2001: steve roden – forms of paper

by matthew blackwell tiny mix tapes, 2012

Officially, lowercase is a decade old. That is, lowercase as a popular genre
marker identifying a certain brand of minimalism is a decade old. The project of
lowercase is to take barely audible or sometimes inaudible sounds – a computer
powering down, the hiss of a blank tape – and amplify, loop, and otherwise
manipulate them to create music. 2002’s lowercase-sound2002 was the
genre’s official coming out party; it collected tracks from the stars of the burgeoning
scene (Taylor Deupree, Stephan Mathieu, Toshimaru Nakamura) and
acted as a primer for those interested. And there were an increasing number of
interested people, due in part to an article from Wired Magazine called “Whisper
the Songs of Silence” that appeared the same year.

According to Steve Roden, however, the issue is much more complicated than
this. Roden, who coined the term and popularized the form, has been using the
term “lowercase” as a way to describe his art since the mid-80s. In 1997 he
described his work this way to The Wire’s Rob Young. By 2001, the term had
entered into use among a group of intensely devoted musicians and fans on an
online discussion forum called “lowercase-sound.” It had been, for some 15
years, a descriptive term used to communicate an aesthetic element in his own
art, an indicator of his vision for what his art could do. And then it transformed
into a set of rules that were being defined and redefined by a group of loosely
related international artists.

Roden’s 2001 album Forms of Paper became, for many, the exemplary lowercase
record. And it does seem to fulfill Roden’s own definition as well: “Lowercase
resembles what Rilke called ‘inconsiderable things’ – the things that one
would not ordinarily pay attention to, the details, the subtleties.” Forms of
Paper was commissioned by the Los Angeles Public Library system as an installation
in its Hollywood branch. Roden used contact mics to record himself
manipulating paper in various ways, then effected these recordings and played
them through a series of speakers so that they would subtly infiltrate the surrounding

Unfortunately, as he explains in the press release for last year’s re-release of
the record, Roden was unable to listen to the mastered version of the recording
before it was sent to the CD manufacturers. The original sound installation had
to be made much louder in order to be played on a conventional CD, which
made certain sounds audible that Roden himself could not hear in his own
mixes. Forms of Paper, then, really is the exemplary lowercase record, not by
virtue of its dedication to a set of generic conventions, but because its dissemination
was wrested from Roden’s control just as the term “lowercase” itself
was, and then made to mean something quite different. That the record still
means so much for its listeners more than ten years after its release attests to
the importance of Roden’s work. And he eventually came around as well – the
liner notes to the re-release end with his confession that “remarkably — with all
of the distance between us — this piece of mine and me, seemed to feel as if
we might finally be able to get along.”