Olivia Block - 132 Ranks (Room40)



1. 132 Ranks

Many artists working under the catchall ‘experimental’ label nevertheless tend toward repetition, even cliché. Olivia Block, by contrast, rarely does the same thing twice. Indeed, her recorded output often feels like a series of literal experiments, designed and executed in rigorously controlled environments. With each release, Block conceives a new setup, introduces a new instrument or source material—or a new system or method of composition—so that her oeuvre has the feel of an ever-expanding research programme. When she has selected, explored, and documented a new idea (or technique, or space), Block publishes her findings and moves on.

132 Ranks is no exception. The single track was recorded live at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, planned and executed as a study of the site’s historic pipe organ in addition to its other architectural and acoustic properties. To that end, the album comes with thorough documentation to help the listener decipher its elaborate, diagrammatic structure. At any given moment, we are told we hear some combination of: (1) Block’s live performance on the church’s ninety-year-old pipe organ; (2) pre-recorded segments of more organ music playing from an array of six speakers positioned around the space; and (3) white noise, sine waves, and other synthesised tones coming from the speaker array. On top of all this, (4) the audience makes a persistent sonic contribution: we hear footsteps, voices, and at least a few iPhone camera shutters as they move about the space.

Hearing Olivia Block duo, with herself, on a goddamn huge pipe organ, is exactly as awesome as it sounds. Block works her way from the extremities of her sonic palette toward the centre, so that it's almost ten minutes before we hear anything definitively resembling a pipe organ. From there she mostly focuses on utilising the organ's full range—with help from the speakers—to build massive, knotted drones and let them crumble again, sometimes leaving behind a solitary, piercing note. The piece keeps growing and shrinking this way until the denouement, when Block brings the full force of the organ to bear. Here, Block's playing, though still thoroughly dissonant, most showcases the organ's musicality. We are reminded why this instrument has for so long been associated with spiritual revelation and divine grandeur.

Much of 132 Ranks works well. For all its sonic and conceptual density, the piece seldom feels busy. Even the audience sounds mingle well with Block’s playing in its quieter moments. However, given that Block’s intention is, in part, to emphasise the pipe organ’s extreme range—its capacity to produce almost super- and sub-sonic tones—the layering of synthesised tones on top of it feels awkward. Because of them, it is often unclear which—if any—sounds are coming from the actual organ at any given time. In this way, the piece’s conceptual design somewhat dilutes and distracts from its greatest asset—the Skinner organ and Block’s performance(s) thereon—leaving instead a nagging question in the listener’s mind.

Block’s compositions have, of course, always blurred the lines between disparate sound sources—acoustic and electronic, composed and collected, live and recorded—often to tremendous effect. In this case, however, the formalism distracts from the piece’s conceptual centrepiece—namely, the pipe organ for which the album is named. Block, of course, designed the piece primarily for the live audience—who, by virtue of actually being there, would have less difficulty distinguishing between 132 Ranks’s several moving parts. No live recording has ever truly captured how sound sounds as it reverberates through a physical space. When it comes to a piece so complex, so site-specific, the gulf between live and recorded experience feels especially wide. 132 Ranks contains some of Block’s most engaging work to date, but it leaves me wishing I could hear it in something closer to its proper setting. I hope the ones lucky enough to have been there enjoyed their photographs.