it seems a necessity, as active listeners, to become sensitive to these things in the world around us that the german poet rilke called “inconsiderable things” (the things from everyday life that most people don’t really pay sensitive attention to). standing on a street corner, listening to the sounds of cars approaching and then passing, the repeating crescendos resemble the sounds of ocean waves or the patterns of gentle breezes. these sounds do not only move around us; but also through us; and with sensitive ears, we begin to hear the world differently. we determine the possibilities of such “everyday” sounds for ourselves, and depending upon the depth of our attention to them, all sounds have the potential to evoke profound experiences through them.
-Steve Roden, Active listening
This is the second of a two part conversation between Steve Roden and I, conducted between June and December of 2012. You can read the first part here, in which we discuss Steve’s influences, growing up in LA’s nascent punk scene, and his approach to creativity in general. Below, we discuss his technique in more detail, his relationship to cheap technology, and his approach to live performance.
Once again, I find it most appropriate to begin with Steve’s own words. As diverse as his body of work is, and as open to possibility as Steve is as an artist and thinker, there is a serious thought and philosophy uniting his work. I think it would be too easy, and reductive, to call this “lowercase,” though the metaphor is a compelling one. Lowercase is about not screaming for attention, but a self-awareness that one’s activities are for those who put in the effort.
In addition to his work as an artist working in multiple media, Roden has also written a number of essays that explain this philosophy. He’s written about how he is not in anyway a technical person, but uses technology to his advantage by focusing on a restricted set of parameter specific to the medium in question. These essays about his basic use of recording equipment, tape, his first foray into digital recording, and more can be found at his website www.inbetweennoise. The actual techniques he employs are rather beside the point, so this interview dwells more on the concepts and ideologies, if you can call it that, and the systems he constructs and uses to guide his work, almost like scores. The creative spirit animating his work is scene in the processes he sets up and the ways in which he navigates within these closed systems.
The figure of the bricoleur, or amateur handyman, perfectly encapsulates for me the nature of Roden’s talents. Bricolage is the art of making do with what’s at hand, not settling for less but maximizing the potential within any circumstance. In The Savage Mind Claude Levi-Strauss describes the ‘bricoleur’ as “adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand,’ that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions.” When Roden translates poetry from a language he can’t read, or uses the indecipherable notation from Walter Benjamin’s notebooks as a compositional score, or gently coaxes inanimate objects into dialogue, I can think of no better description than that above. His method foregrounds the act of production as production, a true love for creation itself that is both serious and playful all at once.
Architecture also serves as an important influence and inspiration for Roden, no surprise considering the scale of architectural development in the 20th century and its explicit acknowledgement of its influence on ordering social relations. Goethe famously said “Music is liquid architecture; Architecture is frozen music.” Perhaps it’s the ability to work within structural frameworks imposed by material conditions that draws this comparison, but Roden seems to take influence from the experience of physically navigating the space itself. He actually lives in the last remaining Wallace Neff “bubble house” in North America. Neff is best remembered for his Spanish Colonial Revival style mansions built for LA’s elite, but he designed the bubble house as a low-cost solution to the global housing crisis. In a 2004 interview with the LA Times, Roden said “It’s a little like being the caretaker of someone’s project. …If someday someone found all my work at the flea market, I hope they would take care of it and read some catalogs and try to do the right thing. This house is something Neff believed in. I feel so strongly about his dream of what this thing could have been.” Roden also has a special relationship to the work of architect RM Schindler. Roden declared the Schindler house in LA to be his “favorite space in the world,” a space in which he made a special in situ performance and recording. The modern design of the home is not just a question of aesthetics, but also how aesthetics and design influence social space. Absent any traditional living room, dining room or bedrooms, the house is meant to be a collective living space shared by multiple families. Both architectural works speak of a time in which our great thinkers hadn’t exhausted the dream of utopia, and understood how aesthetics and ethics intertwine, an understanding also reflected in Steve’s work. A recent blogpost on Roden’s site hints at this relationship as well.
Roden recently released a book [buy] entitled , … i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces that compiles early photographs related to music, a group of 78rpm recordings, and short excerpts from various literary sources that are contemporary with the sound and images, all culled from his personal collection. The accompanying CDs collect a variety of early recordings, including amateur musicians, long-forgotten commercial releases, and early sound effects records. There is no explicit narrative connecting the parts –that would be too confining and linear- but the implication is that our we collectively shape our culture as bricoleurs as well. It’s a beautiful realization. (Joseph Sannicandro)
A playlist of the songs mentioned in these articles can be found here.
Are you familiar with (French sociologist) Bruno Latour’s concept of Actor-Network Theory? The way you describe working with objects reminds me of this, in some way, it’s as if you are improvising with the (non-human) objects, as actors, rather than using them as instruments. Is this fair?
I don’t know Latour’s idea for acting, but yes, I view my work with objects as collaborative. I don’t force them to fulfill my needs as much as I try to let them lead me somewhere I’ve never been, so that the object maintains its integrity. I’ve often spoken about a review I got a long time ago about a CD I recorded at a space in LA, designed by the architect RM Schindler. It’s my favorite space in the world, and when the reviewer wrote about it he said the disc was great, but it could’ve been made with anything, which really stung me because he didn’t understand how deeply the space determined my approach, or the way my eyes, hands and ears collaborated in suggesting moves. These things are silent; they don’t offer themselves up nakedly as if porn – but they are determining the processes that occur behind the scenes. Because of my history with the house, I forced myself to arrive without a plan… thus the initial recordings came about through this conversation with the house; and while I could probably remake the sound of that record with a computer, hairbrush and a potted plant, my engagement with the space and its qualities, were what fueled all of my decisions, and if I had made recordings at the house next door, the piece would’ve been completely different.
Steve Roden live at the RM Schindler House
That reminds me of something I read by Michel Chion, probably from “Invisible Jukebox” feature in the Wire. He said he felt that field-recordings were kind of beside the point, because at heart the sounds you’ll capture in Paris aren’t so different from the sounds of another city, unlike photography of its fabled roofs or streets or what have you. I was really shocked, you know, because here’s this big critic and figure in sound studies, and he totally misses the experiential aspect of how recordings come to be made. There is more to a recording then the physical, material impression or information. Maybe he never encountered Dewey’s Art as Experience.
Yes, some people think that if an idea fuels a work and is must present upon the surface of the object. This is such a literal approach, like a joke, first hearing a set-up and then a punch-line and done… I’m not so interested in a kind of perfect resolve; in fact, I’m much more interested in open ended things that do not resolve easily, as I feel that it allows meaning to be built through one’s experience with the artwork, object, song, etc.
Your work also seems to break a lot of the “rules,” or defy the doxa at least.
For instance, you improvise, but mostly against yourself, not in dialogue with others. (Though your duo with Seth Cluett was interesting to watch as a contrast to this). You utilize cheap gear, don’t monitor when making field-recordings, translate poetry from languages you can’t read, etc, and manage through these practices to produce engaging work nonetheless. You’re academically trained and currently a professor, but continue to go against the grain. At the talk you have at Suoni in Montreal last year you mentioned being inspired by artists who work on the margins. Did you set out to do things your own way by choice or by necessity?
That’s an interesting question. On one hand I would say not many people would set out to work on the margins by choice, but on the other hand, if you want to be left alone to do your thing, the margins might be a haven. I look at someone like Harry Partch, and how his music is absolutely his own, and I think that because of how “other” it is, he has cemented his career as being on the periphery (and in some sense, Feldman did the same thing). For me, what’s important is being true to the work – which is very different than being true to the audience. Expectations are deadly, and both Partch and Feldman were unwilling to tuck the difficult parts away for the sake of being in the “center”. If Partch cared, he’d had turned to traditional tuning, and if Feldman cared, he’d have composed shorter pieces with more dynamics and narrative. I hate to keep going back to the same things, but I would never have made any of the works or had the approaches that you are asking about if I wasn’t part of the punk scene; because that moment was so much about pissing on talent and embracing the creative act – jumping in the water without needing to know how to swim. It’s all about ideals… and trust. so if I am unwilling to compromise my practice, then i must own my place on the margins. Honestly, I think it is highly unlikely for an artist to determine where their work fits in relation to the center or the margin, and there are certainly folks who get to straddle both at different times in their career… such as Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side”… you never know where the work will land…
I use cheap electronics because they are limited in terms of options – so I have to really think or feel when I’m performing with them, because I don’t have a million choices or plug-ins. I have always wanted the live experience to be live – which means very little preparation and being in the moment of a potential disaster. I’ve played with people who literally open an iTunes file and press play. On one hand this is great – the sound is pre-set, the mix, etc. but it isn’t live music, and it doesn’t offer any of the tension of live music, nor the creativity of a live performance, it is simply sharing music.
Which can be great if the venue is really special and the audio-system is really unique and offers something quite removed from simply popping a CD in at home, but I will come back to this later.
Absolutely! I’m not making a value judgment between live performance and tape performance, but they certainly offer different expectations and experiences. Part of the reason I recently started improvising with video is that it offers more complications in a live situation and seemed to offer less control. At the Suoni gig someone came up to me afterwards and criticized the performance for using low production quicktime files, but what he was really criticizing was that the films were not crisp clean hi-end production. For me, the medium – video shot a few hours before the show – offers the visual immediacy of improvised recordings, and it was important not to dress them up as “films.” The fact that they were crude and repetitive and of the moment – just like the sound – was indicative of the whole process of improvised performance. truthfully, he didn’t like how “crappy” they looked, but for me, they spoke in a language appropriate to the performance situation, and I’m not adverse to the vulnerability that such decisions offer.
You talked a bit earlier about ‘jumping in without knowing how to swim,’ and also about the tension that animated live performance, and I think improvisation in particular. So, I think my follow up has to be, how do you reconcile your ‘studio’ practice with your live practice? Not that you have to, but what I mean is, unlike painting or visual art/gallery art, where a ‘finished’ object is presented as something closed, generally, live music has a performative dimension, a temporal dimension, that the performer responds to in an open way.
My first live gig was a total disaster. I had just finished my first CD in 1993, and I had no idea what to do live. I knew very little about gear, and my recordings at that point were mostly multi-tracked, using mostly acoustic objects – Turkish flutes, homemade instruments, old toy instruments, stones, chairs, etc. But it was all related to working in my home studio. So for that first live gig, since I didn’t even have a delay pedal, I brought a cassette machine with me, and I had some of the sample loops from the CD on the cassettes and I tried to improvise over the loops. The problem was that it was kind of like experimental music karaoke… there was absolutely no life to it! For many years my visual art practice was limited to painting – no drawings, no sculpture, no film, etc. When I finally added drawing to my practice it was because I had finally discovered what I wanted from it – to experience an activity that drawing could offer me and painting could not. This was a huge moment, because it was about the integrity of the medium and/or the situation of making. So I began to think that if I was going to do live shows they absolutely had to embrace the temporal, and they would have to be absolutely LIVE. So I got myself a delay pedal, someone made me a few contact mics, and I just started to mess around with this stuff.
I don’t like playing live very much, I don’t like being the center of attention and for the most part, I’m happier with the results when I make records – in fact, in 19 years of releasing stuff, I’ve never released a live recording (although I’ve posted some things online). Nonetheless, while I don’t “like” performing, the potential in that discomfort is kind of wonderful and a lot of things happen live because I’m so uncomfortable and I’m trying to make sure the thing I’m creating isn’t going to implode – it’s absolutely the most focused activity because there is an audience – which scares the hell out of me. A risk in a live environment means so much more than a risk in the studio. So to answer your question, I don’t totally use the same tools in the studio and live, but even more so, I try to make sure that the activities are medium specific.
It seems to me that because, before recording technologies were developed, music was the only sonic art, with the possible exception of the complicated case of spoken poetry. Recordings of music tend to be thought of as capturing something live. (Sure, there was ritual music, and folk music, music for entertainment and music for contemplation, music for work or for art. But this is all still rooted in some sense of ‘liveness.’) Even though this isn’t quite true (and was never true), in fact recording is always in some sense a studio practice- even in 1948 when Muddy Waters plugged in and sang into microphone we’re already playing and listening differently and recording responds to this- the baggage of music being a ‘performative’ art rather than a ‘studio’ art hasn’t quite gone a way. And I think a lot of sound art and experimental music is implicitly or sometimes explicitly challenging this, just by incorporating/instrumentalizing media that was conceived of as recording/playback, be it tape music or with a laptop. I’ve seen a lot of folks trashing on guys like Skrillex for not being “real” musicians. Not that I want to defend Skrillex, but its striking to me how much people seem to miss the point.
I have no musical knowledge or skills either, and I would never consider myself a musician – a composer, maybe – but never a musician. I don’t know Skrillex, but I find those kinds of arguments to be pointless. Some people would rather listen to a drunk singing his ass off out of tune, while someone else would rather listen to the band Rush… if you are looking for technique, that is one thing. If you are looking for something real, it might come from an amateur… I mean how does one define a “real” musician… it’s not like Son House learned to make music in a conservatory.
Son House – “Grinnin’ in your face”
But then, there must be something at work if even after half a century of tape/computer music, or hell, a full century after Russolo, people still can’t seem to distinguish between listening to something in your car and experiencing it with a room full of strangers, dancing and celebrating together, or sitting and contemplating together. Who cares, on some level, what the guy on the stage is going? Of course plenty of artists respond to this by playing out of sight, or in the dark, or blindfolding the audience. You do have distinct practices that fall all over the spectrum from studio to performance, so I’m curious to get your perspective. Maybe I’m wrong to draw that distinction at all, but I think there’s something to it.
Early on, I did some performances where I was behind a curtain, etc. But it tended to draw more attention to the “missing” musician than having one present. I tend to close my eyes when I hear music, but even with someone like Francisco Lopez, who demands blindfolds at times, I find that to be a kind of distraction from listening simply because of the vulnerability and the anxiousness the blindfold evokes. It turns the thing away from pure listening. I have seen laptop players sit in the audience, and I’ve seen them sit on stage, and again, I don’t think you can make generalizations based on someone’s tools. Carl Stone is one of the most energetic and engaging performer i’ve ever seen, and ever since he has downsized to a laptop his performances remain gritty, human and exhilarating!
Carl Stone –“Shing Kee”
In terms of “what’s he doing?” I think people respond to my performances because they can see that I’m doing things with my hands, and it is very intimate and somewhat primitive – so there is usually a disconnect for people in relation to how these poor materials are creating such sounds; but if you approach performance from a place of humility, I believe that people feel less distance from you, and perhaps the gentle nature of my live work offers an entry point into dissonance or abstraction that would seem aggressive if it were loud. I don’t think about live music as a narrative – more like creating a space… it is a building process, but I don’t have a plan when I start. Sometimes I have cards or cues to push myself away from comfort zones.
I know your working method changes based on the project, the materials, the site, its architecture, who you’re working with, etc, but, can you walk us through a sort of typical engagement with your equipment? I know you resist that fetish relationship, but at the same time you’ve developed a relationship with some pieces, with your two old delay pedals, with a particular type of mixer, and so on. Do you run an FX send/return? You don’t monitor your mixing with headphones when you’re performing, is that right? How about in the studio, do you mix on headphones?
Basically, my two biggest tools are my mixer (an old 8 channel Mackie) and two guitar pedals (both the same – a DOD dfx94 – I think it holds 6 or 8 seconds of sound, and it’s called a sampling delay. You can layer sounds in loops, but the oldest starts to degrade every time you add a new loop. You can also change the pitch of the loop by speeding it up or slowing it down. Both of these tools are very very limited, and that is what I like about them. When I do a gig and someone brings me a 16 channel mixer with multiple aux sends, etc. I am totally overwhelmed and generally it is a disaster, as I don’t understand mixers in general, I just know my own since we’ve been together for nearly 20 years… Recently, I purchased a couple of high end sampling delays and I realized they did too much… which got in the way of the simplicity and limitations. That’s why I consider these two my instruments, more than the things I make sound with, because they are the only pieces of gear I feel totally familiar with, as if they were extensions of my hands.
The other most important tools are contact mics. I use piezo buzzers to make them, and I use the ones in plastic housings – which means they don’t have the sensitivity of true piezos, but I like the way the plastic housing sounds, and you can dunk them in water or drag them along the ground, put them in your mouth, and the little hole in the plastic offers a ton of options.
The variables can include a record player, pine cones, stones, recordings made in the space, field recordings, my voice, a lap steel guitar (rarely anymore), harmonicas, etc. One thing I NEVER use is reverb. Live, I simply pick a sound or object to start with and move forward adding and subtracting, making decisions mostly improvisationally. If I feel like I’m running on the fuel of habit, I try to find ways to disrupt things.
In terms of headphones, I never wear them during performances – which would suggest that I’m hearing something entirely different than everyone else. That seems total detachment from the audience (unless they too are all wearing headphones!). For field recordings, I also rarely monitor what I’m recording with phones as well, as I am mostly interested in the document and how it can become “useful” regardless of what it sounds like – it’s more about capturing air than sound, to bring some of the landscape into the recording mechanism, like capturing the landscape’s aura. I know I’ll never be Chris Watson with my field recordings, but I am also not looking to capture nature as it is in life. I’m interested in how the recordings can trigger new experiences. Field recordings for me are mostly a cache of material to be used. Now I make a lot of recordings with my phone, and I think if I made super high quality field recordings I’d be afraid to play with them as freely as I am able to do with the sort of wonky recordings I make.
Even with your project on Walter Benjamin, it seems like you arrived and let the idea take root through a dialogue with the unknown. I’m reminded a bit by artists like Gabriel Orozsco, this idea of the artist who just travels around with nothing but a notebook and a toothbrush, his studio wherever he finds himself. Does this idea of an “artist” resonate with you?
With this it is twofold, I get my inspiration just about anywhere or anyhow, might be a book a place an object a season a word a color, etc. and traveling around with nothing but a notebook and a toothbrush is basically, for me, a form of inspirational gathering and elaborating through writing… but the work generally occurs in my studio, and I am not someone who can really make work in hotels or on airplanes, etc. I still have that need for a studio space, mostly because I’m incredibly messy! So I feel somewhat in between an old idea of an artist slaving away in solitude in a studio and someone who travels a lot and who gathers a lot from traveling. Clearly, my work would be much different if I never left home (for better or worse).
What advice would you give to readers interested in experimenting with sound? Rather than: the manual says this is how to do something, these are the scales or modes to learn, or such and such a controller mixing together stems in Abelton, etc etc. Was it just trial and error, resourcefulness, getting to know the gear you had available?
Most important story: Eno on the radio talking about working with the DX7 synth, and how everyone was gathering sound files and trying to build libraries, and he decided instead to work with the presets – horribly cliché and boring sounds… because he was interested in how a dead end fuels creativity. That resonated with me very very deeply. What it emphasizes is not how great your gear is, but how you approach something creatively – a source, an idea, a form, a limitation, etc. so that it will unfold!
A lot of artist seek works that fulfill their expectations from the beginning – an idea appears and is realized. I have no issue with that as a method, but it is not for me. Certainly, I’m using physical material – say with Benjamin’s notebooks – but I don’t have a plan at the beginning for what will come out of my conversation with this material. I don’t want the sources to have to conform to my expectations as much as i ask the materials to open me up, initially to create difficulty, then to teach me something, and then to push me off onto a path… this is generally not an end point, but one of many beginnings. failure is a necessary part of the process, and I have no idea what will come out of it. working with Benjamin’s notebooks, I never could’ve conceived of a sound piece, a few video works, drawings, and now beginning to find a way towards paintings (nearly a year later). if I knew what I was looking for, I would not see anything else (like driving in a car and never looking out the window until you arrive at your destination – for me, the journey has the most value, in fact sometimes even more so than the result!. But of course, it is a slow process waiting for voiceless things to speak.
John Cage would have been 100 this year, and of course we’ve been presented with a never ending Cage programming lately. Can you talk a bit about Cage and his influence on you? I remember you mentioned something about realizing a score of his.
Without realizing this would be his 100th year, in January 2011 I began a year long project performing 4’33” every day for a year. If I thought I knew Cage before then, this certainly took everything to the next level – for I not only performed the piece every day, but also wrote about each realization in a diary (which has been included in a few exhibitions already and which I hope will be published at some point). It wasn’t that different from working with Benjamin’s notebooks (and in fact while in Paris, I performed 4’33” using one of Benjamin’s notebooks on display at the Jewish Museum as my instrument… so much of my thinking collided in that moment.)
My relationship to Cage’s work grew slowly. First, I knew him as this guy who made music with cactus and noise. I, like a lot of people, assumed his work was mostly situations where the musicians could do anything… but after realizing some scores with Mark Trayle for a performance of Variations II and Contact Music last year, I really learned a ton – and I think you never really know Cage until you’ve realized some of these scores where you have do some drawing and reading and dice throwing to create your own score. These are not free-for-alls at all… because the parameters that serve the improvisation are very fixed and very complicated to “play”. I don’t think I could break down how much that year of performances worked on me, but it was a really wonderful thing to do (and I recommend it to anyone, especially if you can maintain focus).
What’s so fantastic about Cage is that when he went into making visual works, he was so inventive, curious, and willing to try certain things – willing to fail. I think his genius was to maintain that curiosity, in all of his endeavors…
Lastly, many artists seem to cite you as an inspiration. In my interview with Rutger Zuydervelt (Machinefabriek) you came up as an important influence. I’ve also heard Taylor Dupree mention you were an inspiration for him in moving away from the laptop. Any reflections on being on a stage in your career in which you’ve been able to play this role? I suppose I should mention the whole phenomenon of ‘lowercase,’ which you seem to have your reservations about. Labels are always problematic, but was this a rejection of the idea of seeing commonality between artists grouped under this heading?
Funny, this was the hardest question to answer… hmmmm…. how to even approach such a thing… I mean, it is so gratifying to even think that your work or your process has inspired others… its quite humbling. I’ve worked with both of them, and happy that people a generation younger than me find me relevant. I remember some early gigs with Taylor, and me being perplexed at how he could get those sounds out of a laptop and he looking at my table of junk and wondering the same. While he has moved away from the laptop, I’ve (surprisingly) found myself using the laptop in performances to work with video… so the best part of all of this is that we are all still evolving and our practices are allowed to be messy rather than neat and crisp.
In terms of lowercase, I guess you could see it two ways. One would be a bunch of like minded folks starting something (like punk!), but on the other hand you have people who want to be part of something so badly that they create work for the scene (which I’m sure did happen in punk rock as well). For me, I have always felt that it was important to do things your own way, to veer away from the center and to mine some deep personal territory. When we had the lowercase list, people would argue about which movie was lowercase, or book, and it felt like it was working towards conformity rather than experimentation, which drove me crazy. Now I’m waiting for the uppercase backlash!
Thank you so much to Steve Roden for taking the time to ramble with me and have such in depth and meaningful discussions. It was truly an honor to have him take part in Sound Propositions. Roden’s deserves all the acclaim he receives, yet like many unique voices who work in multiple media and don’t fit easily into accepted categories, his work is too often neglected by the mainstream critics and institutions. We certainly don’t have enough of an audience to make much of an impact as far as that goes, but are heartened as outsiders ourselves to have such dedicated practitioners like Steve quietly working away on the margins to look towards.
And in case you missed it, Steve put together this fabulous mix for Secret Thirteen in December connecting 24 7″ records from around the world.