Steve Roden + Mem1: A Floating Wave of Air

A Floating Wave of Air reveals sound artist Steve Roden and electro-acoustic outfit Mem1 (Mark and Laura Cetilia) to be natural collaborators, especially in the way the seventy-six-minute recording seamlessly blends the respective contributions of the those involved. Having operated as a cello-and-electronics duo for many years now, the Cetilias infuse their improv-based performances with the kind of telepathy one might expect from a married couple, and consequently the material they produce presents itself as an indissoluble whole. Certainly her cello sound is so distinct, it can't help but separate itself out from the total sound mass. Having said that, the two purposefully sidestep an approach that would see the cello treated as the solo instrument and electronics the backdrop; instead, the cello is exploited less for its melodic potential than its textural richness.

Roden works comfortably across many platforms and disciplines, among them painting, drawing, film/video, and sound installation, and would thus seem to be a perfect partner for the Cetilias. The three first collaborated in 2007 when he participated in Mem1's Ctrl+Alt+Repeat series, after which the collaborators recorded material a year later at the Bubble House, his painting studio, in Pasadena, California. Five years on from that session, the three recorded again, this time at Studio 205 in the Cetilias' adopted hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. With A Floating Wave of Air sequenced so that the three 2008 settings alternate with the three from 2012, the recording's six-part “The Uncertainties of Movement” makes for an interesting study in comparison and contrast. The surprise, however, is not how dramatically unlike but rather how complementary the material from the two sessions is. Of course there are differences from one piece to the next, yet the six sound as if they could have all originated out of a single session, not two five years apart.

Though Roden (acoustic objects and electronics), Mark (analog modular and electronics), and Laura (cello, voice, and electronics) contribute different instrument sounds, the results, as mentioned before, are heard less as conglomerations of individual bits and more as collective sum-totals produced by micro-organisms. The pieces, which range from seven minutes to twenty-two, are predictably explorative and receptive to the improvisatory impulses of each participant, all of who are clearly comfortable with shaping material as it develops in real time. The insistent “II” receives unexpected thrust from a metronomic bass pulse, alongside of which the three distribute cello plucks, ripples, tears, and various other textural elements, while “VI” emits a controlled howl of plucks, rumbles, smears, and mewlings for fourteen alien minutes. Striking too is the longest piece, “IV,” which begins as a rippling swarm of querulous voices whose supplications are gradually extinguished by a swelling mass of grime and static; humming insistently, the material undergoes constant changes in shape as it advances, with Laura's cello advancing to the forefront at one point as an aquatic gurgle. At various moments on the recording, her soft voice surfaces, its wordless murmur a humanizing presence and effective complement to the other elements.

A natural analogue to the incessant flow of these recordings is the insect colony, where it's the collective activity that dazzles as opposed to the movements of any one creature. As interesting as it would be to see a video document of Roden and Mem1 in action, it's ultimately better that we're deprived of knowing who's doing what at any given moment so that “The Uncertainties of Movement” can be experienced at the level of pure sound.

Textura (2015)