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C. Spencer Yeh - 1975

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Artist: C. Spencer Yeh

Album: 1975

Label: Intransitive

Review date: Jan. 26, 2012

C. Spencer Yeh has improvised in free jazz contexts, made psychedelic noise and spastic sound poetry, composed unnerving concrete works and investigated immersive violin drones. He’s even cobbled together his own bleak form of folk-rock song. So which Yeh do we get on 1975? Interestingly, none of the above. This is not a retrospective, but nor is it a development of Yeh’s basic concerns. In the album’s 11 electroacoustic sketches, Yeh does give us glimpses of what he’s done before, but he succeeds in recontextualizing these familiar gestures. He’s not looking backward and he’s not looking forward. Yeh, it seems, has taken a step sideways.

Yeh works in a minimal mode throughout. Instrumentation is limited, but the overall tone is hard-edged and raw. Aside from the last two pieces, they are all functionally titled: “Drone,” “Voice,” “Two Guitars.” There are even two of what Yeh calls skits: short interludes made from, as the titles tell us, “Shrinkwrap from a Solo Saxophone CD” and “Drips.”

But even though the blunt description of the titles let you know what you will hear, the album never feels predictable. The drone pieces develop in episodes separated by internal pauses and defy any easy logic. The voice pieces bounce around the stereo field in batshit rhythms and oblique angles, while the guitar pieces maintain a terse edge, contrasting piercing sine-like tones with grittier bits of distortion, active beat frequencies and magnetic disturbances, like a rougher, less verbose version of Phill Niblock.

At times you wonder if 1975 has been made of leftovers from Yeh’s archive, but the simplicity here is too finely honed. All excess has been cut away, so that even “Drips,” — two minutes of just that, dripping water — hypnotizes with its minute detail. Separately, the pieces might feel transparent and straightforward, but when reflected on as a whole, they become rich and complex.

But just when you think you have the album figured, Yeh closes the set with “Au Revoir...” and “...Et Bonne Nuit.” Both are extended, tightly wound compositions of digitally cut-up and transformed piano. With their jittery, jump-cut flow and density, both pieces defy the hyper-focused austerity of what has come before. Yeh intentionally breaks the concentrated atmosphere he’s cultivated up to this point, concluding on a note of confusion rather than resolution.

So what is 1975? Yeh’s idea of a Noise library album? A send-up of both DIY experimental tropes and dry academic modes? An accessible, low-key primer on experimental electroacoustic modes from the last four decades? It’s this ability to stay just beyond the reach of easy definition that has always made Yeh intriguing, and which makes 1975 an oddly personal work. Despite its literal titles and diversity, it, more than any of his previous records, expresses his unique perspective on what it means to make so-called experimental music: be incomplete, remain open, and make music for head-scratching, not chin-stroking.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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