeh’s sprawling, multi-instrumental oeuvre can be summed up in one word: “possibility.” (You can sample a few of them here.)

1975, by contrast, can come across at first blush as stubbornly incurious, insular, slight, and too fussed over; like a cavernous gallery space of canvases painted a stark white, it sometimes doesn’t seem to go far enough. The first half is all ooze: drones come on like augurs turning in slow motion; masticated vocalizations get the Jiffy Pop treatment; tremulous, ribbon-like tones that breed like domesticated rabbits when not inching in and out of earshot. Antagonistic track-titling doesn’t help much. (No kidding, there are three songs on this album entitled “Drone.”) Even when Yeh ups the edge—as on contextually abrasive cuts labeled as skits, and some abrasive-given-the-context delirium-o-ramas—everything initially feels infused with a degree of antiseptic hesitancy.

Then something strange happens: 1975‘s studied insolvency wins by imperceptibly softening into a cozy, alien hang suite, its innate insolvency an asset for those Beats By Dre headphone moments when traditional ambient is too contiguous, hard noise is too brutal, and you’re feening for a diffuse sound that’s less Tazer-shock intense than low-impact cerebral massage. In other words, if you can’t identify which song you’re listening to most points on 1975—and if you can barely muster the will to check—that’s pretty much as it should be.

Sound of the City recently emailed with Yeh about 1975, how hip-hop doesn’t own the concept of skits, and the violin as albatross.

1975 is the year of your birth; what was the significance or titling this particular collection of songs as such?

I feel like you can only get away with using this sort of thing as a title once in your life, so I thought for what I considered my first proper solo record, why not? I just that read The-Dream put out a record called 1977, and under his own name as well. I think he was chasing after some kind of emotional and personal vulnerability, by just stripping away the pseudonym and “laying bare” and being as concrete as possible.

I find that sometimes in being very concrete and specific—or dry, if you will—you actually achieve a way more evocative effect; not always so much in interpretation, but more so stimulating and soliciting an audience’s own specific moments and thoughts towards the work. Like some kind of theme party with a very specific dress code dictated; you end up with all these personal interpretations of “tropical” or “cocktail” that people dress themselves up in. People shouldn’t just bring themselves in jeans and t-shirts to an affair called 1975, versus, say, Points On A Line Tracing The Horizon Birth More Lines And Points.

I’m interested in the sense in which you think of this as your “first proper solo record”; I mean, you’ve had a few releases over the past couple years bearing your name alone, some CDrs and LPs and such. How is 1975 different from those?

It’s just the first collection of material that hadn’t seen proper release that I felt conceptually—as both a whole and in parts—works to fulfill whatever criteria I have for such a thing. For example, previous records included the solo violin record on Tone Filth that was a re-edit of prepared violin studies I had done previously on cassette, and others were mostly collaborations. So those records sort of had concerns and circumstances around them which really kept the work grounded in a category. I guess you can look at Kevin Drumm’s first record, which I helped produce a vinyl reissue of for the label Thin Wrist; though you can consider it a solo improv record, it really has a sort of arc and feel that makes it more than just a series of instant compositions. It feels like a statement beyond collected noodling; that it’s “just guitar” really just adds a layer of tension that expands the work and the air around it, rather than grounding it.

I wasn’t thinking about the whole “first proper solo” at the time these works were created, but at a certain point I had these various pieces sitting around which didn’t really fit into other projects or contexts; I thought they were fine by themselves, that was about it. Over time as these particular pieces were created, they sort of made friends with each other on the bench, and after a while decided to throw a themed party called 1975. In some ways I found this the first opportunity that felt best to say “fuck it, this is my big statement for now” and then I can move on and build from there. The stakes can be higher next time of course; if your first party is a ripper, you better be ready with buckets of animal blood next time. Though I feel like 1975 is one of those thirty something sort of parties where everyone just sort of sits there, sipping drinks, and staring at the walls, realizing they’re just not up for making prank calls or running around naked anymore.

1975 to me is interesting in the sense that it doesn’t entirely feel like a departure from Burning Star Core albums like Challenger or Cincinnati; those albums had cuts like these, sort of staring-contest drone studies and blazing-kindling electronics freak-outs that feel fractal but are really pretty controlled. But by grouping so many specimens from this genus in one place—these more austere, contemplative pieces—that they come into sharper focus, their differences reveal themselves. There’s a real sense of humor here, like on the fourth track, “Voice,” there’s a fractured, skipping blip that recalls Woody Woodpecker; and when I noticed that you’d labeled the two tracks most possibly associated with natural real-world sounds as “skits,” I had to laugh, since skits are usually the province of hip-hop.

There’s definitely an adjustment of one’s ears and brain when approaching these pieces; sort of a shift in expectation that’s necessary, and yeah, part of the reason why these tracks all ended up on 1975 is because of what you had observed. Especially like with some of the Burning Star Core material, or other collaborative works where there is a bit more of a “narrative” content constantly being pushed forward; information of changes and things unfolding. Whereas with 1975—though I suppose there is similar peripheral content in terms of the sequencing of the tracks, track title, album title, photos, and so on—the dominant expectation of progression in music, even experimental, is put in the backseat.

The pressure of waiting for “what’s next” is hopefully off. You can just put a track on and hang out with it in a vertical sense, versus sort of following it for a more linear information. I’ve actually hung out with these tracks for a long time before even considering letting them out of their virtual cages.

And yeah, good catch there on the “skits” reference. Those “skit” tracks are the closest to pure field recordings, much in the same way that the skits on rap albums attempt to present this enhanced “slice of life” moment of the artist. So instead of prank calling my lawyer or flirting with a cop, I’m unwrapping this Bhob Rainey CD and messing around with it.

Have you ever prank called a lawyer?

I’m not going to answer that until I talk to my lawyer.

What was the timeframe over which these songs were recorded, and what kind of equipment did you use? One constant I notice across the board is how sounds constantly fade and drop out, then reconstitute themselves shortly thereafter; if one isn’t keeping an eye on the clock and the track numbers, this has the effect of framing 1975 as a long, winding series of snapshots as opposed to 11 defined compositions. It’s an easy album to get lost in.

I’d say the earliest work was probably from 2005 or so: the source material that was then re-edited into the last two tracks, as well as the two prepared guitar pieces. It was the idea of just sort of “stumbling into” this sound world that seems like it’s in progress, and would be there regardless of the track’s beginning or ending; that was the feel I was going for, and I feel it unifies the works.

Here’s something I’ve wanted to ask you for a while: when or if you ever think about yourself as a musician, do you self-identify as a violinist or an electronics manipulator or simply as a musician or conduit of sound? And I ask this because as I’ve written about your work over the years designations like “violinist/electronics guy” seem to fit less and less; it’s become more and more difficult to pinpoint which instrument or device is causing what tone or effect; in this sense, definitely, there’s a lot of distance between Let’s Play Wild Like Wildcats Do or Blood Lightning 2007 and 1975.

I appreciate you asking this, because I feel like it doesn’t come up very often. I can go on and on insisting that I do all this other sort of stuff, but if most people see pictures of me with just a violin, and I keep showing up to gigs with just a violin, then guess what? That being said, out of the four choices you mentioned, I would pick “conduit of sound.” I play whatever I can get my hands on, to achieve what I’m wanting to hear, while being filtered through the limitations of my ability. My overall practice with music isn’t strictly centered around the violin, but a very fulfilling part of what I do does involve my long relationship with that instrument. The same way how my work as an artist has mostly been in the sound/music field, yet I would say my overall concerns, working methods, and influences in the musical practice branch into other mediums as well—something that I find is quite happily common with many other artists and peers.

Maybe I can frame these thoughts within the differences I perceive between my studio and my performance practices. I am into the idea that the studio practice is maximal; anything and everything is available and possible. As mentioned above, I totally draw parallels with my background and work in film and video: you shoot what you need to get (and if you can’t get a certain shot, you fake it) and then the post-production, the processing and editing, is a whole other deal. But in terms of the live performances—and I’m talking more so about the solo and collaborative improv stuff, versus Burning Star Core, by the way—I’ve been mostly challenging myself with the limitation of just a violin and microphones with no effects or preparations, pushed through a PA. It feels right for something happening in the moment, in real-time, between myself and whatever audience and room. I’ve been slowly reincorporating other instruments and elements again this past year or so, to sort of create new challenges within that practice and circumstance.

I should mention that there’s no violin on 1975.

In a lot of ways you save the best for last, with nine simpler tracks building up to the more involved, more “mad, fevered pianist” head rush of the last two: “Au Revoir…” and “…Et Bonn Nuit”. It’s almost as though you spend most of the album suckering the listener into your web, then at the end you spring a trap. Can you tell me a bit about the last two songs? Were they written as a set?

They were written originally as a few pieces, actually. Maybe you can call them “studies”; some improvisations that were then processed. I thought they were stronger when edited together, so in some ways saving the most overtly layered and edited pieces for the end, though it’s a sort of basic sequencing move, seemed to make the most sense. They function as a sort of “part one” and “part two,” like the prepared guitar pieces, which in turn also mirror the juxtaposition of the pieces which begin the album, where instead of making one long track, it’s intentional to have them be cut up into parts as individual works. It’s not “Drone 1,” “Drone 2,” “Drone 3,” though they are intentionally placed in a specific order. I think the works function fine as individual tracks/pieces, but as we had discussed, the hope is that they’d also be taken in within the context of their sequence in 1975, as if they were all movements.

Anyways, fucking around with things like that and the questions they raise about the work, to me, is definitely a part of the process I like to think about, even if it isn’t overtly presented in any accompanying notes or instructions. Also, my personal opinion is that 1975 works best in the CD and digital formats as opposed to on LP or cassette, just because of the conceptual limitations within the idea of “tracks.”

Does the process of arranging and sequencing recordings for a release ever stymie you to the point where it kneecaps the whole project, to the degree where you have to put it aside and move onto something else?

Sure, the same way any other process sort of becomes an obstacle. Usually I do put it aside until whatever inspired moment strikes and I start to really see a shape for the whole thing. From there, things usually fall into place pretty quickly. Sometimes it can be the same for me as writing—I used to write starting from the middle, then out, then bits of the start and ending, and then it’s like dominoes from there. For 1975, the entire record did go through a number of drafts and sequences before I finally found a shape that worked as an album. Deciding to divide some works into parts really was sort of the “breakthrough” moment. There were a couple more “skit” tracks, as well as a live “bonus track” which ultimately were left out because it fucked up the overall record; I didn’t want this to become an overstuffed suitcase as CDs can become, you know. I’m still pretty happy with the final. Usually I look at a “finished” work and I can’t help but feel like I should’ve done this or that or something else, pretty much right away.

How was track seven—the first of the two songs titled “Two Guitars”—made? The droning element that’s there throughout is undeniably guitar, but the other one is harder to pin down, it’s less steady and more raw in a eczema way.

The title for those works was originally something along the lines of “Work for Electric Guitar, E-Bow, Paper (2005)” but then that level of transparency and detail just seemed too much. The raw bit is the paper, sort of scratching itself against the vibrating string. The piece was recorded acoustically, but on electric guitar, so that the resonance of the string stayed pretty dead beyond the string itself. And it’s “Two Guitars” because it’s multi-tracked, etc. Why guitar? I don’t know.

I like “Two Guitars” as a title; there’s something very arch and avant-garde about that, very-first principles. And it’s funny, of course, because there are a trillion songs featuring two guitars. At first I was thrown by some of your duplicate titling, but I’ve come around to it, maybe because it throws the onus off of you as an artist and creator, and dissuades preconceptions, and forces the listener to zero in on the music itself; no clutter.

Yeah, that’s always a thing, right? No clutter: when does it get reasonable, and where is it a little too dry or cloying? When does it sort of seem a little too snide or snobbish? I feel like I tend to overcompensate in trying to present or discuss any sorts of these things, so lately I’ve really been trying to figure out how to be concise merely by sort of trusting myself a bit more, and not wanting to over-dress for the party. You know, like have part of your costume be a big sign that sort of explains “the joke.”

I feel like in writing—for example, writing notes and then rendering them into art for tape sets I’ve put out—I end up with all sorts of punctuation marks and crap like that. My typographer friends told me that all that does is clutter up what you are trying to say, that it crowds it visually, even though my intention was thinking that all the commas and dashes and crap somehow help deliver the message better. I don’t know if it’s just a tradition thing or a placeholder or what, but in stand-up comedy, once the punch line or whatever is delivered, and the audience is laughing, I’ve noticed the comedian sometimes repeats the punch line less energetically and then briefly mumbles an explanation. That’s always bugged me for some reason, but I feel like I’ve done the equivalent before in various ways—like in a live improv setting.

Voice, electronic processing, guitars, violins; you’ve done a lot with each of these mediums, conventionally and unconventionally. Are there any sounds you want to explore but either haven’t gotten around to or are uncertain about? Will we ever hear a C. Spencer Yeh gamelan gatefold triple LP?

There was a time a few years ago where I really wanted to make an all-acoustic—or maybe even all-percussion—Burning Star Core record, but I never got around to sorting that out. Maybe at some point I’ll reconsider the concept and sort of realize it in a different fashion. Also, in terms of records, I haven’t really made any sort of “official” recordings of the voice and violin improvisations that I’ve been doing live for the last few years. I mean, I have some shitty recordings of myself sitting around, and/or on tape or CD-R. I don’t count official recordings of collaborations in improvisation though (anything duo or greater); for various reasons, conceptual and otherwise, that’s somehow exempt from this hesitation.

Having someone else in the picture with you, it immediately becomes the capturing of a moment, a conversation or exchange. If you got a picture taken with, say, The-Dream, you may not be as self-conscious and critical about how your hair looks or whether there is shit in your teeth, before you tweet it or whatever. Even though I generally understand and can appreciate the practice of documenting, I just don’t know if I’ve felt a key time for it in terms of this aspect of my solo practice. I think the idea of a triple LP with instruments and/or sounds I haven’t really worked with at all would be great, however. Watch out for that in the future! Something like oboe, gamelan, KAOSS pad.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about your “In The Blink of An Eye” 7-inch. There were, I imagine, some raised eyebrows over the experimental indie-rock nature of that song, but it’s a gnarly, bent little ditty—sort of a parody of mope rock, to my ears, a distant cousin to “Float On,” maybe—and I think that people forget that there are lots of precedents for this sort of sea change in underground rock; the career of David Pajo is a prime example. What has the life of “Eye” been like since the 7-inch dropped? Are people confused? Do they yell out for you to play it at shows? Are you considering releasing it as an mp3?

I’m actually working on a full-length of songs to follow the 7-inch. I’d say right now it’s about 80 percent done, but you know, it has to be put under the same process not totally unlike what 1975 went through, except I’m not hoping to sit on these tracks for years. There was a tipping point where I had a few tracks and ideas, but then the whole arc of the record sort of revealed itself to me.

Anyways, life since the single hasn’t really been that much different, all things considered. I guess the people who’ve really really been following the work for a really really long time know that I’ve messed around with various forms before. De Stijl is actually reissuing a bunch of songs done in 2002, as sort of a bridge between the single and the coming full-length.

At the time of the 90s “underground” or whatever, you had people sort of throwing whatever they wanted on a cassette tape—noise right next to song, right next to who knows—and I feel like there was an amount of influence from that. But in the last ten-plus years, there’s unprecedented access to tools and special effects and all sorts of crap, so while I’m free from the constraints of the four-track recorder, I’m not free from the constraints that I can’t really play guitar, nor sing.

On one hand, I’m curious what people who aren’t familiar with all the other stuff that I do, what they think, but on the other hand I’d be sort of afraid to go head-to-head with anyone who’s “naturally disposed” towards this form. I just don’t have the “craft” aspect down I always feel like, within these respective forms or genres or whatever, but fuck it, I’m going to give it a go, you know?

C. Spencer Yeh, Magda Mayas, and Okkyung Lee play the Knitting Factory tonight with the Glacial Trio (featuring Lee Ranaldo, David Watson, and Tony Buck) and Man Forever.