The sun was shining on January 20th in Portland. I had agreed to meet Ethan Rose, composer responsible for the new Oaks, CD, but I couldn’t get my mind off of Obama. An hour later, all I could think about was roller skating.
Rose and I met at a local coffee shop and spent a fascinating morning discussing his music and musical ideas. See, Rose isn’t about the listeners just plunking in his CD and zoning out. Rose wants you to go to a gallery and see music boxes. Rose wants you to roller skate.
Please enjoy this interview as Ethan Rose and I discuss amusement parks, Gus Van Sant and our new president.
Thanks for joining me. It’s a pretty big day , isn’t it?
Yeah, it is. I was pretty excited to watch that all happen. What can you say? It was a pretty historic moment, I guess.
It was interesting because it made me almost feel proud of our country again. I haven’t had that feeling in a really long time.
It is kind of funny. I’ve never had much of a nationalist outlook but, yeah, seeing that definitely puts you in a place where you maybe feel okay about being American for a minute.
And Aretha Franklin was there too!
Yeah, that was actually pretty touching. I didn’t even realize she was still alive. Just to see her perform was incredible.
Before we get into specifics about your new album, do you feel this new direction for our country is going to influence you as a musician at all?
I don’t know. It’s a sunny day out. I’m sort of a hopeful person anyway but I have problem with political idealism because I always get really disappointed really quickly. I’d be happy if it could inspire me to do things; I’m hoping we can build this thing and take it somewhere that is recognizable and represents the change and hope he is putting out there. But, I don’t think it will have any specific influence on what I’m doing but I feel like everything that happens around me influences what I do or create, so I’m sure it could. I don’t know, maybe the last eight years of Bush was inspiring in some ways. Who knows?
I don’t know if inspiring is the right term.
Right, but inspired some sort of reaction.
Are you a native Portlander?
No, I moved here in ’96. I lived in a year in San Diego, but I’ve been here for about 10 or 11 years.
From Chicago. North of Chicago.
Let’s talk about the Oaks amusement park. Can you give us a little historical background?
It’s about 100 years old. I think the rink, which is where the organ is, was built in 1904. I was actually just talking about it yesterday with the organist that plays there and he was telling that Oaks is really one of the first destination points that had any family-friendliness to it at all in Portland. Before that it was pretty much whorehouses, gambling and bars and famous for being that way. But, Oaks opened up as the first, alternative thing to do that wasn’t degrading in some way. It’s been serving the community that way for some time and obviously it’s aged over the years and changed. It’s a bizarre and interesting place. It’s definitely rich in history.
Have you ever gone there just for fun?
I first went to the roller rink for a friend’s birthday party, which was just for fun. It was kind of on a lark, he wanted to have some people go out and roller-skate for his birthday. We went there and that was the first time I saw the organ and the rink. I’d been to the amusement park other times. I think after living in Portland for a long enough time, most people end up going there at some point just because it’s bizarre and different and there’s only so many things to do in this city in terms of destinations. So, I think it eventually ends up on the list.
I did the Oaks Bottom Trail a few weeks ago and I walked by it. It reminded me a little of Carnival of Souls. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that old movie.
It’s this run-down, decrepit amusement park that has this eerie, has-been, lived-in feel to it.
Totally, yeah, it does. It is definitely old and has an air of creepiness to it. It’s kind of a strange place.
So the organ inside the rink is from 1926 and your new album Oaks was composed on the organ?
Yeah, I used all sounds from the organ. The basic process was I would go in there and play it and improvise and explore all the different sounds it could make. I then recorded all the sounds and then went back and edited them using a computer. I reformatted the sounds, reorganized things and created pieces out of that material.
That sounds like the antithesis of Girl Talk.
It’s funny. It was certainly a surprise to the organist, I think. When I was first going in, he thought I was recording organ music and when I gave him the finished album he said, “I couldn’t hear where the organ was in there. Well, I could, but it’s so buried.” I think it’s in there, its presence is there but it’s definitely been taken to a different place.
Was getting to use the organ a big feat or is it pretty accessible?
It took a little while. I called the rink and they put me in touch with Keith Fortune, who is the organist there and has been for 15 years. He was pretty supportive from the beginning. Once I talked to him and told him what I wanted to do, he was interested in helping me and just excited to have somebody else who was excited about the organ. He plays it all the time and I’m sure people are interested in it in an immediate way, but not any lasting interest. But, I think to have someone approach him about doing a project with it is pretty rare. It’s surprising. To me, I would think a lot of people would want to play it.
Do you have any kind of organ training?
No. I play the piano a little bit and keyboards. I’m no technical performer on that instrument. That’s not what I’ve been interested in pursuing. I approach that they way I approach anything: intuitively play with it and see what comes out and with that, there is so much that can come out that it’s pretty fun. It’s got so many different sounds in it.
How much face time did you have with the organ to make the album?
I would go in and do recordings and I would go in and help do repairs and play it some. I would say with the initial recordings I spent only a week or so of actual time with it. Then, a lot more time editing. This is often the case with how I work. I’ll do some recording and then the bulk of the work is in the editing.
Let’s talk about your background as a musician. Do you have any traditional training?
I took piano and guitar lessons when I was a kid. I didn’t really stick with them for a long time. I kind of played what I wanted to play. But, I just continued to record and got into recording as I grew up and got a four-track and started approaching it from a studio perspective. I did go to Lewis and Clark College for music and studied composition there. But I was kind of under the wing of a professor who really let me pursue my interests. I learned a lot from him. One of the reasons I went there is because, at that time, they had a groundbreaking electronic studio. At least for a liberal arts college, it was a pretty good sized studio.
What were you listening to then?
At that point I was listening to a lot of Reflex and Warp. I was really into Aphex Twin and Squarepusher and the edge of dance/techno where they pushed it to its extreme. So, I was listening to a lot of stuff and working in that sort of style. But my interests in music, then and now, are kinds of spread out. I listen to all kinds of stuff.
I have some interesting memories of Aphex Twin.
He definitely explores some darkness. He is an interesting persona to me because he’s really a prankster and not fit to be as famous as he is. He got really famous and he thought it was strange. His videos poke a lot of fun at that.
Back to your music, so at that time you were listening to this sort of stuff and you had a groundbreaking electronic studio at your disposal.
For me, it was and for that time. Now, most of the stuff that was available in that studio is available for lot less money. At that time, you couldn’t really get your hands on a lot of that gear.
You work from home now?
Now, I do, yeah. I have a studio in my house.
I don’t know how you work. Is there a lot of experimentation or do you have a set vision of what is going to come out?
I really think of my stuff as an intuitive process. I’ll start somewhere and even if I have some intention, that will dissolve and I will end up somewhere else. Because it interests me, I will use a single sound source or focus on in on an idea in the beginning and then branch from there. Oaks is really a product of that: me being interested in this theatre organ and then applying ideas and musical concepts to it and seeing how much I can develop it. And then just letting it happen.
You also seem interested in taking music from beyond the aural medium and into art installation as well.
Yeah. I think, at this point, I’m interested in stretching my own boundaries, musically, and also in terms of the medium. Alternative forms of presentation. The gallery stuff is exciting for me for a number of reasons. One, it’s a lot different experience to go to a place and experience music.
Can you describe that for readers who are not familiar with your gallery work?
For the most recent one, I went up to Seattle and I did an installation of 125 music boxes. They were all on little DC motors and we attached them directly to the walls of the gallery. So what happens is the walls become the resonating body, just like the guitar resonates when you play the strings. The actual wall surfaces resonated and carried the sound of these music boxes around the room. I had them all them all on different timer switches and I pulled most of the tines off the music boxes. I think originally they played “Memories” from Cats. But I just pulled most of the tines off so all that remained was just a few sparse notes on each music box. Then when they’re all randomly interacting you have this big reduction that happens of melody and then it becomes additive because they are all playing together. It was really exciting for me to be able to put that work into a visual context for people because those ideas exist in my music. I had done a piece that was completely based off of music boxes. It’s a lot different to put in a CD and listen it then it is to walk in and see 125 music boxes, listen to them in an actual space and have a much more direct interaction with my work. I have all these ideas in the studio and it’s exciting for me to be able bring those out and share them with other people in a way that’s more direct than to have them just listen to the CD.
Right, but a CD also has a beginning and an ending, whereas it sounds like in this installation you walk in and you’re immersed in it. It’s never replicated the same way.
That’s another idea I think is really interesting. I’ve been interested in phasing and evolving composition. That whole reason is just on top of what I was talking about. I love being able to bring my work directly to people through a gallery setting but I also love that in the gallery it’s an immersive environment, it’s a new way for people to experience sound, it’s a destination you go and visit. I think there are all these interesting factors that surround having a sound piece in a gallery. It’s exciting. It’s fun for me because it’s something different. I am always wanting to do new and different things. It’s a new way to explore ideas.
Is there any demarcation between gimmick and real art in this situation?
Gimmick and real art? I don’t know. I guess I’m not totally sure what you mean by that.
The difference is profundity. Like when there is a serious artist doing something versus when something is done for the shock value or the novelty.
It’s interesting to gauge people’s reactions. For me, it’s profound and that’s what matters. For me, it’s an extension of ideas that I have been exploring that are sort of personal. I recognize I’m not making some breakthroughs, but I am for myself and that is what gets me excited and interested in what I am doing. So, I guess the only way to answer that is: if for the artist it’s profound or an important exploration then I think it becomes totally subjective after that point. It’s up to how everyone else interprets it. It’s funny because will people will bring a lot of their own ideas and their own thoughts about my work and it’s fun to hear people’s reactions. Some people are like, “This is creepy” and other people are like, “This is really beautiful.” Somebody might be like, “Whatever, I can do this,” and another person will be totally blown away by it. It’s so subjective. I guess I can only speak from my perspective on it.
So, from your perspective, how did you feel when you walked in and heard all these 100 plus music boxes?
I felt great. It was really beautiful. I didn’t’ exactly walk in because I did the installation but after I put in the last screw and turned it all on. I was really excited. Part of what I like about the process of experimenting with music in ways that I haven’t is I get all these great surprises. I didn’t exactly know how it was going to sound. I had some ideas about what it would be, but because I leave a lot of my work up to chance, up to these random interactions of things, I didn’t have a total pre-described idea of it. For me, almost in a way, I get to plug it in and experience this thing that is totally new and fresh. I had a hand in it, but I wasn’t writing every note and drawing in every little rest. I let it happen as it happened. It’s exciting and surprising. I sat in the gallery with the owner and my girlfriend for a half hour and just listened to it go. It was great.
Is there a sadness in terms that it’s ephemeral and you don’t have a CD to relive the experience 20 years from now?
Well, I did make a recording, but the recording is really funny to listen to because it does not represent at all what it’s like to be there. It was such a spatial song. The sound would burst from in front of you, behind you, to your left. It was cycling, moving all around you. The recording is just in stereo. I actually did set up mics for quadraphonic but nobody has a quadraphonic set-up. It’s so different to actually be there than it is to record it. It does really have this ephemeral quality to it. I think that’s kind of great. To me, that’s the interesting thing about installation work. It’s more like a performance. It’s in between performance and recording in some weird way or maybe its own thing where you don’t have a recording you can replay. It’s a onetime experience and that makes it special.
Are you familiar with Zaireeka by the Flaming Lips?
Have you ever done it?
I actually never have done that. But I’ve heard of it.
It’s an interesting way to capture something on CD because it’s never the same experience. Since each CD players plays at a different speed, it’s different. It’s kind of the same concept. I did it for the first time last summer and I thought it was great. It’s interactive. You have to four people to make it work. That kind of thing can be gimmicky, but it also pushes the boundaries of music, makes it more active.
It just an exploration of how to change things, how to listen to things, how to create new experiences in listening and while one person may look at that like a gimmick, to me that’s exciting and interesting.
You’re right. It’s all about perspective. Everyone brings subtext into whatever they’re doing. But, let’s talk about your performance next week at the roller rink. What’s going on with that?
Well, the organ is at the rink, so I’m going to be using that organ. I’m also going to be using manipulated sounds of the organ through electronics, mixing the two together. So it’s going to be live and processed organ mixed. We’re going to have people roller skating, at least everyone who comes will have the option to roller skate, depending on how willing and ready they are to do that. I am hoping people will skate and I’m sure some people will. Again, that is exciting to me because when else am I going to have the opportunity to roller skate to my music? It’s such a strange and unique opportunity. I sort of battled a little about it, whether or not I wanted to have people skating. I could do much more dramatic and interesting things with the lighting if people aren’t skating and it could have been have been much more of a still space. More transformative. No longer a rink but more focused on the organ. But that just didn’t sound as fun. I can do those types of performances plenty of times in other places but when am I going to have a huge instrument hanging from the center of a roller rink? I felt that it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Well, it will change the perspective of roller skating. I think of bright lights and gaudy ’80s music. Now I’m thinking more of a cinematic, snow-globe type silence. I assume you will be playing music off the album.
Yes, essentially the album, essentially the songs. That’s exactly it. I think, as far as you were talking about it before, it’s a participatory thing as opposed to music I make usually which is sit and listen. This gives you the opportunity to move to my music, which is never going to inspire people to dance, unless you’re on a lot of drugs or getting that free. This will allow people to be in motion and I’m kind of curious to watch and see how fast people move. I’m imaging it all in slow motion. I’m curious if people will…
Yeah, if they’ll indulge more in that and be more graceful or how they will react when they’re listening.
My interpretation of the music is that it’s a little austere. It’s very spare. I just don’t see a lot a lot of people crashing into each other and laughing. I just see a slow glide around the rink.
Absolutely. I guess I’m kind of curious to see how that will all unfold.
Did composing music for the film Paranoid Park change the way you work?
Just to clarify, Paranoid Park just licensed some music from me. So, I didn’t actually compose anything specifically for the movie.
Did you get to meet Gus Van Sant?
Yeah, I met Gus. He showed me some clips. It was more like, “Hey, I want to meet you and have lunch with you and talk about what you’re doing and show what I’m doing.” It was more like checking in.
That must have been flattering.
Yeah, it was a very humbling experience. I’m a big fan. But, I previously did collaborative work with other filmmakers. I’ve always been interested in audio/visual combinations in general. But, it’s funny because I never thought about scoring films per se or at least feature films. It just kind of unfolded that way with that film. I think the music that make seems to work with films in a lot of ways. I’m actually working on my first, original feature score now for this movie called Nothing Personal. This Dutch filmmaker got in touch with me and I’m just in the process of beginning to work on the film with her. I really like collaborative stuff too, so I think working with filmmakers and other musicians. For example, I’m just finishing up an album with Laura Gibson right now who is a really great singer-songwriter. I like to have a lot of different things happening, working with different people and working in different arenas with a gallery or a venue or an album. All this stuff keeps me excited and interested and I like the diversity of the projects I’m involved in.
As you get older, do you see all of this as part of your life?
Yeah. In some ways, I hope it will continue to be a part of my life as I continue to grow older. I am excited to see in what ways it will manifest, what ways it will change. I have a lot of ideas that are half-formed that I’m excited to watch come to fruition and I’m excited to have new ideas half-form. I think it will be something that I will be in involved in for awhile.