Value judgments are destructive to our proper business, which is curiosity and awareness.
~ John Cage
Every something is an echo of nothing.
~ John Cage
Ben Owen, the Brooklyn-based animus behind some of the most striking visual and musical work coming out of the worlds of microsound and letterpress art, comes to mind here. Owen’s clearly makes discerning choices in his sound assemblages, but curiosity and awareness seem to guide his explorations as much as anything. On birds + water 1, released on the Notice Recordings imprint, the listener is invited to attune their curiosity and awareness as finely as possible, in order to hear in the illusory stasis and quietude of this cassette release’s two sides, the fluent life within.
The context for birds + water 1 was a residency Owen had at the Experimental Television Center in Owego, N.Y., in 2010. The ETC enjoyed a 40 year history of supporting media artists, long before, let’s note, mixed media works were de riguer. From early experiments by Cage biographer Richard Kostelanetz, to Nam June Paik, to Keith Rowe collaborator Kjell Bjorgeengen, to Ben Owen, the ETC provided a stream and a lineage for works like birds + water 1. Owen’s residency came just before ETC ended its multi-generational run, and with that in mind, this work serves as a lovely coda. [Note that birds + water 2 & 3 are available on the Russian sound art imprint obs].
We are, of course, a bit hobbled by hearing the audio separated from the visual; both sides are unedited, I believe, in duration and content. Each offer the pleasures, as I suggested, of attuning our ears to what seems at first blush to be generally steady-state frequency waves, but as our attunement continues, reveal a teeming world of detail and echoes of something. This is brought home dramatically when the B side piece ends just like that, and your listening environment rushes into the sudden vacuum.
Having heard a number of works by Owen, and having spent hours looking at the letterpress work he creates through Middle Press, I sense he is a kindred spirit of Akio Suzuki, another musician who communicates a deep respect for his materials, his environment, and his listeners. Owen’s visual works are alert to issues of sustainability, for example, using soy ink in his letterpress designs, and he appears ever-mindful of the super-saturated world of sound and vision we are all caught up in. This awareness manifests in these sound works, seeming to aspire to the zen edict leave no trace.
photo: The Experimental Television Center, Owego, N.Y.