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artist: Che Chen & Robbie Lee
title: The Spectrum Does
edition: 300 copies
released: 2017
artwork: Che Chen

tracklist:
A Explain Please (The Stars Are Listening) (24:07)
B1 This Was The Only Spot That Was Green (3:16)
B2 The Spectrum Does (18:28)

Release Date: November, 2017
Robbie Lee: flute, tarogato, melodica, great bass recorder, electronics, percussion
Che Chen: violin, harmonium, bass recorder, tape machine, electronics, percussion
Recorded & mixed by Robbie Lee
Mastered by Jack Allett
Design by Jeroen Wille


On The Spectrum Does, New York avant-rock musicians Che Chen and Robbie Lee create three earthy and slow moving pieces, informed as much by various global folk traditions as they are by 20th century composition and improvisation. Their ‘anything goes’ approach to improvising leads to a sonic document that sounds raw, intense and freshly exciting. A wild and shambolic brew sounding like nothing else.

Che Chen is musician and visual artist currently best known for his work with percussionist Rick Brown as 75 Dollar Bill. In the mid 2000s he formed this duo with composer and producer Robbie Lee, who at the time played with people like Baby Dee and Neil Hagerty. Their most concentrated period of activity is bookended by a first LP they self-released in 2008 called Begin & Continue! and this record, The Spectrum Does, which contains music recorded several years later. 

On The Spectrum Does, both tackle a range of un­conven­tional instruments like bass recorders, Renaissance clarinet, glissando flute, tarogato, electrified violin, ultraslow recorders and custom modified tape machines. While their first LP documented their earliest, mostly acoustic improvisations, The Spectrum Does captures Che and Robbie after 5 or so years of meeting two or three times week and multiple tours around the country (a couple of times as a part of Jozef van Wissem’s band Heresy Of The Free Spirit). By now what was pulsing out of their little overdriven tube amps was even more electrified and warped. Sounds of unknown origin seem to bubble up to the surface, met by completely unique approaches to wind and string instruments.

Much boundary pushing improvised music gets described as ‘outer limits’ but on The Spectrum Does, it seems much more right to say they explore the ‘inner limits’. It is deep listening music, but not minimalist; complex but not virtuosic. Dissonances intermingle with folk harmonies and rhythms. As with all of the music this duo made together, there’s a sort of shambolic-shamanic sensibility to it, but without a motive or explicit purpose. To be filed close to your Tony Conrad, Henry Flynt, Pelt, The Dead C records.

Some words from the duo on The Spectrum Does

Che Chen: The long improvisation that starts on the first side and spills onto the next was recorded live at a gig opening for Loren Connors and Suzanne Langille’s incredible band, Haunted House, at Issue Project Room in the Spring of 2011 (back when they were in the Can Factory space). I remembering it being a strong set, crashing out of the gate with Robbie’s tangled tarogato lines and my splintered violin stabs before careening onward with the kind of harnessed, intensity that one always hopes will appear when improvising… The recordings that make up the bulk of the second side were made in a dark and airless practice space in the back of the Glasslands, a now defunct DIY space in South Williamsburg. The sound is more insular, turned inward instead of exploding out like the live set, and is pretty representative of how single minded the explorations that made up our weekly “sessions” could be.

Robbie Lee: These pieces have the feeling of field recording, capturing rehearsals in their best moments, so a sense of freedom is everywhere, the kind of freedom that can collapse at any moment. But they are also the result of years of a developing a very close language, specific to this duo alone. We originally began playing together as bass clarinet duos, and for a while as bass recorder duos. So even when we are playing radically different instruments, there’s still this very real feeling that neither of us know who’s generating which sound, in this floating cloud of vibration. This is partially because of Che’s use of tape machines, custom modified to loop and play at different speeds, to reiterate and regurgitate my sounds, and then his own as well. 

Che Chen: Not long after the Issue show, things fell apart, as they often do, and I went off and spent a couple of years collaborating with people in the Japanese underground before woodshedding hard on the electric guitar and starting 75 Dollar Bill. Meanwhile, Robbie made another record of his idiosyncratic songs (this time as Creature Automatic) and seemed to be focusing his considerable knowledge and technique on getting really good at one of the more unassuming instruments in his toolbox, the open-holed flute. I didn’t listen to Spectrum during the 5 years it sat on the shelf, but hearing it now, I love the openness and spirit of adventure. All the angles we were working on seem well-represented. I hear the synthesis of all the hours we spent playing together, and of all the hours we spent listening to music, another important part of those times. I hear our commitment to creating a shared language, a framework for making music spontaneously in the moment. But most of all I hear two people finding their way, pushing and supporting each other in sound. 

Biographies

Visual artist and musician Che Chen lives and works in New York. Former music projects include True Primes, duos with Tetuzi Akiyama, Chie Mukai and Jozef van Wissem’s Heresy Of The Free Spirit (with Robbie Lee). Currently he plays with percussionist Rick Brown as 75 Dollar Bill.

Robbie Lee is a musician, composer and producer also living in NYC. He has played with an eclectic group of improvisers and songwriters like Neil Hagerty & The Howling Hex, Baby Dee, Cass McCombs, Mary Halvorson and Talibam! He is also in Creature Automatic, Seaven Teares, and a new trio with Brian Chase and James Ilgenfritz. He runs the Telegraph Harp label with Elisha Wiesner.

REVIEWS

Enola
Een transmissie uit de vruchtbare New Yorkse ondergrond die belandt op een Gents label. Negen jaar na hun debuutalbum Begin & Continue! laten multi-instrumentalisten Che Chen en Robbie Lee nog eens van zich horen met liveopnames van een tijd geleden. Beide muzikanten zijn veelzijdige doe-het-zelvers die het niet houden bij één stiel. Che Chen, intussen vooral bekend als gitarist van duo 75 Dollar Bill, is ook een visueel artiest en tekende voor het artwork, terwijl Lee niet alleen bezig is als muzikant-componist, maar ook als studiotechnicus-producer. Hun kring van verwanten reikt van Mary Halvorson en Jozef van Wissem tot Neil Hagerty, Talibam! en Tetuzi Akiyama. Deze opnames dateren van een aantal jaren geleden, toen het duo al even in de weer was met muziek die weerstaat aan een simpele labeling. Door het gebruik van – even inademen – basblokfluiten, tarogato, viool, harmonium, melodica, elektronica, tape machine en percussie zijn de mogelijkheden natuurlijk schier eindeloos, en het resultaat is dan ook een excentrieke aanranding van de oren, die zowel flirt met noise en minimale muziek als met pastorale folk, hedendaagse gecomponeerde muziek, vrije improvisatie en drones. Bij het begin van “Explain Please (The Stars Are Listening)”, dat de A-kant van het vinyl inpalmt, is het zelfs even twijfelen tussen een solo-opname van Peter Brötzmann of het verhakkelde geschal van een muezzin. Het nasale gereutel van de tarogato mist nooit z’n effect. De repetitieve aanzet wordt meteen gecontrasteerd met krassend vioolgeweld, waarmee de toon gezet is. Vervolgens zijn de twee meer dan twintig minuten onderweg met bewegingen die al dan niet naadloos in elkaar overgaan en waarbij het ganse arsenaal binnenstebuiten gekeerd wordt. Nu eens met een bijna aandoenlijke gaafheid en lichtheid, waarin tintelende percussie voor de kleinste, rinkelende details zorgt, maar even later kan dat omslaan naar een dissonante klankenparade waar geen conventioneel geluid aan te pas komt. Industriële werkplaats, fluitende feedback en oosters ritualisme in een. Vooral het gebruik van de kloeke blokfluiten levert een bijzonder effect op dat zowel onaards als antiek klinkt, en in combinatie met een snerpende viool al helemaal over de rooie gaat. Is de eerste albumhelft op papier het meest excentriek, dan is het door haar speelsheid en energie eigenlijk nog het meest toegankelijk. Op de B-kant is het korte “This Was The Only Spot That Was Green” vooral in de weer met gerekte klanken, met een combinatie van twee basblokfluiten die iets heeft van een uit de hand gelopen feestje in een afgelegen oerwoud. Het lange titelnummer is al net zo dissonant en ongrijpbaar als de A-kant, maar klinkt donkerder, claustrofobischer. Vervormde fluit en viool blijven hier minutenlang op elkaar inwerken met een haast vijandige afstandelijkheid, aanhoudend gefluit en een (vermoedelijk) tape machine die bijdraagt aan die sinistere sfeer. Tegelijkertijd blijf je je wel bewust van het feit dat je nooit helemaal zeker bent van wat er gaande is. Het is misschien muziek die je pas ten volle kan appreciëren als het zich voor je ogen afspeelt. The Spectrum Does is niettemin een fascinerende oefening in musiceren op de tast, een oefening die door haar overduidelijke spontaniteit de bal ook naar de luisteraar kaatst. Veeleisend? Misschien. Maar vooral op maat van gretige, nieuwsgierige oren. Met een ontvankelijke luisterhouding geraak je minstens halfweg. (Guy Peters, Enola, October 2017)

Gonzo Circus
"Sissende fluisteringen en zachte slagen op een diep resonerende lijsttrommel doorsnijden de rijke samenklanken, die van samenstelling veranderen als een langzaam draaiende caleidoscoop. Van melodieën is geen sprake, en de verglijdende akkoorden bieden nergens houvast. Het enige dat je als luisteraar kunt doen, is achterover leunen en je overgeven aan de velden van geluid waar Capelle je in laat baden. In muzikale paden zijn slechtere bestemmingen denkbaar.” (Gonzo Circus #143, january 2018)

The Hum
It’s strange what lodges itself in memory, but, roughly 15 years later, Che Chen drifting through the door of the loft I shared with a couple of friends in Bushwick, feels like yesterday. It wasn’t a particularly dynamic meeting, nor the seeds for the close friendship we would subsequently form, just a casual hello between two ships passing for the first time. Recently, through his ecstatic guitar lines, making up half of 75 Dollar Bill – his project with Rick Brown, Che has fallen into the international spotlight, with that band often cited as among the best working today. While entirely deserving of the praise – it’s possible that I’ve seen 75 Dollar Bill more than any other person on the planet, I’ve also secretly worried that it might overshadow the breadth, diversity, and dynamics of Che’s larger body of work. Over the years that I have known him, he has remained one the most fiercely principled and adventurous experimental musicians in the landscape. A true believer and advocate for all of the potential avant-garde approaches to sound hold. Part of the difficulty in capturing a glimpse of Che’s larger practice, is that it has been largely shackled to NY – as a member of the Tony Conrad ensemble, or countless pick-up improvisational groups. Che works in the moment, with only a small number of his efforts – the most rewarding and reoccurring relationships, committed to tape – beyond 75 Dollar Bill, those with Rolyn Hu (as True Primes), Tetuzi Akiyama, Chie Mukai, his recently formed trio with Aki Onda and Tashi Dorji, and, among a small handful of others, his long standing collaboration with Robbie Lee – one product of which stands before us now. Che and Robbie began collaborating somewhere around the middle of the 2000’s, the first recorded output of which came within a series of CD-R releases and then an LP entitled Begin and Continue!, which was self-issued in 2008 – the product of a rigorous period of collaboration, which saw the pair meeting and playing multiple times a week. The recordings which make up The Spectrum Does were made a few years later, and despite their brilliance, have sadly remained shelved in the years since, appearing now for the first time with none of the power diminished. I often cite a distinction made by Mike Watt, where he notes that there are two primary kinds of musicians – those who come to their instrument because of their love of music, and those who come to music because of their love for their instrument. Che and Robbie are exceptions to this norm. While both are arguably members of the first trope, their deep love of instruments – a great many of them, with the sounds they generate and the practices which surround them, verges on obsession and trumps all preexisting relationships. The Spectrum Does is a perfect crystallization of this anomaly, darting around the edges of a diverse number of sonic traditions from across the globe, while entirely singular, internal, and the product of a deep sensitivity between each player and the instruments on which it was made – Che making contributions on  violin, harmonium, bass recorder, tape machine, electronics, and percussion, and Robbie on flute, tarogato, melodica, great bass recorder, electronics, and percussion. Like its predecessor Begin and Continue!The Spectrum Does is comprised of freely improvised explorations of sound and timbre – what the duo refer to as sonic foraging or shambolic folk minimalism – a responsive patchwork which assembles references to free jazz, the musics of north Africa, the Middle East, Java, Tibet, with explicit noise and drone, into a totality which resembles little else. In the simplest and most direct terms, the LP is stunning – a brutal, jarring, and ecstatic celebration through organizations of sound. As raw as it is sensitive and delicate, it stands as a reminder of the possibilities which can be reached when music is led by the ear, and through improvisation at large. A recorded moment which stands as a testament to the fact that there is as much visionary, groundbreaking, and exciting music being made today as any era before, The Spectrum Does is an incredible installment from a duo we haven’t heard enough from. Let’s hope there is more to come. Once again, hats off to my dear old friend. Check it out below, and pick it up from Che’s Bandcamp page, SoundOhm, Experimedia, Forced Exposure, or a record store near you. (Bradford Bailey, The Hum, November 2017)

Dusted
Familiarity, novelty and antiquity entwine to make something rare on The Spectrum Does. You have probably already heard Robbie Lee and Che Chen in other settings. Lee co-runs Telegraph Harp records and writes/plays/sings in Creative Automatic; he’s also a utility player who has joined the bands of Baby Dee, Neil Hagerty, Brightblack Morning Light, Cass McCombs and Talibam! Chen, of course, plays guitar in 75 Dollar Bill, but has also made records on his own and with Tetuzi Akiyama and Chie Mukai. And for about five years, Chen and Lee had a partnership that encompassed intense wood shedding, a bit of playing out, one prior LP and a tour and record with Jozef Van Wissem under the banner Heresy of the Free Spirit. Chen and Lee first got together to play bass clarinet duos. That early practice of playing the same instrument probably has something to do with the ego-less cohesion of their music, but there was no way they’d stick to just one instrument. Lee collects ancient instruments and Chen is also a multi-instrumentalist; no doubt Van Wissem was drawn to them because they not only played portative organ, bass recorder and harmonium, but improvised non-idiomatically with those instruments. The Spectrum Does is drawn from two performances that took place in 2011, one at Issue Project Room and the other at Glasslands. On side one Lee comes out swinging, blowing his taragato like Peter Brötzmann (the Eastern European reed instrument’s main contemporary proponent) was looking over his shoulder. Chen responds to his tough, tunneling lines with coarse, choppy fiddle scrapes that sound like Tony Conrad playing the way a traffic cop talks until their abraded timbres fall together and then subside into a machine-like whir. Next, delay-distorted sounds rise and retreat from a carpet of harmonium, turning the vibe both prayerful and apprehensive. Then the violin returns, still Conrad-like, but Lee counters with a slow, pastoral melody played on a great bass recorder. Some improvisers might keep duking it out, but Chen switches to bass recorder himself. Whether they relate aggressively or passively, even when you can tell who is playing what, that seems to matter less than the consonance of mood and uncertainty of century that they create together — there are passages where it sounds like some Hungarian goat herder from the 1760s is playing with some turtlenecked freaks in a 1960s NYC art loft via a time portal held open by vibrantly fluttering magnetic tape.  There’s really nothing else around that sounds like this stuff, and it’s a shame that the duo is done, but we have another piece of analog magic to tell you what they sounded like — this fine record. (Bill Meyer, Dusted, January 2018)

Toneshift
Limited to 300 copies, the latest collaboration by New Yorkers artist/musician Che Chen (he also painted the striking, mountainous psychedelic cover-art) and composer Robbie Lee compiles a trio of sketchy, meandering tracks. Recently released on audioMER. the genre-defying improvisation on The Spectrum Does is a wash of discordant layers presented in a post-industrial sound structure and produced through a multitude of instruments: harmonium, electronics, flute, violin and much more. Explain Please (The Stars Are Listening) is the first track here clocking in over 18 minutes. It’s like a contorted conversation between unknown entities, wailing and serrated, filled with alarms, pauses, ghostly howls. There’s a squelching imbalance between the left and right sides of the larger brain here. It’s about conundrum, about conflict, perhaps with nature in the balance with all eyes (as stars) watching the turmoil below. A moody, brooding and dramatic work. After flipping the vinyl to the b-side the shortest track here is revealed, This Was The Only Spot That Was Green instantly invokes a sense of memory, perhaps of loss. The dull sigh of the wind instruments here create a great outdoors feel, becoming playful and airy towards the tail-end. Finally the title track takes us by surprise, wriggling horns and strings are cyclically entangled kickstarting a complex track that weaves sweet sounds with raw energy. It’s a long-playing piece at over 24 minutes. Oddly there’s a harmony behind the cacophony, it’s a play on which instrument moves from rear to center, and still, like a bee-hive of a traffic jam we are left with a certain breather that is earned as if someone has earned their respectful right to the open road. Towards the central part of the track things get more disorienting and stretched out as the players find their personal sweet spot. Here the uneasy-listening aspect sheds itself somewhat to a more mysterious drone of sorts, reverberating as if they were underground. It’s as if the sound space is percolating as to caution what’s to come. A traditional Japanese sounding arrangement smooths over the hot coals left from earlier, though the tranquil repetition then leaves way to a new friction of frustrated strings. In the end pockets of soundwaves, as if made by the call of a marine mammal protrude in and out of recognition, leaving a wake of distant ringing alarms and light agitation slowly fading. (TJ Norris, Toneshift, March 2018)