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Pull it together, take it apart: How Steve Roden makes a soundscape

With tape recorders and a pair of modular synthesizers, artist Steve Roden builds a soundscape

As a kid, Steve Roden didn't study music and he didn't play an instrument. In high school he joined a punk band, but even then he wouldn't have called himself a musician. Instead, he describes his role as that of "the screamer." (The band, incidentally, was called the Seditionaries, and they once had the great privilege of opening for The Damned at a gig in Sun Valley.) 

All of this means that Roden, an L.A. artist who works with sound, has never approached music from an academic perspective, or even with a great deal of expertise.

"When you don't study something," he says wryly, "you don't have the burden of history."

It is this point of view — one born more of curiosity than formal musical study — that has shaped a long-running career as a sound artist. (He also paints.) For more than 20 years this has included creating works out of contact microphones and guitar pedals, tape loops and dried leaves. The sounds he produces are less about melodies and more about moods.

"I'm not trying to build a narrative," he says. "I'm building a space." 

Since November, he has been experimenting with modular synthesizers (both digital and analogue), taking the simple tones that emerge and looping, distorting and layering them in ways that can feel melancholy, ominous or joyous.

It's been a learning process. "I've burned out two modules plugging things into the wrong hole," he says.

This past Saturday, Roden gave a performance at an underground racquetball court in downtown Santa Ana. It was part of Santa Ana Sites, a series devoted to on-site performances around Santa Ana and organized, in part, by the Grand Central Art Center. 

Roden's show was one of the most intense listening experiences I've ever had: a bunch of strangers packed into a sweaty basement space waiting for the first tones to emerge. And they did. A soft hollow rumble like a mic being turned on, dull swoops and what sounded like the light tapping of dozens of tiny wood blocks. Toward the end of the piece, tape recorders Roden placed around the room played notes from a children's glockenspiel. During this time, the audience barely moved.

(To get a sense of Roden's work, click on the slideshow at the top of this story and listen to sounds collected from Saturday's performance.)

At its core, these pieces are about improvising with the essence of sound — literally, the electrical impulses that produce them. Roden has a general idea of the atmosphere he wants to create when he begins a piece, but he has to play with environmental factors as well. At a performance in Germany, he once integrated the sound of a humming refrigerator into his work. In Santa Ana, he worked with the thump of a cumbia band that was playing at a wedding above us.

"Improvisation isn't truly improvised in a lot of cases," he says. "But I'm really interested in that, in thinking about what comes up and slowly integrating it with whatever else is going on at the same time."

This involves a whole lot of experimentation. "You build something, you take it apart," he says. "You wire two things together, you wire in a third, you don't like it, you take it apart. Then you add another and hope it doesn't scream."

Ultimately, he says, "what I'm trying to do is allow the instrument to suggest things to me."

Santa Ana Sites features a rotating selection of sound pieces by artists from all over the country. To find out when the next show is happening, check out its website.

Twitter: @cmonstah

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