Name: Olivia Block
Occupation: Composer, sound artist
Current release: Olivia Block's Innocent Passage in the Territorial Sea is out via Room40.
If these thoughts by Olivia Block piqued your interest, visit her official website for more information. She also has a soundcloud account.
You can also read our previous Olivia Block interview, in which she expands on a wider range of topics.
Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage when it comes to your way of working with sound?
I see myself both inside and outside of a few different historical lineages, depending upon which stage or which aspect of my own work I am thinking of.
In my earlier solo pieces from the late 1990s through 2005 like Pure Gaze and Heave To, and some more contemporary ones like Dissolution, I was using field recordings and sound design techniques in the studio. Those techniques are most relevant to the history of sound for cinema and radio. This is the tradition that produced musique concrète and GRM—some big influences for me.
Cinema sound designers like Walter Murch are also influential. If you listen to the soundtrack work of Walter Murch, particularly in early films like THX1138, for instance, then listen to my "Dissolution B" (Glistening Examples) piece, you can hear the influence.
In 2006 I went back to school, studying at a conservatory. At that time I started making orchestral scores, as in the "Opening Night" track, the B side of my Karren release (Sedimental).
I also made scores for smaller contemporary music ensembles, many of which were not recorded. At that point, I was thinking more consciously about the history of Western music from baroque to modern, then beyond Cage. So during that period, I can understand my work in the context of post-Cage. My piano album on Another Timbre and 132 Ranks (Room40) for pipe organ also fit into that lineage. Those instruments—piano and pipe organ, cannot be separated from the history of western music.
I would say that 132 Ranks was a hybrid of my sound design and conservatory work. During the concert/recording I had speakers playing white noise inside the chapel while playing the organ, creating a sound installation-type atmosphere while I played repeating motives on the organ.
Currently, Innocent Passage in theTerritorial Sea, and my next album, fit somewhat into the broad lineage of rock and pop music (and everything associated—punk rock, new wave, post-rock, etc). I am using the Mellotron, which has a rich history in rock music, a vintage organ and a lot of bass. My next album (which I am finishing now) features drums prominently, played by Jon Mueller. Using drums is a really new thing for me (or at least not since my rock band days of youth).
[Read our Jon Mueller interview]
What types of sound do you personally prefer to work with? Are there sounds you reject – if so, for what reasons?
These days, I prefer to work with sounds that are well recorded. As long as the quality of the initial recording is good, I can work with almost anything.
Humans are often characterised as "visual beings". In your opinion, what role does our sense of hearing play in our understanding of the world? How do sounds affect you, compared to other senses like sight or smell?
I think humans are just as much “sonic beings.” In fact, (back to the subject of cinema sound design), it is well known among theorists like Michel Chion that the sound of a film gives a natural feeling to scenes more than than the visual aspect. When sound is off, audiences are much more disturbed than when imagery isn’t present.
When I worked on my current album, I listened very intensely while playing organ. I took mushrooms, then played and listened. My ears led me into a whole-body experience when I listened to the synth organ as I played it. I could feel the waves of sound on my skin changing in the air. I didn’t have that experience with my visual field. It was through my ears that I felt experiences in a much more embodied way.
We can listen to a pop song or open our window and simply take in the noises of the environment. Without going into the semantics of 'music vs field recordings', in which way are these experiences different and / or connected, do you feel?
I think melody is connected to the evolution of the human brain and memory. I can identify a melody in a very resonant space, where I would not understand human speech at the same volume. I imagine this connection originated in humans singing, connected with families, then cultures.
I think that, given this cognitive connection, listening to a field recording uses a different part of the brain. Field recordings may create layers of meaning in ways that obviously musical sounds cannot. I like the openness in listening presented by those sounds in field recordings. The purpose of music is to tell you how to feel in your world - the meanings that are assigned to those notes by your culture are set. Field recordings don’t necessarily have those assignments.
From the concept of Nada Brahma to "In the Beginning was the Word", many spiritual traditions have regarded sound as the basis of the world. Regardless of whether you're taking a scientific or spiritual angle, what is your own take on the idea of a harmony of the spheres and sound as the foundational element of existence?
I love this idea, and it makes sense to me in an intuitive or spiritual way.
Although, on the other hand, sometimes I think about the fact that, on this planet, before life was supported, there was no atmosphere that would carry sound through the air as we think of it. When everything oxidized there became an atmosphere, and life was possible. Air existed and sound could exist as we understand it.
So then, in that sense, I think sound is very earthly, just as animals, plants and humans are earthly. We all go together.