3.13 / The Sound Issue

Profile: Ethan Rose

By Bean Gilsdorf April 16, 2012

Image: Ethan Rose at Oaks Park Roller Rink.

In the stark white space of PDX Contemporary Art in Portland, Oregon, the ten antique alarm bells of Ethan Rose’s installation, Reflection (2011), were installed at intervals on one wall with ten corresponding, round black speakers hung on the wall opposite. As I stood in the middle of the room, I heard a sound from the speakers on my left: a melancholy chime that began quietly and built in intensity. Just as my brain began to identify the tone as the residual sound of a bell played in reverse, the recording reached the precise moment of climax, in which the clapper had struck the bell. Simultaneously, the real bell on the opposite wall of the gallery struck, mirroring in real time the sound I had just heard. The backward-then-forward clap of the bell shot through the space like an arrow from the black speaker to strike the heart of its bell mate directly opposite. Stripped down to essential visual and sonic cues, the installation gave voice to time, distance, and longing.

Though Reflection is a fine example of Rose’s work, his oeuvre in sound and art is built around a wide variety of investigations beyond gallery installation. From recorded albums to live performances, solo work to collaborations, and fine art to film soundtracks, he works with both sonic and visual art within a practice that is elastic, adaptable, and explorative. As evidenced in his diverse projects, Rose is keenly aware of the evocative power of sound used in conjunction with visual stimuli to create an integrated, evocative whole.

Rose grew up taking guitar and piano lessons and was always musically inclined, but a key moment occurred when he was about fifteen years old. He bought a four-track cassette recorder and began to create songs using his record player, a synthesizer, and cheap effects pedals. Rose states that this experience “was really important to me, and still is—the sheer excitement of recording—discovery in the studio.”1 But while this version of his history emphasizes musicality, even his very early professional creations were concerned with the visual. “I would say that generally I consider the visuals through the lens of sound,” he tells me; “If I go after what the sound needs to do, then the visual aspect of the work seems to follow.” One example of such use of visuals combined with sound is his album, Miniature & Sea (2003), a limited-edition CD accompanied by a metal tin with an individually altered music box, acrylic framed title, numbered insert, miniature photocopy collage, piece of optical film, and bubble wrap.


Ethan Rose. Reflection, 2012; mixed media with bells and speakers;  dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and PDX Contemporary Art, Portland, OR.

Ethan Rose. Reflection, 2012 ; mixed media with bells and speakers; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and PDX Contemporary Art, Portland, OR.

As with many artists, Rose’s practice is driven by questions. One that he continues to pursue is how to merge the transformative tools of the studio into a physical presentation. Shifting between the recording studio and performance has been a “wonderfully fertile area of investigation.” Though many of his early performances involved the traditional concert stage, he has expanded his practice into a format of visual arts installation that uses live sound; in the participatory performance, Oaks (2009), the audience was invited to roller skate while Rose performed on a 1926 Wurlitzer theater organ suspended above the center of the Oaks Park Roller Rink in Portland, Oregon. Another live performance, Younger (2009), was realized collaboratively with the musician Laura Gibson and the filmmaker Ryan Jeffery in the window of a Portland art gallery. Rose and Gibson performed improvisationally in reaction to Jeffery’s projections while audiences viewed and heard the performance from the sidewalk and street outside the gallery. Though Rose continues to make traditional audio recordings (he created his latest collaborative album, Bridge Carols, in 2010, with Laura Gibson), he admits, “The studio is seductive in its distance from the world, but it is overly hermetic in [its] denial… Collaboration has been really great for me because it expands my practice into different areas and creates new questions.”


Ethan Rose. Younger, 2009; performance with Laura Gibson and Ryan Jeffery for Time Based Art Festival at PDX Contemporary Art, Portland, OR. Courtesy of the Artist and PDX Contemporary Art.

Such investigations into sound, vision, and collaboration are also exemplified by his practice of creating film scores and soundtracks. He says, “Film is especially challenging because you don't want people to become aware of the music in such a way that it will distract from the narrative, but you also don’t want it to be so invisible that it doesn’t add something unique to the picture.” In addition to his scores for many short films, his most notable work is the score to Gus Van Sant’s 2007 feature, Paranoid Park, and he has also worked with the director Urszula Antoniak on Nothing Personal (2009) and Code Blue (2011). On the process of film scoring, Rose says, “I really enjoy the carefulness... And with each film, it has been a much different process as well… I’m continually working towards new strategies of approach across all of my projects.”

Most recently, Rose’s practice is taking yet a new turn; he has been working on a collaborative project with molo, a design and architecture firm based in Vancouver, BC. The work, a sound component for their Softwall flexible paper walls, will travel first to Italy for Milan Design Week and then to New York City for the International Contemporary Furniture Fair. Though some might see this as a departure from Rose’s previous sound/art work, in some ways it is a logical extension of his work with performance. He says that he’s “interested in ways of undoing the opposition between studio work and installation. There is an exciting position in the betweenness that this manifests. Between the studio and the world. Between art and music. Between looking and listening. Between composing and performance. Between thought and feeling. Most of what interests me right now is between categories.”

1. All quotes from Ethan Rose are from an email exchange with the author conducted on April 1, 2012.

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