Sculptor of Sound

By Pattie Pace
The story of Ethan Rose BA ’00

In a stark white room, the exposed mechanisms of more than 100 music boxes grace the walls and seem to sparkle with sound. Visitors move slowly along the room’s perimeter, mesmerized by the unique sounds of miniature tines on metal.

The installation, titled Movements, is the work of Ethan Rose BA ’00, a Portland-based sound artist. It was one of the highlights of last fall’s Time-Based Art Festival, an event hosted by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art that features notable and emerging artists in the international art scene.

“In a lot of ways, Movements reflects the way I look at the world,” says Rose. “The qualities of chance and structure mingle in our interactions with one another. People can appreciate the history of sound while experiencing it in a new way.”

Over the past decade, Rose has released recordings, created sound installations, scored films, and performed internationally. He has worked with a number of artists, including filmmaker Gus Van Sant. Influenced by musical minimalist Steve Reich and his seminal work Music Ethan Rose BA ’00 Sculptor of Sound for 18 Musicians, and by experimental composer John Cage, Rose has focused his recent work on the physicality of pulling new sounds from antiquated instruments.

Two such instruments are the glass harp and glass armonica, which use a series of glass goblets, water, and friction to create a sound evoking a “singing” wine glass. “Both instruments were invented by Benjamin Franklin and were used by Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky,” says Rose. “They had a strong but fleeting presence— they quickly fell from favor and disappeared.”

With a commission in hand from Portland’s Museum of Contemporary Craft, Rose teamed up with Portland glass artist Andy Paiko to showcase the instruments in a kinetic-sound installation titled Transference. The installation combined the otherworldly sound qualities of both instruments along with the visual and physical sensations of dozens of spinning glass bowls, wired to rotate in a random sequence.

“We conceived the project over two years and installed it within four months,” says Rose. “The result was magical and ethereal … aurally and visually stimulating. People discovered not only the glass-induced tones, but also the ‘found’ sounds in the mechanics and ambient noise in the museum.”

Rose’s next venture will involve working with a choir and composing for voice. He’ll be an artist in residence at Washington State University at Vancouver, working in the digital technology and culture program.

He also plans to present a workshop at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, translating ideas from working with antiquated instruments into ideas for voice.

“These opportunities will mark the first time I’ve worked with vocalists,” he says. “I’ll definitely be guiding them, but I’m intrigued by what inspires them and what we’ll come up with together.”

—by Pattie Pace