C. Spencer Yeh

C. Spencer Yeh performing at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2014. Photo: Bartosz Stawiarski.

C. Spencer Yeh is a New York–based artist and musician who is well known for his voice-based performances. For the past twenty years he has recorded as Burning Star Core and under his given name. His new ten-track record, Solo Voice I – X, was released this month by Primary Information as an LP in an edition of 500. He will perform the record in entirety at Artists Space on June 23, 2015, as part of a 2015 residency at ISSUE Project Room.

I’VE USED MY VOICE in a lot of other recordings, and for years I had been saying—or threatening—that I would do an all-voice record. A one-instrument album is a tradition in free jazz—the solo saxophone record being a common example. In musical genres like that, whatever instrument you get associated with immediately becomes your spirit animal in a way. Originally, I was more associated with the violin, which is the instrument I could never get away from. As a teenager I ignored it until it crawled to the corner and disappeared. The violin returned to me when I felt my training had sufficiently collapsed so I could build something new. I was never trained in voice but felt fascinated by it drawn toward using it. Pinballing between speaking English and Chinese as a child was my training, perhaps.

When I started using my voice, it was a lot more outward, animated, and physical than playing violin. I was pushing air out, and it was more about projecting. A few years ago, though, I started becoming interested in inward vocal sounds made by inhaling, or the sounds that are closer to yourself—incidental sounds. I was using a bunch of pedals and effects on the violin in my work, but then I thought, I feel like all I’m hearing are the effects. So I decided I wasn’t going to use any effects, and it became about volume, about using amplification as a magnifying glass and using the microphone as an instrument as well. It made for a very dry sound and pushed me to figure out how to work within that limitation. Sometimes a track sounds like a swarm of bees or a ghost ship pushing through ice, but it’s just my voice, unaltered.

C. Spencer Yeh, “Excerpts from VII and III,” 2015. From his album Solo Voice I – X.

I first got hooked on the use of voice when I was younger and into Japanese noise and noise rock à la Boredoms. Yamatsuka Eye was one of the first voices that hooked me, and I think part of it was that his approach felt particularly free. From there I moved into modern practitioners like Henri Chopin and Jaap Blonk, noted performers of text-based sound poetry and composition. Joan La Barbara, a vocalist and composer around New York––her record Voice Is the Original Instrument moves beyond typical speaking in tongues. To me, it seemed like she was trying to turn voice into just another sound, texture, or instrument.

I was thinking about how to abstract the voice without running it through some effects box, because, again, when you do that, it sounds like the box. I wanted to get rid of those brackets of breath between sounds that define a phrase, that define a unit of speech. Those pauses give the listener assurance that the sound is legible as language. I was interested in how you might dismantle language: How do you destroy it or disempower it? Vocals are usually number one in a mix, and they are supposed to be commanding, but why does this one thing always have to be the most powerful?