Perfect Sound Forever

Olivia Block

Interview by Andy Beta, Part 2

PSF: What did you think of this new music you were doing? What held the strongest resonance for you? And what aspect of it did you find unsatisfactory?

Seth, John and I were doing a lot of improvisation then, I played trumpet at that time, and I continued playing trumpet in the group when I joined. Seth and John were already doing recordings with homemade string instruments, basic reverb effects; Seth used a 4-track for recording and layering. I was the most traditional element in the group, and I think Seth and John would have preferred that I didn't play an instrument with such history and associations as the trumpet, but it ended up working. They were very open and trusting about my choices, which I really loved. We also prepared tapes sometimes to play with as a skeleton, continuing that work from the band, and path I am continuing now.

The most powerful performances for me were definitely the ones we staged in the drainage tunnels under the highway. Only a few people showed up, the events were hardly publicized, which made them seem more important and ritualistic. We recorded with Michael Northam there at one point, using whatever was in the space, old leaves, sticks, we brought didgeridoos, John's instruments and bows. Again I focused on the importance of the location where we played. The reverberation in the tunnels created long overlays of sound. At some point I began to think that the location which contained the performance WAS the performance, and I even felt as if the act of playing the instruments was too forced, as if just being in the space alone was the improvisation. I liked the ideas of using whatever existed in the there; we made some powerful sounds by merely tossing some rocks we gathered through the tunnels. I was still timid about my contributions in the performances, I still felt a little bit like a student, so I held back a lot and listened.

Although I was gaining so much knowledge during this time, I also felt a loss, moving from the nostalgic emotional connections of rock music to the unrelenting intellectual listening involved in the more avant-garde work. It was a confusing time, a part of me felt abandoned because I couldn't return to the insular emotional state I was used to before all of my discoveries. I also felt a slight gender specificity in the newer music I was hearing; it was hard to place, but I felt like an outsider.

PSF: If you can go a bit more into the last two statements, I would appreciate it.

The gender issue in all of this is a very tricky thing to articulate without generalizing. I can only talk about the things that I sense in my experience. Somehow I have a feeling that these experiences might be happening to me because I am not a member of the gender that creates the vast majority in this work, the gender which created the canon. Of course, all of theses feelings of being an outsider might be simply that I am a person who experiences things emotionally and intuitively before I experience things intellectually, and I am sure that some, perhaps many woman are the opposite. Although, I dare say it feels like more than that also, perhaps that some of the common assumptions, which are more attached to ‘maleness’, are not those that I share as a female.

It’s a tricky area. I think that sometimes in the most intellectual and abstract musical work, there is something inherent in the work that I do not immediately grasp like my friends who are men. It feels like I do not share the same assumptions, like the mental constructions that have led to the final abstraction of the work were not formed in the same kind of mind as my own, and I have a sense that this is a gender thing. Maybe I am wrong, I don't know. I am still one of the few women doing this stuff, especially coming from a nonacademic background. It is strange, because I feel like a lot of the electroacoustic/electronic/avant-music culture is centered on collecting records, CD’s, and talking about them (seems like there is a lot of bidding for obscure records on EBAY, too), deciding what is 'good' or 'bad,' sometimes in terms which seem absurd to me, as an outsider. It makes me laugh!

It seems like women do not often know as much about the obscure history of music as men do, so I try really hard to be informed in this way. Sometimes I have to listen to boring music that I don't want to hear in order to stay informed. It is like studying for me. Knowing the 'aesthetic of the day' is very important to the postmodern-era artist (which, lets face it, we all are), because associations and referential qualities are often involved, even they are not directly addressed in a particular work.

I will make a bold statement now- I do not think that, if the electroacoustic community consisted mostly of a women, that the aesthetic 'truth' would be the same as it is now. It is nebulous to me, knowing what is artistically 'correct' or not. It seems like a sense that I cannot have in the same way as a man. I have to think very consciously when I listen to something in this genre, 'what is this?', ' What kind of work is going into this?', 'Is this a worthwhile piece or not?', Whereas I think if I were a man, I might just listen to it and think, immediately, 'this sucks' or 'this is really good.' It would be an inherent sense. A man might say that these issues aren't important, that work should just be done and one doesn't have to be so concerned about artistic context and history. But I cannot say that so casually, because I feel like I am always on the brink of being marginalized as an artist because of my gender (am I a 'composer' or am I a 'female composer'?) so I must be extra informed so that I can create work which is 'relevant' and insert my own desire to change the genre within that work, in a subtle way. This is why I try and include a musical portion containing emotional content in every piece. This is my contribution- that the abstract and the visceral can exist together.

PSF: I think this is one of your most immediately noticeable qualities. With some of Michael Northam's, and even to a degree with Seth and John's works, I felt that there was a stilted sense of emotion or warmth to it. I don't know if it had more to do with gender and the dogmas that can spring from it, or if you yourself came from a more emotive state of mind in approaching it, but there is a certain resonance to your work that I found quite different from some of the Orogenetics work.

I wouldn't necessarily say that emotion is lacking from their work. I think it is more that the emotional qualities are filtered through a larger place of observation -at least this is my perception in listening to some of these works. Seth's work is very visceral, physical, but not necessarily 'emotional' in the same sense as mine. John's work is very internal and expansive at the same time and creates a mood and a space, but not necessarily the more outward emotion, which comes from the use of instruments and harmony. I think it is a matter of priorities. They are both incredible "thinkers" by nature, so that is what comes first in the work.

I still always wonder if it is a gender thing-again, it is so hard to know. I think I am much more attached to traditional music and American culture than they are, which could lead to the difference. I don't find certain emotional associations which instruments and harmonies carry to be repugnant, whereas in some cases they might think there is too much significance there that they wouldn't want in their work. I am less concerned with that.

PSF: Do you communicate with many women in your field? Or do other female composers seek you out because of your work? The most immediate that would spring to mind would be Pauline Oliveros, Ellen Fullman, or Kaffe Matthews, but obviously, this is a scant field... I do know that Christina Carter of Charalambides is quite a fan of your work.

That is very great (about Christina). Thanks for sharing that! I have consciously sought out other women who do this stuff. When I was in Austin, I went to Ellen Fullman's studio numerous times. I also took a couple of Pauline Oliveros workshops in New Mexico a few years ago. I was never as interested in hearing about their compositional or artistic processes as I was in just being around them, observing their behavior, trying to figure out how these powerful women lived their lives. I enjoyed learning about the techniques also, but it was just as interesting being around them.

PSF: So what led you to head to Chicago?

The reasons for moving to Chicago were a few things. The most concrete reason was that my boyfriend, Alex, was accepted to the P.H.D. program in creative writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I was outgrowing Austin at that same time, and felt like a move would be a good idea. I was familiar with all that was happening in Chicago around the post rock and improv scenes and I though it was a great place to go for me. I really wanted to expand my work.

PSF: Did you commence work on Pure Gaze before you left, or was it after relocating? For lack of a better word, I am interested in your "maturation" and whether it came about in Texas or Chicago.

I think of my transition from Austin to Chicago as a change from the receptive gathering of aural imagery to the materialization of my ideas. Right before I left Austin, I was gathering many aural imprints from the environment there. I heard an old string soundtrack for the Hitchcock film, Spellbound, pouring out of the entryways of the Paramount movie theater, an enormous and elegant revival movie theater in Austin, as I waited in the lobby for the next feature to begin. There was something about the sound coming out of the doorways, as if it was a viscous substance coming down the red-carpeted stairwells into the empty lobby. The scratchy texture of the strings... this image contributed to my inclusion of the scratchy records coming in and out of Pure Gaze later in Chicago.

My last days in Austin were also full of experiences outside in natural spaces, which led my interest in recording those sounds later (in New Mexico during a summer trip from Chicago) and incorporating them in the piece. The suspended piano chord was something I was trying on my reel to reel in Austin from some recordings I took at U.T. I later redid this in Chicago. Austin is a location that encourages intuition, whereas Chicago has a work ethic that encourages physical manifestation of thoughts and ideas, so the move was appropriate for me at that time.

PSF: How did you meet up with Jeb Bishop?

That is a funny story. When I first moved to Chicago, I didn't know anyone and I wanted to collaborate with other like-minded people. I placed an ad in 'the Reader,' which is the local free alternative paper here, in which I included 'Toniutti' as one of my 'influences.' I received a call one night, and when I picked up the phone, the person asked loudly, "Which Toniutti, Massimo or Giancarlo?!' I laughed and said "You know who Giancarlo Toniutti is??" and then the caller said "Who is this!!??" in a suspicious voice, and I replied “This is Olivia Block. I just moved from Austin." The guy was talking to some people in the background and said, "She's from Austin!!” then he got back on the phone and I said, "Who is THIS???" and the caller replied, "It's Jim O'Rourke!!!" He was at a Gastr Del Sol rehearsal.

So Jim O’Rourke answered my want ad, and he asked me if I played an instrument, and I told him I played a little trumpet. Later that month he asked if I wanted to play on a Palace Brothers record, and I said yes. He told me where the recording studio was, and he asked if I could pick someone up on the way to the session- the trombone player. So I drove Jeb Bishop to the session. We talked in the car and remained in touch, and I asked him to play for Pure Gaze, and that was how it went from there on...

PSF: You're on a Palace Brothers record!?

You know, the record never came out, it's funny. I don't even know the title, but Jim produced it and there were these very elaborate instrumental arrangements- the departure might have been too radical. Maybe some day it will come out!

PSF: How do you find the climate of Chicago overall?

I actually found the climate here to be very businesslike and friendly, which I really liked. Very unpretentious. I didn't have any problem finding musicians who were willing to work with me. Quite a refreshing change for me.

PSF: Can you talk abit more about your arrangements for live performance? This is hard for me to imagine, as I haven't seen you play out before.

I usually have a multi-speaker setup in the performance space that plays my recorded electronic material. This is generally composed beforehand, and I use this material as the backbone of the live piece, often using recorded sounds as my signals for cueing the ensemble. The ensemble is usually the only visual element- they stay onstage and I am in the background next to the mixing board with cue cards and a lamp, or something like that. Sometimes they take cues directly from the speakers and often there are periods where certain musicians will improvise for a while with the sounds in the space as I mix them. It is pretty well planned out, but there is always a place for a little improvisation there. I am working with some of the best improvisers anywhere; I might as well take advantage of it! I think of everything as an acoustic entity in the room, whether it is a speaker or one of the musicians. I like for the sounds in the speakers and the musicians to interact as if they are all a part of the room, almost like an installation.

PSF: What was the track you gave to G-Modern (in Japan)? I know your length of time spent on work. Was this leftover?

The piece I did for the compilation was completely different from my regular solo works. I decided to do a piece in which I completely withheld judgment, didn't refine anything and focused on the process instead of the composition. I had just finished Mobius Fuse at that time and I felt completely burned out, I had just beat myself into bits over the composition and refinement of that piece for a few years and I needed to clear out that part of myself. I decided to take some source material from a recording of the wind ensemble I had, and I processed that into purely harmonic content, then I just did some live looping on my sampler with it. It was really nice to just listen to it as it happened with no criticism. At this point I have to make my work on compilations something different from that of my long solo works, because I simply can't spend two years on a compilation track due to deadlines and such.

PSF: How do your first two releases, Pure Gaze and Mobius Fuse go together? And what takes so long with cohering these ideas of yours? How many changes do they undergo in forming them into a singular piece?

Pure Gaze and Mobius Fuse are two pieces in a series of three (one more to come) in which I use space to unite sound, music and electronic elements harmoniously. In Pure Gaze I was very interested in creating a piece that behaved like an organic phenomenon, where the elements of the sounds and the instruments coexisted without one overtaking the other. I tried to make the structure subtly cyclical, and I wanted it to be comfortable in the body to listen to.

The piece was to exist in a paradox where its structure was obviously carefully composed, but also contains an untouched quality upon listening. I was and continue to be interested in the similarities between sound-forms created by electronic means and sound-forms found in nature.

In Mobius Fuse, I was interested in creating movements as in traditional twentieth century classical pieces, and I used more dynamics so that there are dramatically loud bursts within the more ephemeral sections, also like a certain type of classical piece; an operatic approach. I tried to make literal sounds grow in an organic kind of way out of very unreal or ethereal situations. There are themes in the piece that are repeated on many levels form the most vague to more concrete, pressure and tension builds and dissipates in many ways, there is a sense of nostalgia without a location. It is also emotional, but in a way which should allow individual interpretation. The decision to include the end section was the most dramatic difference. I do not have repugnance toward all literal sounds, as long as choices are tasteful and there is an openness to the 'object.'

In the “realistic” portions of Mobius Fuse, I wanted to create a scene which sounds completely authentic, but which is actually totally artificial and created in the studio. The chorale “scene” in the 2nd part of Mobius Fuse is an example of this. Like Pure Gaze, there are concrete elements that maintain their meaning without the heavy associations. This is not a new idea, but I tried to do this non-conceptually, by paying attention to the space and timing of these segments, resulting in a way which can be sensed viscerally as well as intellectually. There are many ways in which a person can experience an idea, not only through cerebral means, but also in the body as an experience. This is more interesting to me. 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. 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!

PSF: Are you ultimately satisfied with the result? Or do you listen back to an earlier piece and hear holes or mistakes?

On the rare occasions I listen to Mobius Fuse or Pure Gaze they sound finished, which is all I can ask for. I cannot say if I like the works or not, but I can say that they sound the way they are supposed to sound, that the purpose is clear in each piece. I don't cringe while listening!

PSF: Have you started on the third piece yet? Do you feel you might return more towards your beginnings, either in terms of pop structures, or word and voice being re-integrated into your work in the future?

I am not sure how the third piece will shake out yet; I just have some scattered source material that I need to start playing around with. I haven't started it yet, but I just have the sense I have not yet exhausted this "series" -that there is one more piece in me that is in the same style as the previous two. Once I have a sense of possible directions, I will start scoring some musical sections as well, then proceed mixing and remixing (for years and years). The pieces never take shape the way I think they will, so I never like to make too many predictions.

I seem to alternate from feelings that pop music is limited and spent while avant-garde music is revolutionary, to feelings that experimental music is too difficult and irrelevant/pop music is engaging and important to people. It is highly possible that I will revisit pop structures in some way again. It is so hard to know how that would take shape. One thing I can say is that I tend to like pop music that occurs in bands more than the kind that is created from one person. I don't think I could start a band again, but maybe I would approach a solo project differently or collaborate with one other person. I do think of incorporating the electric guitar in my work now sometimes, I always liked the density and overtones that could be achieved when I played.

PSF: You touched on this briefly, but how does your boyfriend help with the listening process?

My boyfriend Alex is a writer so he thinks aesthetically, but in terms which are more literary. He doesn't listen to this kind of music much, which is actually helpful, because he offers a perspective which focuses more on the clarity of the "theme" of each piece (no matter how abstract that theme might be). This is especially important to me because I don't want my work to be murky in nature.

PSF: So what do you two listen to together?

I usually listen to things alone, when I am doing stuff, emailing, etc, or when I am in a quiet room concentrating on a more difficult piece I haven't yet heard. We don't listen to much together, strangely. When we do it is when we hang out with other people. Alex likes good solid jazz with reeds- Eric Dolphy, Coltrane...

PSF: Oh, I just realized that I really wanted to talk to you about your trip to Japan with Seth. He won some haiku contest or something, right? And the two of you made a tour out of it?

Seth entered this really strange contest which was sponsored by the Portland, Oregon post office along with Portland's "sister city"- a small city in Western Japan. The contest involved writing a haiku about friendship. Seth has a talent for creative writing, and of course he wound up winning the contest along with three other participants. Each winner was asked to bring a friend. Seth very graciously invited me so that we could then tour after the three-day trip sponsored by the contest; so we had a free trip to Japan! That trip into the mountains of Japan was so beautiful. We visited some old Buddhist temples and gardens in more isolated regions-stunning. After the contest we had scheduled our tour, which was hosted by Koji Tano/MSBR, in many of the major Japanese cities. Seth and I planned a series of performances called "Field Studies" in which we were basically making extreme, layered music from natural objects, we included manipulation of such objects live, plus we had prepared material on CD’s from similar sound sources. Looking back, I think it was almost an homage to the Japanese noise tradition, except we were creating a paradox in that all of our materials were dried leaves, rocks, etc. placed in a very amplified and abrasive context. It was aggressive material compared to my normal stripped-down approach. The shows were loud and there were a lot of hard cuts coming in and out. At the end of each performance we had a huge pile of leaves, pebbles, grass, sandpaper all over the mixing table and the floor. I met so many kind people in Japan. Everyone went so far out of his or her way to help us there; it really blew me away. Right now, Seth and I are working on a collaboration that uses a lot of the recordings from that trip, from our concerts and from our collection of field recordings around Japan. It is a departure in style from what either one of us usually does. It is really choppy and groundless and more electronically manipulated.

The person who sponsored the contest was this mysterious Japanese businessman who hosted us to these traditional lavish dinners and Karaoke evenings, and the three days were spent driving in a private tour bus around some small villages in western Japan. The bus had a hostess who wore white gloves and served us beer on trays in the morning. There was also a karaoke machine on the bus, which was hilarious!!

PSF: So did you sing?

Well, I didn't do karaoke on the bus, but I definitely sang a lot of karaoke after the formal dinner events (and sake) on the tour. The mysterious businessman who ran the contest rented a private tatami karaoke room and we all sang there. I really like karaoke; I think it is the best entertainment invention of the 20th century. It’s really hilarious and fun.

PSF: I think you’re beating around the bush…

You know, I remember for karaoke I sang “Country Road” by John Denver and “Yesterday” by the Beatles. I was pretty messed up on sake at the time, so it's a blur. There was very little to choose from as far as English songs, mostly they were Japanese hits from pop bands. I did manage to get Seth Nehil to sing a few. He was great!!!

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