To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Mark Mahoney, host of Sound Grammar on Radio K, shares his perspective on C. Spencer Yeh’s Sound Horizon performance in the Walker galleries last week. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
Musician and sound artist C. Spencer Yeh offered three strikingly divergent listening experiences to those attending the final installment of this year’s Sound Horizon series Thursday night. The performances took place in the Walker’s Gallery Three, which hosts part of the ongoing Less Than One exhibit. Less Than One highlights work within the Walker collection that is “provocative, historically charged, and risk-taking,” adjectives which could very well describe Yeh’s practice.
The night began quietly. Yeh wordlessly approached the table, picked up his violin, and began to coax a rough-hewn sound from the violin’s lower register. He then settled into an unwavering drone. The drone continued as the initially modest audience expanded to include latecomers and curious passersby. The music seemed to take on an almost material presence, as though it were a stable fixture of the gallery. Then, gradually, almost imperceptibly, a series of fluttering, ethereal harmonics emerged in the extreme upper register of the violin. These spectral sounds asserted themselves with increasing intensity, swelling and occasionally crashing like waves. They seemed to suggest the presence of a destructive power on the brink of being unleashed. For the most part, however, the illusion of tranquility survived through the end of the first set.
At the beginning of the second set, Yeh set down his violin and turned his attention to the array of electronics and noisemaking equipment laid out before him. The piece began with some quiet, sporadically-spaced clicks and pops, calling to mind the gentle crackling of a worn-out vinyl record. These clicks rapidly multiplied until the effect was like that of being at a basketball practice with dozens of people dribbling at the same time.
Like a severely pixelated image, Yeh’s soundscape offered up lots of discrete bits of sonic information with no easy way for the listener to appropriate them into a coherent form. To this disorienting soundscape, Yeh then added noises generated through the creative abuse of contact mics, which he rubbed against his thigh and various resonant surfaces, thickening the texture. The piece remained diffuse and difficult to pin down, but beguiling in its own way.
I have a habit of closing my eyes when I listen to challenging music, but what I heard next made doing so almost impossible. Guttural grunts, plosives, blubbering sounds, tongue pops: Yeh was transforming his body into an instrument of fascinating and occasionally disturbing dimensions. The new sounds collided and skirmished with the previous sounds, establishing a new sonic order characterized by atomized bits of raw information in frenetic motion. Over the top of all this, Yeh continued to add new layers of bodily-generated sound, ranging from throat singing to imitations of bird songs.
For the final set, Yeh returned to his violin, but with a twist: he now manipulated two bows simultaneously, affording him a range of new extended techniques. At times he bowed vigorously across the entire length of the instrument. At other times, he allowed the bows to bounce gently across the strings, creating a quiet skittering effect. During the climactic culmination of the piece, he covered the violin fingerboard with a sympathetically resonating drum head, producing a distorted timbre that sounded more like an electric guitar than a violin.
Yeh’s art is abrasive and likely to polarize listeners, but whatever anyone in the audience might have thought of Yeh’s performance, no one could say that it was boring. The solo format is a demanding one for artists, and Yeh succeeded admirably in creating the kind of expressive variety necessary to keep the music engaging throughout.
Despite the heterogeneity of Yeh’s performance, or perhaps because of it, I struggled with formulating my own thoughts about it for this review. The sui generis nature of Yeh’s art makes it challenging to pin down. I read up on Yeh’s biography and his influences, hoping that the facts might offer a crutch where interpretation failed. Barring that, I turned to metaphor, scouring through works in the Walker galleries for a concrete analogy I might be able to draw.
At home, I flip through Joseph Brodsky’s book of essays Less Than One, after which the Walker exhibit is named. Brodsky, at the end of his essay on W.H. Auden, tells us, “You don’t dissect a bird to find the origins of its song. What should be dissected is your ear.” It’s a strangely solipsistic view of art, and, as with Yeh’s music, I’m not quite sure I fully grasp its implications. Opening my laptop, I pull up C. Spencer Yeh in my Itunes library. With the index finger of my other hand still jammed in between the pages of Less Than One, I click ‘play’ and turn the volume up, loud.