THE Magazine

Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

Steve Roden: Found in Translation
 — Doug Harvey


Despite the fact that Los Angeles alone boasts hundreds (if not thousands) of artists whose work incorporates audio in some form, there remains no real curatorial or critical platform – no museums or magazines – through which Sound Art can be evaluated and disseminated in America. This intermedial realm is stil la hotly fought-over academic territory, a handful of warring factions scrabbing after token biennial inclusions and book deals. But there’s no art-world consensus about where Sound Art leaves off and music (or noisee) beings.

Ironically, one of the central figures in Sound Art has made his mark in the least grandiose manner possible. He even coined the widely used term “lowercase music” to describe his intimate and hypnotic aural abstractions. Although known in the art world primarily for his gorgeous, stochastic-systems-based abstract paintings and sculptures, Steve Roden has released over thrity solo recordings and realized dozens of site-specific sound installations, sound sculptures, and live performances – most of which involve the artist’s quixotic exploration of the poetic absurdity of mistranslation.

In turn, hidden and mutated musical structures underlie much of Roden’s visual art. His solo show this summer was the second to consist primarily of works derived from a found twelve-page Debussy piano score. In the only actual acoustic work in the show, Moon (Both receiver and transmitter . . . there now remained), Roden forged a typically intricate dream-logical mashup, filming a close-up of the oldest known sound recording, the recently rediscovered mechanical graphic transcription of the French song “Au Claire de la Lune” (the one that goes “lend me your pen to write a a word,” not Debussy’s translation of Paul Verlaine’s poem Clair de lune) made on Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville’s phonautograph in 1860. The resulting film was transferred to video and projected onto a distinctly moon-like plaster cast of a vinyl record, which Roden then used as the score for the layered vocal soundtrack.

This sort of oneiric reverse-engineering crops up regularly in Roden’s ouevre – a cluster of drawings in the group show (dis)concert, for instance, were created while falling asleep to recordings of Morton Feldman’s “Piano and String Quartet” every night for a month. Of course, the search for direct correspondence between the formal languages of music and visual art has been a recurrent theme in the history of modernism, and manifested in one or two other works in dis(concert). But this aptly-titled show ranged much further, showcasing the jumbled diversity of approaches making up the current Sound Art milieu, from Martin Kersels’s handmade sound-effects instruments (Foley art, strictly speaking) and Eamon Ore-Giron’s Rorschach doilies cut from LP covers to inexplicably entertaining videos like Bostonian Rachel Perry Welty lip-syncing to her answering machine messages or Cindy Bernard’s static shot of a vintage 8-track tape deck playing Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”

Bernard is also the driving wheel behind SASSAS (The Society for the Activation of Social Space through Art and Sound), an experimental music/sound art programming and networking collective now in its tenth year. SASSAS’s latest public event, in collaboration with dublab, was Tonalism, a twelve-hour ambient performance/installation in the Loof Hippodrome carousel building on the Santa Monica Pier, part of the mid-July, all-night GLOW festival. If he weren’t so “lowercase,” one would have to say the headliner was none other than Steve Roden, whose planned site-and-time-specific composition provided an exsquisite public counterpoint to the introspective lunacy of his Moon film: a modest solar invocation would have peaked just as the sun broached the Eastern horizon – if marauding hooligans hadn’t jumped the barrier to try and spin the carousel by hand, forcing Santa Monica’s finest to go into merry-go-round lockdown, canceling the performance. Roden went home and performed the piece alone in his garage, and the sun rose on schedule.

We’re probably lucky there is no critical consensus or handy translation phrasebooks for the art of sound. It’s hard to imagine Steve Roden’s beautifully garbled, chance-riddled paradoxes fitting into anybody else’s categories.