Review: Steve Roden – Proximities

On Roden’s last work on Line, 2005’s Airforms, he used Wallace Neff’s experimental house designs as inspiration. Neff inflated balloons and then sprayed them with concrete, with the resultant shape organically formed by the pressure of air expulsion. Roden transferred this idea to his sound work, and recorded the sound of his transformed breath down an old wooden organ pipe; quite literally, Roden was breathing his own unique artistic interpretation into Neff’s work, and translating it into sound.

In a way, Proximities is a similar process: implanting Roden’s unique artistic “life” into an existing idea and turning it into audio. Using a text by minimalist sculptor Donald Judd as a source (with the letters A to G as found in the text determining the tone sequence), and recorded in amongst 50 of Judd’s stainless steel sculptures, Proximities amplifies the sound of Judd’s artwork – sound that has essentially always existed, albeit laying dormant in silence.

The piece pulls together a strange combination of the untampered (leaving both Neff’s idea and the sound itself to run its natural course) and direct intervention. From one perspective, Roden seems keen to render himself as absent as possible: the tone sequence is determined purely by Judd’s text, while the reverberant nature of the recording space (a large converted army barracks) is responsible for all sound processing. Any additional “pops” heard on the recording are the sound of Judd’s sculptures expanding as the rising sun changes the temperature of the space. Sound is ultimately left to be itself: the drones rise and subside like fleeting murmurs of microphone feedback coaxed out of the tiniest of molecular pulses.

But actually, Roden’s fingerprints are everywhere. His choice of instrument (the Paia Oz synthesizer) and recording devices (H4 digital recorder, iPhone, cheap cassette recorder) fleck the end product with a distinctive character, while recordings of previous performances are left to spill out of the small speakers of these devices as the recording took place; Judd’s text is left to overlap and speak over itself, knocking the chronology of its narrative out of joint. And if that’s not enough to indicate Roden’s influence, he even hums on a couple of occasions during the recording. But he feels more akin to a ghostly presence round the edges of Proximities; those hums aside, Roden’s input is purely that of past tense, crafting a new context before stepping back to let Judd’s ideas unfold within it.