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at116    Olivia Block

New work for piano and organ (2017)

Youtube extract

Interview with Olivia Block

How did you develop the work on your CD? Was it through-composed or improvised, or was it a combination of the two? And is the method you used for this piece fairly typical of your compositional practice?

This suite was created over a span of several years. I developed techniques inside piano through rehearsals and performances, sketched the basic ideas out--the motives, physical materials, etc., leaving a lot of room for improvisation between the composed bits. I think of the suite as somewhat modular. I can switch sections around while key features, like patterns on the keys in each section, are composed.

There are certain aspects that are unpredictable by nature. For instance, the resonant notes inside the piano, amplified through the contact mics and mini speaker, lead the note choices I play in the keyed patterns.

So in terms of live performance, each piano and the materials I place inside the piano become key factors. The score sets these processes in motion, but leaves room for my spontaneous reactions to the natural acoustic phenomena within certain boundaries.

Why did you choose to present the piece without a title?

In contrast to most of my recordings, these pieces are relatively unedited. I recorded them live at Electrical Audio studio here in Chicago, only adding a slight amount of post-production detail. Most of the extra production intervention happens during the performance with a micro-cassette recorder, played back inside the piano.

So the lack of title reflects the fact that the suite is more direct, and in a sense, bare, of layers or extra elements. It’s basically just me playing piano and objects. This is the first time I have worked with a co-producer, Adam Sonderberg.  Adam initially suggested leaving the title blank and I liked the idea and went with it.

The image on the CD cover is striking. What is it, and does it have a connection to the music?

The image is a projection on a wall of a custom slide I created from two layered 35mm “found” slides from my slide collection. To me, the image is related to the suite in terms of mood and impression. The feel of the blue and white, and the images of the water match the timbral qualities and pacing of the suite.

What is your musical background and training? And how did you come to experimental music?

I have a degree in biological anthropology, but I also attended a music conservatory and art school for sound. I think of myself as auto-didact, though.

My initial training was when I was really young in Austin, Texas, playing in bands and working as an assistant in recording studios.

I started listening to experimental collage and noise music when I was still in bands. I also discovered the music of Scelsi, Annea Lockwood, Phil Niblock, Ligeti, Jim O’Rourke, Harry Bertoia and the horn and cymbal music from Tibetan Buddhist monks.

I got a four-track recorder and started making solo tape collages. The band I was in played the collages in between songs. Then I wanted to quit the band and focus solely on the studio pieces.  I bought a cornet at pawnshop and then only wanted to play cornet instead of guitar.

At around that time in Texas I met Seth Nehil and John Grzinich. We started a trio, Alial Straa, performing and improvising in unconventional, acoustically rich locations. We performed in a drainage tunnel and used the rocks and leaves there as instruments. We made field recordings with a portable DAT recorder and used them in shows with amplified objects.

As I progressed in my solo practice, I wanted to work with ensembles of musicians, adding a different live component to my performances. When I moved to Chicago in the late nineties, I became connected with Jim O’Rourke and the improvisers in his orbit like Jeb Bishop and Kyle Bruckmann.

At first I mostly worked with improvisers, but over time, I composed scores for the musicians to play, which I could then record and add to my studio pieces later. After that, my ideas for scores became increasingly complex, and the combinations with studio-based sounds and musicians became more elaborate. I decided to gain a “formal education” in music composition.

I became fixated on making orchestral music. I thought about it and talked about it constantly. I wanted to study music formally because I needed to learn proper notational techniques for that medium. When I was studying at the conservatory I requested to be paired with teachers who used conventional notation. I wanted to know where to put the slurs and indentations properly.

I could then create pieces for the orchestral reading sessions and try out ideas. I started thinking about how I wished orchestral music allowed for more improvisation in rehearsals, and thought about the social structures of music-making which contributed to my interest in anthropology.

I had several solo recordings released before attending music school. I couldn’t finish at the conservatory because my touring schedule got in the way.  I was older than the students there. I finished a degree in anthropology at Northwestern instead, attending school between my music-related trips.

Your work varies from purely electronic works, through live improvisation to fully scored orchestral pieces. Are you happy working in all the genres your work spans, or do some of them feel closer to you?

Sometimes I wish I had a narrow focus in my practice. I think it would be easier to explain myself to people! But I keep expanding into different aspects of sound and music and other media. To me, these different branches all express my own sensibility and interests, so they related in my mind.

I feel most comfortable in my studio working with recordings and electronic processing techniques.  I love sitting down with headphones or in front of speakers and listening to ideas, changing them, listening, and so on.  

I am more adept at listening than at reading notation, so the least comfortable process for me is notating pieces, particularly if I am using conventional techniques (I often combine conventional and “experimental” notation techniques).

It takes me a long time to score something that I could simply tell a musician to do in a few minutes. Then, when I listen to the notated idea performed, it doesn’t sound right and I need to go back and rethink the scoring techniques. The process feels inefficient and complicated, but necessary, of course.

Often I finish notating a score after I record the piece and all of the trial and error with musicians or myself is worked out. I listen to rehearsal recordings or concert recordings and notate the piece in retrospect.

Now I am using old science experiments and other found texts as scores for performed pieces, which is a little more comfortable. This part of my practice is the least related to my studio work, in that the score leads the entire the process, whereas I usually hear a sound from my studio recordings or imagine sounds, then want to notate afterwards. That is the reverse of the ‘norm’ I guess.

From across the ocean, Chicago seems to be quite a vibrant centre for experimental music of various kinds. How do you see it, and do you feel part of a local ‘scene’?

The Chicago experimental music scene is thriving now. We are in a moment here where there are competing experimental or new music performance events almost every night of the week at various venues in town. It’s a great problem to have. I travel a lot and when I am home I stay in a lot and work in the evenings, but I still feel very connected and supported. There are many organizers, musicians and composers I love here.


“Olivia Block is perhaps best known to Fluid Radio readers for her electroacoustic works such as “Aberration of Light” and “Dissolution”. This music draws on plenty of acoustic sound sources, but is generally constructed on a computer. However, the Chicago-based composer has also developed a live performance practice using acoustic keyboard instruments, specifically piano and organ, and it’s this work that features on her first solo recording for UK label Another Timbre. The first time I came across this aspect of Block’s music was at a concert at Café Oto earlier in the year, but the home recording gives perhaps a more distilled and focused impression of her intentions.

Like many contemporary performers, Block prepares her piano by inserting different objects between the strings and plays those strings in a number of non-traditional ways in order to coax different timbres from the instrument. Sudden, sharp stabs in the higher registers give way to quiet tentative phrases lower down; the constant juxtaposition of accented and effaced notes creates a mysterious, suspenseful atmosphere. Reverberation and the afore-mentioned preparations lead to interesting resonances, but Block also demonstrates how resonance changes with pitch through a lovely descent from one end of the keyboard to the other. She then moves on to play directly on the strings, emphasising the piano’s curious double status as both a stringed and percussion instrument with spindley, metallic, rapid-fire tingles and chinks.

The organ first enters as a very quiet hum, with strange, squeaky fireworks occasionally shooting off into the distance. A gentle pattering builds into frantic storm-like chattering, clattering, and scraping. Towards the end of the recording, a very low quiet tone is felt more than heard, drawing attention to the way these acoustic instruments sound in (and sometimes shake) a physical space. Block uses the full range of options at her disposal to animate the keyboards and the mechanical contrivances behind them, with extremes of dynamics, pitch, and timbral contrast all deployed. If anything, the results seem to me a little less singular and distinctive than her electroacoustic work — but there’s no doubting the quality of this music, or the attentiveness to the myriad possibilities offered by these instruments and the spaces in which they sound.”

Nathan Thomas, Fluid Radio

“Olivia Block does not make the same record twice. Of her three most recent albums, one uses grayscale sound to represent changes in light, another illustrates the unraveling of understanding with distorted recordings of therapy sessions and radio broadcasts and a third contrasts strings with concrete sounds to show you what gets thrown out on the way to making an orchestral production. They sound nothing like each other, but each is the product of relentless sound processing that invites a listener to wonder not just what they are hearing, but why it has been changed into something else.  

At first this untitled CD sounds like a startlingly straight recording of Block at the keyboard. There are long stretches of unaccompanied piano, gorgeously played and immaculately captured in the adobe-bricked interior of Electrical Audio studio. Single notes radiate and sparse configurations turn in harmonious orbits, inviting you to luxuriate in their austere loveliness. But then you notice something behind the notes. Tiny, distant, unidentifiable sounds keep the listener from getting too comfortable, which is just as well given the disorientation in store. Over the course of the record’s three tracks Block uses typical post-Cage-ian hardware preparation, amplification, microcassette recordings of the performance in action, and some subliminal organ drones to transform the piano’s sound. The manipulator’s hand will not be stayed.  

But to what end? The sounds never get so far from what you expect of a piano that you can’t tell where they came from, and the absence of titles suggests that this music doesn’t purport to be about anything, it just is. But just as Block used abstraction and magnification to take a hard look at the vanity of orchestral sound production, she applies similar methods to make an overly familiar instrument new again.”  

Bill Meyer, Dusted

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Photo: Tinnitus photography, with thanks

Photo: Jason Lascalleet

Photo: Jason Lascalleet