Roden gives the passage of time an amazing aural quality

by nate lippens seattle post intelligencer, 2006

In Steve Roden’s exquisite installation “day ring, night ring” at the Henry Art Gallery, the Los Angeles-based artist creates sound art that addresses the passage of time. It can be the passage of a day, the molasses crawl of the clock, or a blink-and-it’s-gone season.

Time may, indeed, be relative but it’s imperative for art. The novel uses time as its subject and its medium. Video art and film compress and condense time. Sound art exists in an interstitial way. It’s time-based yet seemingly ephemeral, in the moment and simultaneously apart from it.

With “day ring, night ring,” Roden delivers a piece that is an homage to the James Turell Skyspace, where it is installed, and a transfiguration of the atmosphere in the space. It’s not a sonic overlay, but a soundscape that seems to derive from the Skyspace itself.

The two compositions, “day ring,” which is 40 minutes long and plays only twice a day in the Skyspace, and “night ring,” which runs all night in the outdoor area near the Skyspace, create their own clock. The “day ring” composition has an almost hymnal quality that hints at time’s elasticity, invisibility and ultimate meaninglessness.

There is something elemental about the piece. It consists of an expanding, rippling bed of looped field recordings and a violinist improvising on the tones of 11 tuning forks tuned and resonating to the orbit of a different planet. The sound swells at times like Glenn Branca’s guitar orchestras but without the six-string squall. At other moments, it has the majestic sweep of classical music.

Unlike Roden’s previous work, based in loops, it has a more traditional structure. There are three movements with 20 seconds of silence between each, creating a beginning, middle and end. Roden designed it so listeners could move around, leave and return. Street noise, passing cars and bus brakes bleed into the experience for an incidental effect that keeps the music in the moment.

Roden also uses happenstance and coincidence in his performances, such as one last month at the Henry. The performance consisted of the simplest of materials set up on a table. Roden played with wooden whistles, a banjolele (a hybrid of banjo and ukulele), a bowed lap steel and pine cones (yes, pine cones). He also sang in a falsetto that sounded like a 21st-century version of high lonesome keening. During his discussion, he said he uses a falsetto in performance because it’s “a voice I didn’t know how to use.” He could have fooled anyone there.

“I don’t want the work to be at the service of my ideas,” Roden said at the post-performance discussion, radiating the calm and humility of John Cage. His ideas are open-ended and the work runs wild from them. Roden, while clearly fascinated by chance, isn’t a disciple of Cage’s operations. Roden’s work is the inverse of Cage’s; he goes deeper into himself because of chance.

Trying to pin Roden down is a fool’s errand. It’s counterintuitive and, ultimately, counterproductive. The easy-reader view of it would be that he creates sound like a painter or draws like a sound artist, but, in fact, he is a truly multidisciplinary artist. His mastery lies in his high-wire improvisation, which risks failure and thereby discovers a haunting and fragile perfection, delivered imperfectly and gloriously.