Olivia Block in the Chapel

Olivia Block in the Chapel

On Friday May 15th Olivia Block put on a performance of her music both solo tape music and several chamber music pieces.  In all honesty I’ve never really been all that taken with Block’s music, it comes across to me as overly, for lack of a better word, simplistic.  That is to say that it is not made up of simple elements, in the main I can get behind that, but that that it is so directly representation. Her last solo album Heave To I think is a prime example of this.  That album was about the sea but it was simply made up of sounds that sure are of the sea, things that people could easily associate with the sea but never captured the essence of the sea, that primal and mysterious connection we have with the sea.  It’s like using a black cloaked figure with a scythe in your film to represent death- direct, obvious lacking subtly.  That being said there aspects I’ve enjoyed in her music and it can work well as background music.  Seeing her live in Seattle is not a frequent occurrence (this could be the first time for all I know) and in this instance she was debuting some chamber music so I felt it was worth checking out.

As usual a Friday evening show meant a dash from work and what with being busy there and some bad traffic it was even more stressful then normal.  But I made it there about fifteen minutes before show time so once again it all worked out.  There were three piece played, the first solo the second just the chamber group and the final piece (after a short break) was Block with chamber group.

1) Untitled solo piece (~15 min)

The first piece was Olivia solo and she began by setting up some sounds from cassette decks and possible other sound sources. These sounds were loops of crackly sounds, hollow metallic sounds and various washes and creaks. After a bit of this she moves to the piano and adds various sounds mainly from manipulating the strings directly with other objects. Metal on metal, a mallet on the strings, a small piece of sheet metal dropped onto the strings.  Sometimes these sounds were sampled and immediately looped creating a much more denser wash of sounds at this point.  The climax of the piece was this generated density upon which she layered on a tape of a group chanting to which was added massive drums.  This was definitely the loudest portion of the piece (though not overwhelming in any way) and quite dense to the point that only certain sounds rose above the undifferentiated mass. The piece more or less concluded after this peak by her taking this apart so that only the original sounds remained.

To me this piece came across as an exercise in exploring an technical idea, there were some neat sounds but there was wasn’t anything there.  As I’ve found with a lot of Blocks work it the sounds could have been given more space as well.

Righthand half of the Chamber group

Righthand half of the Chamber group

2) Stupid Afternoon (~15 min)
The next piece, whose title comes from a Wallace Stevens poem (Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores unless he used that line often), was for a chamber ensemble in which Ms. Block did not take part. In this instance it was performed by Tiffany Lin, piano; Paul Taub, flute;  Jesse Canterbury, clarinet; Lori Goldston, cello; Tari Nelson-Zagar, violin; Sarah Bass, viola; and Julia Tai, conductor.  Lots of sounds, short phases coming and going, having a feel almost of busier mid century classical music with structure more akin to minimalisms use of short phases. Perhaps it is like minimalism without the direct repetition.  The gestures from the musicians were in the main traditional with little obvious extended techniques used.  A rising phases, a short series of chords, a single short blown note and so on.  Toward the middle of the piece there were a couple softer moments with longer tones that worked much better but all too soon the gabbiness was back.

Block introduced this piece saying that while she has always composed it is only recently that she’s been working on paper writing this kind of compositions. Listening to this piece I found this very easy to believe, it had a lot of features that you’d encounter among student composers, a lack of restraint realized in that most of the players played most of the time as if she didn’t want to leave anyone out. Ultimately I wasn’t very taken with the piece at all.

Violin, Viola and Piano

Violin, Viola and Piano

3) Untitled chamber piece (~25 min)
This piece was not introduced nor is there any writeup about it on the Wayward Music blog posting. The chamber musicians were playing from a score and there also was a box placed on a music stand in the front of the stage that all of the musicians could see. The ensemble was the same as before except there was no conductor (except for perhaps the box!) and Olivia was at (well mostly inside) the piano instead of Tiffany Lin. The piece was for tape, and chamber ensemble and was a traditional tape piece in that it was started and just ran its course throughout.  The piece began with Block inside the piano manipulating the strings in a quite sparse manner on her own. After some time the strings came in all three of them bouncing their bows on strings shortly followed by the winds just blowing air through their instruments. The tape slowly came up around this point with a crackly wash that built up a bit into the hollow sound of of wood knocking against wood in water.  The piece constantly built and at one Block played outside the piano a number of descending tones. Not really a scale per se, more as if one just randomly played a note lower down the keyboard then the one previously played.  This was pretty disengaging.  Eventually the tape became built up to a roar and Block was pounding the keys and the others were not playing.  This was really dense with huge pounded chords atop the wash of the tape and the density only increased as the entire ensemble came in playing continuously sustained tones. This one on for four or five minutes (max) and eventually petered out leaving just the tape playing for a short time and then it was done.

According to the Wayward Music page for this show this piece is “a loosely scored/partially improvised piece for prepared piano and electronic sounds which uses the complexity of overtones and rich timbres from low amplified piano tones. The physicality of performance is emphasized through the repetition of gestures for extreme durations.”  The partially scored aspect was clear in that the tapes were created beforehand and that the actions on the piano were by their nature somewhat indeterminate and during the peak of intensity their certainly was lot of physicality that definitely could have been from repeated activity, it was a little hard to tell from the audience but she was either repeatedly working the keys or inside the piano. I found the scoring for this piece to be more to my liking then the previous – more diversity of sound that had a fresher feel with less emphasis placed on everyone playing all the time.  Yet Blocks playing and the tape once again overwhelmed the proceedings with their continuous sounds.  While I’d certainly never argue that there is only one way to do this kind of music, that silence and space is a prerequisite I think that in the case of the pieces performed they would have been a lot stronger had this been the case.  There were moments in all of the pieces played tonight, the first third of this one in particular that were fantastic but none of them were consistent throughout.  All told as much problems as I’ve had with Blocks tape pieces I think that they are definitely a lot stronger then her chamber work.

For more of my pictures from this evening, click here.

[update 05.19.09]
So I got an email from Olivia with some factual corrections which I have applied to the text above.