Steve Roden, Artist Who Found Innovative Ways of Seeing Sound, Dies at 59

Steve Roden, an artist whose performances, films, paintings, and sculptures found innovative ways of turning sound visual, died on September 6 at 59. His passing was announced by his family via his Instagram on Thursday.

Roden had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2017. The announcement stated that he died at his home in Los Angeles with his wife Sari at his side.

Across a diverse grouping of works in many mediums, Roden sought to explore sound not just as something that could be heard but as something that could be seen, too. Taking his cues from mid-20th-century avant-gardists like John Cage, he often enlisted eccentric sets of rules to determine how his art would manifest, both visually and aurally.

Cage’s famed 4’33”, his 1952 piece in which a musician creates no sounds at all for the title’s set length, even directly informed multiple bodies of work by Roden, who once confessed to having privately performed Cage’s score every day for a full year. Roden’s “system paintings,” bursts of color that were done via predetermined instructions, also had their basis in 4’33”.

“The scores, rigid in terms of their structure, are also full of holes—allowing for intuitive actions, mistakes and potential left turns,” Roden wrote in his artist statement. “Other than its relationship to an inspirational source, I seldom know how an artwork will speak until it is finished.”

The paintings, which Roden began producing during the late 1990s, started out small and grew gradually larger. They would grow gradually more complex, too, with one series done based on the symbols in Walter Benjamin’s notebooks, whose text Roden could not read because he did not speak German.

“Benjamin was very visual in his notetaking, especially how he crossed things out as well as the ways he connected thoughts,” Roden told Artforum. “I noticed that he didn’t scratch things out with any consistency, and from that I found thirty-seven different ways that he would cross out mistakes. I classified each of the forms and created a lexicon of all the ways Benjamin silenced his mistakes.”

Others also involved the translation of visual and sonic ideas across time and space. One filmic project paid homage to the “phonautograph” device of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, who recorded a French folk song by scratching its sounds into paper layered with soot. Roden turned Scott’s music for his own cameraless film, whose 16mm stock Roden incised to reflect the notes.

Even the Roden works that looked more like traditional sound art had experimental qualities. Los Angeles Times critic Carolina A. Miranda once described a 2014 piece that involved rumbling and recordings of children’s glockenspiels. She said it was “one of the most intense listening experiences I’ve ever had.”

Steve Roden was born in Pasadena, California, in 1964. He never played an instrument while he was younger, or even expressed much interest in music. Instead, his musical inclination started in high school, when he joined a punk band and became what he called a “screamer.”

He went on to receive a BA from Otis/Parsons in Los Angeles and an MFA from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and would remain based in LA for the course of his career.

Roden’s unusual forms of art-making sometimes led him down unexpected directions. He once conducted research on seashells that were formerly owned by the dancer Martha Graham, and he scoured his grandmother’s studio for her collection of stones, which he used in his art.

His art was predicated upon a conception of listening that was so expansive, it even included the other senses.

One of his early sound works was Bird Forms, which he presented in the courtyard of Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum. The piece consisted of recordings from the 1930s of birdsongs, which Roden then manipulated via analog technologies such as guitar peddles. His favorite listeners were not the humans who encountered it.

“The best responses were that the birds that inhabited the trees would sing along with my recordings,” he said. “They were my best audience!”