C. Spencer Yeh is the idiosyncratic and unpredictable mastermind behind Burning Star Core and numerous collaborations with the likes of John Wiese, Justin Lieberman, Paul Flaherty, and many others. His incessant musical and non-musical work has placed him in the running as one of the most prolific contemporary artists today. He’s also one of the most interesting.
Thanksgiving week, Yeh had just returned to Brooklyn from a brief stint in Europe. The night after his return, he joined Nate Wooley, Colin Stetson, and Ryan Sawyer on stage at Union Pool. I had the life-altering opportunity to both witness the historic event and have a chat with Yeh about improvisation, his new record 1975, and various preparations of eggs.
So how did things go with the shows overseas?
Just got back last night. Overall, the trip was good, successful I think. First part was being called by this reeds player Joachim Badenhorst. He was given “carte blanche” by this Belgian improv/jazz festival which allowed him to assemble a group for both the festival and some touring. He decided on a trio with myself and Toma Gouband, this percussionist who basically plays drums with rocks, pinecones, etc. Second part was collaborating/sitting in on this long-running sound and motion project “Eye Height” by choreographer Beatriz Cantinho and artist Ricardo Jacinto, out near Lisbon, Portugal. They basically built this huge contoured raised floor, with strings stretched across the bottom — the whole idea is that it’s this big resonant plane that you can move around on and create sound. Anyway, they’ve been spending on and off some years working out a whole vocabulary of dance and music around it with this squad of dancers and other musicians, and are still working on getting maximum soundings from the sculpture; Beatriz approached me when I was in the UK earlier this year; she was like, “this project might look sort of weird; it’s people rubbing against the ground and stuff,” so of course I was like, “tell me more.”
There’s been a thread tying together a lot of travel and activity this year, which has been being called into situations as a sort of mercenary/collaborator, by people I haven’t really worked with previously. In most cases, people I had never met or hung out with prior. The material and context of these situations, though it’s going to be somewhat related to where my practice takes me, has been challenging and interesting; it hasn’t ever been anything too literal or obvious; on top of that, it’s wrapped into a tour or extended stay as well, so you have more than one night to work it out. It’s been a pretty great group of people I’ve met in all this though, like a good hang for sure, so I have to say it’s been successful.
That all sounds amazing. And speaking of successful collaborations, your improvisational performance with Colin Stetson, Nate Wooley, and Ryan Sawyer this evening at Union Pool has got to be one of best improvs I’ve been blessed enough to witness, hands down. I especially loved you taking the stage and shaking Stetson’s hand, introducing yourself. That’s when I realized, “Fuck, these guys are just meeting for the first time. No rehearsal.” And it was flawless. How did this collaboration come about? Was Sawyer behind the whole deal? Are you pleased with the results? And most importantly, did anyone capture that on tape?
First off, thanks for the kind words. Also — and I feel like this should be expressed more often — but we felt like something killer happened as well. Enough that the follow-up was that we wanted to continue on with this meeting, and really expand and explore the ideas and possibilities blasted through in this meeting. I was thinking afterwards that the set was sort of the fevered frenzied hookup in a restroom, but then we all realized we wanted to meet again and have a coffee and actually talk further.
And yeah, Nate and Ryan have both played with Colin before, but I had never done anything with him prior. And Nate and Ryan and I have worked together in various situations, as well as in trio, but Stetson being in the pit was enough to really change things, so it did feel very new and invigorating. What you saw onstage was a combination of first meeting (me with Colin) as well as reacquainting after a long period (Nate/Ryan with Colin). I’m very much into the idea that these feelings should be expressed in a performance situation and in person versus being restrained. On a personal level, due to the hurried changeover at the show, I just never had the chance to be introduced to Colin off the stage, but it felt a bit weird that we were all setting up and we hadn’t even had a chance to connect yet. It’s just how it happened to happen — don’t know how else to put it. But yeah, it’s way better than playing cool and then delivering some cold spiel about “hey everyone, this has never happened before etc. etc.” — it’s just a matter of not suppressing the very human element in what is supposed to be a very human situation, achieved and expressed through a variety of controls and focus based on research and development. If what you’re trying to do is a manifestation of developed interaction that is both visceral and articulate, indeterminant and familiar, why not just let everything inside and outside happen? Okay, this opens up a few other topics which might veer towards my own personal observations and conclusions, towards not only improvisation, but the whole performance situation in general.
“Lately I’ve been thinking about starting another project and path, this time with the name ‘CSY.’ Maybe it’ll be site-specific beach techno, so it’d be like ‘CSY: Miami.’”
As for how it came about, it was through Ryan initially I believe. He was the one to propose this combo. And yeah, we were uniformly pleased I think. We’ve been working on our own trio vibe for a while, and it always seemed like, just when we found a mode to roll with, here comes another element that switches stuff up and creates new avenues of interaction. Earlier in the day, we did a session at WFMU, which Colin wasn’t able to make it to because of time and circumstance, but I had busted out and revisited some ideas I was working on while on this recent tour. And Ryan scaled his playing to the medium of radio — the way things are sent versus received in those circumstances, and all those considerations bloom pollen into the air. Consequently, it changed, altered, and promised new channels to an energy we were constantly thinking we were nailing down. Well, so what I mean is that it isn’t problematic, but rather, the fact that when we get together now and play — that there are still engaging surprises — is a testament to the dynamic of the group. So yeah, for me personally, it was a really good day due to a chance meeting between a fuzz pedal and a contrabass saxophone.
And as for documentation, I don’t know if it got recorded. We didn’t really have time or energy to insure that, but I will say photos were taken, and I look at that contrabass saxophone in photos and it still looks like to me someone Photoshopped a picture of a person with a bari sax to make it look super insane and all big and stuff.
Improvisation is a huge part of your craft. How does improv factor into your actual compositional process for material such as the tracks on the new 1975 record?
Keeping in mind all the discussions and ideas surrounding improvisation within composition that’s out there, at this point I think I’d say that the improvised music I do live doesn’t have very much to do with what I’m doing in terms of composition or studio. The live improvised music is a particular compositional mode unto itself that at this point has so many considerations and issues, it deserves to be its own thing. When I’m sitting down and working out, say, horn parts, on a keyboard, there is an element of guessing and feeling out, but in that case I’m spending, say, an hour working on a minute’s worth of document. There’s set compositional restrictions imposed on the improvisation in the studio, for the goal of having material in a recording. Live improvisation — that hour is that hour. Recordings of that live sort of improv, as raw tape material to be used? Sure, but then that’s just source material — doesn’t matter if it was improvised music or if it was a car crash, if you were to use it as material. So yeah, while the improvisation I’d do live is a mode of composition, and improvisation can play a role in composition, it’s sort of like eggs — it can be an ingredient or it can be an eggs-fronted thing like an omelette or whatever. I’m not saying that hour of improvisation deserves to be released wholly — if you burn or mess up a bit of the omelette, you can totally just trim that part out if you want.
In the case of 1975, I’d say you can taste the egg a bit more in some parts than others, but on the whole, it’s not a record of improvisation. The closest to being something along what I’m separating out as “improvised music” might be the “Two Guitars” tracks, though there is a bit of setup and studio manipulation involved there. Originally, I had toyed with the idea of tacking on as a bonus track a recording of a solo violin improvisation, just to sort of open up the windows and fan out the air on the record, but finally decided best to keep it as much a Dutch oven as possible.
“I can only be myself of course, which I think is an ultimately nice limitation.”
All this just brings to mind the whole question of documenting live improvisation. I wonder if somewhere in there is a reason I’ve been sort of hesitant to record and release a “proper” solo improvisation record — one that reflects my performance practice. For my own playing, if I can just indulgently stare at it for a bit, there’s been so many mini-phases of approach in playing that I’ve explored and then moved on from. For most people, it’ll all sound the same anyway. Am I working towards something? Or am I just sort of changing and shedding? At what point do I say, “Yes, I feel great! This is what I want to try to stamp into plastic for a future landfill”? For a while, I felt like if someone else was up there with you, it automatically feels like more of a moment in time, a circumstance that begs for documentation, but now that I think about it, that’s applicable for maybe the first or second, maybe third time — and maybe not say, the twentieth time you meet with the same people. But then, the two records I did with Paul Flaherty and Chris Corsano as a trio, was very early on in our playing as a group — to me, everything about that three-way relationship had improved after our twentieth time, but we never got a proper record out subsequently (except for one side of a split 7-inch). I don’t know — I’m starting to feel like all this is going in circles, and is maybe best left for posts on alt.music.improvisation or something. Maybe rambling essays on some blog called “Musings on the Moment” — the banner graphic would be hand-drawn, with like clarinets and bows floating around.
Ha! Speaking of 1975, often when you go by your own name, it has been for collaborative projects or material slightly different from Burning Star Core (solo violin, etc., but correct me if I’m wrong). However, 1975 seems to have a lot of BxC elements to it. What dictates the decision on how a record is presented or named (another example, the De Stijl tapes going as C S Yeh)? Does it have anything to do with identifying 1975 as your first “proper solo record”?
Yeah, at this point BxC sort of has its own trajectory, based on where the project’s gone, the records that have come out, etc. So really, there’s certain guidelines I feel like have developed in working within that project, aesthetically and otherwise. Sort of its own personal mythology. Early on, there might’ve been some crossover — for example, I had done some solo improv violin performances under that project name — as both BxC and the violin developed, it was clear to me each had to follow its own path separate from each other to grow, really. I mean, similar elements will pop up here and there — I can only be myself, of course, which I think is an ultimately nice limitation — but you know, going back to my metaphor previously, there’s a dedicated science to hardboiling eggs, and then there’s a dedicated science to making egg batter for chile rellenos, etc. Maybe BxC is just a big chile rellenos stuffed with meat and random crap, and 1975 is just a big carton of hardboiled eggs.
There was this unfinished record of more electro-beat-ish stuff I had done around the same time as the “Songs 2002” cassette that DeStijl had reissued recently — I was in talks with a label to put two of the tracks from that time out as a 7-inch under the name “BxC” instead of Burning Star Core. Unfortunately that fell through, but there’s that abbreviation thing again. At the time, I had made the tracks with the project in mind, but at this point, it would be confusing in a way that doesn’t quite work for me. Lately I’ve been thinking about starting another project and path, this time with the name “CSY.” Maybe it’ll be site-specific beach techno, so it’d be like “CSY: Miami.”
What is next for Burning Star Core or any other projects?
My next plan is to figure out what to do about BxC studio-wise. I had kicked around a number of ideas over the last couple of years since I finished Papercuts Theater, but some of them seem like they’d be a little played-out at this point. Who knows. I had been asked about and promising the idea of really doing some “drone disco,” so I have to figure out what that means. I feel pretty strongly about the BxC live sets I’ve been getting back into presenting recently, so maybe keeping that in mind a bit could be interesting.
“At what point do I say, ‘Yes, I feel great! This is what I want to try to stamp into plastic for a future landfill’?”
Outside of that, there is the 1975 CD which just came out on Intransitive, ummm, future releases include an LP of my duet with Robert Piotrowicz, recorded at this past year’s Unsound NYC. There is a forthcoming CD live recording of a quartet with myself, Paul Flaherty, Weasel Walter, and Steve Swell, which we were all pretty happy with; not sure when that’s out. A limited LP of recordings done with Joachim and Henrik from Skull Defekts is being rushed through this week, hopefully in time for this “Swedish Energies” festival at Issue Project Room. Also plans for a duo record with Okkyung Lee, recordings from a tour we did back in 2010. Been working on a collaboration with Robert Beatty, who has worked with me in Burning Star Core before, but this would be outside of that project’s constraints, so it’s a bit more an even playing field. Also Ben Hall and I had been working on this duo record a while back, but we’re planning to revisit/revise it. We already have a title though — The Business End. There’s been some remixing I’ve been doing, for Sam Mickens, and this Belgian musician Cédric Stevens. The rest of this year is aimed towards composing a piece for the String Orchestra of Brooklyn and collaborating on some work with artist Justin Lieberman for an upcoming show of his in Paris. I feel like there’s some other stuff I’m forgetting right now.
Live-wise, the only major thing in 2012 that’s getting set right now is a tour of the East coast with Lasse Marhaug in April. It’ll be the first time he’s presented solo sets out here I believe.
Your re-release of Songs 2002 and the 7-inch on De Stijl got some really great responses. Any plans for more pop releases?
Yes, I did actually just finish an LP for De Stijl, tentatively called Transitions 2012. Ten tracks, 34 minutes. Should be coming out spring 2012.
On top of your infinitely expanding catalog, you are constantly performing in a wide array of manifestations. Can you share any upcoming live dates?
Yep — a buncha shows around here before 2012.
Dec 3rd - Issue Project Room, Brooklyn NY - “Swedish Energies” festival - Skull Defekts/CSY/Asa Osbourne/Daniel Higgs, Mats Gustafsson, CM Von Hausswolf, Ikue Mori/Ida Lunden, Mats Lindstrom/Anna Koch
Dec 8th - Shea Stadium, Brooklyn NY - w/ The New Monuments, United Waters, Zaimph, Decimus
Dec 11th - Zebulon, Brooklyn NY - Ben Vida/Eli Keszler/CSY, Ben Hall, Twisty Cat
Dec 16th - Dense Mesh, Brooklyn NY - SJ Motland/CSY/Ben Hall, Che Chen/Robbie Lee, Ed Bear/Brian Osbourne/Joachim Badenhorst, Lea Bertucci