Olivia Block: I wanted to make an orchestra sound like anything but an orchestra

October 13, 2015

Olivia Block creates electroacoustic sound compositions for performance, recordings, installations, cinema, orchestra and chamber music concerts. She draws upon a wide array of techniques and aural textures, often combines field recordings, chamber instruments and electronic textures, creating mysterious and vivid electroacoustic sound pieces. In addition to her compositions for solo recordings and performances, she creates multimedia works for sound and video, and also writes scores for large ensemble, string quartet, and orchestra. Between 9-16 October, Olivia is doing an artist residency at Elektronmusikstudion (EMS) in Stockholm, and during her visit she will also perform at Fylkingen on 16 October as part of ROOM40 Openframe. For this reason we have decided to introduce you to the wonderful and multifaceted world of Olivia Block. 

Olivia Block (Photo: Peter B. Kaars)

Olivia Block (Photo: Peter B. Kaars)

What is your first memory related to sound?

When I was little I had a child-sized reed organ that had foot pedals. I had to pedal really fast so that enough air pushed through in order to get sound when I pressed a key. I remember at one point discovering overtones in the notes. The sounds were reedy so they contained complex timbral information. I started to figure out how to separate the different tones in the rich timbre. It was the first time I was consciously listening to a sound with intention like that.

When and how did you get interested in experimenting with sounds?

I did not immediately go to college after I graduated from high school. Instead, I was in a few bands, where I played guitar and sang and made rudimentary tape loops. I started to feel a lack of satisfaction with the entire genre of rock music and with singing and lyrics, while I became more fascinated by the tape loops alone. So eventually I focused on the tape material only. Additionally, I learned how to use studio equipment when I worked in some recording studios and engineered our band recordings. All of these events eventually led to a solo studio practice. I met Seth Nehil and John Grzinich at around the same time in Texas in the mid 90’s, and we started playing around with field recordings and site specific performances in drainage tunnels and similar locations. The confluence of events and people led to my interest in making electroacoustic music

You are constantly working with various projects which are quite different from each other: you have your own compositions and performances, you create multimedia pieces for sound and video and also write scores for large ensemble, string quartet, orchestra and film…

I have a restless nature, and I when I work too much with any technique I want to switch to working with another one. Different types of composition techniques and performances require different skill sets. Composing for a string quartet or orchestra, for example, is all about the written score as opposed to mixing sounds and listening through speakers, as is the case for creating a concret-type piece. The scoring process in general feels much less natural to me than studio work does, because I don’t get the immediate feedback of playback sounds to work with. I have to imagine the results of the performance or wait until the musicians play the piece.

Have you studied music before getting into it?

I did not receive any conservatory training until later in my career, so I still consider myself to be autodidact, and I am much more of an ear person than a music-reading/writing person in terms of composition. I also feel like there are limitations with chamber instruments and even orchestra that I have to consider, whereas in electroacoustic recorded music, there is a wide array of sounds attainable through studio craft. Working with orchestra has been particularly educational for me. In some ways my work as an experimental musician has informed my orchestral work. I am accustomed to thinking in terms of sounds filling a space (“site specificity”), and I consider an orchestra to be so large that it is like a site or space. To me an orchestra is a group of small units making sounds in different locations in a room. This spatial conception of the orchestra connects me to my roots, because I used to place little speakers in corners and hallways during performances.

Olivia Block (Photo: Julia Dratel)

Recording sounds with Olivia Block (Photo: Julia Dratel)

I suppose all these require not just a different setting but also a somewhat different state of mind, how do you manage to switch from one to the other?

I have had to learn limitations through trial and error. I have learned that I can never make an orchestra sound like electronic music. When I first started studying orchestral music I wanted to make an orchestra sound like anything but an orchestra. I learned that an orchestra always sounds like an orchestra and it’s counterproductive to work against the natural tendencies of the order. An orchestra rarely has the hard, clean edges that electronic music has. There is always a lumbering quality and softness to the sound because there are so many musicians playing simultaneously.

How about cinema sounds?

Cinema sound is interesting in terms of pacing. The pacing for sound with images is necessarily slower than in non-cinematic sound pieces, because the images are generally carrying the burden of the drama or narrative, or vice versa. If there is too much happening in the soundtrack, it crowds the images and makes them overly complicated. My unedited soundtrack work without the images has a dragging quality. I learned through creating sound for cinema that electroacoustic composition is much more narrative and cinematic than I realized, particularly because it fills each moment with something that leads to something else. Scoring for film requires an entirely different type of pacing than my electroacoustic music does.

You have not released anything on Room40 (yet!), how did you get in touch with them? What brings you to the Openframe event in Stockholm?

It’s an excellent event and I am really looking forward to hearing the other performances – Lawrence English performing the Jim O’Rourke multichannel work is going to be great. I had been in touch with John Chantler for a few years, since he booked shows for Café Oto in London. We kept trying to arrange something then but it never quite worked out, so I think this event actually is kind of a hold over from that, in a way. It’s great to be in touch with John Chantler. He has a lot of energy and is responsible for a lot of great work, both artistically and in terms of events organization. This EMS residency has certainly been a dream! And of course being involved with Room40 for this fest is excellent too!

What are you most excited about when it comes to working at EMS?

There is so much I would love to do at EMS. There is not enough time! First, working in the surround studio is perfect for me right now, because I am completing a large-scale public sound installation featuring sounds from Harry Bertoia’s Sonambient Sculptures. The piece will premiere in November in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago, as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. The installation itself is very architectural, and I cannot really get a feel for the piece unless I work on it in surround, with all of the dimensions and depth. The only way I can do that is to use the EMS studio. There was no way I could do it in Chicago before the opening. So the timing was perfect, and the EMS surround 16 channel studio is fantastic.

Additionally, I would love to work in the studios with the analog synths, particularly the Serge modular synth. I love the sound of the old Serge synths and I have never had the chance to play around with one. I would love to have a few days to see what I could do with it. Then of course if I had longer I would probably try out the studio with the video editing capacity to work on some of my video work. Honestly every studio in there has something I would like to try out. Even the stereo speakers in the smaller studios are so excellent that listening to a work-in-progress would be really helpful. Even the library at EMS is full of books I would like to read!

What are you interested in these days music-wise? What fascinates you the most?

I am actually not as much interested in music right now as I am in listening to recorded conversations. I have been collecting lots of used microcassette tapes from Ebay. Most of these tapes were created around the 1980’s and 1990’s in America, because the technology was popular then. Some tapes have conversations between people, or monologues recorded by a person sort of like journal entries. I have an entire divorce recorded on several tapes, including phone calls and long stretches of nearly empty room sounds with the occasional interruption of the mother fixing a sandwich for the children. I have strange lists people make for themselves of objects or addresses, and very intimate conversations between people. I have some tapes in other languages – a long one in Russian. I like the way these tapes are edited arbitrarily and the accidental sounds from the time period, like old phone sounds and background music. And the tiny nuances of the tape surface sounds that cut out and in. I listen to the long recordings for fun. I find them fascinating and kind of hypnotic. In terms of music, I listen to so many things and they change frequently. I am much more whimsical in my listening habits music-wise.










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