C Spencer Yeh / Okkyung Lee / Lasse Marhaug Wake Up Awesome

[Software; 2013]

Styles: improvisation, musique concrète, noise, experimental
Others: Burning Star Core, Jazzkamer, 6ix


    1.1. What follows is a dissection of methods for producing musical sound in evidence on Wake Up Awesome, their aesthetic realities, sonic differentiations, and family resemblances, in order of physical and abstract distance from their instrumentalist.

    1.2. This review attempts to gloss to the lexicon inherent in the work by disentangling the intersections and overlappings of the work’s multifarious instrumentation.

    1.3. It hopes thereby to communicate the work’s strange beauty and humor, arising out of its seeming chaos, by projecting a misunderstood semblance of an order over an assemblage whose principles of arrangement are mysterious yet everywhere apparent.


    2.1. That is, sounds formed using the human voice and its appended organs.

    2.2. An incomplete taxonomy of vocal sounds on Wake Up Awesome:

    1. Sounds made by the passage of air over the vocal cords (i.e., singing, talking, etc).
    2. Sounds made by the vibration of vocal cords via other means (such as throat singing).
    3. Sounds made by percussion of lips, tongue, or mouth cavity.
    4. Sounds made by any combination of the above.
    5. Sounds made by electro-acoustic experimentation with microphonics in tandem with the vocal cavity via any of the above (already the ordering scheme of this piece begins to break down, as this could easily fit into the fifth category, recording).

    2.3. It becomes clearer that vocal sounds, like all sounds, are vibrations, and as such they can approximate other forms of electronic synthesis, especially under extreme amplification. In particular, C. Spencer Yeh’s use of extended vocal techniques expands the range of possible sounds to synthesizer-like levels of mutability and variation. There are moments on Wake Up Awesome when a vocal sound easily melds into electronic textures.

    2.4. And yet, a strange, inalienable character attaches to these particular vibrations of the human vocal apparatus, due to the intricate shapes into which evolution has molded the vocal apparatus of the human being.

    1. As such, the sounds produced herein are perhaps impossible to reproduce by other means, and perhaps by a human being other than Yeh himself, due to his unique genetic code and therefore the unique nature of his vocal apparatus.
    2. This uniqueness is an aesthetic quality, as it marks any of the associated sounds out of the mix. The performers often play with this possibility through mimicry and juxtaposition.


    3.1. Percussion
    1. A taxonomy of objects used as percussion devices on Wake Up Awesome is impossible to construct via mere listening.
    2. Wake Up Awesome transforms percussive sounds, typically used to create rhythm via staccato pulses, into yet another texture. This is not necessarily due to any lack of rhythm; “Hairslide,” for instance, utilizes consistent rhythmic bases beneath masses of arrhythmic sound. Rather, the devices used herein, their musicality and their arrangement, make clear that percussion, as with any vibration, is in some sense tonal, though perhaps not traditionally so.
    3. Electro-acoustic properties also bear on this discussion, since Lasse Marhaug and Yeh both make extensive use of contact microphones and other setups. One such instrument that Marhaug has employed in past performances and probably here consists of springs stretched across a metal plate, to which he attaches a contact mic that picks up all vibration on the surface. With processing, the range of sounds possible with this simple instrument is immense (see 5.1 below).
    4. Rhythm is the sequence of sounds through time. Percussion is merely another method for producing said sounds. Their sequence is as inevitable as time is inescapable.
    5. Indeed, percussion can even consist in continuous, droning sounds, such as the muted timpani roll on the title track (or is that a synthesizer?).

    3.2. Strings

    1. The typical question arises as to which category to locate the piano within. In a sense, it is a percussion instrument, especially as defined above; however, in another sense, so is Okkyung Lee’s cello, because the bow vibrates the strings in friction, a more granular sort of percussion. Inadvisable, because soon every acoustic instrument would be revealed to be a kind of percussion, since even air in a sense percusses the vocal cords. Piano would have its own category, were it not for its strings. However, the piano only guests on Wake Up Awesome, on “Serious Cat’s Milk.” The natural reverberation of its cabinet and the sustain pedal is primary to the use of piano here, distancing the listener from the vibration of the strings by means of its spaciousness. It emanates cold. The sampled piano of “Anise Tongue and Durian Wet Dream” warms with a kind of nostalgic familiarity (see 5.2.b below)
    2. Lee’s cello technique (in similarity to Yeh’s vocal techniques) expands the palette of the instrument far beyond its traditional usage. Bowing, as discussed above, is a repeated percussion of a certain length of string. By variations in the length of string; pressure of the bow; length and direction of strokes; and placement and angle of the bow on the strings; a myriad of sounds result. Lee’s contributions to Wake Up Awesome range from beautiful, legato strokes with obvious tonality to screeching, rapid assaults. Ordered, of course, only when they are most appropriate. “Ophelia Gimme Shelter,” which features Lee’s most traditional playing, disarms the listener with its sudden, aching beauty. The track that follows, “The Mermaids of Extended Technique,” features some of her most non-traditional performances and re-covers her instrument in the vast confluence of textures that compose this album.
    3. As of this writing, whether or not Yeh’s violin features on Wake Up Awesome is unclear to the writer. This is a testament both to Lee’s massive extension of her instrument’s range and Yeh’s highly malleable usage of his instrument in the past. If it is here, it camouflages in the squalls of cello, possible processing, and electronics that mimic the acoustic. If it is here, it is one of the many sometimes absurd, sometimes gorgeous textures that everywhere overlap. Perhaps absurdity and gorgeousness are not as mutually exclusive as the above suggests.


    4.1. Analog
    1. Witness the constant battle between the two ontological categories of synthesis.
    2. And yet, where each begins and ends is rarely clear. The many other sound sources here convolute the boundaries of this binary.
    3. A perhaps obvious result of this convolution is the converse of the statements above regarding the voice: that the synthesizer, given enough modulation and texture, approaches even that most unique of instruments, the human voice. And synthetic strings and drums have been possible since the beginning.
    4. The analog character, in its rawness, comes quite close to being able to mimic the “pure” sounds of “nature.”
    5. This is also to suggest that analog electronics produce the most profound, terrifying chaos. Nature, in this sense, is absurd. But absurdity may indeed include beauty, and vice versa (see 3.2.c above)

    4.2. Digital

    1. But digital synthesis, as evidenced on “Anise Tongue Durian Wet Dream,” “Ophelia Gimme Shelter,” or the final track “Tonight We Sleep Like Empty Hard Drives” (I think), has its own strange beauty, digital artifacts and all.
    2. Of course, computers grow from nature as any of the above, and thus the sounds that issue from them are just as capable at mimicking natural sounds; they are just as real.
    3. The crucial process in using either element is the proper assemblage of consistent parts. If a particular digital sound is more appropriate, the composers have there made use of it. Likewise, all of the above methods.


    5.1. Processing
    1. The composers/performers subject all of the above methods to both pre- and post-recording processing, which includes everything from tone-transformative pitch shifting and filtering to time-bending delays. Effects include analog, digital, and recording processes that alter and shape the source methods into a new form.
    2. By now, the endlessness of any particular method should be apparent.
    3. And yet, like the voice, they all have unique qualities that make each useful in a particular situation. And yet, they all overlap at strange junctions, all vibrations, all sound. They are limited, but they approach infinities, and their trajectories intersect.

    5.2. Sampling

    1. All above methods may be reused, manipulated, and rearranged via sampling.
    2. This process even opens up the composers to sound sources that they themselves did not record, such as the bright piano on “Anise Tongue and Durian Wet Dream.”
    3. Which is to say, the composers may use other composers as instruments. Or they may use themselves, recursively. Or they may sample field recordings of processes that no composer works on.
    4. Even these recordings, doubly-distanced by the recording and re-recording, can feature the same overlapping qualities, for they too are mere vibrations on the tympanum of the ear.


    6.1. Beyond any methodology is the meta-methodology of arrangement, which allows for the camouflaging mentioned in 3.2.c, the sudden beauty mentioned in 3.2.b, the profound terror mentioned in 4.1.e, etc, to fall into the correct place. Which is to say that arrangement is a rhythmic process, as described above in 3.1.d: it places each sound in sequence in time.

    6.2. The overlappings of various sounds are what made this review possible; only in juxtaposition were the family resemblances apparent and the differentiation finally precise enough to separate.

    6.3. Without assemblage, the individual elements crumble into an insensible pile, more pointless than absurd. It is only through ordering that the absurd and beautiful qualities of Wake Up Awesome manifest.

    6.4. And yet, that order is itself mysterious. And mystery itself is a juxtaposition of the absurd and the beautiful.

Links: C Spencer Yeh / Okkyung Lee / Lasse Marhaug - Software


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