The small sound world of California artist Steve Roden



Steve Roden, a prolific visual and sound artist from Pasadena, California, makes a rare visit to Chicago this week, performing Tuesday night at the Burlington Bar and participating in a panel discussion at UIC's Gallery 400, where he has work in the space's current exhibit, "Observer Effect." A couple years ago, Bill Meyer wrote at length about a different sort of Roden project: . . . I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces (Dust-to-Digital), a magnificent book packed with music-related photographs and 2 CDs of rare 78-rpm recordings, all from 1880 to 1955 and taken from Roden's own collection, much of which has been scavenged from flea markets.

I'm not sure what the gist of his Tuesday concert will be, but on most of his recorded output he works meticulously with field recordings and explores the aural qualities of specific sites in meditative, often gorgeous ways. He coined the phrase "lowercase sound," a kind of catchall for music where quiet, small gestures are enlarged sonically and sustained over lengthy durations.

I'm particularly fond of his 2011 album Proximities (Line), a sumptuous collage of recordings he made at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, amid 50 stainless-steel sculptures by the artist Donald Judd. The core sound comes from a series of long tones produced by a primitive modular synthesizer, the Paia Oz, but just as important to the end result is the richly atmospheric ambient sound, Roden's own occasional humming, and the natural sonic degradation created by one of the devices he used to record the sound—an old Sony microcassette recorder. (He also used a digital recorder and his iPhone to record portions of the work.) While Proximities hardly presents an accurate sonic portrait of the space it was recorded in, it sketches out some semblance of its aural environment—a place that feels solitary, abandoned (the particular space he worked in was an old Army barracks remade into a museum), and cavernous. At the conclusion of the work there are some popping sounds, which were generated by some of the sculptures themselves, as the rising sun caused the temperature inside the space to rise.

Below you can check out "Sparks From One Hand on Fire," a track from his recent solo album, A Big Circle Drawn With Little Hands (Ini Itu). Roden created the music using a series of objects sent to him by the record label's owner: "The box contained everything from newspapers, coins, wooden toys, pamphlets, plastic objects, plastic bags, broken airline headphones, notes, a bottle opener, a noise maker of wood, a small electronic toy shaped like a butterfly that offered tones and animal noises, cardboard, a fan, and other things. I also used a banjo in the first track, and my voice in the last track."

Today's playlist:

Jennifer Allum and Eddie Prévost, Penumbrae (Matchless)
Edip Akbayram & Dostlar, Nedir Ne Degildir (World Psychedelia Ltd.)
Donald Byrd, Royal Flush (Blue Note)
Nicolas Masson, Departures (Fresh Sound New Talent)
Kirk Knuffke & Jesse Stacken with Kenny Wollesen, Like a Tree (Steeplechase)

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