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Impersonal Revelations

img  Tobias

“I don't think listening to a lot of atonal material is fun”, Olivia Block says bluntly and who am I to disprove her? Recently, before heading back to Münster from Stuttgart, I picked up a copy of the renowned and well-established “Zeitschrift für Neue Musik” (founded by Robert Schuman 150 years ago) at the generously equipped news stand and merely flicking through its pages of meta-debates and conceptual theorising set my head spinning (not a good thing when you’re sitting opposite to the train’s direction of motion).

On the other hand: What Sturm und Drang, romanticism and even twelve-tone-music had on offer, was a sense of dealing with universal issues instead of sharing everyday trvialities. Just like the heterodiegetic narrator (the “he” person in plain English) has made his exit from the literary scene, everything has become personal now. When there are no objective truths anymore, the artist turns into an island – and her or his art constitutes a diary, which she or he openly shares with the public.

An uncomfortable process
This is where Block’s body of work distinguishes itself from that of many of her colleagues. She doesn't disprove of particular means for dogmatic reasons, but merely on the grounds of whether something contributes to her work or whether it takes something away from it. The same goes for her stance on atonality, which is quite a bit more detailed than that initial statement in the first paragraph: "I don't at all mind dissonant intervals but what I am not fond of is the autistic culture of 'complex' atonal systems which came out of serialism and has continued in the academic environment", she says, "I simply find it annoying and out of touch and I feel that the focus misses the point." Armed with this combination of openness and very decided opinions on questions of style and technique, her albums are partly metaphoric, partly concrete efforts of trying to understand the world around us, as well as conscious efforts at eliminating herself from the composing process – a feat which is as excitingly unfashionable as her tendency to take years to complete thirty minutes of music.

“The thing that takes so long in finishing each solo piece is the excruciating process of editing and refining from the original idea. It is very difficult to keep listening as objectively as possible”, Block told Online source Perfect Sound Forever in an interview 2002, “I do not listen and refine in an intuitive way - I can't listen and automatically say ‘that's it.’ I have to wait, listen, think, change things (usually take something away) and repeat this process over and over. If you heard the original ideas, you wouldn't recognize them. In taking so much time, I am safeguarding myself from some possible lapse in judgment, which might come at a certain short time in my life, this is why long durations create work that goes beyond what is too personal in the creation process. All and all, it is a very uncomfortable process!”

Different perspectives
As difficult as it may be realising her ideas in the most adequate possible way, they have unanimously been anything but uncomfortable to listen to. At the heart of Olivia Block’s oeuvre is a trilogy which has been greeted with enthusiasm by publications as diverse as The Wire and Pitchfork Media. Spanning the albums “Pure Gaze” (1998, Sedimental), “Mobius Fuse” (2001, Sedimental) and “Change Ringing” (2005, Cut), she has created a series of three completely coherent sound worlds, which nonetheless seem to complement and comment on each other.

Consider the latter my personal interpretation only, however. For although Block agrees that she was working on “different perspectives on very similar themes and materials”, she did not intend the albums to refer to each other in an open way: “I would not necessarily say that I was consciously making comments about previous works in the last two in the trilogy, but I do think that subconsciously I may have been revisiting some of the same materials because I felt there was something left unfinished, or something more I could have said”, she describes the creative process, “In a way, I think of those as one long album and I am aware that the style of those works is part of what I will probably later view as a 'period' or 'phase'.”

What we can probably agree on is that the cycle of “Pure Gaze”, “Mobius Fuse” and “Change Ringing” deals with the question of where music starts and where it ends, with seemingly synthetic structures in nature and organic movement in completely electronic environments, with computer generated sound art vs traditional ensemble settings and with the inevitable dilemma of how to create something that has relevance beyond the confinements of its own medium.

A vague representation
The latter seems especially important, because Block deals extensively with field recordings, both in a pure and manipulated state. Even though part of this approach does seem to stem from a very real and completely unironic desire to communicate the beauty of nature to her audience (parts of these recordings were taped during extensive hikes with her friends and collaborators Seth Nehil and John Grzinich), they can only convey a vague representation of the real thing.

 “You watch a small creek in sunny spring on TV, it seems to be nice and lovely”, Yoshia Machida, whose Hyperreal-series occupy a similar space as Block’s, recently told me, “But once you put your hand into the water for 30 seconds, your hand will be paled out by the coldness. Because the water came from the snow mountain.” Vice versa, listening to a CD can merely approximate the sensations derived from closing your eyes in the middle of the forrest.

Block is well aware of this insoluable problem and yet she manages to bypass it by awarding her field recordings a functional or even compositional character: In her world, the water and its sound are like musical themes contributing to miraculous snow mountain symphonies.

Pure Gaze (1998)
On her debut “Pure Gaze”, this may not yet be all that apparent. There is a pleasant sense of confusion running through the record, which nonetheless has turned out consoling and conciliatory. Again and again, one wonders about the exact origin of the sounds: The opening sequence at times appears to be realised using long plastic tubes, then again there seems to be no doubt that, in fact, it must be fingers plucking the strings of a Cello. At around the five-minute mark, a Piano chord is struck. Its reverb continues for minutes, bathing the sourrounding grating and gravelling noises in a warm maternal light.

“Pure Gaze” also introduces the theme of pure sounds and pitched material coexisting side by side, entering a mutually benefitital relationship. After a stretch of highly delicate granular changes, a brass band plays long, sustained chords, which take on a deeper emotional resonance with each breath, before being complemented by harmonic electronic echoes and surrendering to a quiet finale.

Mobius Fuse (2001)

The brass band returns on “Mobius Fuse”, albeit in a drastically more effect-treated form. On Block’s second album, the outward emphasis lies clearly on the field recording aspect. Inwardly, the work deals with the dualism of reality and imagination. What seems to be artificially created turns out to be culled from trips through Big Bend National Park in Texas. The silently anthemic finale, which could be a pastiched answer to Aaron Copland, was created from scratch in the studio.

These last four three minutes were part of a painstakingly detailed process. Why didn’t she just record the part with a regular local ensemble? “There was a very particular type of energy I wanted in that chorale scene”, Block replies, “I wanted the musicians to sound vulnerable and imperfect, human. I also had to flat certain notes in the piece as a cultural code which indicated that the chorale had gone through some sort of change. As if It had been taken by non professional musicians, perhaps in a slightly different cultural setting, and altered to fit the environment.” She characterises the scene as “the back-story of the narrative”: “So although that part sounds sort of thrown together it was actually thoroughly planned out and I could not have achieved that scene through a casual field recording.”

The aspect of “space”, which is essential to the trilogy, is probably never as apparent as on “Mobius Fuse”. Block places her musical objects in completely different rooms, like planting foreign flowers in your front garden: Will they blossom, will they grow?

The at times bewildering results suggest that this component of our audio-perception is essential and assists us in our navigation, providing us with a fixed position and stability. Much more than on the other two volumes of her trilogy, Block deprives listeners of this relative safety here, which is maybe why the album is of such an abstract majesty, impenetrable on the one hand but magnetically so on the other. And then, of course, the demonstrative firework-finale to the 28-minute first part unexpectedly awards it the quality of a classical composition in the true sense of the word.

Change Ringing (2005)/Heave to (2006)
“I don't think artists should be didactic or have a "message", necessarily”, Block told me after the completion of the cycle with ‘Change Ringing’, “I like art that asks questions instead of answering them.” Her own work, as much as it may be steeped in general discussions and debates and despite its interest in very concrete topics, is consequently best understood by intuition. It is almost, as though by the process of distancing herself from her pieces, she were trying to see her own work as that of someone else – providing her with fresh perspectives and new angles.

When I confront her with a quote from a recent interview with abovementioned Yoshio Machida, who wants listeners to “feel the meaning behind his music intuitively” and feels that it is perfectly okay to “listen to the surface”, she instantly agrees: “Yes, I like that statement and that attitude. I do not make a value judgment on the way a listener chooses to make meaning out of my work and I definitely hope to have the music exist in both of those ways: the rational and intuitive.”

In that sense, “Change Ringing” may even be a better example for this ideal than the preceeding works. Even though it features more pitched material than ever before and even includes a glorious outburst of naked white noise aggression, its concluding ten minutes put everything into question again, just at the moment when the riddle seemed to have been resolved. There is a strong sense that the music extends beyond the borders of the record – a notion confirmed by the fact that her next work, “Heave to”, does not represent a completely new beginning, but rather a concentrated and creative continuation:

In its first part, sounds of water and fire provide for an instable continuum from which segments of ensemble play rise and fall. Part 2, meanwhile, places energetic and slightly phsychotic string arpeggios in a futuristic scenario of tweetering effects – an unexpected tiwst to the album, which however closes with the nine-minute “Make the Land”, which again has the traits of classic Block: Subtle sounds pull the listener in unnoticably, eventually arriving at a quiet acme of old clocks and muted textural drones.

Avoiding momentary consciousness
It sometimes feels as though Olivia Block were arriving at these completely personal visions by means of a de-personalisation process which allows her to listen to her own music as if it were someone else’s. “In a way, yes I think that is true”, she ponders, “The long time period offers an objectivity through hindsight. I do not trust myself ‘in the moment’, because I feel that a smaller and more immediate part of my consciousness is making compositional decisions and the pieces might end up sounding too personal. I can determine this after I re-listen to any given composition after some time. I try to take some of the overly personal elements out so that the language of the work can really come out on its own and speak to more listeners without my ‘momentary consciousness’ getting in the way and causing interference. I suppose then the work can ask questions, whatever they may be.”

Indeed: Whatever they may be, the questions asked by Block’s work are important ones. And in stark contrast to most atonal compositions, it can actually be a lot of fun listening to her present them in her music.

By Tobias Fischer

Picture by Miguel Angel Rodriguez

Homepage: Olivia Block
Homepage: Sedimental Records
Homepage: Cut Records

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