The Scene: Music or Noise?

For most people, a sheet of paper is not a musical instrument, much less the sole instrument used in the creation of an entire full-length album, but Steve Roden is not most people. Instead, he is a minimalist sound and visual artist who was commissioned in 2001 by the Los Angeles Public Library to create a project on “art in the library.” The result was an utterly unique and incredibly strange piece of sound art called “Forms of Paper.” At almost an hour in length, it consists of nothing but Roden manipulating a sheet of paper in various ways. These sounds were then greatly slowed down and amplified with a computer, creating a bleak, desolate and alien soundscape. It grinds, breaks and crackles. It laughs. It sounds menacing and odd, like the soundtrack to a horror film or perhaps what you would hear after being abducted by extraterrestrials, but it is all just paper. 

“Forms of Paper” is the first entry in a movement called “lowercase.” One hesitates to call it a musical genre, for it bears nothing in common with music as we understand it. It has no rhythm, no beat, no melody, no instruments and no songwriters. The only ingredients are field recordings of mundane things; paper, water, ice, wind, tea kettles and so on, which are then slowed down, looped, chopped and amplified electronically. It is, above all, extremely quiet. Far removed from the image of electronic music as the domain of earth-shaking beats and rabid, ecstasy-addled clubgoers, “lowercase” finds its beauty in some of the smallest and quietest of all things; the noises that we hear everyday but seldom appreciate. The result is a whole new world of sound: one that we cannot hear in normal life, and one that questions the very basics of our definition of music.

Minimalism in music was pioneered in part by the American composer John Cage. Among his most famous and controversial compositions was a three-movement piece entitled “4’33” in which all of the performers onstage sit in perfect silence for the entire four minutes and 33 seconds. Cage considered his work to be a form of Zen Buddhism; the “music” was created by the sound in the room; people breathing, air conditioning, cars passing by outside. It was, thus, completely different each time it was performed. The art came from the moment itself. In doing so, he challenged the definition of music as we know it. Does music require melody? Does it require steady time? Or is it something more — a guided experience, a form of meditation, an illumination of forms unseen and undreamt of?

“lowercase” stands firmly in the latter category. As Josh Rosen, a scientist and “lowercase” artist, explains, “It changes your perception … You become aware that the sounds themselves are beautiful.” “lowercase,” while certainly a challenging listen, can indeed be very rewarding. It acts as the musical equivalent of a microscope: drawing the eye to the incredible complexity and beauty hidden in things that are so familiar to us that we have dismissed them entirely. 

Ben McKone, a Contributing Writer for the Voice, can be reached for comment at