In this new (hopefully regular) column, we draw from the mountain of CDs filling the shelving unit in our former music cave and revisit an album and/or artist from Portland’s past. Because the music scene moves quickly—if you don’t stop to look back once in a while, you might miss something great.
Ethan Rose captures the sound of things and unveils their beauty. In 2009, he became enamored with the massive 1920s organ that hangs above the roller rink at Oaks Amusement Park in Sellwood, and decided to base an entire album around it. For Oaks, sounds from the organ were recorded, digitally manipulated, then arranged into compositions. Listening to the record has the effect of making the invasive background noise of modern life seem beautiful, composed, light and open. Like Grouper’s work, it is slow and heavy, but also playful and nostalgic.
We caught up with Rose, whose numerous credits include composing the score for Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, to revisit Oaks and discuss what he’s been doing since.
Willamette Week: Could you describe the Oaks project?
Ethan Rose: Essentially, what drew me to Oaks Park was the 1926 Wurlitzer Theater Organ that hangs over the roller rink floor. It is a massive instrument made up of pipes, percussion and various mechanical sound effects. At that point I'd been developing work around mechanical musical instruments, player pianos, music boxes and the like. I was interested in the history of recorded sound, and also the physicality of these instruments, and my work with the organ came out of that.
I made a series of visits to Oaks Park and recorded the organ, and then I returned with these recordings to my studio where I built them into compositions. In the process, I got to know Keith Fortune, who plays the organ there on a regular basis. I did some caretaking of the instrument with him, and spent a fair amount of time at the rink. Eventually I thought, along with this album I am making, maybe I should do a live performance here and invite people to skate. So I did a CD release show there, and performed live on the organ, combining it with the processed electronic versions of itself while people rotated around the rink. It was a very memorable night—I think 500 people showed up, mostly due to Holocene and PICA's involvement and the unique site. There is great little documentary about the project as well, directed by Charles Wittenmeier.
It was an exciting time and a lot of fun. A great deal of the ideas and structures that I was working on then are still relevant to my current work. Perhaps most significantly, this was a project that was about seeking a dialogue between my studio practice and a specific site. I was really inspired to break the hermetic seal of the studio—the enclosed, interior world of recording. I wanted to bring some visual presence to my work, to draw on something that was embodied and physically immediate. And the organ/rink was an exploration of this direction—something that I am still exploring today.
What have you been interested in since then?
As I mentioned, this dialogue between studio and world is still one I am very interested in. In a way, Oaks helped spur a continued investigation of performance. “How do I perform my work?” This is a question that is unique to recording studio compositions. How do I bring these works out of the studio? I wanted to think of ways to break free from the CD/album release format. What kind of cycles and trajectories between the studio and the world can I engage? These questions widened my approach to making projects. Ideas of negotiation, embodied physicality, and transformative processes have remained fundamental to much of my work. Since Oaks I've explored these ideas in projects with choir performances, sound installations and a variety of collaborators.
What is your association with Holocene?
Holocene was always supportive of my work. I performed there a lot and always enjoyed playing there. When I was putting out Oaks, they were starting up a label, and it just made sense to release with them. Laura Gibson and I did a collaborative album called Bridge Carols that came out a year later on Holocene as well.
Why did you decide to pursue an art gallery setting for your music?
I felt that the gallery setting provided a more open forum for the kind of ideas I wanted to explore. The idea of performing my work in a traditional stage setting was no longer that interesting to me. With the gallery setting I could bring objects that I had been working with in the studio into direct contact with an audience. It allowed me to create a kind musical performance in a way that followed a completely different set of rules and this intrigued me. “How do I translate the gestures of recorded composition into a physical embodied installation?” I have always felt like an audience to my music, just as much as I have felt like the composer. Much of my process has been about setting things up, and listening, and then making an adjustment, and then listening some more, adjusting, etc. And I was able to do this in the gallery setting in a way that was in tune with my compositional process. This relationship to listening, in combination with the embodied visuality that the gallery allows, expose the processes that I am exploring, and this opening up continues to propel me in my current endeavors.