C. Spencer Yeh
C. Spencer Yeh has long been a one-man underground out in Cincinnati, Ohio, formulating some of the heaviest post-Dream Syndicate metal this side of Faust, putting on shows, hooking up with itinerant improvisers like Paul Flaherty, Chris Corsano and John Olson and releasing a ton of deeply defiant shit via his suave Drone Disco imprint. Yeh is also a sub-cultural thinker of some renown and his knowledge of various obscure musical/filmic byways is fairly staggering. Here he sweats a whole lot of brain-muscle over Australian harpist/improviser Clare Cooper’s new solo CD, Gut.
Clare Cooper is a young harpist from Australia. After (having the pleasure of) meeting her, I’ve determined that the harp is a truly difficult instrument to play - and I don’t necessarily mean technically. I mean anticipating the reactions one would usually receive from folks when revealing one’s main poison of choice is harp. Seems like besides being prepared with a palmful of blisters, one has to have a pretty good attitude. Maybe even a bit “cheeky”. It’s rare company as far as most know (Zeena Parkins? Rhodri Davies? Alice Coltrane? But mostly... Joanna Newsom??), and most venues can’t necessarily summon a harp the same way one could grip a piano or two mics (one for the violin, one for the voice) or a coldcut spread. Maybe it’s the sheer level of nerve wracked up to even begin to consider tackling such an imposing instrument... Aaanyways, her first solo disc - Gut - maybe it hit at the right personally, but damn if it isn’t fantastic; a killer surprise. Right there, while drinking morning coffee and throwing a jam on from "the pile," I decided on the spot that this album was a platform on top of which I could spin around my vague issues about "improvisation" at the time in Autumn '05. The first time through, what had truly struck me wasn't the music itself (don't get me wrong -- the sounds were what sat me down on the couch initially, instead of cleaning the kitchen) but its basic formal qualities -- a frackin' "solo improv CD" clocking in at around LP length -- forty minutes or so, with an attention to sequencing that seems more akin to the usual "narrative" song-based concerns than whatever the "usual" approach towards a solo improv CD is. Which isn't to say that the content itself is fancily typical harping gestures with some sharp angles; as the liners note "explorations in grit, texture and time" -- maybe Joanna Newsom meets Organum (except without Joanna Newsom). Maybe Organum meets Clare Cooper (except without Organum). What would one expect if handed a "CD of solo harp improvisations" on the street (are there even that many to pass around the couch)?? and etc. Not to say all others are devoid of similar concerns, but we know our prejudices -- a CD packed to the rim with demonstration after demonstration that you'd maybe hear the first third of at least five times, and wouldn't even know the end of the disc if it had stand-up done in chicken voice. Perhaps I should frame Gut instead as just a solo album from a harpist, but I'd be fronting if I didn't deny all the baggage I had checked in with me. In any case, sure, ultimately not the revolution but frack it, but I dug the disc. Here's the brief rundown, beginning and end: The lead track features what I'm guessing is the guzheng (a Chinese harp) being flirted with (Cooper switches between this and yr average large-sized wiley harp), and from there, various levels of intellectual/instinctual sonic investigation which, if cranked to the right volume, can quietly ruin lifestyles. Especially if you are a professional harp tuner, or the gracious true owner of the instrument. No electric mini-fans used to wrestle the sounds, nor loop stations to freeze oneself in time -- just closed eyes, hands, maybe notched sticks, and a little of that good ol' bowing. Skipping to the end -- the wrap-up track is simultaneously exactly what's needed after all the previous destruction. Not to say that it strictly serves as yr average "hey I can play" track, but rather a certain release/gush/blast of sound that reminds me of the devastatingly unchoked closer on Kevin Drumm's "Guitar" disc. Or the beautiful tumbling waves of cold human like Nobukazu Takemura's "Icefall" track on "Scope." As mysteriously elegant and dark as the rest of the album, with the right amount of focus. The music slips away and what's to do with a "short" CD except play the damn thing over again. To truly round things out, the disc itself comes in a lovely Dual Plover..? case (with a soft fuzzy insert to lovingly protect the disc -- kinda like Hair Police Blow Out Your Blood!) repping a great illustration rendered by Cooper herself (that somehow sums up the air in and around the disc quite well). A cottonmouth set of lips spewing the letters G-U-T; take a listen, read my above ramblings again, and figure it out for yrself. I have not heard anything else that Cooper is involved with (there is a duo called GERM, but apparently Australian 3"CD-Rs play counter-clockwise.?? It didn't work on my Aiwa from Best Buy), but word on the street has it a second solo disc is going to drop at some point in the future. Clare, along with her double-bass wrestling dude Clayton Thomas, keep the action alive out in Sydney Australia, organizing tons of regular events as well as a regional improvisation/sound festival. If you search around on the internet, you can find video clips online of both shredding the frack out of their respective instruments. So check this disc out, buy a frackin' ton of 'em so that she can afford to fly over to the Midwaste U.S. and jam out sometime soon. In the meantime if you run into Cooper on the street, just ignore the harp and instead squeeze some juicy Keiji Haino stories out of her. P.S. - thanks to Chris Wolf for some maniacal 2 AM discussion/help with this write-up.