Steve Roden, Day Ring Sketch 1, 2006, collage and pencil on paper, 10 × 8 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Suzanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.
To find latent hymns in an increasingly dilapidated modernist Italian office building or situate an original sound composition within so highly reverent a structure as a James Turrell Skyspace requires a combination of confidence and humility found only in play. And there’s no more precise and playful guide to navigating site and sound than Los Angeles artist Steve Roden. Extending from his practice as an abstract painter, Roden begins projects—which often include interrelated drawing, film, performance, sculpture, and sound—by finding or inventing scores that open up formal possibilities, and then gathering texts, objects, and other source materials to be explored via the score’s logic, teasing out tensions and overlaps within a range of specific interests. Allowing for left turns and misreadings as a body of work develops, such playful rigor is Roden’s signature.
His recent film anything else &/or nothing at all offers an example. Invited to work with the Getty Research Institute’s Fluxus collection, Roden found a “concrete score” by poet Jackson Mac Low. Assigning tonal equivalents, instructive interactions, and durations to each of 93 characters appearing in the open score (letters, numbers, punctuation marks, symbols, etc.), Roden generated an entirely new film: an animation of drawings on an educational film from the ’50s called “Drawing the Circle” with a sound track comprising an instrumental response and a group vocal performance. It is this ready tacking back and forth between mediums—and from constriction to moments of improvisation, strict adherence to happenstance—that typifies Roden’s equal embrace of conceptual and intuitive strategies.
Similarly, a recently installed sound work for an entryway to the former head office of the Olivetti typewriter company in lvrea, Italy, weds field recordings of the building—resonant empty spaces as well as workers’ bustle—with the acoustic possibilities of the artist’s old Olivetti Lettera 22. The piece encourages a “listening in” to what Roden, after Rilke’s phrase, calls the “inconsiderable things” of everyday life.
Perhaps the boldest of Roden’s current sound installations is day ring, night ring, a composition for the James Turrell Skyspace at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. For such a meditative and measured space, Roden adopted a more performative stance that moves away from looped or layered immersion. Rather, his 40-minute day ring composition plays just twice daily as it slips into the chamber to hover, entice, and pass, mirroring the cinematic vantage of the space, while night ring emerges into the plaza adjacent to the Skyspace during off hours. It is subtle, pure work wrung from self-imposed complications—ever-shifting but honed exactly for entry. For as Roden offers in a recent essay on active listening, “like Alice’s rabbit hole, one must take notice of certain things, before one can fall into other worlds.”