infinite grain 10: steve roden

(Photo by Robert Crouch, courtesy of LACE)

[infinite grain is a series of interviews inspired on microsound procedures, exploring a wide variety of topics in dialogue with artists who work with sound on installation, composition and improvisation]

“I’m not interested in making music exclusively for musicians or musically inclined audiences.

I’m interested in making music for people.” – Max Neuhaus

Art is openness, the mere fact of expansion, transformation; where the medium doesn’t constitutes the actual search as it is manifested as a transmutation of time, an intimate encounter, not only with the creative flow that is present in the act of composing or creating something, but also in the act of listening, an encounter with the listener that only the heart can ‘explain’; only the basic yet the most open intuition, can speak that innocence.

That could be a way of appreciating the work of Los Angeles based artist Steve Roden, as honest openness, reflected in his very own practices, style and artistic vision, but also found in what it causes on the perceiver, in the manner he is able to catch the listener in order to challenge, open and create worlds placed between the art object and the actual experience of it, thus inviting to embrace change and the irrational, to break pre-conceived structures and be able to trigger not just sounds, but changes; a fleeting yet fortuitous impression of what is presented.

Roden offers a very unique experience that gets an output in several mediums (sound, video, painting, drawing, installation, performance, sculpture, among others) while reflecting a strong aesthetic, poetic, morphological and even spiritual appreciation above all. However, it would be a bit contradictory to locate his work in a particular category, as here the artist is able to establish his intention and openness toward a humility that is strongly present in the possibilities found during his exploration, actually leaving a lot of space and possibilities to the receiver.

Roden’s sound work is faithful to those parameters, since the art of improvising and letting the mind to be open to variations and mistakes surprises are so recurrent, actually reflecting the importance and delicacy of listening in various forms, at the same time establishing an interesting relationship with the listener, where the meeting space is found; a realm placed between inner and outer, an actual integration of both, a deep inquiry that is not just concerned to the sound, but to the actual spontaneity of its creation and perception, something that is only truly apprehended when listening to his performances or the vast amount of publications released in great labels such as LINE, Dragon’s Eye Recordings, 12k, Room40, ini.itu, Trente Oiseaux, among others.

That intimacy towards hearing and the natural connection between the resonances, “in between noises”, around details and new structures, captivated my attention years ago, and after some exploration, decided to talk directly to the artist, who kindly answered several questions about it.

Hi Steve. What are you listening right now?

hello… well, you sent me the first interview question at a good time, since i am right now listening to an LP called “mammane sani et son orgue / la musique electronique du niger…” an LP of solo electric organ recordings from the 1970’s recorded in niger. it’s really beautiful! i listen to a lot of music but usually not the kind of music i make… my tastes are pretty wide.

What would you say sound and listen have that attracted your attention at the first place and what keeps you interested on exploring it? How has your relationship with sound changed over the years?

well, these are “big” questions. “at the first place” in relation to sound i am not so sure. i was once in a listening group at a festival and we were each asked about sounds from our lives, and specifically the earliest sounds we could remember or a sound that resonated strongly from childhood… but in truth, for me, i really couldn’t remember being a listener as a child, and the only sounds i remember from my childhood such as the bells on the ice cream truck, but really those sounds are more connected to memories, than audio experiences, and my sound memories of childhood are more connected to nostalgia and many of those, such as a whistle my grandfather used to wake me up or to find me when i was lost in a store. honestly i don’t think i was very sensitive to sound as a child; perhaps it was because i was so much immersed in visual things – and i was drawing much earlier than i was listening or making sounds.

nonetheless, there is a moment of extreme importance in relation to sound when i was maybe 9 or 10 years old, when my parents gave me a small battery-powered cassette recorder for my birthday. of course, the first things i did was record jokes and making funny noises, but we also recorded things around us, such as the sound of the television or telephone calls and even at a baseball game. i lived in a major city (los angeles) so there were always unwanted sounds – like the horn of a car, etc. but i never really liked loud sounds until i was older. at first the recorder was more about the act of “catching” sound or collecting sound, than making sound. if i fast forward to the age of 14, when i began to be part of a punk band with some friends around 1978, i was the singer, and half of us knew how to play instruments, and half did not (i was the singer, so i did not play an instrument), but i remember very very clear one evening, my mother in the living room for some kind of party and i was in my bedroom, and i figured out how to connect my home cassette deck to my small childhood portable tape recorder, and i was able to make a recording that was layered between the two – very crude and noisy, but a lot like a multi-track deck. i was only trying to make some music, but clearly in that moment where i was able to manipulate the sound, and after that moment, everything was different, because i realized i could make music without being a musician or not being able to use an instrument properly. being part of the punk scene really gave me “permission” to be a bad musician, without needing confidence and to try to make music without any skills specifically because it was a way to express myself from my insides. and i would say much of my work in every medium is still not so worried about my technique, because it’s always more about the path than the destination.

in the last part of the question – “How has your relationship with sound changed over the years?” well, that is very clear. when i started making punk music in the late 1970’s, it was the loudest moment of my life, and ever since that time my work has been slowly getting quieter and quieter, until i felt i found a kind of “sound-space” that could feel intimate… like punk, when i started to make quiet music it was a reaction to advertising, MTV, television commercials, and also the art world where everything was about spectacle and money – but emotionally empty… so i moved towards quiet as an alternative, because there was very few things exploring quiet (i’m sure there were such things, but this was before the internet, so i had no contact with anyone making quiet work). it’s interesting to me now, because sometimes that kind of quiet can feel too precious, and the older i get the more interested i am trying to make things that feel a bit incomplete, or slightly broken or imperfect (of course as a human being i am certainly imperfect, and i want my work to have the feeling that anyone can make this work without needing special tools or teachings. more than anything i want my work to feel “human” and what i mean by that is that i want to make things that don’t rely on tricks or secrets. i have been making music for over 20 years and i still can’t play an instrument, nor can i read music… my only skill is to continue to evolve as a listener, because i have been listening for so long.

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You work with objects, paintings, sounds, different kinds of materials, etc and you say you prefer not to be considered as a visual or sound artist but just someone who “makes things in a variety of forms”. I remember a Dalí interview where the interviewer asks about the medium (painting, sculpture, etc) in which Dalí thinks he is at its best. And in his answer, he drastically rejects all the mediums and tells the interviewer that the core of his work its on his cosmogony, on the way he actually conceives the universe. What do you think about that?

well… let’s be honest, dali had a pretty big ego 🙂 for me, it’s hard enough to make a drawing or a short sound piece, but to conceive a universe is kind of a fixed thing, in that i mean if you conceive a universe it kind of has to be “fixed” in that the only things in your universe are made by you… so where are the surprises? or the mistakes? but the question for me is about pollution in your universe, in that how do things enter that might not seem “appropriate”… i think it would be more exciting if someone built me a universe and then i would have to negotiate with it. if i designed it myself i might be bored (although if i had a decent mix tape it would be ok 🙂 but i have been thinking about this for awhile. for example, most people would consider my paintings as being abstract – well, what happens then if i want to make a work that is about an image… sometimes i use film or a camera, but even some times i make paintings looking at objects and trying to work from a “thing”. also i use a lot of systems and chance operation in my practice, but i also work at times simply with intuition or from an emotional need, etc. i don’t want to feel too smart and i don’t want to create a universe where certain things are not allowed. it is fantastic to struggle with material that doesn’t seem conducive to my work or my inspirations, so i’d rather remain in this puzzle or this conversation of what is appropriate to my practice, and how to try to bring it into the fold. i think my universe would be a lot messier than dali’s,; and i want to be able to push the borders of my work, and also to be able to confuse or surprise an audience.

you asked me about what i was listening to tonight and a lot of people tend to think i listen to morton feldman and la monte young all day… well of course, my life would still be very rich if that was the case – but i need to be immersed in a lot of different kinds of music things, and in terms of listening to music – well, my record collection includes things that aren’t quiet, and yes, and there might even be a couple of disco singles 🙂 it’s important to listen to music outside of experimental music or sound art… i am a huge music geek and listening to music has been one of the strongest things that has kept me alive – i mean that truly, and while you were asking me about my childhood listening, i would say that many of the tragedies of my life and some of the most beautiful moments of my life have had a soundtrack or was connected to a recording.

Do you think is possible to conceive your art beyond the forms you use to create them? I mean, do you think your art born in the actual form of creating or is it coming from a wider exploration of your own conception and relation with reality? perhaps some of both?

to be honest, i’m not 100% certain what you are asking here, but if you mean by beyond the forms i use, well indeed, that is what makes life rich, to explore a medium or a process that i have no skills or training. there is a lot of freedom in working with materials you don’t use well, or using the tools wrong. in many ways that is the core of my practice – to attempt to always be a beginner. you know, cage used the i-ching to help him make choices, and to use the results to force chance upon his work and it changed the way he made decisions. obviously cage’s practice and his ways of working have been huge on my own use of chance and systems, but cage is as much a philosopher as a composer, and cage is so fantastic at finding cracks in things and widening them. for me, cage’s work subverts the traditions of music (or perhaps all art), in order to find creative ways to make decisions. he was fond of taking things apart and putting them back together – differently!!!

And would you think it is something beyond material in your work? Not necessarily a metaphysical dimension per se, but a realm in which you also work but is not precisely the material one. Poetic? Conceptual?

these are beautiful sentiments, and i’m grateful for your sensitivity and i think that it’s kind of difficult to say that i am working in non-materiality. obviously sound and performance is closer to these things because they are time based, and so they are more about the moments of them rather than their object-ness. i don’t usually release live recordings because a live show is not meant to become a recording, it should simply happen and then disappear. in 2012 i performed cage’s 4’33” every day for a year, and writing about the experience every day as well… and it became less about the results, and more about the daily experience – not only performing it every day, but also conversing with the piece every day, and so it lived inside of me for that year and when it was over, it took me a long time to make another work, because i missed having 4’33” in my mind and body for so many days.

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I think your whole work has a very interesting way of exposing abstraction and in my opinion, particularly your sound pieces have a very special treatment around that. I wonder how you would understand abstraction in terms of sound practices and also how those languages relate to the visual or sculptural aspect of your work. Also, how much concerned are you with the concrete and abstract aspects of sound? How much it affects your way of working with it?

this is a difficult question, but i would say most music (i’m generalizing) is either narrative or abstract. yes, that is a very pedestrian approach, but music tends to either move from a beginning to an end or it simply pulses and shimmers and remains in one place. for me, again in a very simple example, this might be a beginning of how we start to separate sound art and music, but the truth is that those terms are still problematic and i don’t want to dive into semantics or definitions… it’s kills the good stuff 🙂 i like this part of the question where you ask about concrete and abstract aspects of sound, because for me truly abstract things (including sound) have a quality of “thingness” – which is different than telling a story.

Following that, would you say sound is some kind of material-plastic medium?

i would say yes, especially since once something is recorded and saved it has to be plastic. i mean even if you take sandpaper and rub all of the grooves into a shiny black circle of plastic, even without the sound being audible the sound is still inside of the surface of the object. as someone who grew up during the heyday of LPs and cassettes, the sounds and the sound-objects were both important – not just the content, but the object that housed the content.

I wonder how you approach the sonic material in terms of recorded media. Is composition some kind of sculpturing process for you? How tangible do you think sound is compared to other materials you work with?

sure, because i am not a trained composer, it is an incremental act, just like sculpture or painting. i still have trouble dividing my practice by medium. in an opposite way we talked about dali, i’m not looking to build a universe as much as i’m interested in creating a kind of dna… but one that is not always the same, so that instead of simply dna, there is also: nad or and or dan or adn or nda, etc.

When reading your texts and interviews, you seem to care a lot for creating meaningful work and have clear intentions with it, at least transparent and honest ones.

yes, a lot of artists hide their secrets, or they add a smoke screen. i think a lot about myself as a person, not an artist, but just someone who is interested in the process of making things, and once in awhile something interesting will appear – and with any luck, it might have “wheels”. i’m not looking to make masterpieces, but to discover or create “seeds” that will sustain me – mentally, spiritually, physically, etc. i don’t start a work with a fixed idea or a fixed form – i generate the beginning, but the big part of the conversation is between me and the materials, and it is a lot of give and take, it’s a bit like wrestling… sometimes the materials kick my butt, and sometimes i can follow on my own…

When you talk about the “meaning” of an object, a piece of work, a process, etc, what are you referring to specifically? Because an object can have an aesthetic meaning, but also a narrative, conceptual or technical one. Does your notion of ‘meaning’ reaches all of those fronts or do you think it has its own realm?

i don’t use the word “meaning” so much. for a lot of artists there is an attempt to imbue the object with the artist’s meaning. for me it is quite different. i don’t make works with directed meanings, but the hope is that meaning is created through the artist/viewer/object. i look at making art – in any medium – as a kind of conversation and it should be open to various responses. if i tell you this painting or that sound piece is about a political idea, a fantasy idea, a cerebral idea or an aesthetic idea, etc. it might be in there, but in many of those cases, the work is forced to become a sign – offering a direct statement, and so the artwork has no choice but to confirm the object’s message. i’m much more interested in the idea of a conversation… where there is no true endpoint. i’m interested in experiences that don’t truly resolve, so that you can come back to a work and see or hear it differently – one day the piece might feel a certain way and different the next time you see or hear it. i don’t really believe in the artist being able to “paste” meaning onto the surface of a work – i mean the great artists like artaud, made work that was imbued with meaning because he made drawings that were meant to be magic spells, and i think when an artist is so completely immersed in his thoughts – and his concerns are not about art, but about life.

In an interview at tokafi you mention that you don’t like to intentionally seduce someone with your art, so you “exploit your natural tendencies”. How does it relate with your relationship with the listener? Are you interested on getting a particular intimacy with the listener? How that differs from studio/published sound works and performances/installations?

i have to say that intimacy is one of the most important aspects of making work in any medium, and i would probably say intimacy is one of the prime concerns of my practice. what’s nice about sound recordings is that the musicians are out of the wayi mean when you see/hear a concert of morton feldman’s work i don’t want to look at the musicians, i want to close my eyes and hear the music, and to see nothing. for me to be in my living room with a recording can be more intimate than sitting in a room with musicians’. of course, i also love live music and how it exists in space and/or creates space, but for listening, a recording doesn’t have the coughing or the whispering, etc. (obviously for cage it would be the opposite 🙂

In another great interview, this time at A Closer Listen, when talking about your role as a professor you say that you try to break the distance teachers like to create. How is that achieved? How do you think people in charge of courses, classrooms, workshops or different ways of sound education should explore? Or at least what we should avoid for letting ourselves to explore sound ‘properly’?

well… number one… TRUST YOURSELF… and two, find an ALLY. i had a very difficult experience in graduate school, and i was told to read specific books that had nothing to do with my work or my interests… i have been teaching for over 20 years, and i believe it is a professor’s job to offer students texts or works that are relevant to the student’s work… certainly, i had some very incredible teachers, some of whom helped me grow as a person and as an artist, but a lot of my education was about following rules or making work that was related to what was going on “now”. there was very little mention of alternative cultures, and i’m always surprised when my students don’t know who william s. burroughs or brion gysin or wallace berman or feldman…

There you also mention something about your preference of not using blindfolds or focusing your work on an acousmatic situation. How do you think is the importance of privation of other senses in order to listen?

well, let me say first, i have no problem with blindfolds as an idea. certainly a lot of sound artists are interested in this kind of situation – without the distraction of images (or musicians or audience). obviously, francisco lopez was very determined about this kind of situation for his concerts. i know his intent was to create a an experience that was purely about sound. at the time, i have to admit i was against this idea, partially because it seemed a spectacle, and also i felt that the blindfolds worked backwards, making me agitated and tended to focus more on the tension of the social event than the sound. (and maybe that was also important to francisco, i don’t know). maybe i’m a bit insecure, but during the blindfold concerts i’ve been to, i became much more focused on the social situation than the sound. and maybe that is what it was about, but it wasn’t the best listening situation for mr. certainly it created a kind of tension – which is fine, but for me it became too much a spectacle and at this point, anyone who goes to an experimental music or sound event doesn’t need a blindfold to listen. nonetheless, i have no problem with it for someone else, but for me the blindfolds got in the way.

I’m curious to know a bit more about your opinion of that phenomenological reduction of the acousmatic and also how important is for you the invisibility of sound.

i’m not sure if you mean that sound can be invisible but still felt? like low frequencies, etc? or do you mean the kind of tape concert? for me, either way, i don’t need to see musicians. and in relation to the last question… i tend to close my eyes at concerts anyways.

Why don’t you like to use Reverb effects? And in that sense how you deal with space when composing?

well, to say it simply, i don’t like things that are “fake”. reverb is an artificial representation of a space that doesn’t exist and it’s also a kind of plastic surgery of sound… obviously when you have someone like pauline oliveros or stuart dempster they are recording in underground cisterns, and the natural reverb is amazing and part of the sound in so many ways, but reverb was never an interest for me – to smooth rough edges. it is not to say that there aren’t great uses of the technology, but for me, i like the dryness, where you can hear the “seams” between things. without reverb things have different sounds, maybe unwanted, but those are very intimate sounds, while reverb tends to make everything big and hollow. obviously, it depends on what one is doing and where and how and why… when i was using my voice a lot, without reverb it was such a dry strange sound and the voice wouldn’t carry, it just stopped and sounded so dry. it was so intimate. i guess it’s more about how reverb creates distance.

You have been recognized in the lowercase scene, particularly for your use of micro sounds and subtle palette of noises, which I guess is related to your way of leading listening to those “inconsiderable things” you mention related to Rilke. I wonder how important is microsound in your way of conceiving sound and working with it. What do you find there that attracts you?

yes, working in a micro mode was so very important to my work, i mentioned it before, but in that mode, i found a place where i could begin to evolve as a maker that wasn’t about learning to use certain gear or techniques, but to begin by listening and to begin to listen differently. i recently did a performance with two small whistles, a music box from my childhood, two small bells, a pencil and a few other objects, and my voice, and my entire gear for that performance fit in my front pocket of my pants!!! and also, the room was very “active” so i didn’t need the use any speakers, etc. and when i laid my little group of tiny objects on the floor and began to hum and shake a small bell, i thought of rilke’s quote and how inconsiderable were my instruments for a performance, and i felt as if i could have performed the piece without telling anyone and no one would’ve noticed. so i learned from rilke’s ideas through listening as well.

i didn’t really use the term micro-sound very much. it was a funny time. also with lower-case music, and there were a lot of artists/musicians who were thinking about these ideas – and for me, it was rolf julius and christina kubisch, even though they were older and also from an entirely different scene, but their works were the forefathers and foremothers of what i was doing. i still think they laid the foundation for those of us who didn’t come out of music training, but more learning from old catalogs or recordings. the biggest discovery for me was the broken music catalog where i finally found a place where sound and image collided.

In that interview you also talk about a fear to the audience and some discomfort the act of performing causes on you. I wonder if this discomfort is also present in other field or your artistic work…

i’m not a very comfortable performer, in fact, i hate being in front of an audience, and i am usually sweating and my hands shake. it’s ok, because it is simply showing the audience that i am just a person and sometimes it’s just a bit of singing or humming, a contact mic, a guitar pedal etc. while i am nervous and uncomfortable, performing is most certainly the most generous thing an artist has to offer, and that is why i still perform, but it’s very difficult for me to do it.

Do you value art as a spiritual process or a transformative activity in some way?

ABSOLUTELY…!!! and it is great when both the maker and the audience can feel it.

How has been your evolution with the tool and the actual recording and manipulation of sounds when composing? How your changes in terms of technology have affected your aesthetic pursuits? Do you have any technological challenges with your work? How much do you want your work to be mediated with new technologies?

well, this is a very timely question. about two years ago, i was doing a performance, and when it was over, i felt as if i knew everything i was doing… so i asked myself how can find a way to perform that will put me in the space of a beginner again. i spoke with a few friends – stephen vitiello, taylor deupree, robert crouch, yann novak, and they all suggested i look into a modular synthesizer. when i went to the shop to demo some things… it was very interesting. i know nothing about synths, and also there was a really big learning curve, so it was very very difficult to start with entirely new gear, and to feel frustrated and kind of stupid. the best part was that i could not make the same kind of music… and so some things now are much louder, and a bit aggressive, but also it’s synthetic sound, and very little field recordings, etc. but it is very very different in terms of the sound’s presence. i think about it as if i were making sculpture out of clay and i had no hands, just arms… so i always feel as if i can bump into things, but i cant articulate any details. i’m sure it will change, but for now i have been experimenting for nearly a year and i’m not close to where i want to be. i don’t mean to sound like a jerk, but most people use the modular for basically 3 kinds of music – 1960’s moog/buchla music, dance music, or noise… and of course, i’m not really making work that fits into any of those places, so it has been quite exciting – mostly for the process, and hopefully there will be some decent results. as for now it is only frustrating, and giving me lots of problems which is what i wanted – to be forced to start over.

What is silence for you and how is it present in your work/life?

silence is tough. i love silence and need silence but living here in los angeles, well it is pretty difficult to find silence in the landscape. i remember when i was performing 4’33” every day for the year it took me several months until i managed to perform the piece without hearing a car – meaning i heard the sound of cars at least once every 4 and a half minutes. because i am working at home a lot during the day, i hear leaf blowing machines all day – louder than any instrument! and sadly i don’t think people think about noise pollution in the city. today for me is sunday and the only day of the week that is moderately quiet, but it is really a huge huge problem.

And last but not least, could you please recommend us something to read or listen that you have been exploring recently?

sound: for the past few months i have been listening to an LP by brunhild ferrari, transquilles impatiences on the algamarghen label. which is stunningly beautiful.

book: someday is now, the art of corita kent.

Interview conducted by Miguel Isaza, July, 2015.