Zen Sounds 043: Olivia Block
Re-visiting her beautifully chaotic two-movement composition »Karren«
These last days have usually started with a long walk over the fields with my dog. After breakfast, I worked on some projects. In the afternoon, I would chop some firewood and then work again, until the evening. I can definitely imagine a worse life, even though not much is happening.
I am reading Rick Rubin’s book »The Creative Act: A Kind Of Being«. His idea of living our life as art goes back to the transcendentalist writers of the 19th century, like Thoreau and Emerson, and he also references Taoist and Buddhist teachings. I truly enjoy his writing style: Short sentences, short chapters, clear and inviting language. I’m not all the way through yet, but it’s already a sure recommendation from my end – not just for musicians and producers.
I’ve not gotten very excited about any new music this week, so I’ve mostly listened to some good old jazz. One of my more recent discoveries is McCoy Tyner’s »Expansions« (1969), an overlooked album from his Blue Note catalogue that Laurel Halo recommended in her newsletter last year. It fuses traditional hard-bop with some more avant-garde ideas. (Ron Carter plays cello on here.) There’s an audiophile Tone Poet re-release for the collectors.
Well, it’s been quite an uneventful week, alternating between working at my desk and working outside as much as the stormy, rainy weather allowed. Still I came across one very special record that I eagerly wanted to share with you today.
Olivia Block – »Karren«
A few days ago, I read this Vinyl Factory article in which Claire Rousay talks about five albums that were important to her musical upbringing. The »emo ambient star« (I believe that’s the official wording now) mentioned an Olivia Block record that I actually hadn’t heard before:
»Karren was my introduction to Olivia Block’s work but also to contemporary electro-acoustic composition. I was a teenager when this came out – it rocked my world. I started making field recordings for the very first time shortly after hearing this album.«
Who is Olivia Block?
Like Rousay, she is from Texas, but she’s been living in Chicago for 25 years now. In an old interview with music journalist Andy Beta, Block speaks about her musical beginnings in 1990s Austin, when she fronted a band called The Marble Index (named after a Nico album).
Back then, she was clearly influenced by art rock: Velvet Underground, Brian Eno’s productions for Talking Heads, Devo and David Bowie, Sonic Youth, Joy Division/New Order and My Bloody Valentine. Eventually, she recounts, she started getting interested in musique concrète, performance and sound art groups such as The Hafler Trio. And then, something changed.
»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. […] 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.«
Block stopped singing, moved to Chicago and released her first experimental album »Pure Gaze« in 1999. In the avant-garde sphere, women were still an exception. »Serious« electro-acoustic music was, most of all, a serious boys club – made by men, reviewed by men. In feminist film theory, that’s called the »male gaze«, the whole artistic sphere being dominated by the masculine perspective on the world.
»Karren« was Olivia Block’s fifth solo album. She had released the first four in a relatively short time frame between 1999 and 2006. »Karren« was six years in the making. In those years, Block worked on various collaborations and performances, but she collected material for »Karren« as well. In 2012, she finally recorded »Opening Night« with the Chicago Composers Orchestra.
Conceptually, the piece references Erving Goffman’s »The Presentation of Self in Every Day Life«, a classic sociological theory from 1956. In this book, Goffman argues that »we all play theatre«, referring to our desire to control the impressions other people form about us. What he was saying, very roughly summarized, was that we all play different roles in society, and we tend to rehearse these roles backstage before acting them out on stage.
»Karren« is a two-movement composition, with the vinyl a-side, »Foramen Magnum« representing the »backstage« part. The piece consists mainly of processed field recordings from orchestral rehearsals in various locations. The vinyl b-side, »Opening Night«, is the »on stage« part, a layered orchestral score – the »finished product«, to use a music industry phrase from the physical era.
Now I do enjoy the contemporary classical sounds of »Opening Night« a lot, but »Foramen Magnum« is the real treat for lovers of experimental music and musique concrète. The liner notes call it »chaotic, angular and unsettling«. It’s true to an extent, but that chaos is mysterious and beautiful. Some of the sounds can be traced back to their origin – footsteps, clanking metal, scraps of a conversation –, others just sound completely alien. It’s Olivia Block’s compositional accomplishment that this piece holds together.
»Foramen Magnum« literally means »big hole« in Latin, and it refers to the large, central opening in our skull, connecting the spinal cord with the brainstem. The composition doesn’t so much tell a linear story but grabs me for the whole duration and spits me out at the end. I have been listening to the piece mostly on headphones, over and over, again and again.
By the way, Olivia Block continues to make exciting music. In 2021, she released two works that impressed me deeply: Her psychedelic synth album »Innocent Passage In The Territorial Sea« on Lawrence English’s label Room40, and her composition »October, 1984« on Longform Editions, a 20-minute sound collage consisting of extreme weather noises, voices from randomly bought cassettes and traces of orchestra recordings.
One more thing
Australian author Jo Stewart penned a piece for Bandcamp Daily that has everything I love about good music writing: It’s radically subjective, thrillingly written, and after reading it, I immediately listened to Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s »Storm« in all of its 22-and-a-half-minute glory.
Stewart recounts sailing through the infamous Drake Passage on a yacht, listening to the seminal Canadian post-rock bands’ second album on her silver iPod Nano to ease the sea sickness. Go read the story now, then play »Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven« like the first time.
Have a great weekend!
© 2023 Stephan Kunze