For the past five years, Portlander Ethan Rose has been modifying antiquated music equipment—including music boxes and player pianos—to create his own dreamily atmospheric instrumentals. As much a product of the artist's musical vision as they are experiments dictated by the laws of chance, Rose's compositions blossom from such theory-steeped musical practices as musique concrète and Brian Eno's pioneering ambient work of the late '70s. The rolling textures on his debut LP, Ceiling Songs, issued by the Chicago-based indie Locust Music in 2006, unfold in such hypnotically slow motion that listening to them is like witnessing a glacier melt in real time. They are so spacious and airy that director Gus Van Sant uses them to score the fluid choreography of teenage skateboarders in his new film Paranoid Park. It's a perfect fit: Full of moody ebbs and flows, Rose's songs conjure a visual context, even when they're unaccompanied by imagery.
It appears Rose is attuned to his work's cinematic thrust, as his first installation is on display this month at Tilt Gallery. Player Piano is a stark presentation: A single player piano, with various panels removed to expose its busy mechanics, is leaned against the gallery's north wall. Ostensibly, a viewer can see the piano's arcane automation at work, as cranks turn, chains bob, and wires quiver. But the sound produced by the treated piano reminds that what one sees is not quite what one gets. Rose has created a minimal loop by altering the player piano scroll so that it only plays a handful of notes. A microphone inside the piano then feeds the acoustic signal through an effects processor, so that the sound of the depressed keys constantly interacts with its own ghostly reverberations. Through a pair of wall-mounted speakers, the minimal score is recast as sibilant echo and sustained, cresting tone. As the microphone picks up its own amplification or even room noise, the composition accrues more layers, slowly gathering volume and intensity.
What makes Rose's Player Piano so captivating is the spectral presence of the artist, which hangs over the piano like some barely perceptible fog. That is, the installation feels like a performance—however conspicuously absent the performer might be. For example, it's unnerving to see a key suddenly pressed without any visible cause. One also feels a certain reverence for the piano, as if a viewer should not crowd around it lest the (non-existent) performer be distracted. As such, the installation straddles the line between recorded music and live performance, in which the treated instrument is as much a composer as the artist himself.