Name: Olivia Block
Occupation: Sound Artist, Composer
Current Release: 132 Ranks on Room40
Recommendations: Right now I don’t listen to music much. Instead I listen to “found” (from Ebay!) microcassette tapes of people talking to themselves (personal journal type recordings). I love listening to human speech on tapes.
I have read a couple of really interesting books lately. I read a lot of nonfiction.
There is a book about neuropsychiatry and genetics called Innate by Kevin J. Mitchell that describes newly discovered aspects of brain development and even cranial development. Specifically, the author writes about human developmental “noise” that takes place in the womb. This normal developmental “background noise”, in combination with genetic factors, affect how brains function and the body forms.
I also recommend The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon Y Cajal by Larry W. Swanson, Eric Newman, Alfonso Araque, and Janet M. Dubinsky. This beautiful imprint contains gorgeous drawings of neural cells and branches made by the brilliant neuroscientist, Santiago Ramon Y Cajal.
Another book I enjoyed recently was Fame: The Hijacking of Reality, by the actress Justine Batemen. Her style of writing is very personal, emotional, and kind of hypnotic, with lots of repetition of metaphors and images.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Olivia Block, visit her excellent website. She also answered an earlier version of the 15 Questions interview here.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I took piano lessons when I was a kid. My piano teacher taught me how to score very simple compositions by hand. I also recorded sounds and songs on tape recorders.
I got really into music as a kid through listening to the local college radio station. When I was around 10 years old, my cousin James Scott introduced me to Brian Eno and Robert Fripp. Then, I listened to everything in that orbit – David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Talking Heads. Through this music, I was introduced to the concept of recording production. I noticed that whatever albums Brian Eno worked on were impacted dramatically in terms of the sound of the music. My interest in music wasn’t just about the songs or musicians. It was about the recording process, the editing, the effects, etc.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
When I heard Gastr Del Sol, then Jim O’Rourke’s solo music in 1995 or so, I recognized a sound that I had been trying to make, but had not yet been able to achieve. There were wind instruments and electronic sounds woven together so beautifully in that music. I had been trying to do that, but failing. I emulated that sound in my early work because O’Rourke demonstrated how to make that combination of sounds work, and how production elements were so crucial, much like Brian Eno.
I was also influenced a lot by Seth Nehil and John Grizinich. I worked with both of them. I was developing my own voice in the 90’s, when the art world was in the postmodern phase, so emulation (appropriation) was actually part of the game.
Sometimes I think about how, in the western “classical music” lineage, up until the 20th century, the ability to mimic one’s predecessors was built into the tradition. Early Beethoven resembles Mozart, etc. However, during the postmodern era (and still currently), the actual choice about what music to mimic came into play. While the skill set was less rigorous in terms of compositional process (with pen to paper during the Baroque or Romantic eras, for instance), the more abstract thought process was complicated, with less guidance from anyone about what was good or bad.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
A large challenge in the beginning of my solo progression was not having good microphones and not knowing how to use them in general (I still don’t know how to use them). In fact, microphones, in my opinion, are the most crucial aspect of good recording and production practice. Additionally, I was using a four track and dealing with those limitations, but of course I learned to work with the limitations, too, using them to my advantage when I could. Later I became frustrated by the fact that I could not score music for performers very well, so I went to a conservatory and learned how to do that.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
My very first studio as a kid was a Radio Shack cassette recorder. Then, as an adult, my first studio was a Tascam cassette four-track and Shure 57 mic. Then I moved on to a larger Tascam 8 track deck with ¼” tape. That machine was huge and cumbersome. I learned that the size of magnetic tape drastically affected the quality of the sound because I worked in a recording studio with larger, professional tape decks. I noticed the sound of recordings was much warmer and more full than my Tascam.
Eventually I moved on to digital audio workstations like Pro Tools, and started using portable field recorders to document natural sounds and performances. The use of field recordings had a large impact on my early solo records like Pure Gaze. Now my studio is all of those items, including the Radio Shack portable.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
My use of technology now happens mostly during the editing and post-production process. I also use plug-ins to alter field recordings. I use Pro Tools with GRM plug-ins, Reaper, Ableton and all of those plug-ins and I am starting to use Max MSP a little.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Currently I am working on a project with Julia Holter, where I alter her voice live. All the magic happens during the concert, and not afterwards in post-production, as is normally my practice.
Initially, Julia and I prepared this concert during an Outer Ear residency for ESS in Chicago. It was so much fun to work that way. It felt much more like a true collaborative process—a give and take between Julia vocalizing and myself processing those sounds live.
For that concert, I prepared settings in advance for plug-ins, Ableton and Audiomulch, and then improvised with those tools live.