Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Various Artists - lowercase-sound2002

Various Artists - lowercase-sound2002
by Jason Gross

Brian Eno may have coined the term “ambient music,” but only in the last few years has it been taken to its logical conclusion (at least so far). Sound designer Steve Roden labeled his work as “lowercase” to describe music where “there is much going on beneath the quiet exterior.” Through the advent of an online mailing list, this fascinating genre coalesced.

After soliciting contributors with an open call to the mailing list as well as hand-picking several other artists, lowercase 1.0 came together in 2000 as an elaborately packaged, limited edition (500 copies) two-CD set. As Roden explains it:

"I came across the lowercase-sound mailing list a month or so after it was started (March '99) and was very curious about what people were discussing so offered to make a list 'mix-tape' that eventually grew in scope into the lowercase 1.0 release."

This 2002 follow-up was no less intricate: it's also a 2-CD set (with an extra copy included to share with a friend no less) including liner notes printed in reverse on vellum cards for each contributing artist. Roden explained the unique packaging as such:

"I wanted to make it so that the listener had to view the text through the vellum. The 1/2 circles in the sides of the cards allow the listener to arrange them in order with the 1/2 circles going from top to bottom. The missing corner gives some room for the listener to pry the cards and CDs out of the box."

On this compilation, up-and-coming artists (Michael Schumacher, Josh Russell) rubbed shoulders with known entities of ambient and techno such as Reynols, Tetsu Inoue, and Taylor Dupree. Roden chose the artists through a combination of "open call on various lists as well as having some people specifically contacted for contribution—about 2/3 of the artists were hand-picked."

As per Roden's description, much of the music skirted the edge of listening. Even for background listening, it’s barely perceptible at times- unless you're staring at the music counter on your playback system, you might not be able to figure out where the pieces (or album itself) begins or ends. You might also wonder if what you're hearing is the music herein or some quiet detail in the particular room you're in. Headphones might appear to be the perfect solution, but even then, you'd still have to give it your full concentration to absorb the music. You could 'blast' it for yourself but that would defeat the whole intended purpose of the music. As such, it might be one of the most difficult and bizarre listening experiences you'll ever come across.

Still, it's worth the effort as a captivating array of aural collages are to be found here. Everything from bubble wrap to boiling water to bacteria freezing to beach erosion to bird chips to collapsing dams to anthills are employed through enough Powerbooks to fill a computer lab. Such expert, complex processing of natural sounds (wasn't it called “musique concrete” once?) should be the envy of any recycling plant. Odds are though that they wouldn’t be able to come up with a compelling spectrum of sound as you'd find here.

Sad to say, just like the first volume of the series, lowercase-sound2002 is long out-of-print (it was a limited edition of 1000 to begin with). The genre probably reached its apex with a favorable article in The Wire around the time of the second volume's release but since then, the label (Bremsstrahlung) has only had a handful of releases and there was very little accompanying press interest afterwards, which is not surprising given the inherently difficult nature of the music.

But seeking this music out isn't just an exercise in obscure collectorism. It's also a strange journey into the realms of what the limits and capability of our hearing and comprehension are and how hard we're willing to push ourselves to find that through this obscure art-form.

Further exploration:

Lowercase Sound mailing list:
Bremsstrahlung Records:
1st lowercase compilation:
2nd lowercase compilation:
Wired article:
Steve Roden:

Jason Gross founded Perfect Sound Forever, the longest-running online music publication, in 1993 and freelances for the Village Voice, Spin and PopMatters among other places. He currently lives in Gotham where he crochets and makes his own ammo.



Blogger sroden said...

hi jason, while i do take responsibility for first using the term lowercase (to describe my aesthetic, not a kind of music), i just wanted to let you know that some of the quotes you have regarding the release are not my words, but those of joshn russell, who developed both compilations, and also designed the packaging. in terms of the lowercase list, and the releases i was only a humble participant, not in charge in any way. i can't remember if there is a text from me inside the package, but most of the quotes you have here are josh's. regardless thanks for the kind words on the release, it's most likely impossible to find at this point. best, steve

September 18, 2008 at 10:59 AM  

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