Coming as it does, in the last month of this decade, Lee Yi’s remarkable new album provides us an opportunity to recognize both his talent and the larger implications of the genre of music he is a part of. Sorrow’s Self-Portrait shares a good deal in common with many of the most interesting releases produced in the last 10 years.
Its beauty emerges from ugliness. As Yi’s label Rottenman Editions puts it in the album’s notes, “With this album he rediscovers himself facing the darkest part of the music, clinging to sounds that we generally classify as unpleasant, such as noises and saturations created by forcing his four-track recorder and in turn, creating micro flash of light with small melodies, voices, string simulations and underwater drones.”
In retrospect, it makes sense that artists would evolve ambient music to feature increasingly challenging sounds. As groundbreaking as those early recordings were, seminal works like Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon inspired further experimentation more than duplication. (Which is not to say that there hasn’t been plenty of the latter.) The music represented a forward-looking perspective, and the correct artistic response was to keep pushing the envelope.
It almost goes without saying that advances in recording technology went a long way toward facilitating this. It not only made it easier to incorporate more interesting sounds, its relative inexpensiveness put that capability into the hands of many, many more artists.
All of that creative energy was combined to build hybrid upon hybrid, incorporating found sounds, field recordings and so much more. It is this sound art – for lack of a better umbrella term – that for many of us has defined the decade.
There is more to this story though. Yi’s work isn’t just ear candy. His “clinging to sounds that we generally classify as unpleasant” can be (I would argue must be) experienced as a metaphor of our 21st century world.
Think of the ugliness we’ve been immersed in since the dot-com bubble burst in March 2000. September 11th, religious fundamentalism, brutal wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, the rise of the hard right and autocracy in general. Our environment is in crisis, ecologically and otherwise.
Sorrow’s Self-Portrait is aptly titled. Its source material is a reflection of all of this, presented back to us for consideration. Like a lot of important art, music like this is more than anything a product of its time.
The word most often used to describe work like this is dystopian. That misses the point entirely. There is an optimism inherent in Yi’s work that runs contrary to the popular notion of a world gone to hell.
Sorrow’s Self-Portrait is certainly a sad recording. At times it’s even alarming. But it is also profoundly beautiful. To extend the metaphor described above, Yi’s work recognizes the ugliness around us and at the same time presents us the idea that no matter how bad things get, beauty can come of it.