The large façade that houses the roller skating rink at Oaks Park advertises "Healthful exercise, delightful pleasure," a slogan forever cementing the rink as a quaint reminder of what was. Along with the vintage rink itself, the building is home to a Wurlitzer Theater Organ, a piece of music machinery just as comforting as the aforementioned slogan, and equally out of touch. But it was there, amid the hypnotic scrape of plastic wheels upon the shimmering hardwood floor that Ethan Rose took to making his latest record, Oaks.
Before we tread any further, it should be noted that this is not a gimmick. While there might be a hook somewhere in the tale of a long-forgotten organ from the '20s, a seen-better-days amusement park, and a local artist trying to tie them all together, Rose's infatuation with utilizing the fruits of the ancient Wurlitzer is absolutely pure. More an artist than your typical musician, Rose has been building, then demolishing, quiet instrumental soundscapes for quite some time now. His sculpted, gorgeous ambient structures are compiled with a frustrating level of detail—this music is akin to a ship in a bottle; you don't know how it got there, but can appreciate its patient assembly. Rose's finest works are delicate in nature, and barely tip the volume scales above a polite hum.
"I was always interested in songwriting as a craft, but I always wanted to stretch it beyond the confines of a strictly songwriting sensibility," says Rose of his early expansion from performing in a band to embarking on the uncharted waters of minimalist electronics. "I still appreciate songwriting and rock 'n' roll, but for me, I'm not as excited about that realm and those limitations. I can do an art exhibition, I can collaborate with a designer, make an album, and do a performance; at this point I'm just excited about stretching out as far as I can reach."
This reach spawned from dissecting small music boxes, to drawing together the faint balance of organic instrumentation alongside translucent layers of electronics. As for the Wurlitzer on Oaks, the organ's influence is incredibly subtle and masterfully restrained. Rose worked alongside the performer and caretaker of the organ, Keith Fortune, to better understand the intricate construction of the instrument before incorporating it into the recording.
"I was happy to help with repairs. It's constantly falling apart and doing these repairs helped influence where the album went." Rose adds, "I like these instruments because I can understand them better. I work with a computer but it's like a magic box, I have no idea how it works. I love older technologies, I love their tactile sonic nature, and also being able to see how it works."
Although Oaks' release show will be at the rink itself, with Rose manning the organ while patrons skate (or watch from the bleachers), this is hardly rollerskating music. "I hadn't intended it to be this grandiose rollerskating album, but I'm excited that that's what the [CD release] show is going to be." He continues, "When else am I going to perform and have skating? It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing." That said, it's only fitting that the most accurate way to describe the artist behind the layered beauty of Oaks happens to be the same advertising tag line as the Wurlitzer itself: "One-Man Orchestra."