Noise in Asian America: C. Spencer Yeh

I saw C. Spencer Yeh, a Taiwanese-born improv violinist now based out of Cincinnati, at Gallery 5 in Richmond, VA last night. [The show organized by the HzCollective, of which I'm a member. ] With John Wiese, a LA-based artist, Yeh played a set of improv noise, a sonic assemblage of amplified violin, bows, hands, mouth, voice, feedback, contact mics, effect pedals, etc. It was thrilling to see Yeh and Wiese inventing live digital and analog sounds of varying textures and timbres. Some moments felt tactile and visceral, whereas other moments were almost static and elusive. Yeh is currently on a tour with John Wiese and Carlos Giffoni, both of which are well-known artists on the noise circuit.

C. Spenser Yeh is one of the members of Burning Star Core. The trio is comprised of Robert Beatty (acoustic apprasier & electronics), Mike Shiflet (computer, electronics, & voice), and C. Spencer Yeh (voice, violin, electronics, junkbox, & trumpet). Burning Star Core has reached a cult status within the scene by having a prolific career - having released countless recordings on various formats including cassettes, 7" vinyl records, and CD's. Since 2006, Yeh has collaborated with Wiese on a duo recording and performance project. Over the year, he has collaborated with Double Leopards, Comets on Fire, John Olson (of Wolf Eyes and Dead Machines), Hair Police, Thurston Moore's Dream/Aktion Unit, the Hototogisu, Pengo, Pete Nolan (of Magik Markers), Jessica Rylan, Larry Marotta, and many others. Yeh also runs the record label Drone Disco. Yeh's contribution to noise world thus far is undeniable.

After the show, I chatted with Spencer a bit about noise, improv, experimental music, and my project. Graciously he offered me a number points of contact. He regretfully indicated that others, in press and in person, have identified him by his race in both fetishistic and demeaning ways. We agreed on our sentiments of discomfort and disempowerment with regards to situations of race-oriented objectification. This conversation made me think about what then is race. Is it merely an others-imposed label? Could it be a product or process of self-identification? How is race different from racism? We've learned in school that race is a cultural construction. But what kind of construct is it? An ideology? A discursive product and trope? An instrumental category?

While these are the questions that guide my intellectual work, I have yet to figure out anything concrete and applicable in real life situations. I don't know. Sometimes I wish I could offer some solutions rather than raising more questions based on questions. My hope for an eventual applicable knowledge quietly drives forward my project.


Yoko Ono Imagines Peace with the World

Yesterday, on 10/9/07, John Lennon's birthday, Yoko Ono unveiled the Imagine Peace Tower in Reykjavik, Iceland.

John & Yoko began the "Imagine Peace" as a part of the anti-war effort against the US occupation of Vietnam in the late 1960s. They utilized mass media, such as magazines, newspapers, billboards, and television, as a convenient vehicle to spread pacifism to a wide audience. A famous project central to their campaign was the Bed-in, which John & Yoko conceived as two week-long press-conference-like performance art events in a hotel room in first in Amsterdam, then in Montreal following their celebrity wedding, with the objective of turning the star-craving media attention upon themselves into a sit-in protesting against the Vietnam War. During the course of the week, John & Yoko spoke to celebrity politicians, activists, world leaders who visited and phoned in to discuss issues related to war, violence, inequalities, pacifist strategies, media, etc. Dressed in all-white pajamas, they held protest signs and led sing-alongs with other musicians.

To John & Yoko, world peace is a possibility only after a critical mass of people first imagine it as a possibility and adopt it in their everyday lives. Yoko Ono, now 74 years old, has extended the John & Yoko anti-war agenda into the early 21st century political and technological context. The most recent form of the "Imagine Peace" campaign involves the implementation of her website, a virtual hub to enlist people around the world, via virtual communication, to rehearse the idea of peace by repeating the mantra of "imagine peace" in various ways in their daily lives. For example, there are desktop graphics, website banners, and Myspace icons that people can download to post as their signature Myspace photos. [Ono also has a Myspace.] In addition, on her website, Ono has included an instructional page for her performance art piece "Wish Piece", soliciting participants to create and display personally designed peace-ful messages on a tree, re-contextualizing a Japanese tradition for the objective of world peace.

Last night, the Imagine Peace Tower, a large, minimalist structured light beam, projected upward into the pitch black sky of Reykjavik's night with dignity and strength. I watched the unveiling ceremony broadcast on Icelandic TV last night. When the children's choir sang "Imagine" in Icelandish, the brims of my eyes got a little moist. The spectacle exuded peace, serenity, warmth and social connectedness. Sean Lennon and Ringo Starr were present to celebrate the occasion.

Ono's production of peace hopefully speaks to an audience wider than ever before. I hope so. My sense is that people are starting to be rid of the Beatles-related myth about Ono. Seriously, how much hatred tinted with sexism and racism could the Beatles-loving world have for a 74-year-old passionate artist and eloquent peace activist?

[Disclaimer: I've been busy with grant proposals lately. I will actually be occupied with proposal writing until early November. There will be a bit of slacking with my blog posting, which means that I will be posting about events in slightly less critical and analytical manner.]


Who's on tour: the have’s or the have-not's?

There is a theoretical caveat that I can take with my project on touring musicians. As media technology develops in late-capitalist society, some theorists argue that the experiences of everyday life become more mediated. This assessment seems too simplistic to me. Besides the increasing access to mediated cultural material, the circulation of music recordings via the Internet, for instance, what comes with technological development is people's mobility across geographical boundaries.

The politics implicated in mobility, however, should be qualified here a bit. Some movement patterns are induced by labor migration. Working-class migrant workers belong to this category where movement is voluntary only to an extent and is mostly based on economic necessities. On the other end of the power spectrum are people who move or travel out of leisure, i.e. tourists. In other words, motivation of movement or the social requisites for mobility are tied to the socioeconomic positions of the individuals.

Where do musicians fit in? Are musicians migrant (presumably working-class) workers, or are they more or less music-making tourists? According to my observations so far, many indie touring musicians fall somewhere in between. As the structure of the music industry becomes more conglomerated, there are fewer musicians out there signed to major labels. Thus fewer and fewer musicians have the funds provided by their labels to tour. In this sense, touring is no longer a means to sell records, the profit-driven end from the perspective of the record companies. Then what does touring mean to musicians who tour and subsist out of their own pockets, oftentimes the savings from a day job? Sometimes if you get lucky, and if you're popular enough, you barely break even from ticket and merchandise sales.

To musicians working at this level of the (amorphous) music industry, touring often means a personal aspiration, whether this serves the end of fulfilling the “rock star dream” or “getting my music heard by real people”, or making social network for fans and other musicians. I think, what compels musicians to get out there is precisely the personal, oftentimes intimate (especially if you’re really indie and low-budget) connections established in the live music setting.

I'm personally guilty of some of these motivations. And our Pinko Communoids tour of Taiwan this past summer was certainly not funded by a record label (our CDR was released by our own "label"). Our very costly trans-Pacific tour to East Asia was funded by student loans (another perk of being in grad school) and university funds, combined with the gracious financial assistance from our friends and families. [If you're curious, here's a list of people who made our trip possible, some of whom offered financial support while others emotional support.]

So - back to the beginning, music as heard in the postmodern, late-capitalist, Internet-mediated age is not just highly mediated and impersonal. Music can only be experienced in intimate, live music performances by indie-level musicians on tour. Sure, this dream is not lived out by everyone musician of all social positions. Not everyone can afford a tour around the world (living expenses) and being off from work.

The issue of class is looming though other forms of inequalities can intersect with socioeconomic positioning. Not everyone can feel safe on the road – as there are still lots of social spaces that are quite dangerous to gender (yes, this includes women, still!!), sexual and ethnic minorities. Trust me.