City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Steve Roden (Postopolis! LA)

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(Photos and links to follow)

Steve Roden was, for me, one of the stand-out performances at Postopolis! LA. He’s an artist whose work I’ve admired for a long time, and it was a pleasure to meet him at last. His background is as a visual artists, primarily painting, but his work has freewheeled across film and video works, and the soundworks, often in relationship to architecture and public space, which is how I’d discovered him.

Roden gave an utterly beguiling performance, a beautiful analogue counterpoint to much of the digital work around him, although his discussion of systems, aleatoric processes, interaction, of invisible (audible) landscapes and architecture paralleled many of the themes of the other speakers. The audience were attentive, silent and engrossed. Part of this was due to his delivery – a careful, dryly funny, self-deprecating, quiet Californian; part of it was due to the ideas and realisation of the work; part of it was something undefinable. It’ll be difficult to convey that here, so I’ll stick to ‘just the facts, ma’am’.

Using a slightly temperamental iPhoto and talking to the photographs, he described his work over the last 6 years or so with a particular piece of classical music, translating score into letters such that this emerging set of predetermined rules would define subsequent painting and sculpture and sound works. Incredibly, all of this work relates to a “12 page classical music score found in my grandma’s garage when I was a kid”. He’s never listened to the original piece of music, and admits he doesn’t read music enough to imagine it – “never got much beyond Every Good Boy Does Fine” … He shows photographs of the resulting paintings and sculptures suggested by the score.

He mentions several times that he’s concerned that “sound doesn’t just become a soundtrack for sculpture” and these strategies are all ways to avoid this easy parallel and explore some deeper, more intrinsic connections.

His sound practice began by “trying to activate spaces through sound”. They’re “mostly about listening, making field recordings in a space”, and then manipulating them and “sending them out into the same space”, using simple effects like guitar pedals and tape loops. He likes the idea of a viewer not realising that the sound they are listening to is actually the manipulated sound of the space they are standing in.

His work for the Schindler House – “an intimidating landscape, because it is one of my favorite spaces in the world”, he notes – used sound from the spaces in and around the house to set up a view towards the main entrance of the house. He also recorded sounds in the garden, and situated them at the back, such that the sounds would lure visitors to the back of the house, so they'd eventually turn around and see a view that people wouldn’t usually see.

So Roden suggests that most of his early work wasn’t dealing with history or conceptual aspects of the architecture, but more with its materials and physical presence. He’d make a piece that would hover within a piece of architecture – and respond to its use of materials. He then describes a project in Greece, which he sums up as “a piece of non-music next to a piece of non-modern architecture”, clicking around photos of his plastic sculptures hanging in trees next to a significant, contested church designed by Dimitris Pikionis. Again, he mentions this concern about the sounds becoming a soundtrack for another object – he’s interested in a deeper relationship.

He then moves to his work for a skyspace by James Turrell (see also Roden Crater by Paul Schütze). (Another intimidating space, I might add.) His approach to this soundpiece was originally built from recordings of the space – which were barely audible, so quiet and remote is this work. His intention was to “insert one tiny thing into the space so as not to disturb it”. But he realized that he was really “just trying to make a Turrell for Turrell”. So he changed tack, and while searching online, found a set of tuning forks, which each was  purported to be “tuned to a different orbit of a different planet”. Roden notes with a wry grin that this was “obviously not true, but totally wonderful to buy into.”

So his work instead became a form of audio map of the cosmos – as the Turrell work is focused on the deep sky – creating the “the idea of the sounding of what people might be looking at”. He says it’s the loudest piece I’ve ever done, which was “really kind of frightening, and egotistical in a way”. It only played for an hour a day.

Roden then discusses a project with Caltech, which is based on a map called an interferogram, which is a coded satellite image of earth’s movement during an earthquake. Making another sideways step, these images matched perfectly the colours of a children's glockenspiel, such that he could translate the image into a kind of “player piano roll” for 60 of these metal instruments. In effect, this installation would “read” the drawing and translate into a map, which in turn created “a layout of sounding things”. So it would literally play the drawing into the structure, which would then perform. The resulting installation was thus a “direct engagement architectural structure”. Though he expresses some dissatisfaction with the robotics and technology aspect of the project, he was intrigued by this scaling up process: “What happens when you make something which is smaller than a turkey with your hands and then make it into something you can enter.”

He notes with a quiet smile that one of his scientist collaborators at Caltech was also dissatisfied as he was ultimately “very unhappy that the piece didn’t sound like an earthquake.”

Then to a piece composed for the Alvaro Siza pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery in London. This used contact mics on the surface of the building, such that the sound of the building itself was tapped and sent through guitar pedals. He also used the architect’s drawings to generate scores – he shows an image of beautiful Siza sketches, coloured pencil drawings. He performed an electronic and acoustic piece in the space, and then mapped the space in sound based on readings from particular points within the building.

With this, he thought “maybe you can hear what the space looked like”. Then, claiming that “I’m not a musician”, he performs the Siza pavilion on a small glockenspiel, reading from his own graphical notation. This is startling beautiful, the metal keys chiming clearly through the conference room, and the crowd are hushed and rapt with attention. Somehow, the background thud of the DJ downstairs is repelled by the tiny instrument and the place falls silent before a round of generous applause.

Roden then changes gears completely, to show a set of photographs that he recently acquired concerning some peculiar works by the architect Wallace Neff. Neff is known, if at all, for building Spanish-style houses in the Pasadena and elsewhere of the 1920s. He was a kind of “architect to the stars” (houses for Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks et al). They were, as Roden notes, “sprawling backwards-looking houses”.

But amazingly, from the late 1930s onwards, he also designed a series of houses – indeed an entire building system – based upon a construction technique of inflating a large balloon and spraying concrete over it. These are pre-Dyamaxion dome houses.

He says that a photo dealer found about 100 photographs related to the project last week, mainly snapshots, which Roden has acquired. These could well be a set of Neff’s own photos – including snapshots of a quote from Oliver Wendel Homes that Neff typed out – as well as 6 pictures of vernacular dome housing in Damascus, which Roden assumes he viewed as a precedent.

Roden then clicks through the photographs, which are simply wonderf
ul. They show the entire construction process, from the balloon slowly inflating as air is injected in, with details of it being tethered, then concrete poured, and then some slightly surreal images of people proving how firm the structure is by attacking it with mallets.

Incredibly, Goodyear were involved in this project, based around a planned community in Arizona. Yet only one is left standing in the states. Some were built in Brazil, W Africa and India, all essentially done as fast shelter structures. There are also images of a school in Mexico, which is the largest thing Neff did. Brazil was only place where he was able to do a commercial structure – a gas station.

oden describes how little-known this work is, partly as Neff is often looked down on by most people interested in modern architecture. (He tells a story of Pierre Koenig casually dismissing him. “Not interested“.) Others who love his "Spanish Colonial Style" works, say the domes are “the blemish on his career”.

To Roden’s eyes, it’s “a wonderfully misguided and beautifully idiosynctratic structure … there are lots of human qualities and a lot of mistakes, in most peoples’ eyes.” Neff was apparently obsessed with this work his whole life. Roden has recently produced a work based around the way houses were constructed – a sound sculpture built with his own breath, using balloons to create the structure, and recordings of his own breath blown through old pipes from a church organ.

In the Q&A, I ask why, with some notable exceptions – such as Peter Zumthor, who writes beautifully about sound in Atmospheres, or Juhani Pallasmaa in The Eyes of the Skin – why sound is so neglected within architecture. Roden thinks there’s “a long history of not considering sound”. He mentions how he recently went to a school designed by Thomas Walter who designed the US Captital Dome, in which you would be unable to properly hear someone standing a metre away. It’s “the most ill suited space for a classroom imaginable”. He also points out that this conference room in the Standard Hotel is sitting on top of a large space with a DJ booth, such that the sound from downstairs echoes through the hotel.

He finds it odd that there’s often little notice of sound by people who inhabit loud spaces, as he’s unable to ignore environmental sound himself. He sometimes stops in noisy supermarkets, on the verge of incredulously asking people “Can you hear that?!”. Certain people seem to be able to ignore it on some level, perhaps as he notes its intangibility, at least physically, which makes it difficult for people to articulate.

He thinks this is slowly changing – at least “some of the dialogue is changing” – partly as sound has become a more prominent artform, so people are more comfortable perceiving it as a presence in a space, perhaps akin to light.

Another question from the audience on what the Neff dome houses actually sound like. Roden smiles and replies that “the house is filled with air, but not in a perfectly formed shell, so it’s totally inconsistent and human.” He says you can stand at the wall on one side of the dome and send a sound wriggling right across its circumference to the wall opposite.

A great talk/performance. As Rachel Abrams noted afterwards, it may partly be because people were “desperate for a bit of analogue”. Yet there were also profound ideas at work here, not just from an artistic perspective, but deep rivers running parallel to many of the concerns elsewhere at Postopolis! LA.

Steve Roden


2 responses to “Steve Roden (Postopolis! LA)”

  1. Geoff Manaugh Avatar

    Loved his talk, too. Also managed to record the final 80% of his brief live performance on the xylophone – I’ll have to send you the MP3. It came through remarkably loud and clear.
    Nice write-up, as well, Dan!


  2. Dan Hill Avatar

    Thanks Geoff. I’ve just corrected a few things, after quick conversation with Steve, so do read it again why don’t you. And do send the recording through – I’d love to hear it again. Although the thought occurs: if the composition was derived from the architecture, and you only have a recording of 80% of it, does that mean we’re listening to 80% of the architecture? And which bits of the space are missing if so? Probably not.


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