steve roden: day ring, night ring

by sara krajewski day ring, night ring exhibition brochure, 2006

When I first met Steve Roden in the spring of 2005, he told me of his desire to create a sound composition for the Henry’s James Turrell Skyspace. Having worked in Seattle on previous exhibitions and performances, the Los Angeles-based artist confided that the Skyspace was one of his favorite places to visit. The meditative atmosphere does not need a soundtrack, he asserted, but a subtle temporary audio work of slowly evolving moments could form another layer – an architecture within the architecture, a weather pattern inside the weather, a light play beneath existing light movements – that could heighten one’s experience of this special place.

Since 2000, Roden has presented installations in singular architectural structures, inventing new “audio spaces” in response to the locations and unique forms of these buildings. Pursuing a work within the Skyspace has opened up new territory for his exploration of sound’s effect on spatial perception and imagination. Like his past work, day ring and night ring retain nuanced relationships to their venue. But these new pieces flirt more explicitly with the format of musical performance. As such, they engage the contested, shifting boundary between sound art and experimental music.

In a gentle way, this exhibition proposes a tentative bridge between the use of sound spatially as installation art and the influence of experimental composers who transform sound into music and challenge traditional listening experiences. La Monte Young’s Dream House sound and light installation, John Cage’s chance operations and Steve Reich’s repeating patterns and loops are conceptual departure points for considering Roden’s new works. In their spirit, Roden arrived at day ring, night ring by happenstance and measure.

At first blush, Roden encourages us to experience his work on a purely aesthetic level, as we would approach an unknown piece of music or visual art. Girding this encounter is a conceptual approach rooted in an intuitive, open-ended process, which ultimately gives the work its form and meaning. For site-specificity, Roden gathers field recordings and architectural drawings from each location and then translates these source materials through various self-invented systems to arrive at the underlying score for each audio work. This development stage is left purposely “full of holes that allow for left turns,” as the artist is fond of saying. Only then does the process take Roden in directions rich with significance.

Meaningful coincidences abounded from the outset of the Henry project. Well before conceiving these works, Roden felt a personal connection to Turrell’s artistic inquiries. Turrell plumbs the relationship between space and the light that inhabits it, in essence the act of seeing. Roden once describe his métier by slightly altering one of Turrell’s oft-quoted phrases: “My work is about space and the sounds that inhabit it. It is about how you confront that space and wander around in it. It is about your listening.”

This shared sensitivity gave way to considering the physical structure of the Skyspace and its potential for metaphor. The “ring” in Roden’s titles refers to the elliptical form of the Skyspace. Analogous to the Skyspace’s hybrid nature as sculpture and architecture day ring crosses ambient sound installation with traditional musical composition. day ring is linear and finite, circumscribed in its space, while its ghostly foil night ringquietly permeates the museum’s entrance plaza throughout the night like melodic white noise. Here “ring” also reflects the way sound ripples out into space until it vanishes. In corresponding silence, the Skyspace’s color panels keep time visually as they shift and glow continuously over these same hours.

With formal and functional equivalencies established, Roden approached his “left turn” moment. Surfing the internet, he happened upon a set of eleven tuning forks purportedly tuned to the orbit of the sun, moon, and nine of the planets in our solar system. Roden, fascinated with this claim, began to explore the resonance of tuning forks and planetary orbits as more rings that might deepen the work’s content. Coincidently, Roden had recently finished a performance project that included violinist Jacob Danzinger.Roden rarely includes traditional instrumentation in his installation works. But inspired by the convergence, he asked violinist Danzinger to improvise sounds on his instrument that emulated the tones emitted by the tuning forks.

In the end, day ring layers loops of violin passages and tuning fork resonance over a bed of processed field recordings. The composition unfolds through a series of six- and seven- minute movements each separated by a short, quiet pause. Unexpectedly, this format recalls the progression of an arrangement for strings. The forty-five minute work has a beginning, middle, and end, another shift for Roden’s installations. Reinforcing the experience of performance, the benches and oculus focal point give the impression of a theater for both viewing the passing sky above and listening to the sounds within. In a clever twist, the Skyspace also becomes an imaginary audio-planetarium as the tuning forks and the violin trace a peculiar cosmic map.

day ring finally comes full circle as an installation through the spatialization of sound. Roden integrates the music by returning to the forms and design of the space to determine patterns of movement through it. Creating yet another ring, a surround sound system moves the audio around and through the space to different speakers tucked within the Skyspace benches. To experience day ring and night ring completely, we must be within these spaces; in essence, only the Skyspace can “play” these compositions. It is more than a setting for a soundtrack or a potentially portable performance; it is both the instrument and the catalyst for a transcendent listening and viewing experience.