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 Review archive:  # a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

Steve Roden - Gradual Small Fires (And A Bowl Of Resonant Milk) [ 901 Editions - 2021]

Here’s an exhaustive package from 901 Editions: a CD in a cardboard wallet, accompanied by a 60-page colour printed book, all containing materials from Steve Roden’s Gradual Small Fires (And A Bowl Of Resonant Milk) project, commissioned by the University of Hong Kong’s New Media School and first presented in 2012. The installation originally consisted of plexiglass sculpted forms and accompanying sound pieces, but here we merely have the audio tracks; the book prints an associated series of drawings, as well as texts from Daniela Cascella, Michael Ned Holte, and Steve Roden, all reflecting on and providing context for the material.

The audio pieces are very accomplished, very nice - as you would expect from a respected figure like Roden. The tracks, titled Small Fire 1 through 5, and Milk, are deceptively simple, placing modest sounds alongside each other but in the process creating compelling soundscapes. Small Fire 1 is dominated by a processed guitar with a very tight delay sound, the kind of effect I normally avoid and disdain but here Roden’s adherence to it generates a tonal quality that is interesting; the guitar is accompanied - as are all the ‘fire’ pieces - by the sounds of a fire, here crackling and spitting: an enthralling combination. Small Fire 2 begins with more fire sounds, but here they are more mid-frequency, more ‘chewy’, at times somehow reminding me of a clockwork mechanism; in and out of these sounds a wavering, tentative drone stealthily flits, giving the whole track a quiet, subdued majesty. The third Small Fire has a reverberating electronic drone that snakes around the piece, whilst the fire sounds acquire a strange percussive quality that actually brings to mind an organic shifting Burial - those staccato, clipped sounds and rhythms. Small Fire 4 has glinting guitar noises and odd phasing pops - presumably originally fire recordings; these pops are also delayed at times, creating the effect of distant percussion or industry. The fifth and final Small Fire is perhaps the most sparse of the sequence, featuring clicks and chirrups which might be processed fire sounds, alongside discrete cymbal/bell tones, and infrequent intrusions from something that sounds like a modulated, slowed photocopier but I’m sure it’s something quite different; this all hangs together to create the most relaxed, and longest, track on the album. The final work proper is Milk, which sounds different but still coherent with the ‘fire’ pieces; the track is dominated by a thumb piano - possibly reverberated by a resonant bowl of milk? - whilst small percussive sounds grate or swirl around the stereo field; a decisive end to the album,

Gradual Small Fires (And A Bowl Of Resonant Milk) is a lovely set of tracks, equal parts austere and warm, and always engaging. The book is a welcome accompaniment, with the texts adding extra significance to the sounds and insight into their production - though I’ll confess the drawings did little for me… The texts often suggest that the audio pieces are there to colour an environment subtly, but I have enjoyed them as close listening - and indeed divorced from their physical and spatial installation the sounds can only acquire different resonances and interpretations anyway. An inventive, compelling, and charming release.

Rating: 4 out of 5Rating: 4 out of 5Rating: 4 out of 5Rating: 4 out of 5Rating: 4 out of 5

Martin P
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