Interview

C.Spencer Yeh

C.Spencer Yeh

Friday 30th September, 2011 10:14AM

Brooklyn based C.Spencer Yeh is the latest artist to tour as part of the Altmusic 2011 programme. We put a few questions to Yeh ahead of his tour...

How do you differentiate between your different projects: Burning Star Core, solo playing, collaborations...?

I get asked this question quite a bit, and usually use it as an opportunity to openly work out my thoughts on the matter. There's not a simple answer yet, to where I can say "Burning Star Core is me and my niece on turntables and electronics, but under my own name, I'm just playing saxophone - mostly in tunnels." Regardless, I'll give it a go as to what I've figured out to be the case currently - Burning Star Core is playing around with the idea of being an actual band/entity, and activity under my own name is just covering improvisational and compositional interests outside of that project. With BxC, for the ideas I had, I needed something more panoramic than just my own name - not like a pseudonym, but something which sets that project away and larger than just myself. At this point BxC has enough of its own history and individual mythology that it's on its own trajectory - I have to keep all that in mind every time I plot and plan what's next, so I feel like the possibilities are linear. Livewise, it involves myself and sometimes other selected fixed collaborators, in a more elaborate pre-defined situation; for the last few years there's been more and more of a "setlist." I would put collaborations under my own name generally under the same umbrella as outside of BxC, as I feel, at least in terms of live improvisational situations, I tend to bring more of the instinct and language that I've developed in my solo playing. Same goes for collaboration compositions under my own name, vs. the collaborations that BxC has been involved with. The "C S Yeh" thing, that's a whole other story there.

Your performance energy brings to mind fire music/free jazz, were you influenced by this music?

Yes, I would have to say I am - but more so due to being a fan and having been exposed to excellent recordings and playing I've witnessed in formative years. I cannot claim that I come out of, or am close to the tradition of 'free jazz' - some peers of mine that I work with are way more schooled and skilled in that aspect. However, I can't deny that the ideas and energy, particularly with the more fiery and 'out' styles - those aspects I sort of took and pushed them through my own wringer, along with the feel of free playing I absorbed from other improvisational musics I was checking out (Japanese noise, electroacoustic, noise rock, even "drone" etc. etc.).

How do you approach free improvisation and does your approach change with voice/violin?

Sometimes I sort of feel like I'm just playing the same thing with both voice and violin, in terms of my own sense of pulse and phrasing and whatnot - and ideally it would feel the same were I to be faced with instruments or methods I'm not as familiar with (though results of interest to any audience aren't guaranteed across the board). I approach the idea of free improvisation rather seriously overall I have to say - I don't think it's something just to be pulled out of a hat, but I'm not implying any sort of craft or technical skill to a certain level is required either - rather, it's just being serious and focused about what you want to do and how you go about doing it. There's not really a prescribed method or length of time required, I think, but intention and approach. The intellectual and sensual aspects are both important; there is instinct and also experience feeding into you figuring your way out of this mess you've put yourself into. You can probably sketch some metaphor involving guerilla warfare/being familiar with the surroundings beating out technology, but I don't want to inject any notions of aggression into this. I believe even heavily "reductionist" or whatever improv, or even harsh noise can still "swing" in it's own way. I think players from different subgenres or whatever can (and should) meet, as good music can come from it. I've seen and heard autodidacts pull off a more interesting piece of music than virtuosos, but the virtuosos who cream all comers aren't just busy practicing their shit all day, but also listening and paying attention and considering all concerns. And one's style can and should change and develop (or devolve, even, if appropriate) - lately I've been trying to slow down a bit more, and also think more vertically than linearly, in my solo improvisations.

Have you heard much NZ music?

Yes! I am a big fan of the Dead C, Gate, as well as OMIT (who I'm excited to share a bill with), Wreck Small Speakers, Birchville Cat Motel, A Handful of Dust, and on. Though it's more international coverage, I think I have every issue of Opprobrium that was published. Needless to say, music from NZ has been very important to the underground I came up in, mostly in the midwest USA, as well as a part of my 'education' in music. When I was at this radio station WNUR in college, we'd have these presentations on subgenres and scenes, and have these 'scene' flowcharts showing connections between bands etc. - you know, semi-nerdy stuff, but point being, NZ jams were definitely major topics. From the outside, it's easy to sort of mush and romanticize everything, I suppose. I feel though I am still woefully unfamiliar with a lot of stuff - my friends in this band Times New Viking are fanatics of the underground rock stuff; dreams were fulfilled when they rolled with The Clean etc. I'm very interested to see what's going on at the current time that isn't as canonized, which is a big bonus to this trip.

What was the music scene like in Cincinnati? When did you live there?

I partly grew up there, but wasn't really experiencing the local music scene prior to college. After moving back from Chicago, I lived there for about thirteen years, til I moved to New York last year. When I moved back, I was determined to figure out what was going on locally; it didn't take too long - actually a chance meeting with this guy Tim Schwallie over a Nurse With Wound t-shirt I was wearing sent me on the path of meeting other people in the Cinci scene. Sort of like dominoes from there, and pretty soon I got into putting on shows, because I wanted to see what I wanted to see. Like people who were of similar mind prior, after a while I got too busy and a bit burned out to continue with that, but by then there were kids who were working together to put things on. Recently, a pretty great venue, the Art Damage Lodge (an old Masonic lodge) had to shut down; there's still stuff going on, but you know, it always seems sort of cyclical. In Brooklyn right now a lot of key spaces are shutting down and/or moving. In Cincinnati, in general because of the size of things, you had these different rings to the community, where there would be some exchange and community between the various scene genres or whatever; overall I feel this sort of thing is better than people deciding what fences lie between them and others, and the more I think about it, the more I realized that despite the small community, you definitely had that in Cincinnati as well. I guess this could lead into a critique of sorts - I feel I'd been there for a long period and had given a bunch, and Cinci had been good back to me - but then, really, I don't see much difference in dynamics I would take apart that I don't see here in Brooklyn. Perhaps it's just a little easier to escape from, here in NY.

related gigs
Altmusic Presents: C. Spencer Yeh
Sat 1st Oct, Audio Foundation, Auckland
Altmusic Presents: C. Spencer Yeh
Wed 5th Oct, None Gallery, Dunedin
Altmusic Presents: C. Spencer Yeh
Thu 6th Oct, Archive, Christchurch
Altmusic Presents: C. Spencer Yeh
Fri 7th Oct, Happy, Wellington


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