Lowercase: The Music Genre That Should Be a Typeface But is Made Out of Paper

In the early 90s, Steve Roden accidentally created a new genre.

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26 September 2014, 9:00am

Music, usually, bombards the listener with sound. Whether it’s three consecutive trap drops, eighty-five layers of guitar noodling, or someone’s voice drowned in a bathtub of reverb, it can sometimes be exhausting trying to sift through the sound. Lowercase, which is genuinely the name given to a real music genre, attempts to combat the overload of noise; focusing on the small details in life rather than huge crashing sounds.

Lowercase music is a mix of ambient, field recording samples of the sounds we overlook in life, and sometimes pure silence. The variety of directions has enabled it to avoid any sort of mainstream success or narrow categorisation. The music varies, from Steve Roden’s Forms of Paper which is made from recordings of him handling paper turning, to Toshimaru Nakamura’s “Nimb #20” which is the sound of a mixing board feeding back on itself, which becomes a soothing hum growing more silent as the track goes on.

Minimalist artist Steve Roden inadvertently started the mini genre in a magazine interview with Wire. Roden describes his album Forms of Paper, as lowercase as a way of avoiding being flashy. The genre peaked with forums being created, people creating more and more lowercase music, and the artist Josh Russell releasing the Lowercase compilation.

I called up Steve Roden to chat about accidentally founding a genre and why we should always appreciate silence more than sound.

Noisey: Why did you want to make music that, mostly, is pretty silent?
Steve: It was never about composition as much as about the experience of listening, and to make "music", or whatever you want to call it. I wanted to offer a different listening experience. Not in a radical way, but stepping away from what was going on in popular culture.

What did you want to step away from?
I like a lot of popular music and I still listen to a lot of loud music. But the mid 1980's - when I began my art career - it was a time of excess and money, everyone making big paintings, the bigger the canvas the more it can sell for (which is still true). I wanted to step away from things; like when you go to the hardware store and hear the music blasting out of forty speakers and there’s no quiet, anywhere. People tend to be uncomfortable with quiet in public spaces. Like when I go to the supermarket or the hardware store, I always talk to the cash register people and ask them if they like the music or if it drives them crazy.

How do you think people take the music overload?
I get a sense that people shut it off in their head; it just helps them to pass time. That was Brian Eno's idea with the Music for Airports album and the start of ambient music, to change the idea of music. I’m interested in how sound can create an atmosphere in a similar way in terms of ideas, not in terms of sound palettes.

When did you start making music that you would define as lowercase?
I put out my first CD Forms of Paper in 2001, and by then my aesthetic was starting to form. Bear in mind the term lowercase in regards to my work was not initially used to describe my music or any kind of music. I was interviewed by Wire magazine and I mentioned that my work was more conducive to a lowercase aesthetic. We were talking about how - in the art world - everything was big and loud. There was a lot of aggressive commercial music and advertisements on the radio; it seemed like a grand moment of spectacle. I felt that I needed to find a place for something that didn't bark at you. It was the appositive of punk, but it followed my experience with punk, which was trying to be something outside the centre of your culture. At the time, musically, nothing was quiet. It was a statement; the music had a different purpose.

How do you go about creating sounds?
A big part of what I do, especially live, is work with field recordings. With my phone I can take recordings everywhere; if I’m walking in a city I don't know, I usually end up taking a lot of locational recordings.

How did the Forms of Paper album come about?
Steve: Forms of Paper came out of a commission to create work for a local public library. I have no idea how anyone would think that a sound piece would be a good thing in a library, but I suppose at the time it seemed like a really interesting situation, where I would be able to make something very discreet in one of the quietest public situations ever. It was a wonderful experience to set the levels on the piece; it was eight tiny speakers on a table and the sounds of my hands handling the pages of a book.

What did that involve?
I would turn it on and walk all over the library to find spots where it was resonating a bit too loud. Truthfully, it was softer than the air conditioner or the buzzing lights. The most wonderful response was that one day I arrived to make sure the piece was still working, I kept hearing cricket sounds, and I realized that someone had put a toy cricket on the shelf to accompany my piece. It was a joke idea, but it sounded really wonderful. The CD was a re-worked version for listening at home (minus the cricket).

What did you think when lowercase became its own genre?
I was obviously surprised. I mean, I used the term lowercase to describe my own aesthetic, trying to pay attention to subtle things, the things most people wouldn't notice or care about. I never expected it to be seen as an aesthetic or a movement or a genre but once the lowercase chat rooms started there was some interesting conversations about quiet music and sound. It was a really random group of people, some musicians, composers and electronic musicians. There was no true aesthetic, but everyone who participated was interested in quiet sound. Certainly there was no barometer for defining lowercase and it wasn't as if everyone made quiet music.

You put out a compilation too, right?
It was more of a conversation until Josh Russell put out that first double disc set called Lowercase Music. At that point, what I had said, it was not my own term anymore. It had been co-opted by a group of people interested in making music via a very small group of folks who shared an interest. In fact, if you listen to those compilations Josh put out, the music is quite varied. It's not like they told people to make sure the volume was low.

What did you learn from accidentally starting your own music scene?
I’m not sure how to answer that. Like every scene, there's wonderful moments of activity and fire and everyone is amped up. You just hope some good work comes out it. I think that happened. I mean, it's been nearly fifteen years since I called myself lowercase and a lot of the folks who were part of those compilations are still making work and it’s always evolving. I think, more than anything, it was a path toward something that was different for everyone who participated. There was a shared aesthetic that we still pull from.

Thanks Steve!

Follow Dan on Twitter: @KeenDang