Perspectives (4): Olivia Block

Olivia Block and I began a conversation by phone on May 8th, and then continued by email with the more standard questions I’ve been asking. I think it would be a mistake to just share only the more formal interview, because there’s a lot that’s revealed in this first conversation, both about her piece, Dissolution, and about some of her most consistent artistic concerns. It wasn’t originally intended to be included here, so there’s no formal starting point, but I’ll just drop you in and I’m sure you can find your way.


OB: It’s this idea of impermanence,  that things are so fleeting. I have all of this stuff. I live in a house, and a house is supposed to be very solid. Everything feels so porous and flimsy. It’s changed my perspective on everything in a strange way.

JG: Well it seems like your work, at least the piece that you played with the microcassettes, that’s playing with that sense of impermanence.

Oh, definitely.

It’s not that you weren’t keyed into that somehow before, and sort of fighting it.

Yeah. I have a similar story to yours, in that when Dad died— I have two sisters, and we are dealing with his house now, which is why I was thinking about stuff. My dad had loads of radio scanners and walkie talkies and all these things that I’m totally interested in.

That’s your world.

Like these shortwave radios are much more connected to my dad than I thought—this fascination with communications technologies. He was totally into that stuff. Why did it take me this long to figure that out? It’s so weird. But now I have like all of his stuff, literally. His radios and stuff. And so I’m like, I gotta do something with these.

Yeah, that’s really special.

It’s interesting, because the piece that I played at Harvard had the microcassette recordings, and then it also had shortwave radio sounds. It was kind of about language and the voice, and how at some point, I realized, every day I hear so much language, and most of it I can’t understand for various reasons. So it’s about the transmission of language.

Yeah. It really ties together in interesting ways, and hopefully opens up more potential and ways to sort of go wider and deeper and whatever.

Yeah, I hope so. It’s hard to know what’s going to happen.

So really, it’s just basically to get a sense initially of what you have in mind for Subtropicswhat you’ll be doing there.

I will be doing a more expanded live version of Dissolutionthe piece with the microcassette tapes and the scanners and things. I’ll do a multichannel, a multi-speaker version of that. I think a lot about the tradition of cinema, and focus on creating a cinematic experience. So it’s about having the audience sit in a very dark room facing what would be a screen, but there’s nothing on the screen. There are multiple speakers all around, so it’s a very immersive experience in the dark. Because there is language in the content, it’s kind of about these little snippets of what might be narratives, but they never quite come together, and they’re kind of layered on top of each other, and they get of all tangled up in this web. So some of these sounds and these words are in some ways kind of imagistic. The audience can try to grasp some of these things, and make a weird narrative out of it, or not. But it’s really about that experience of just sitting in the dark and having sounds come from all around you.

It’s amazing, actually, because it’s so connected to what I’m doing the workshop about.

Oh, cool. Cause when we talked last, you were sort of still figuring that out.

Well I think I’ve known what it’s about, but I still need to work out quite how I’m going to do it. But it’s really about the idea of how sound is operating in relation to the listener…. I’m pretty sure I’m going to do an exhibit of scores for the imagination. Some of them are photography, but others are text scores, and different things like that. There’s no sound produced except in the mind.

Well this is very interesting, because one of the things that I’ve been doing actually with students in workshops is to show 35mm slides, too. I have this whole collection of these amazing 35mm slides. If you look at these photographs, you hear sound immediately in your mind. There is a group of photographs that I have of a wrestling match, or some kind of, it might be wrestling or something else, but there are these two coaches. And this is from I think the 70s or the early 80s. These photographs are of these two coaches that are just going insane. They’re all contorted in these weird positions, and you can tell something terrible just happened. One of them is on the ground. You can only see his head, because it’s on the ground. And then the other one’s in a chair, and he’s kind of leaning down, and his mouth is  wide open, like he’s just screaming. He’s got weird sunglasses on.

Oh, so you hear it. It’s caught this intense moment.

Yeah, and when you look at it, you can just hear this guy’s voice. Especially in American culture, just having grown up watching sports on television, and you always see those sidelines with the coaches, and they’re always just going insane.  And so I like to show some of these slides to students, and just have them imagine. What is the sound that you hear when you see this slide?

Oh, that’s cool. Would you be open to maybe including a couple of those in the exhibit?

Yeah, totally.

That would be great.

Yeah, that would be so fun.

It just seems like what you’re doing really connects with these ideas of how— This is what I was writing about for the talk in the UK. What’s operating on the person experiencing the work to make them understand what’s happening, or to invite them into that? What are the points of access to that? And it seems like you’ve thought a lot about that.

Yeah. Have you ever read the book Audio-Vision, by Michel Chion?

I haven’t read it yet.

It’s about cinema and sound. That’s kind of the angle that he’s coming from. He has these categories of listening or modes that people employ, not necessarily consciously, but in film and cinema particularly, because sound and cinema, there are so many different reasons for sounds to happen. And so the listener is kind of switching, it’s almost like not code switching, but code listening switching, in a sense, because there’s the sounds that are more like diegetic. If you’re not seeing something fall on screen but you’re hearing it out of your left ear on the left side of the room, then that’s a diegetic thing, because you’re identifying that something is falling in this scene that you’re not seeing. And then there are other modes of listening–one of which is listening for codes or language, whether that is literal language or some other kind of animal sounds, or even music. I forget what he calls it. So that’s another strategy, or entryway. And then the last one that he talks about, he argues is only possible through listening to recordings, that it’s basically— And again, I’m forgetting the term that he uses for this. But it’s listening to sound for sound’s sake. So it’s listening to the textures or listening to the— Not trying to identify the source or what it means or anything like that.

So it’s a more abstracted sort of thing.

Yeah, totally abstracted. You are always going back and forth between these three strategies.

I should definitely read that.

Yeah, it sounds right up your alley, and it’s something that for Dissolution,

I think about a lot, because all of those things are operating for the listener, or at least I imagine that they are.

So the source material then is the microcassettes and shortwave radio?

There’s shortwave radio, microcassette tapes that I’ve collected. There’s a funny kind of point in the piece, and this is not on the record. This is actually just in the live version, of a walkie talkie exchange between these two young girls, I think they’re sisters. The story behind this is that I have these walkie talkies, and I had them on during a rehearsal. And I had forgotten that the walkie talkies were there. This was last December 24th.  I was rehearsing, and all of a sudden there was this, hello, hello? There were these two young girls that had just gotten walkie talkies. I started to play notes and things. I would press the button and play notes. And so I was having this exchange with these two girls. It was really funny. I could tell which one was the older one, cause she was just like, if you’re not going to say anything, stop. So I have a lot of that going on in the piece in the beginning. And then there’s tonal stuff from an organ and from sine waves, so it’s tones and voices that are in various states of intelligibility. Some of them are very processed, and they’re really hard to understand because they’re very distorted, or the natural distortion from the technology is left present. So noise and what I call the epiphonographic information, which is like the information that the device actually brings to the sound and adds to it. It’s like the high hiss or the special kind of distortion that might be present in the microcassettes.

I know this kind of thing so well from doing transcription, and I have to live with it.

Yeah, exactly. It’s really interesting how you can listen to a recording of something and it’s very easy to identify what the technological recording device is. It’s kind of remarkable, actually. It’s less true now that fidelity is getting better, but in the latter half of the 20th century, that’s particularly true, because you can tell when things are recorded on phones, and you can tell when things are recorded on cassettes, and you can tell when you’re hearing something from an LP. You usually hear about people trying to take those out and get rid of them, but I actually try to play those up and enhance them.

That’s information that you want.

It’s information about history and time, because you can identify the time this sound was recorded in a subtle kind of way.

How long is the installation?

It’s actually a performance. I can send you a document about how I do the piece, which might be of interest to you or not. It’s mixed live in the space, and my sound checks are rather long, because I usually change the piece for the space. It’s basically a site specific performance. The piece gets completely rearranged sometimes depending on where the speakers are placed and things like that. But generally, the piece lasts about 45 to 50 minutes.

But there are other sort of arcs too?

Yeah, a lot of it is also from these broadcasts from scanner radios. There’s a national time broadcast that happens on the shortwave radio, so that is kind of like a metrical device in the piece. There’s this, at the hour, the time is 7 and 7 minutes, or whatever, and it’s counting in real time. So that comes in and out as a way to reference time. So that’s another thing about the audience listener’s experience of time. It kind of expands and contracts.


Can you talk about one or two of your early or most meaningful encounters with experimental music?

I remember when I was around ten or so in Texas, going to see a small screening of  “Jackson Pollock” at a local university with my mom, and hearing unsettling music, which I later discovered to be Morton Feldman. The music accompanied images of Pollock dripping paint onto glass, filmed from underneath. I thought the whole thing was very strange. I did not connect with the music or images, but they made a huge impression on my memory because they were so different from anything I had seen or heard before.

Later when I was in my early twenties, playing in bands in Austin, the guitarist for one of the bands, Geoff, played a Hafler Trio CD in the tour van. I didn’t connect with the sounds at the time either, but I was very intrigued by them, and I wanted to understand.

When I heard the Halfer Trio, and similar noise music from the late nineties, I  remember thinking that this experimental music put the rock music I usually listened to into a larger social context (although I wouldn’t have articulated it that way then).

When I thought about rock music from a different perspective, it seemed strangely formulaic, and designed to elicit particular emotional responses from the listener.  I started to feel uncomfortable playing music I considered to be emotionally manipulative. I felt a lack of emotional response when I listened to noise music, but in a way, I appreciated the lack of response, and recognized that lack as a starting point for investigation into different kinds of music-making and experience.

Shortly after that time, when I was making my own solo experimental music, I heard some CD’s by Gastr del Sol (Jim O’Rourke and David Grubbs). The music combined field recordings, noises, and instruments, using some frameworks from the rock music genre in a larger field of sounds. GDS utilized interesting studio techniques, like switching abruptly from stereo to mono, which changed the spatial awareness of the listener. When I heard their music, I thought, “this is the type of music I am trying to make.” I didn’t know that anyone else was trying to combine all of those elements until then.

Their music had some emotional content, but only in very well placed moments. The more traditionally “musical” aspects of their compositions were very affecting while at the same time, revealing social meanings of many genres of music-rock, classical, and jazz.

I also appreciated that those compositions were sold to people who listened to rock music, rather than more formal concert music.  Those compositions, The Harp Factory on Lake Street, and Upgrade and Afterlife, are still some of my favorite pieces of music. They are masterpieces.

Around that same time before I left Austin to move to Chicago, I met Ellen Fullman. She was kind enough to show me the long stringed instrument and how she tuned it. But the most memorable thing about meeting Ellen was visiting her studio space, and seeing where she worked. I remember how she had two long pieces of white laminated wood in a corner formation with file cabinets as stands, creating a long desk and work table.

She had a desktop computer on the desk/table. The studio was a contemporary open space in an industrial part of town, not an apartment. Seeing her working in her studio inspired me. I saw that a woman could work in a studio on art projects as a job.  

What is it that is compelling to you about experimental music? How does it connect with your experience more broadly?

It’s difficult to articulate how experimental music is compelling for me.  I only know that I imagine situations or recordings with combinations of certain sounds, and I want those possibilities to be realized., sort of like imagining a film. Sometimes I improvise and discover something that energizes me, and that process is very gratifying and fun.

In terms of connection, on a personal level, I think experimental music serves a social function for me. Introversion and intermittent health issues often keep me from participating in regular social situations. Music making connects me to the world in meaningful ways with intelligent and interesting people. I think of art as a social process. Any given composition I complete would not have come to fruition without my partner or a friend listening to rough mixes and checking scores, or without the impressions left on me by previous audiences and students.

Most people I know in this field tend to have more than one type of role within it. What are the main roles you have taken on, and do you find that they complement each other?

My main roles are composer, performer, teacher, producer, improviser.  I  think the term “improviser” is inseparable from performer and composer for me. I often come up with ideas for compositions improvising on the piano, mixing sounds together in my studio, or spontaneously adding sounds to a space I am recording by moving objects I find there. Those events might then be added to a score I am working on.  I also include moments for improvisation in scores and performances.  I am not a “free improviser,” though. I usually have boundaries and guidelines around what I am improvising, or at least more than free improvisers usually do. I don’t improvise for the sake of improvising.

The role of teacher is the newest one for me, and one which I find gratifying.

A lot of my traveling jobs are teaching residencies now at universities, sometimes combining music and art department events, and sometimes visiting anthropology classes. I just did a residency at a boarding school in Ojai California. It was great! The high school students totally got ideas related to improvisation, listening practices, sound and mediation, etc. The electronic music students presented an excellent improvised concert.

What are the groups or communities (ensembles, groups of musicians, series, venues, online forums, etc.) that you feel most a part of, if any, within this field?

Over the years I have traveled inside festival circuits, encountering many of the same people in different situations. There is a sense of camaraderie in these repeated meetings. I got to know Maryanne Amacher that way, for instance, and had the good fortune of seeing her present the same piece in different situations and locations.

I am also connected with people locally in Chicago. There are a few different groups, and there is a lot of overlap—improvisers, new music composers, and noise people, among others.

Recently I am expanding my sense of connection to include organizations as well as individuals. I am interested in partnering with these organizations and creating larger scale free public works. The Graham Foundation, Lampo, ESS, The Renaissance Society are all local groups which have partnered with me in larger projects

What are you working on now? (organizing, writing, composing, rehearsing)

I just lost my father, and I am feeling a lack of motivation to complete anything right now, but I have several projects in process.

I just finished recording a solo piano and organ piece. That piece will be released in the fall. It has no title. Just my name.

I have been working with organs a lot lately—playing and recording pipe organs and vintage organs. I am trying to sort all of that material out and create a few different pieces. Some of those pieces are more melodic than my past works.

I have been working on an interesting collaboration with Julia Holter for a while. We are combining her voice and texts with field recordings, including a lot of wind sounds. Her voice has a wonderful breathy, close quality like wind through leaves.

I have a Danish ship building manual with beautiful diagrams including curves, lines and numbers that I am turning into a series of scores.

I am also in the planning stages of a few installation projects.  One of them, entitled “The Sound of Prairie Grass Dividing” will include a landscape architect and/or builder. The installation is designed to be outdoors in a windy location. There is a particular park by the lake in Chicago I have in mind as the ideal site. There is a constant wind blowing off of the lake onto that peninsula.

I want to create a long corridor with tall walls of blowing prairie grass on both sides. The grass would be planted in parts of the wall structure but those built parts would not be visible. The person inside the corridor would hear wind through the grass and see the flowing movement on the corridor walls.

The idea originated in part by watching the Terrence Malick film Days of Heaven.

What work or topics are you most excited about these days?

I am interested in the writing of theorist Donna Haraway, particularly her ideas about multiple species and human exceptionalism. I have also been enjoying the writings of Lebbeus Woods, the architectural theorist, and some books on bird behavior.

Have you been thinking about your work in relation to the current political situation?

Given how dire things have become, I have considered whether or not my work should become more overtly political. I am an American artist, so I think of this in the context of what is happening in the U.S. with the assumption that I might have more opportunity to affect change here. However, I don’t think the most effective changes that art can make, like awareness raising or subtle commentary, are helpful now.

The people who like experimental music, generally, are aware of what is happening politically. While the awareness of sociopolitical issues is necessary and good, much of the discourse around these issues has become a divisive and toxic. The emphasis on individual needs and expression and the contrarian tone in this discourse seems to thwart collective action. I am afraid that, if I made more overtly political work, it might get caught up in this discourse and become meaningless.

I have decided that the best way to try and change things is through direct financial support to appropriate organizations, or through direct political action like showing up to protests or calling representatives, rather than through art, although those might not be the most interesting or personally fulfilling modalities.

All of that having been said, I think there is something powerful about facilitating a free, site specific public installation or concert.

I recently performed a pipe organ concert in the majestic Rockefeller Memorial Chapel in Chicago. There were speakers placed throughout the chapel playing prerecorded organ sounds to blend with the live music. The Rockefeller staff opened up the chapel so that people walked around the interior, including the little nooks and stairs and balconies. People listened to the way the sounds changed as they moved through the space. The lights were very low. The chapel was so beautiful and the organ sounded amazing because the pipes are embedded into the walls of the building. There were five hundred people at the concert, and no one talked. The only sounds were organ and quiet footsteps. It was amazing that so many people could be so silent, and so engaged with a space and with sound.

There was a palpable sense that the audience members were participants in the piece, and I think we all felt that we collectively generated something positive during the concert. The experience helped me to remember that gathering people together in a non-mediated context can be transformative, particularly if people are listening in a space differently than they would in their every day lives. While I am actually rather cynical about the power of art, I do think maybe some of the positivity generated in situations like that can trickle into the larger culture through individual actions. That subtle shift generated during an event is political, in a way.

What could be done to improve/enrich/support the field locally or internationally?

I think nationally and locally, more financial support would be helpful. More grant opportunities, support from city and state entities for new and experimental music and sound installation projects (although that is not likely in this country).  

I wish funding organizations would take risks in terms of the artists they choose to fund. There might be artists who don’t have advanced degrees or impressive references or those whose ideas do not translate into writing as well as others on a grant application. Some of those artists might do some really innovate work given the support.

I am also interested in education programs for young kids through music and art.  There are some organizations like Techne and Nameless Sound that teach kids how to build technological instruments or to improvise in groups. These experiences can be so profound for kids, and will change the field later, naturally making it more diverse as well. I wish these programs could receive more funding.

Who else would you suggest that I interview?

Is there a grand dame of experimental music? Like a cranky older woman who curses a lot? I want you to find and interview her!


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