By Ethan Swan
My mother recently moved out of the house I grew up in, obliging me to sort through the remaining boxes of adolescent zines and letters on their way from the attic to the curb. Among the few highlights was an Ajax Records mailorder catalogue from the spring of 1997, filled with markings and notes on records I mostly never ordered. One standout is the description of The Shadow Ring CD Wax-Work Echoes, which I recall was my first encounter with Graham Lambkin’s music:
Reading through now, I’m not sure what compelled me to track this one down. The other starred items in the catalogue generally reference favorite bands like The Marine Girls, or contained the magic words “no wave.” But I do remember a weariness that began at that age and the subsequent pressure towards “unworkable” structures. Even my most aggressive records had poise, and I yearned for records that felt broken, unexpected.
Ten years later I saw C. Spencer Yeh play a violin with two bows, one in each hand. I appreciated the sounds he reached through this method, unlike any violin I’d heard before, but what I really liked was the uneasiness, the way he sapped centuries of grace from the instrument through this awkwardness. There was a churlish accuracy to the performance, revealing some harrowing, universal truth.
A reference to the composer Walter Marchetti felt like the key to these gestures. In discussing Lambkin’s practice, Bhob Rainey recalled Marchetti’s proposed search for the “bottom of music,” an act of mapping that crystallized my own desires as a listener. I liked how “the bottom” made me think of Notes from Underground; I liked envisioning a surface to music, and the act of moving away from that; and I liked the tangle of exploration and sinking. When I sat down to discuss the structure and expectations for Lambkin and Yeh’s performance at the New Museum, I took this quote as a blueprint, a way of thinking physically about music that might streamline and magnify our conversation.
It turns out that Lambkin and Yeh have been thinking physically as well, in a way that has a direct impact on their conceptual approach to the New Museum. As explained by Lambkin, their performance takes “the performance space and uses it as fair game in a somewhat musical language. We’re taking the inanimate objects of the room, transforming them, or sculpting them, if you like, through our interactions with them to become a part of the music.” Yeh followed up this idea with the observation that past music events at the New Museum have been “more music-leaning, if you will—people coming in and playing.” He went on to differentiate their performance as a presentation, specifically “a presentation of work.”
Photo: Bill Kouligas
As I tried to better understand this distinction, Yeh explained a fundamental shift in intention that I realize lays bare my ongoing admiration for both artists and helps illuminate some of the lessons from my prior encounters with their work. Rather than identify as a musician, Yeh explained, he described his creative activity as “organizing sound.” Compelled by this idea, I asked Lambkin and Yeh to elaborate. What follows is an excerpt of our subsequent discussion.
Ethan Swan: I’m interested in this idea of thinking of what you’re doing as organized sound instead of music. Do you think like either of you had a transition where you went from a person who made music to a person who organized sound? Or do you feel like it’s always been organized sound?
C. Spencer Yeh: For me, I think it’s been more a matter of getting older and wiping away some aspirations and illusions I may have had. Those aspirations and illusions would manifest themselves more as insecurities. Lately when people ask me about the music, I’m not trying to be a jerk about it, but I tell them “I work with music” rather than say “I’m a musician.” I mean, whether or not both end up meaning the same thing, I’ve made the distinction because there is a certain expected craftspersonship when it comes to “musician” that doesn’t necessarily recognize the limitations that I feel are communicated when one instead says “I work with music.” Because “I work with music” implies experimentation, more so than saying “I am a musician” which sounds to me like someone saying, “I am a watch maker, I can fix your watch.” It could be something that I’m just deluding myself with. A lot of it has to do with realizing what I’ve been trying to do or what I have done rather than trying to do something else I guess.
Graham Lambkin: I think Spencer puts it very well. The one amendment I would make is that I try to be very careful with my language, and I wouldn’t say I work with music, I would say I work with sound and if you wish to call it music that’s fine. I would be equally happy if you came up with a different definition. To go back to the epiphany when I realized I was “organizing sound” as opposed to “making music” as you had it, I think it found me, probably towards the end of the run of the Shadow Ring. Initially I wasn’t even aware there was this alternative path you could take of working with sound, you were either in a band or you weren’t. Of course not being armed with the vocabulary that would come from studying it academically or otherwise, we were just taking the sounds that we could make, as untutored as they were, and organizing them into some kind of system where we had our own language. As the instruments changed and the conventionality of the instruments fell away, things like post production and application of events after the fact became more interesting and more important than strumming a guitar, I think that became a eureka moment. That became a chance for me to put my fingerprint on what we were doing. As a guitar player, I’m anonymous, I’m useless, and that’s fine. But as someone who is able to organize sounds after the fact, that’s where I think I found my tongue and really never looked back from there.
CSY: One thing that really rings out for me is Graham talking about how you start off trying to imitate, if you will, The Fall, or any number of bands like that. But then you hit a brick wall in terms of your own limitations. To me, that’s where it becomes interesting, that’s where it becomes yours. And that’s where you can really hear yourself, and that’s the difference to me between “being a musician” and “working with music.” Being a musician, the implication is that you should be able to do everything the same way the woodworker has the ability to craft and, I was going to say, polish knobs.
GL: [Laughing] you can say that.
CSY: There’s the implication that someone would be able to do any of those things and that’s the role of the musician and that’s fine and great. They can pick up a guitar or a piano or a saxophone and be able to replicate something. But coming up against that wall and realizing that you can’t replicate or capture that vibe but instead you start to hear yourself, that’s where it becomes interesting, that’s where it becomes your own work. Then you problem solve around it: if you have small hands and you can’t quite make that 12 key reach on the keyboard, instead you write stuff that only has a 4 key reach for your small hands. But then in the process maybe you sort of discover and create your own vibe and your own way of writing songs that is borne out of your limitations. If you didn’t have those limits, then maybe you wouldn’t have realized those chords.
GL: Spencer brings up a very interesting point which is very dear to me and that’s always keeping in mind a sense of economy. I think it’s good for people, creative people, to have less to work with. I think by taking stuff away all the time, it forces you to think harder, it ignites your imagination, or at least it should if you’re a genuinely creative person rather than someone who’s lazy, if I can use the word lazy. I got to the point a few years ago where the only equipment I had was a walkman, and then you think, “well, this is clearly not enough.” There’s no way you can do good work with just a walkman, and so you have to bring in things like YouTube, well that’s what I was doing, finding things. You should be able to make a decent record with a rubber band and a cardboard box just as easily as a string quartet or whatever you’ve got. You should set yourself those limitations and not be afraid.
Graham Lambkin and C. Spencer Yeh perform at the New Museum on Friday, June 22 at 7PM.
More information and ticketing: http://www.newmuseum.org/events/660