Olivia Block

Interview by Andy Beta (Sept 2002)

While sharing several acquaintances, including local Austin bands and the sound artist collective of Orogenetics, I never met nor was familiar with Olivia Block's work until her CD, Pure Gaze, was released on the Sedimental label (which also released the early works of Stars of the Lid) in 1999. Not unlike an amoeba absorbing the isolated dogmas of minimalistic drone, glitch, sound installation, scored composition, sampling, natural recordings, and electroacoustic music, Pure Gaze wove breathy horn drones and flitting digital pops with intimate field recordings, growing across the entire sound spectrum in the course of twenty-seven minutes.

Two years on brought the even more complex and cyclical Mobius Fuse, with the sounds literally exploding across the ears in varying states of disintegration, crackling with marching band brass, drums, and fireworks at play.

Vaguely sympathetic with the sounds of Bernhard Gunter, Morphogenesis or Brandon LaBelle, Olivia's individual music also shows the genre-defying features of composers like Pauline Oliveros and Kaffe Matthews. Definitely one to watch, I corresponded with Olivia for a few months by email, talking a great deal about Texas band life, bat caves, and compositional methods.


PSF: I guess let's begin by talking about Texas, since we have both lived there. Were you ever around for the Fourth of July? I have very fond memories of eating barbeque, drinking beer, and watching the fireworks explode over the lake. So when I first heard Mobius Fuse, it instantly brought back these very tactile memories of summer in Texas.

Many of my memories of the 4th in Texas are very physical. I think of thickness: the heat, the constant bug sounds, the humidity. Fireworks always seemed to be a very extreme sensory experience, which would cut through the heaviness of that atmosphere. I am still in awe of the beauty of the images and sounds of fireworks. The way that they reach out and linger after the initial explosion. The forms that they take seem so organic and elemental-like an ice crystal, or the way that leaves on a tree grow outward to gather the most light possible. I also remember the dispersions that accompany it at the end: crowds meandering, fireworks disintegrating.

PSF: Fireworks are very similar to sounds too; the sensations occur only in decay.

Interesting thought. It is a beautiful thing to think of a firework as a visual representation of a sound phenomenon. If one views them as a child might, it is as if the light is a direct result of the loud sound. Fireworks are beautiful in part because of that visual decay, the tentacles of light that reach out, and then shimmer into disintegration.

PSF: It sounds like you went to Town Lake for the fireworks. Did you go see the bats under Congress Street Bridge as well?

I used to have a friend who worked with Merlin Tuttle, I think that was his name, the expert who studies those bats in Austin. I had the opportunity to visit my friend at work once, and I got to feed one of the tame bats in the office. It was one of the larger breeds, hanging upside down in a cage, trembling, and constantly moving it's ears around, sensing everything. Pretty cool. I have seen those bats come out of the bridge around dusk. It is quite something to witness.

PSF: Tell me about it! The order to their flurry, all conducted by sound and harmonized by their hearing. Where did you like to do field recordings when you were in Austin? Did you ever go out to Ward and Suzanne's place in Blanco?

I did go out to Ward and Suzanne's and it was just lovely there in Blanco. That part of Texas has some really magical places-the warm swimming holes, the limestone formations...There is something really welcoming and simple about the nature there. I think of the warm sun against the big bleached rocks, and the sound of water flowing in the streams... Actually when I was in Austin I wasn't making too many field recordings yet, although I think that living there inspired me to move in that direction. The fact that the natural places in Austin where rapidly decreasing as the tech boom continued caused me to perceive nature as something delicate, rare, and transient, something to be noticed and admired, studied. I discovered the visual artist Andy Goldsworthy at that time, and his work inspired me a lot in that way. I liked the way that he would create a very subtle change in the natural environment, something which accentuated the beauty that already existed there.

PSF: Yeah, I really find Goldworthy's work to be amazing. The fact that it melts or falls apart so soon after it's made is especially endearing to me. The brevity of beauty, I guess.

Yes, I agree, it gives me the perception that these found natural materials are so precious because they only hold their shape for such a short time. I can't hang on to the idea that these objects are still in existence. They are gone, only the photos remain as evidence.

I especially started to feel that way about natureís ephemeral power after I moved to Chicago, because the surroundings here are so harsh and industrial compared to Austin. It was a shock. I still think there is no more perfectly beautiful creation than a natural form, and part of my work is creating a context in which one can admire these forms. My friends Seth Nehil and John Grznich used to go on little day trips from Austin, including Ward and Suzanne's. We used to discuss these issues a lot.

PSF: Issues such asÖ?

It is actually hard to remember the details of these conversations. I can only give you a crude and hazy memory... I remember we discussed the elements that attracted us to particular natural forms, the beauty of the symmetry and the complexity and detail, also the beauty of the imperfection nature holds; that for evolutionary purposes there are perfections, and there are mistakes, and humanity has the capacity to admire both of these things. I think we were all attracted to the absence of any extraneousness in nature...

PSF: I'd like to go a bit into the nature of your relationship with the Orogenetics guys a bit later, like how you all met, and playing in Alial Straa, etc. But I'd also like to go back to your time in the Marble Index first. Perhaps just to touch on some of the small nuances about being a band in Austin, gigging around town, satisfaction/ dissatisfaction with a small town scene, etc. What did you play, where, how long did the band last?

The Marble Index lasted around 3 years, I think. At first I was singing only; we had a great guitar player who had to quit later. At that point, I learned to play guitar, and did so for the band. As time went on, my musical tastes changed drastically. At first I really only knew of the outer fringes of rock music. I loved the Velvet Underground. And definitely Nico. Her record, The Marble Index, is obviously where we got the name, and it remains a favorite. All of Brian Eno's stuff, especially his pop stuff, and many of the records he produced in the early Ď80's by Devo, Talking Heads and David Bowie. I also liked Sonic Youth and Live Skull, Gang of Four, Joy Division, New Order, My Bloody Valentine, The Stranglers, then later, This Heat.

Later I was turned on to groups like the Hafler Trio, and became interested in venturing outside of the realm of rock. Singing words became very stifling, and I began to feel that words intruded upon the music itself. That music had its own language and the two things should not always be present together.

PSF: Did you find your singing become more abstract, or were you more into eradicating the voice altogether?

The voice itself felt invasive because in rock music, I felt that if there was a lead singer, whether or not the vocals were abstract, that the presence alone of the singer suggested words and those associated meanings, either the absence of words or the lyrics themselves. Inevitably that was always what people paid the most attention to. In fact, that is what really bothered me about rock/pop music- that the music was always secondary to the lyrics. I always paid attention to the music first, and the words for me were some sort of interesting layer top that spoke to a different part of consciousness.

I think I liked those artists like David Bowie because many times words didn't make sense as far as a narrative or proper sentence structure. I took certain words as punctuation points, noticing them here and there and making my own meaning in the context of the music instead of listening to the story of the lyrics. I think I would have liked hearing a band like US Maple back then for that reason, but they didn't really exist at that time. I never felt I could really achieve this effect. It just wasn't my strong point, so I wanted to eliminate vocals altogether.

I felt most of the bands in Austin didn't think about these things enough, and it bothered me-I felt like an outsider in that environment. I was probably a bit too serious though...

PSF: What were some of the bands you played with at that time?

It is hard to remember exactly, especially because it was very hard for anyone to book us with a band whose sound resembled our own. In our later days, as our sound came into fruition, our style was much different than the typical Austin band at that time, which was either the Trance label thing, or the garage/new punk thing. I remember shows with Stars of the Lid, Furry Things, ST-37... I think we were perceived as a little darker, heavily emotional and more 'serious' than most other bands there. It was not popular to be too serious there; everything was casual in Austin, and irony was popular. We were not at all ironic.

PSF: Did you see any particular shows in Austin that altered your parameters of what was possible with the music? At a certain point, there were these rare shows, like Caspar Brotzmann, or AMM, that came through and drew out lots of disparate groups. The AMM show, for me, really opened up a large can of worms.

I saw the AMM show in Houston. Seth, John and I drove there because I couldn't make the Austin performance. AMM did change my thinking, mostly because at that time I was just starting to get into free improv. I had already been listening to a lot of krautrock and other rock music with improv loosely included in the songs. I had also just started learning about John Cage's improvisational exercises, but I didn't love the sound of his music. Then of course there was jazz, but that wasn't as interesting to me at the time either.

I didn't know that there was another 'serious' form of improvisation outside of the jazz tradition, and of course AMM was the perfect thing to experience live for this. I loved the concept; it felt like such a relief to me after the strict parameters of the rock/pop margins. I was interested in the exchange of energy, the acute listening and direct responses. I liked the delicate way John Tilbury played piano juxtaposed with the jagged sound of (Keith) Rowe's tabletop guitar. I didn't have the emotional connections to the music in the same way that I had with songs, which felt like an absence but I loved the concepts and the style. The absence of the connection felt like an important thing to experience, like withdrawing from an addiction, or stepping back and observing the music more clearly.

Around the same time I saw Ellen Fullman and Pauline Oliveros do a deep listening performance in Ellen's studio, the Candy Factory. This made me think differently about time and space. The performance was extremely long and drenched in harmonies deep in reverberation. The duration seemed such an important part of the experience. I sought out Ellen Fullman and visited her in the studio a few times where she showed me the long string instrument and explained the tuning system and some of her methods. Just intonation was also new to me. I was thinking a lot about the space that contains sound and its relationship to improvisation in performance, etc. Those performances made me think farther and farther outside of the music itself, considering what was causing the choices, and how the room and the duration affected the composition.

The other experiences that gave me new ideas were all of my times spent in the University of Texas rehearsal rooms recording and playing piano. I didn't go to school there, but I could use the pianos during the day. When I walked down the halls I could hear all of the other instruments playing rudimentary scales, tuning, repetitive long tones. When I passed each door the different instruments blended together and created the most beautiful music, like the sound of an orchestra tuning, something I find really gorgeous. It was the combinations of all of the random sets of repetition and the patterns that were formed, the complex harmonies, combinations of timbres. Complexity formed from layers of simplicity. The beauty overwhelmed me...

Around that time, I began to make abstract ambient-style tapes for play during our shows, and over time, that was all I wanted to do. It was very stressful to the other guys in the band, I think the fact that I kept acting on the desire not to be contained, to free the music. There was a free-floating anxiety about how far I wanted to take it, and it was hard on my relationships with Tim and Brian (the bassist and drummer). I feel bad about that. Close familial relationships were forged in the band and it got very emotional.

We did the band-in-Austin thing for a while, doing local gigs and touring twice around the country. I always felt very uncomfortable on stage, I really didn't like performing, but we were ambitious about playing out. Touring was hard. It was somewhat demoralizing to go to a dank club in the afternoon while some soft-science-fiction-porn movie was playing on the club monitors as the staff set up and we ate free pizza. I felt an emptiness in those places which depressed me, although there were some pretty hilarious bands we played with on those tours. I think I just knew that the 'lifestyle' wasn't for me.

PSF: What clubs did you play at? Cavity Club? Emo's?

We played at the Electric Lounge a lot, Emoís and the Cavity a few times. The Cavity Club had terrible sound, if I recall correctly, which would have repelled us. Again, it is hard to remember.

The best thing about being in The Marble Index was that I learned all about sound engineering and recording. After awhile, we recorded all of our material ourselves on a reel-to-reel 8-track machine of mine. I learned a lot about mixing, how sounds work together: the alchemical relationships between them. It seemed a logical progression for me to move into the recording realm as my principal process later.

PSF: What led you to start incorporating the tapes? To thicken the sound, hide the awkward silences or tunings of guitars, or was it a way to further shy away from singing and move into the background?

The tapes came out of the desire to layer the sounds a bit more, as well as to ease the transitions between songs; we changed guitars too much in that band. I had just bought a used sampler, so it was also a matter of gear. Actually, at that time I was still in the foreground, just adding the tapes to my other occupations of guitar and voice. I had way too much going on stage, sometimes shows fell apart because I just couldn't do all of those things at once, although when it worked it sounded really good. This was difficult though. I think we should have been less ambitious and just simplified things a bit more. We had so much stuff on stage, it was ridiculous, and we were more affected by the sound system of the club-if the mix wasn't right we sounded quite bad.

PSF: So out of the backing tapes and ultimate disintegration of Marble Index came what? And when?

Thatís the period when I met John Grznich through Dan Plunkett at ND. Dan was going to put out a Marble Index record on the ND label, but before it happened I quit the band, then made a stronger connection with John and was introduced to Seth Nehil as well. We started to play together, just improvising with tapes and objects and crude instruments. I also played the trumpet then, and I used it in those improvisations. We chose specifically resonant locations, like the drainage tunnels under the Mopac Expressway. Michael Northam played with us occasionally as well. We did some shows with Tom Grznich, who also played trumpet. I was beginning to make tape composition at home with the 8 track and my sampler. Seth and John educated me quite a bit more about 'abstract' music during that period. It was a time of learning and transition for me. Sometimes it was painful.

PSF: What kind of music were Seth and John turning you onto?

We all hung out and rehearsed at this little shack were John lived.

PSF: Oh my god! I remember that place. Where Jonís bed had the two enormous speakers on each side of his pillow.

Yeah. After playing, we listened to a lot of stuff there: Organum, Giancarlo Toniutti, and similar artists, Phil Niblock, Tony Conrad and other minimal drone stuff. John played a lot of jazz, too, like Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy, and the later psychedelic Miles Davis stuff. On my own I was discovering a lot of modern composers at that time as well: Stravinsky, Feldman, Arvo Part, Ligeti.


See Part Two of the Olivia Block interview


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