The Walls Have EARS

Experimental music offers a rare, if not paradoxical, experience of being able to repel and attract listeners; sometimes in the same passage of time. Pioneering 20th-century composers like John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Meredith Monk explored moments of chance, improvisation and merging acoustic instruments with nascent electronics. In the latter half of the century, artists such as Diamanda Galas, Nurse with Wound, Merzbow and others emerged, ramping up the experiment with even greater investigations, aggression and textural ecstasy.

Experimental music is confrontational and invitational, demanding a response from the listener. Whether repulsed or enchanted, the listener is invariably somehow changed.

Olivia Block is an artist working in the current aeon of audio mavericks. The availability of affordable technology and encouraging precedence offers Block and her peers the power of aesthetic groundwork and a wellspring of once-impossible sounds.

Block’s 1999 composition, Pure Gaze, is a sonic rumination driven by percussive rattles, meditative, white-noise washes and keyboard drones. In 10 minutes, Block deftly splits the difference between the real and the unreal, issuing sounds, timbres, and tonalities both familiar and inscrutable. The piece is indicative of Block’s potency as a current-day sonic polymath.

In concert, the literal atmosphere, as far as the sonic capabilities of the space, influence Block’s approach. Sound is her palette and she shows no signs of running out of aural colors.

Since 1995, Block has performed her compositions as a soloist, collaborator, and with large ensembles more than 70 times throughout the U.S. and Europe. Block has been featured on more than 15 solo and collaborative releases, and covered by notable media outlets like The Wire, NPR and The Chicago Reader. In addition, she’s created film soundtracks, and is an in-demand sound-installation artist, including her multispeaker piece, Heave To, as featured at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.

As part of the programming for the current Sound exhibit, the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum presents Olivia Block in performance at 7 p.m. Oct. 26 at Flagler College’s Ponce de Leon Hall Rotunda.

Block was kind enough to answer a few questions via email; what follows are highlights of that Q&A exchange.

Folio Weekly: How would you describe your sound art to the uninitiated?

Olivia Block: I use sounds that are not necessarily thought of as “musical” in artful ways or within the context of art. I am informed by traditions related to cinema, anthropology, architecture, sound related technologies and music, among other things.

What are you performing at your Flagler College appearance?

I will be presenting a multichannel piece titled Dissolution for four speakers. The piece is meant to be very immersive, and listened to in a dark space, as if you are in a cinema theater with no visuals, only sound.

Is there a ratio between composition and improvisation, or do you explore something similar to Butch Morris’ “Conduction” methodology, where you’re guiding the improv or sounds through a structure?

In my surround-speaker work, the structure I am guided by is the actual structure of the room or space I am in. I usually use recorded sounds and electronic sounds, and then change them according to the way the room affects the sounds. I might process sounds differently, add sounds, or use actual objects from the location to create additional textures. I like to bring out aspects of architecture. If the room is very resonant, with walls and floors made of hard surfaces, I might play with that aspect, for instance. When I perform inside piano concerts, my approach to improvisation is still informed by the sound of the room, because I use the resonance and tones of the wood inside the piano to generate sound.

It seems like with all sound, there’s a certain level of both the subtle and the gross. You hear a black metal song and at first listen, it comes across as a brutal roar; after repeated, mindful listenings you can hear, and feel, the subtleties in vibration and texture. Does this kind of meditative awareness and consciousness inform any of your work?

Absolutely. One thing I love about this genre is that it encourages people to listen in different ways, or to become more aware of how they listen in the world. My interest now is in the difference between listening to a recording of an event or place, and listening to the actual recorded event or place. So the mindfulness I have now is in the creation of this new false space that is represented in the recording of something I am aware that I create the false space in the act of listening to the recording.

With sound art or experimental music, at the surface level, there’s a seemingly wide gulf between the drones of composer-accordionist Pauline Oliveros and then Sonic Youth annihilating their guitars to splinters with screwdrivers. Yet they’re still based on principles of experimentation and even liberation. Where do you think your place is in the greater spectrum of experimental music?

I think there is a similarity in the two examples you gave, in terms of motivation and spirit behind the process, more than in the actual techniques that go into the creation of the music, if that makes sense. I think “experimental music” at this point includes many subcategories, each with its own idiom, which then begs the question, is this music experimental in terms of process? Or is experimental music a genre or style of music? I think I am influenced by both of the examples. Pauline Oliveros has been a teacher and someone I look up to personally. I do practice several types of listening strategies, which is very much in line with Pauline’s work. But in terms of the sound of my music, I’m not sure where I fall in the continuum. Plus my techniques and motivations change a lot. As soon as I have finished one project, I want to scrap all of those techniques and try something totally different. Sometimes I write for orchestra, and sometimes I make loud noises
with bricks!