steve roden, case sensitive

by christoph cox the wire, 2003

“I’m trying to meld all of the things that I’m interested in into one,” says multi-artist Steve Roden. “Everything I do is connected. I just allow whatever inspires me to take its own path.”

Roden is a synaesthete, an intermedia translator, a Gesamtkunstwerker. Over the past decade, his Los Angeles studio has become a cabinet of aesthetic curiosities, a peculiar microcosm filled with an intriguing array of deeply idiosyncratic art objects: 26 wood and embroidery-thread sculptures that model the sound waves of his voice speaking or singing each letter of the alphabet, the vowels painted in accordance with letter-color associations laid out by Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud; a film consisting of 365 half-second images of the sky shot one every day for a single year; a book of Par Lagerkvist’s poems translated from Swedish to English based solely on the sounds and shapes of the words; a painting that renders the verbal score for John Cage’s silent composition, 4’33”, according to a scheme that correlates letters with colors and line measurements . . .

Roden’s burgeoning collection of paintings, sculptures, films, and installations have been dispatched to galleries and museums from Santa Barbara to Osaka. But to audio aficionados, he is better known for another body of work: for the calm, lush, and looping sonic abstractions he has released—initially as in be tween noise, now under his own name—on 20 CDs for some of experimental music’s leading labels. Five years ago, speaking to The Wire’s Rob Young (November 1997), Roden used the phrase “lowercase” to describe his own work and the music he cherishes: “small music that is humble, that allows the listener to discover it, to wander around in it.” Unwittingly, Roden’s remark sparked a growing movement of musicians and sound artists from disparate regions of the musical map (Noise, Ambient, Free Improv, Minimal Techno, etc.) dedicated to quiet, spare, ego-less improvisation and composition. It inspired a flurry of self-described “lowercase music” and, through the “lowercase-sound” list serv, brought together a now-thriving virtual community of musicians and visual artists to trade thoughts on music of Morton Feldman and Bernhard Günter, the writing of Samuel Beckett, the canvases of Mark Rothko, and the nature of noise, sound, and silence in the digital age.

In the half-decade since, Roden’s reputation has grown considerably. In 2003 alone, his paintings and sculptures will be on-view in solo exhibitions in Los Angeles, Pomona, and Seattle. His beguiling installation moon field, shown in Saarbrücken last year, has just been mounted at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. And he has recently released three new CDs, resonant cities on Trente Oiseaux, three roots carved to look like stone on Sonoris and winter couplet, on his own New Plastic Music label. From his home in Pasadena, he talked with me about the many strands that make up his recent work and the ways in which they are bound together.

In the late-70s, LA was the capital of American punk rock; and Roden, raised a bicycle ride away from The Whisky, was swept up in the scene. After inadvertently catching a show by The Screamers, he cut his hair, tossed his Jimi Hendrix records, and, like countless other teenagers, formed a band. A dreamy, artistic kid, Roden’s punk rock aesthetic found expression in his drawing and painting. “I thought that people like Max Beckmann and Georg Grosz were where I wanted to be. So, I was painting a lot of skeletons and decrepit people,” he recalls with a laugh. Roden’s talent as a visual artist got him into art school, where he single-mindedly pursued painting. But he slowly began to discover the close ties that existed between modern art and music. “There’s a Schoenberg record with an Egon Schiele cover, which I bought because I loved Egon Schiele; and that opened me up to Schoenberg. And there’s a Brubeck record with a Franz Kline cover. So, through all these weird paths, I ended up accessing this sort of ‘art music’ without really knowing anything about art music.”

In 1985, during a year abroad in Paris, Roden stumbled across the work of Arthur Dove, an early abstract painter who was richly inspired by music and sound. “It was the first time I could see abstraction in a way that I could get my hands around. Dove was someone I had never heard of. None of my teachers had ever heard of him. And so I thought, ‘oh, I’ve got something that’s my own.’” At the same time, having watched punk descend into fashion, Roden began relistening to Brian Eno’s Another Green World, a record he had received as a gift in grammar school. “That was the first music I heard that felt abstract. It was about sound; and it wasn’t about telling a story with words. Just the sounds on that record—especially the short instrumental pieces—they still put me in such a wonderful environment. I had never heard anything quite like it.” The abstractionist impulse gripped Roden; and his painting changed for good.

Roden continued to pursue painting at the prestigious Art Center School of Design in Pasadena, where he wrote a Masters thesis largely informed by the correspondence between Kandinsky and Schoenberg. “It’s perfect,” he reflects, “the master composer talking about how he wants to paint, and the master painter about how he wants to make music.” Roden himself had been privately experimenting with sound and music for years; but he continued to think of himself as exclusively a painter. It was a quotation from Art Brut gadfly Jean Dubuffet that pushed him over the edge. In the liner notes to his 1963 audio experiment Musical Experiences, Dubuffet celebrated the “incredible number of diverse effects can be obtained from the first instrument to come to hand” and the “advantage [. . .] afforded by the improvised use of an instrument whose proper handling is not known, with the unexpected discoveries that this can bring about.” Roden recalls: “It was exactly what I was after as a person trying to make music without any pretensions of being a musician. Then I started to discover some of the other connections to visual art, through Fluxus and some other things. At that point, the sound of the work didn’t really matter to me. It was just that it existed. There was a history. When I discovered some of the [musical] stuff Duchamp did, I just thought ‘oh great, now I have a place.’”

With an odd collection of instruments (Thai guard pipes, accordion, bowed psaltery, lap steel guitar) and an assortment of samples drawn from records and radio, Roden built a set of tracks that amounted to a kind of invented World Music. Navajo drums drifted into a pool of accordions crossed by darting bits of stray noise. Western twang and Chinese flutes butted up against warped ethereal plainchant. “I sort of viewed myself as someone who doesn’t know how to play instruments trying to make the kind of classical music I was looking for,” Roden explains. “I loved people like Moondog and Harry Partch. Those guys were huge influences on me. And I felt like, in some weird way, I was trying to make that music.”

The record, appropriately titled so delicate and strangely made, was self-released in 1993 under the name “in be tween noise.” Roden explains the moniker: “I was invited to make music in between sets at an evening of noisy artist bands featuring the likes of Mike Kelley and JIm Shaw. I made this tape music thing, but I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I didn’t know what ‘tape music’ was and had never heard any musique concrète. But I gave the club owner these tapes and told her to play them in between the bands; and so on the flier she wrote ‘in between noise, by Steve Roden.’”

After a second record as in be tween noise— humming endlessly in the hush, which featured an even larger and stranger collection of found and fabricated instruments—Roden abandoned the restless eclecticism he had pursued under the moniker and began to record under his own name. His musical aesthetic shifted toward more floating, monochrome pieces built predominantly from field recordings. But Roden’s in be tween noise releases contained elements that would come to define his work across media. For the closing track on so delicate. . . ,  Roden set himself the task of saving a month’s worth of plastic, glass, and metal recyclables and composing a piece using nothing but the full set of these objects. Another piece on the record was performed using only the open notes of a found violin that was badly out of tune and had lost a string. This combination of intuitive improvisation under the constraint of an externally-imposed system would become Roden’s dominant working method in all of his artistic pursuits. Roden explains the genesis of the idea: “I was really frustrated with my painting. I felt like I was heading towards the style of any number of contemporary biomorphic, intuitive abstractionists. And I thought, ‘This is just terrible. I can see the next thousand paintings I’m going to make.’ I was thumbing through an art magazine and I just said to myself, ‘I’m going to copy the first letter of the names of every artist with an advertisement in this magazine in the same typeface that they’re printed in, and see if I can get all those letters down on this canvas before it runs out.’ It was the first rule-based thing I had ever done, and it really did a number on me!” he recalls with a laugh.

Roden credits John Cage’s use of the I Ching and Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s “Oblique Strategies” as important antecedents to his working procedure. But he is quick to point out some important differences. “The major difference with Cage,” Roden explains, “is that I am not doing this to completely take myself out of the work. Whereas Cage attempted to let chance ‘create’ the work without any influence of his own self, I am much more interested in how these chance systems affect my own abilities and intuitions during the working process. I set up a battle between intellectual thought/chance/systems and an intuitive working process. I am constantly interested in things like: how do I make a series of paintings with the same 14 lines in each? how can I translate a text from English to green colored lines? and, in spite of these rules, how can I make an object that contains all the poetic evocations that interest me beyond these exercises in formalism?”

Roden continued to paint, sculpt, and make films. But sound art had become an integral part of his corpus. In 1997, he set to work on a series of pieces, issued as 3” CDs, using only a single object as a sound-making device. A fan of mid-century American Modernism, Roden chose objects he owns and loves: a plywood leg-splint designed by Charles Eames, a Harry Bertoia chair, a George Nelson lamp. Using a monophonic sampler with a tiny memory, he recorded himself bowing, plucking, rubbing, and scratching these objects. Then he sliced, stretched, looped, and pitch-shifted the samples, layering them to form compositions that both reference and abstract the original material. The resulting pieces are quiet yet unsettling. Wooden and metallic tones ring, knock, hum, pulse, and float through uncertain spaces, simultaneously grounded and ethereal.

Around the same time, Roden struck up a friendship with the enigmatic German sound artist Bernhard Günter, whose quietly crackling compositions caught Roden’s ear. The two first met at an LA performance arranged by a mutual friend. Months later, Roden sent Günter the tape from a recent audio installation. “It seemed so completely minimal to me and so different than the rest of my work,” Roden remembers, “that I thought he might like it.” Günter’s response to the piece was not entirely positive. “The reality was simply that Bernhard was saying that the piece didn’t fit his own criteria for what he listened for in music… his criticisms of the work were certainly valid in terms of his own interests, just not in line with my own intentions.” This  set off a year-long email correspondence in which the two debated and discussed their approaches to music-making and to listening. Somewhere along the way, Günter went back to the tape, and decided to put out Roden’s piece, Crop Circles, as the first (and, as it turned out, only) release on Ameublement d’Oiseaux (bird furniture), a new subsidiary of Günter’s Trente Oiseaux label.

In the years that followed, the two became close friends. They toured and recorded together, and began to influence each other’s work. Roden’s pieces became longer, quieter, more abstract, and more painterly. Less anxious to get somewhere, they saturated time with sound and immersed the listener in sonic detail. Pieces such as the radio (Sonoris, 1999) and those on view (jennjoy, 1999) and four possible landscapes (Trente Oiseaux, 2000) are constructed from loops of microtextural noise that pass by at various speeds and slownesses. “It’s very much like drawing or painting for me,” reflects Roden. “You put down the first thing, and then you add the next thing.”

The resulting pieces are like immobile film frames of sky or water, across which clouds pass, birds fly, or insects skitter. “I’m trying to create this consistency of mood,” Roden explains, “a kind of unchanging bed of sound that creates a space, that has nothing dynamic enough to shatter that. It’s like a soap bubble or something. This thing is just floating and bouncing around and if it hits something sharp it’s going to break. I want to create that little world. That’s why I have so much trouble with most classical music. There’s always a moment in classical music where I’m lost in something and then it gets super loud or there’s an abrupt shift and I’m back to being aware that I’m listening to something. It also implies narrative, which is something that I’m really not interested in at all. I’m interested in abstraction, and narrative is the opposite of abstraction. These are not stories.”

If much of Roden’s recent audio work has the still surface of a pond, his new Trente Oiseaux release, resonant cities, flows like a stream. Commisioned by Austria’s Kunst Radio, it takes the listener on a tour through ten years of field recordings made during Roden’s trips through 15 cities on four continents. But this is no Omnimax world tour of big telltale sounds. It’s a suitably Rodenesque investigation of auditory minutia: clanging hotel-room coat hangers, voices on a train, scarves tapping on a window pane. “In every city, I tend to seek the same things,” he muses, “and likewise, in every city there are things I always struggle to get away from. My work has always been about what Rilke called the ‘the inconsiderable things,’ the things that most people don’t notice or simply pass by uncaring. Ultimately, it’s about the quiet moments in the city that perhaps the city can’t notice beneath the bed of its own primary sounds. ”

It is this penchant for the modest, humble, and intimate that Roden terms “lowercase.” But he’s wary of the “lowercase” scene that has sprouted up in the half-decade since he coined the phrase.

“On the one hand I think it’s great that there’s all this camaraderie. But it takes something that’s really open-ended and it gives it parameters. I have so many problems with that. I never wanted everyone else to make quiet music with no dynamics. That’s just my own interest. The term has become a sort of generic term for quiet music. I mean, if you can’t make work in your own idiosyncratic, individual way, it’s not going to be very interesting.”

Roden’s work is nothing if not idiosyncratic, drawing inspiration from an enormous range intellectual and cultural heroes. His new moon field installation, for example, draws from experimental electronics improviser David Tudor, collagist Joseph Cornell, and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin to create a lovely piece of audio art. A field of 100 glass bottles line the exhibition space, their bases replaced with small speakers emitting shimmering tones, tics, and drones abstracted from Gagarin’s first transmission from space.

But Roden rejects the idea that his own idiosyncrasies are what the work is about. His love of abstraction is a love for things that are open, that intrigue and puzzle both the artist and the spectator-auditor alike. “The final thing is to make something that I want to look at or listen to or hear or watch that I don’t totally understand, that can absorb me in a way that something else I don’t understand absorbs me. The whole thing is not about me as the artist, as the focus. It’s about making these things that don’t necessarily point back to me as being more important than the work. The art and the sound culture right now is so much about the artist, the persona of the artist. I talked to someone recently who said he wanted to be the first superstar of Noise, without thinking that Kenny G is the first superstar of jazz! I mean it’s not a good place to be!”