These Sonic Installations Provide a Soundtrack to the World

Portland composer Ethan Rose translates the natural world.

By Chad Walsh June 13, 2016 Published in the July 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Elements is a permanent installation in the lobby of Microsoft’s new office in Redmond, Washington.

Ethan Rose started out as a relatively conventional musician/recording artist. He released several albums of stylish, lush ambient compositions, and scored seven films, including Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park. And then he decided he wanted to do something a little more ... concrete.

“In the studio, you’re transforming sounds in imaginary spaces,” the 38-year-old says in his Southeast Portland studio. More and more, he wanted to bring his music to real landscapes. Or, as he puts it, he wanted to “soundtrack the world” by building sound installations.

In 2015, Rose created Elements, a permanent installation in the lobby of Microsoft’s new office in Redmond, Washington—a project that translates the natural world into interior sounds. A weather station on the building’s roof measures temperature, wind, precipitation, and cloud cover. As weather data is gathered, it is immediately transferred via algorithm into ambient sounds, which then whisper through 100 speakers scattered throughout the lobby. Sunshine results in warmer tonalities, clouds lead to a more droning sound, and light rain is represented by mild plinking tones. “And in the rare instance of a downpour,” Rose says, “a significantly louder sonic moment happens.”

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Paper Music for a Blue Room was a multisensory installation created in New York.

“In general, I use the identity of a given space to transform and create sound,” Rose adds. “But I also consider how this can happen inversely, because sound can transform and create a space.” To see the project through, he hired Jesse Mejia and Jason Plumb, whom he describes as “software developers, audio enthusiasts, and creative minds in their own right.” The collaboration worked out so well that the three formed Parallel, a “sonic experience design studio.”

“What I’ve done with my work,” Rose says, “and what we are doing now with Parallel, is utilizing sound’s inherent potential to connect people with each other and with their environment.”

Elements from Parallel on Vimeo.

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