Officially, lowercase is a decade old. That is, lowercase as a popular genre marker identifying a certain brand of minimalism is a decade old. The project of lowercase is to take barely audible or sometimes inaudible sounds — a computer powering down, the hiss of a blank tape — and amplify, loop, and otherwise manipulate them to create music. 2002’s lowercase-sound2002 was the genre’s official coming out party; it collected tracks from the stars of the burgeoning scene (Taylor Deupree, Stephan Mathieu, Toshimaru Nakamura) and acted as a primer for those interested. And there were an increasing number of interested people, due in part to an article from Wired Magazine called “Whisper the Songs of Silence” that appeared the same year.
According to Steve Roden, however, the issue is much more complicated than this. Roden, who coined the term and popularized the form, has been using the term “lowercase” as a way to describe his art since the mid-80s. In 1997 he described his work this way to The Wire’s Rob Young. By 2001, the term had entered into use among a group of intensely devoted musicians and fans on an online discussion forum called “lowercase-sound.” It had been, for some 15 years, a descriptive term used to communicate an aesthetic element in his own art, an indicator of his vision for what his art could do. And then it transformed into a set of rules that were being defined and redefined by a group of loosely related international artists.
Roden’s 2001 album Forms of Paper became, for many, the exemplary lowercase record. And it does seem to fulfill Roden’s own definition as well: “Lowercase resembles what Rilke called ‘inconsiderable things’ — the things that one would not ordinarily pay attention to, the details, the subtleties.” Forms of Paper was commissioned by the Los Angeles Public Library system as an installation in its Hollywood branch. Roden used contact mics to record himself manipulating paper in various ways, then effected these recordings and played them through a series of speakers so that they would subtly infiltrate the surrounding space.
Unfortunately, as he explains in the press release for last year’s re-release of the record, Roden was unable to listen to the mastered version of the recording before it was sent to the CD manufacturers. The original sound installation had to be made much louder in order to be played on a conventional CD, which made certain sounds audible that Roden himself could not hear in his own mixes. Forms of Paper, then, really is the exemplary lowercase record, not by virtue of its dedication to a set of generic conventions, but because its dissemination was wrested from Roden’s control just as the term “lowercase” itself was, and then made to mean something quite different. That the record still means so much for its listeners more than ten years after its release attests to the importance of Roden’s work. And he eventually came around as well — the liner notes to the re-release end with his confession that “remarkably — with all of the distance between us — this piece of mine and me, seemed to feel as if we might finally be able to get along.”