Sound Propositions 04: Steve Roden (part I)


a big circle drawn with little hands was created from a box of things sent to me by sylvain, who runs the ini itu label. 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.

the lp was mastered by taylor deupree, and the cover design and photos were done by sylvain.

a number of people have attempted to “de-code” the song titles, but like the rest of the approach to the soundmaking, etc. the titles actually also came from one of the items in the box of stuff sylvain sent to me – a newspaper, and i used each of the photographs to determine the titles, based on the number of hands appearing in an image as well as the image’s narrative. the title of the lp was based on a drawing made by sylvain’s daughter.

I met Steve earlier this year at a workshop and public conversation when he performed as part of the Suoni per il Popolo festival in Montreal, and I find it’s best to let him do the talking as much as possible.  This is the first of a two part interview conducted  between June and December of 2012.  As it is already considerably longer than even my already-lengthy pieces, I’ll try to keep the introductory comments to a minimum, so we can get back to his words.

Steve Roden is an artist living in Pasadena, presenting his work since the mid-’80s.  The text above describes one of his most recent recordings, but the spirit conveyed by those words animates all his endeavors.  In contrast to a sort of radical openness suggested in each piece, Roden adopts a series of self-imposed rules or creates idiosyncratic notation to act as a guide in which to execute creative decisions.  A true bricoleur, this at times entails limiting the tools or resources at his disposal, often with no regard for “fidelity” or technical processes. Instead he embraces these qualities, not as flaws but as interesting in themselves.  In addition to making music, he also works in many different media, including painting, drawing, sculpture, film/video, sound installation, and performance. Throughout the ‘90s he released several records under the moniker In Be Tween Noise and coined the term “lowercase” for a music that “bears a certain sense of quiet and humility; it does not demand attention, it must be discovered. the work might imply one thing on the surface but contain other things beneath. … it’s the opposite of capital letters—loud things which draw attention to themselves.”  His 2001 release Forms of Paper brought attention to the term lowercase, which at the time united a wide variety of practitioners exploring silence and quiet, from lap top musicians, to electroacoustic artists to free jazz. As is the way with such things, the term took on a life of its own, though Steve still insists upon an openness in its interpretation.  You can read more about Steve’s thoughts on lowercase and the history of that release at “on lowercase affinities and forms of paper.”)  He has collaborated with Brandon LaBelle, Franscisco López, Jason Kahn, Machinefabriek, Stephen Vitiello,  Bernhard Günter and many others

Roden’s philosophy is very much in line with that of Sound Propositions, and a closer listen as a whole. We each, as listeners, must play a central role in shaping what we hear, bringing a sort of Zen-like acceptance while still attending to Rilke’s “inconsiderable things,” a reference Roden often mentions.   I can’t help but hear echoes of  Nietzsche,one of Rilke’s great influences, in Roden’s approach to listening, and his conception of the artist more broadly.  Nietzsche didn’t write for everyone, and certainly not for those who would cherry-pick his words.  He decried the equivalent of iTunes on shuffle, music as background noise.  No, Nietzsche wrote for those who would put in the effort, who could read slowly, carefully, and deeply.  Roden is a similar kind of artist, that is he who has no contemporary.  This can be a dangerous place to be, but for those who press on through this isolation, their work transcends the ebbs and flows of fashion.  Still, as the poet Hölderlin wrote, “where danger threatens/That which saves from it also grows.”  There is something creative and productive that comes from this place of risk.   Not hostile or coercive, not elitist or condescending, but rather quietly carrying on its own logic, rewarding patient and careful engagement.

Steve is a rare kind of artist.  One who has created a rich and diverse body of work that is uniquely his own, one who can work across media without losing his conceptual rigor, who can create resonate work and speak articulately about it, while speaking simply and without sacrificing nuance, and all the  while still remaining utterly humble and approachable. His work is patient and characterized by a level of restraint that is hard to match.  Rather than be confined he turns the limitations around him into that which generates the work.

Enjoy.  (Joseph Sannicandro)

A playlist of the pieces mentioned in this article can be found here.

Joseph Sannicandro:  I’ve heard you mention your early interest in the LA punk scene in several interviews.  In my experience, many of us who are experimental music, electro-acoustic music or music that in some way draws inspiration from the avant-garde or conceptual art,  have a similar background of being interested in more extreme music (punk/hardcore, or industrial music). This genealogy seems relevant to me, as opposed to those who come from the EDM/club background, or who are more formally trained in the classical tradition.  Can you maybe expand on this, how the ethic of the punk scene may have influenced your aesthetic, your attitude towards promoting concerts, releasing music, and your evolving material practice itself?

Steve Roden: I can’t really emphasize how lucky I was to be able to be part of that scene from 1979-82, especially as a 15 year old. A friend and I literally encountered the scene by accident… we rode our bicycles to the Whisky A GoGo to see a Jimi Hendrix impersonator, and the show was so great… the guy came out in a coffin and it was like Hendrix was reincarnated! We had such a good time that we went back a few weeks later expecting another rock show only to be confronted by The Screamers!!! At that time, I had hair down to my shoulders and I was wearing a Hendrix t-shirt, but nobody gave us crap, in fact most of the people, who were older than us, were super cool. I had no idea what was going on, but I remember standing there with all this crazy energy on stage and after the show I went home and cut my hair, and painted a big red no left turn sign over Hendrix’s face on that t-shirt. The next day I wore the shirt to school and a few guys picked a fight with me because of the shirt, and I felt excited and different.

“122 hours of fear”


Haha, wow,  love this story and the imagery!

Yeah, I wish I remembered the Hendrix impersonator show a bit more detail… it probably was very close to Spinal Tap territory!

While the punk scene became very violent by 1982, those earlier years were fantastic, and a lot of people were very positive… we really thought we’d change the world. Yes, of course the music was very important, but even more so was the feeling of potential that came out of being part of a community. Certainly, there were a lot of drugs, a lot of angry people, and sometimes violence, but it’s clear now that for so many people who were part of that scene it fueled a very creative approach to life – as well as a strong sense of integrity: “no compromise”, etc. I have no musical training and I think half our band knew how to play their instruments and half could not. I was the singer and wrote most of the words – ridiculous songs like “kill reagan” and “jesus needs a haircut”. We were young and angry towards the government and religion, and society’s rules in general. Like every subculture, we were dreamers as well as fighters. But what was most important was that we didn’t want to be rich and famous. That was NEVER a goal. And that gave the whole thing a level of integrity that I have tried to carry forward in life… to do things the way that you want to, to find meaning in your own way, and not only to have integrity but to protect it. I don’t think I ever really felt the music or the scene was truly “extreme”, certainly not in terms of hearing someone like Merzbow or Aube live. But the scene had a crazy wonderful energy certainly. In Los Angeles, not all of the bands offered an extreme experience  – although certainly early Black Flag, Fear and the Germs did – but if you think about the variety of influences upon bands like X, Gun Club, Fear, Black Flag, the Weirdoes, the Germs, each of these bands had their own sound and their own influences, so I would not really categorize them all as extreme in sound. Punk was loud, but only in certain cases was it truly extreme – such as live Dead Kennedy’s!


1980, seditionaries performance – yes, that is me singing!

Yes, these are all social scenes that I think have strong underpinnings, punk with integrity, hardcore with unity, club culture with a kind of hedonism.

This morning I was reading the newspaper and there was an article about Snoop Dog and how he re-tooled one of his songs “drop it like it’s hot”, to fit a commercial for “Hot Pockets,” which is some kind of sandwich. While I don’t begrudge anyone seeking a paycheck, it’s hard not to see that decision and not think about him as a sell-out or a compromise (for if nothing else, he is surely compromising the integrity of the original song by retooling it for an ad). I’d like to think the Clash would have been aghast at the idea of turning “white riot” into a jingle for soda pop… “rite diet, rite diet, rite diet, a flavor of its own

Can you imagine? That’d be some soda!  But still, even though Snoop obviously doesn’t need a paycheck, and not that “drop it like it’s hot” had much integrity to begin with, there is still something about making such a change that just doesn’t sit right.  I like how you deploy INTEGRITY here, it’s not just an abstraction but the literal integrity of the song itself, as such.

Last year I was watching a press conference with a baseball player from this area, and instead of testing the free agent market he re-signed with the team he’d been with for several years. His decision was rooted in his relationship with his teammates, living in Los Angeles and his family. In making the decision he left a few million dollars on the table, and on the radio, some fans criticized him for not trying to get the most money he could get… but after being asked the same question by a reporter he simply said, “how much money does a person need”, and it was kind of great to see a wealthy professional athlete take less money because there were other things in life that meant more to him… so I see this dude as having a hell of a lot more integrity than Snoop Dog!

steve_roden_01When we met back in June at the Suoni per il Popolo festival in Montreal, during a public conversation you had with Doug Moffat, you mentioned an album whose liner notes influenced you far more than the music itself, which was just speculative for so many years, until you found a copy and finally were disappointed a bit by the actual music, or at least it didn’t live up to the limitlessness of your imagination.  I’m blanking on the LP at the moment, but maybe it was German?  Anyway, this reminded me of something the writer Samuel R. Delany has said, in an interview with the Paris Review.   Excuse the long quote…



You have suggested that the writers who influence us “are not usually the ones we read thoroughly and confront with our complete attention, but rather the ill- and partially read writers we start on, often in troubled awe, only to close the book after pages or chapters, when our own imagination works up beyond the point where we can continue to submit our fancies to theirs.”  What were some of your “ill-read” books?



Any book you have to work yourself up to read. …When such books influence you, if that’s the proper word for what I’m describing, it’s what you imagine they do that they don’t do that you yourself then try to effect in your own work, that, to me, is what’s important. What these books actually accomplish is very important, of course! But the whole set of things they might have accomplished expands your own palette of aesthetic possibilities in the ways that, should you undertake them, will be your offering on the altar of originality.

Before I read Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Conqueror books and stories, I really thought they would be the Nevèrÿon tales, or at least something like them. But I discovered that, rich and colorful as they were, they weren’t. So I had to write them myself.

I wonder if you were maybe getting at a similar concept of the ill-heard album. Or really any work of art that can be more inspiring as a specter than as a proper engagement.  This sort of thing probably occurs less now that the internet has made it much easier to find out about things.  The mystique fades a bit, but that’s another question.

Yeah, that is great!!! I can’t tell you how many things I love were discovered through a bad review… and with the record, being unable to hear it (this was pre-internet), it just started growing inside of me, and the [liner] notes really offered me a path to start to make my own music. The LP was by the painter Jean Dubuffet [found of Art Brut], along with the Cobra [and Situationist] artist Asger Jorn, and they borrowed a bunch of Asian and exotic instruments and made all these reel-to-reel tapes. It’s really like noise music or free jazz without the jazz parts, but Dubuffet approached music in the same way he dealt with art brut, and the liner notes are so beautiful in terms of how he speaks of playing instruments without technique – and at the time I was working with instruments, making crude instruments, and working with them to make music and I was so affected by Dubuffet’s notes that it pushed me. When I heard the actual LP, maybe 10 years ago, it sounded so completely different than I’d heard in my mind and it never would’ve inspired me in the same way. It was lucky that I had no access to the content!!!

You can read more about the LP here, and read the liner notes and listen at Ubuweb.


What are some of your early memories or impressions of sound?  When did you realize you were interested in sound (as such)?

This is a question I get a lot and I never know how to answer it. Honestly, as a child I don’t remember being specifically attracted to sound as sound. Certainly there were experiences that I remember strongly, such as my first tape recorder which was given to me by my father when I was 10 years old. But I did not go out and make field recordings, in fact, I distinctly remember a friend and I sitting on the tape deck’s microphone and farting and giggling a lot (a story I have never offered in an interview before!)… but most of the actual sounds I remember were not natural sounds, like the ice cream truck songs, the sound of my father’s car, and my grandfather’s whistle. Honestly, I don’t really think sound was something I responded to at a young age, certainly I have no listening epiphanies that I can remember…

I would say that I really noticed sound – as sound – when I was 12 or so. I didn’t know it at the time, but in the mid-1970’s I used to hang out at the local Tower Records store with a few friends on Saturday nights. The store stayed open until midnight, and we became friends with some of the folks who worked there, and one night someone mentioned it was my birthday and one of the clerks handed me a copy of Eno’s Another Green World as a gift. At that time I was listening mostly to Hendrix – as his was the first music I was obsessed with, buying bootlegs, etc. so I had no context for Eno at all, especially the instrumental tracks… but I remember clearly listening to one of the ambient-ish tracks “the big ship” a million times. It wasn’t that I had any interest in that kind of music, but I loved that track (as well as to a slightly lesser degree, “In dark trees”); and I think what appealed to me was that they were atmospheres or moods – of course, I didn’t think about it as being important, but it was the first abstract music I responded to, and in particular, to the sound of those pieces, which are very warm. It’s not like I listened to the LP a bunch of times and became an Eno fan… that would happen much later, but every once in a while I would listen to it the LP, and try to make sense of it.  It’s kind of like the quote you offered about Samuel Delany, because I needed to keep re-visiting it because it confused me and while I had no context or language to understand where it was coming from, I still wanted to find my way in it…


It seems pretty unusual that as such a young person you actually made the effort to try.  It suggests a level of openness.  So, back to the sound of recordings…

People don’t talk much about the sound of punk recordings, and certainly there aren’t a lot of distinct approaches to recording with a lot of punk records, but if you listen to the first X or Gun Club LP’s – both on Slash, the sound is really different than, say, never mind the bullocks… the Slash recordings are full of energy, but sound somehow clean and kind of warm… it wasn’t until the post-punk scene where bands like PiL, Joy Division and Bauhaus were experimenting with sound, that I started responding to sound itself – and it was the same with Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. But PiL was especially influential – especially “Metal Box” – which had a HUGE impact on me – as well as the Clash’s Sandinista, just in terms of how the music was expanding and feeling less influenced by the scene… those two records are so different from each other stylistically – truly independent – both embracing experimentation and to different degrees influenced by dub – they both point to different potentials towards the future. I think even bands like Felt, Eyeless in Gaza and Orange Juice also had very particular sounds. One record that resonated deeply was Martyn Bates 10″ Letters Written, from 1982. It is mainly voice and, I think, a synth organ, and it is one of the most beautiful melancholy lonely records I have ever heard, and at that time in my life which was quite a disaster, I felt so connected to that music, maybe deeper than to any record I’d heard until then, and my response to that record was the beginning of moving away from punk… and I was kind of lost trying to find music to fuel my interests.

Public Image Limited – Metal Box “Memories”

Martyn Bates – “Letters form yesterday”

What stands out to me here is how you identify a move away from aesthetics being dictated by “the scene,” which I’m interpreting as the sort of social aspect.  Of course genre is often very much about community and sociality and exclusion as much as any formal aspects or  “the sound” itself, but it may also hint at why it’s so hard to talk about various strains of experimental music as having a coherent community at all.

I think what you are getting at is very important, because while the music scene generates the culture, at some point there is a split, and for me it was twofold, the culture of punk was getting violent and codified, and the music felt overly predictable (I’m generalizing of course)… honestly, I wasn’t looking for culture to be part of, feeling growth could come from isolation, and that’s really when i started making my own recordings – again without any context, but trying not only to find music to like, but also music to make.

Another monumental experience happened around that time, a friend’s dad had tickets to a Philip Glass performance and he couldn’t go so he gave us the tickets. Once again, we had no context and when the concert started – I believe it was a two piano piece or two organs, and all I remember was them starting and ending, but during the performance I was transported to another place… truly. I have to say even though that was a life changer, I’m not really a fan of Glass’s music, but it got me to Steve Reich, which was huge… also, around 1984, I discovered Eno’s Obscure label and I bought a copy of [Gavin] Bryar’s Sinking of the Titanic – not knowing how much the other  side   of the LP – Jesus Blood  ever Failed Me – would also be HUGE for me, this idea of using a “field recording” within the context of a work, and also the repetition. That record really opened the door to my working in a quiet way. (and if I can bring up integrity again, the version with Tom Waits singing really destroys the integrity of the original entirely…). then, in 1987, I was driving in the car with my mother, listening to the radio and the announcer mentioned the that [Morton] Feldman had died. I didn’t know Feldman’s work at all, but I remember telling my mom to go in the store to get what she needed, while I remained sitting in the car alone and listening to this music, which was a very quiet and seemed from another world, yet had en enormous impact on me.

It’s interesting to me how at that time media circulation was a bit more closed than it is today (though of course radio, portable tape recorders, cassette tapes and even xeroxed zines were huge innovations and contributed to new circulations not available to earlier generations) but that this closed-ness made possible the almost context-less encounters you had with Eno, Bryars, Glass and Feldman. In many ways, looking back from the present, these seem serendipitous, though I’m sure there were plenty of other kids who were into punk or classic rock or something who had or would have had very different experiences.  Or even the friend you went to see Glass with.


2011, performance at cafe oto (i use the laptop only for video, which is filmed the day of hte performance and used as visual/sound loops during the performance. offering documentation of private performances earlier in the day – i don’t love having a laptop on my table, but the use of video for me is awkward and quite difficult, and so it seems worth pushing)(photo by helen of sound fjord)

Yes, and I think if we had the internet we might’ve found out about things sooner, but the ease would’ve made

everything feel less special – and the important thing was that I was making connections between things, rather than “links” determined by a machine or someone else. All true subcultures start small, as do all alternative cultures – and I mean true alternative cultures. What was different was that you had to be in a certain location, and you weren’t able to mimic the dress style or the music unless you had been there in person – or at least were surrounded by physical things that were hard to find… records, zines, even t-shirts… we made Damned t-shirts because we could not buy them anywhere. I just searched “punk rock t-shirt” on ebay you g

et 27,644 hits!!!!! On one hand that is super cool, on the other hand how does one become part of a true alternative culture with virtual friends who form a virtual community, where everything you need to join the club is a “click”

away. I hate to sound like an old guy, and I’m not trying to make a value judgment, but I believe that such a path was different, both physically and emotionally, and I believe that it made everything feel a lot more important and a lot less disposable.

Hm, it’d be interesting to think this through further.  I don’t think virtuality necessitates an inauthentic community.  But certainly, in the sense of digital mediation, it is much harder to imagine cultivating anything that can be sustained over long periods of time.  Points converge and trends pop up and burn out almost as fast (particularly in the already fragmented space of electronic music, cf. #seapunk,  witch-house, PBRnB).  The obsession is with novelty for novelty’s sake, not with fixed identity or any sense of cultivating a style or craft. How did diasporic communities, like the Jewish people for instance, maintain a shared sense of identity across time and space without modern communication?  If I had to answer I’d say: Ritual.  Of course modern subcultures are far from having this sort of fixed identity, but it does but the coming together in a different context, a sort of spiritual and ritualistic beyond merely social, or at least at its best it is this. So then, I wonder, how does listening to music alone at home or anonymously via headphones impact this ritual?  It becomes very alienating.  Literally disorienting, people dip into and out of things in a shallow way, and even though some of us may treat the Internet as a godsend to delve deep into the archive, most people don’t seem to really explore and learn about what has come before. Anyway…

Sure, I understand what you are saying, but we all know that conversations via email, facebooking, etc. are quite different than humans in a room. There’s a freedom in the invisibility, and a willingness to offer information to others online that might be quite different than sharing in person – politicians sending phone pictures of their genitals without a worry, who would never pull down their pants in public…. funny, yes, but it also shows that there is a huge difference in being in a room with people and sending a text… and hence, I think there is an enormous difference in an online community and a group of people meeting every weekend at a club…

In terms of moving away from what I knew, the question became how can you determine your trajectory if you don’t know what you are after? I certainly didn’t know. When I got out of the punk scene I started listening to a lot of song stuff, again coming from the UK, with labels like Rough Trade, Cherry Red, Postcard, Factory, etc. a lot of that music had a melancholy quality that I responded to… and it wasn’t until maybe 1984 or so that I started moving outwards – discovering Steve Reich’s Desert Music (because I liked William Carlos Williams’ writings), which led me to Music for 18 Musicians, and eventually to Meredith Monk (because she was on ECM… ) and Stephan Micus (who was also on ECM), and just like everything else, I had no context for these  artists at all. And it wasn’t until maybe a year later that I heard about minimal music – finally contextualizing that Glass performance I experienced. Now, I don’t listen to any of those artists, but they all helped get me to where I am, and in one way or another felt sympathetic with my own responses to music (as well as the Chicago Art Ensemble)… and the list goes on, but it was all a game of telephone, for if I liked something on a label, I would buy something else, and then after 2 or 3 releases I found some kind of context. It wasn’t always right or good – there are a lot of ECM records I hated… but Meredith Monk’s Turtle Dreams was just as important to me as PiL’s Metal Box.

I almost want to ask about California.  The LA punk scene was pretty removed from what was going on in NY and London or even DC, even though later that scene became very well known and appreciated. But there’s something about California, maybe being so far away from Europe, that seems to have allowed room for all sorts of creative flourishing in the States, from avant-garde music to poetry.  You’ve traveled all over the world at this point, but has LA always been your home base?  Anything about LA as a city, or as a medium of sorts, that you might care to talk about?

I think there has always been a strong difference in west coast aesthetic and east coast aesthetic – in painting, music, writing, etc. and I consider myself very much aligned with the history of west coast art – looking at someone like Bruce Conner, who worked in a variety of mediums, never really exploited a consistent style, left the scene, returned, etc. I think the beauty of Los Angeles as opposed to NY, at least in terms of history, is that the scene here has always been smaller and much more casual, and hence less of this overriding feeling that everything is a big deal. You can disappear in LA without really disappearing, and there isn’t that feeling that you have to be at every opening or you will miss something. Painters like Lee Mullican and Gordon Onslow Ford made paintings with cosmic intentions, inspired by American Indian culture – and in NY, at the time, they probably thought it was hippie painting (although that was before the term hippie existed). I think about the Screamers in relation to DNA… it sounds like a cliché, but historically, the east coast has been more cerebral, and definitely more academic… of course, these are huge generalizations, but even the difference between jazz in the 40’s and 50’s between east coast and west coast, you can clearly see two very distinct sensibilities. Even with Hollywood, this is a laid back town. It is as a car culture, meaning you are generally alone and more disconnected from “noise”. A car is like a moving cave, the NY subway is like a moving crowd… I’m not sure about location, but certainly the way one lives life fuels their approaches to art making (and similarly, art also fuels one’s approach to life).  If you are in a place your whole life, it is not just a place, but an incredibly strong influence. People talk about the light in certain places, but it is more than that, it is how one lives in a location.

DNA – “Not Moving”

Of course you’re not interested only in sound, but you are also a visual artist, you work in many media, at Suoni you used sound and video together, and you’re also rooted in the academy, in your training and working as a professor. How did your sound practice begin, and how did it evolve related to your visual practice?  Do you have techniques or approaches that transcend medium specificity?  Or does the materiality of the medium (a lo-fi tape recording as it is, the interface of your cheap pedals, etc) steer the boat?  I realize now this question sounds almost naïve, there must be some of both, or maybe there’s no system underlying it at all.

Well, there’s no naive questions – nor any bad ones. My method is not exactly codified, so it is a very relevant question, especially as it is somewhat complex. But first, I must attend to the first part of your question about me being “rooted in the academy”… which is quite funny, as I’ve never been spoken of as such. My relationship to my education was quite contentious, probably for all the reasons I mentioned above. I was interested in pursuing personal vision, which is not always compatible with the goals of a program. I had a very difficult time with the readings of Beaudrillard and Deleuze – as I was mostly interested in Rilke, poetry and literature like Hamsun, Hesse, Mann, etc. and I didn’t fit in. At the time, the late 80’s, people were moving towards spectacle and I was moving towards quiet. I fought really hard against “the academy” in school, and was nearly kicked out of school for it. And this is where these ideas become important – because you don’t become an artist to please other people or to conform to the thing of the moment… at least in terms of what being an artist meant to me, so in terms of a student, I would say that in many ways I bypassed the academy, as I was able to succeed in doing what I felt was important, rather than what expected. it was quite a difficult experience that made me much stronger once I was out in the world.


2012, performance at human resources in los angeles, this is the first time i’ve used my father’s guitar in a performance. (photo robert crouch)

In terms of my being a professor, well, I really feel it is my duty to work with younger artists and to push them to think about these larger issues of integrity and fighting for what you want to do. Graduate school can suck the life out of a student, particularly if they are already thinking about being successful; so I feel it is my job to go in there and to help them empower themselves, so they can fight back and experience life in a little messier way, so that it becomes real. They seem afraid to trust themselves, and they want success without really understanding what success demands of you. And more than anything, I share my own career with them. I’ve been out of school for nearly 25 years, so I have a lot of experience behind me – both good and bad. In my own experience, teachers like to create distance, and I try to break that down.

In terms of my practice, well, I studied fine arts with a major in painting -which ridiculously meant I had one true painting class in 6 years of school! I had been working with sound since I graduated high school in 1982, but mostly writing songs. It wasn’t until 1987 or so that I started working with ambient sounds and electronics and abstraction. What took a long time was to acknowledge that the sound work was part of my practice – not something separate. In 1993, I finished a group of sound works and as I was about to drop the tape into a very full drawer of tapes, I felt like I had to acknowledge the sound was part of my work. It was a freeing moment, which opened the door for the work to continue to open up and to defy expectations. So eventually text, film, sculpture, performance… became part of the work as well. I don’t like being considered a visual artist or a sound artist… and tend to simply consider myself as someone who makes things in a variety of forms.



2012, video/sound installation titled “shells, bells, steps and silences”

Well, maybe ‘rooted’ was the wrong term.  But, still coming through graduate school and teaching, you seem to be much more able to articulate what it is you do, and think conceptually, than a lot of other artists I’ve encountered. (Not that every artist has some obligation to be able to really speak articulately about their work, I suppose.)

What’s funny about this is that I am teaching graduate school right now, and I just told my students to try to write like they speak… and I ended up writing them a manifesto for writing/speaking about their work, with rules such as: clarity, simplicity, honesty, etc. they are constantly griping because their other teachers are making them write in a very specific academic way, which I think is too detached from life, and which fuels distance, rather than intimacy. an artist statement isn’t to show how smart you are, it is to convey what your work is about, where it comes from, and why it matters.

So I create games for them, like Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards specifically towards a critique situation, so that they can begin to think differently – to break away from learned habits. They write the way they write because they’ve been told it has to be a certain way; so I believe it is my job is to tell them that what they are being told is simply not true. The purpose of articulating your work is not to baffle folks into thinking you are smart, but to articulate what you do, clearly. A statement is an opportunity to share, and that sharing should be as generous as possible. I’ve spent a very long time trying to to articulate what I do with enough clarity that my mother or my neighbor can understand me.


A lot of people who come out of academic culture seem to enjoy speaking or writing in ways that create distance, talking down to people; but I have no interest in making someone feel as if they don’t know enough. I’m interested in offering permission, so that anyone can respond to artworks or music on their own terms, rather than my own – so that their responses can fuel conversations – perhaps, them showing me something about the work. Of course, sometimes it helps to know context or histories, but sometimes you bump into a record like Another Green World and you don’t need an instruction sheet as much as you need to simply be patient and trust your ears and your insides….

In specific terms, a source generally dictates my engagement with it – as well as determining the tools. My recent LP for ini.itu was created through recordings and objects sent to me by Sylvain, who runs the label; and the stuff he sent me was pretty stubborn. At first I could not find my way to doing anything with the materials, and then eventually I created 3 or 4 tracks that utilized the material but the resulting tracks felt too familiar, and I felt as if I wasn’t acknowledging their characteristics. When you have been working for so long, you need to find ways not to get in the way of the material you are working with, so I threw those tracks away and started over, and finally we came to a meeting point – between myself and the materials, and slowly the tracks evolved into a record. What excites me is that feeling that I could never have made this record without these materials – so that it feels as if their voice is present as much as my own. It’s a different kind of improvising when you aren’t improvising with a person, but you still must find a place of sympathy. Sometimes this does come through scores or plans, but those aspects are usually collaborating with improvisation… no different than Cage pulling the I-ching or Eno’s Oblique Strategies or Fluxus scores… just words suggesting moves that would not have come about without them.

Part II of Sound Propositions with Steve Roden will be published next week, in which we talk about aesthetics, technique, and Steve’s relationship to technology.


About Joseph Sannicandro

writer | traveler | sound organizer | contrarian | concerned citizen


  1. Gianmarco

    Great stuff, good interaction and really insightful. Looking forward to Part II

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