With a practice that blurs the boundaries between experimental music, painting, drawing, sculpture, film/video, sound installation, and performance, over the last three decades, the California based artist, Steve Roden, has continuously advanced the challenges posed by the avant-garde. Always engrossing, prolific, and ambitious, following on from a fantastic series of releases over the last few years and 2020’s stunning collaboration with Small Cruel Party, “Stratégies Obliques Ø”, his latest two offerings, “Gradual Small Fires (and a Bowl of Resonant Milk)” - a 60-page sewn-bound book and CD album issued by 901 Editions - and “The Radio - Airria (Hanging Garden) - Vein Stem is Calm” - a body of incredible compositions issued by Sonoris in both LP and CD editions - each take us, in highly individualized ways, even further into the depths of a fascinating creative territory that gracefully unites sound, object, and space into a conversant whole.
Steve Roden - Gradual Small Fires (And a Bowl of Resonant Milk) - Book/CD
First emerging during the early 1990s, Steve Roden is a pioneer of Lowercase music, a movement that uses amplification as a means to address the subtle and overlooked sounds of objects and environments. Within a body of work that spans many dozens of albums - guided by rigorous conceptual perimeters and concerns - he has continuously pushed forward over the decades, harnessing the inherent value possessed by sonorous material generated by non-instrumental sources and everyday life, and illuminated the path for countless artists following in his wake. Offering monumental presence to the smallest moment and sound, his latest, “Gradual Small Fires (and a Bowl of Resonant Milk)”, is no exception to the rule.
“Gradual Small Fires (and a Bowl of Resonant Milk)” was commissioned by the university of Hong Kong’s new media school, as a site specific work within Daniel Libeskind’s new Creative Media Center at the university. Conceived in partial response to the Ed Rucha book from which it takes its name and staged during the building’s grand opening, the work consisted of five different sculptural objects placed in discrete locations and constructed of plexiglass with a speaker playing back individual sound-work. It is sound elements of the these works - built around recordings of fire that Roden had made in Denmark 10 years prior, threaded by further manipulated recordings of bells, rocks, guitar, and field recordings - that are captured by the CD component of this 901 Editions’ release.
Riding the line between sound-art and experimental music, Roden’s “Gradual Small Fires (and a Bowl of Resonant Milk)” draws the ear into a world of intricate detail where chance occurrence dances and blurs with man-made interventions of texture and tone. The result is startlingly musical, engrossing, and transportive, moving toward a sonorous space to be occupied, while deftly realigning the values most commonly assigned to sound. In addition to the five works presented in Hong Kong, the collection also includes a sixth piece, “Small Fire 5”, that was commissioned for the exhibition “Sound art. Sound as a Medium of Art” at the ZKM in Karlsruhe. The beautiful 60-page, full color sewn-bound book that accompanies the CD features Roden’s drawings and other documentary elements and details from these works. Viewed together or independently, each aspect of the edition is a stunning object that’s absolutely essential for any fan of Roden, experimental music, or sound art at large.
Where “Gradual Small Fires (and a Bowl of Resonant Milk)” offers glimpses of Steve Roden’s trajectory into the future, Sonoris’ latest, “The Radio - Airria (Hanging Garden) - Vein Stem is Calm”, gathers three increasingly rare historical works - “The Radio” (1996), “Airria (Hanging Garden)” (2003), and “Vein Stem is Calm” (1996) - diving toward the crucial, rarely heard foundations of the singular practice that we all know and love. Each, imbued with ghostly beauty that incorporating different applications of the human voice, intertwines conceptual composition with a stunning pallet of sonorous sources, producing a sense of musicality that can only be referred to as entirely Roden’s own.
The collection’s first work, “The Radio”, was originally released as a mini-CD by Sonoris in 1996. Arcing across the full first side of the LP edition, it perfectly captures what The Wire, upon its original release, referred to as Roden’s “particularly modest form of genius”, with the artist harnessing sound sources that derived from a radio - the airwaves as well as the internal mechanics (aerial, springs, knobs …) - in conjunction with his own voice. Underscored by overwhelmingly beautiful textural ambience that sprawls across the piece’s length, Roden’s singing takes center stage, veering away from the abstract temperaments for which he is arguably best known, in haunting swells of tonality that calls to mind liturgical choral music. Emotionally immersive, heart-wrenching, and creatively visionary, it stands among the most striking pieces in the entirety of Roden’s output, leading us back again and again for more.
“Airria (Hanging Garden)”, from 2003, like its predecessor, orients itself around the human, albeit in very different ways. Minimal and cycling, making nods to Arnold Schönberg’s ”The Book of Hanging Gardens” across its length, electronic buzzes and amplified objects form the airy background for a glacially paced mantra of vocalizations that collectively culminate as a startlingly unexpected meditation on the dialog between incidental and active sound. Of the three works featured within Sonoris’ latest collection of Roden’s work, “Vein Stem is Calm”, created in 1996, stands most apart through a reorganization of priorities offered to each element within a constrained pallet of sound. Building from a few seconds sampled from a work by Ralf Wehowsky, cycling, harmonically rich drones occupy the piece’s focal center, as textural washes of incidental sounds, pulses, and fragments of speech move in and out of view, shaping what could be described as a reconceptualization of a nocturnal raga within radically experimental terms.
Gathered from diverse sources from across Roden’s early years of recorded output, “The Radio - Airria (Hanging Garden) - Vein Stem is Calm” brilliantly places the artist’s work with vocals at center stage, reframing the terms through which he has largely been understood over the last two decades. Overwhelmingly beautiful and creatively stunning, rethinking the perimeters of minimal music within truly singular definitions, Sonoris has made available both LP and CD editions of this stunning release.