Approaching Olivia Block’s Karren here has provoked some hesitation on my part; much as that I encountered for a review last year of Alessandro Bosetti’s Stand Up Comedy. As then, it is worth questioning what this text could add to the experience of simply listening to such an accomplished work, but provoking our readers’ curiosity is hopefully (has to be) enough.
I only vaguely recall attending a performance of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at the age of 5 or 6 (the process of going downtown and sitting in a seat silently for an hour and a half was obviously the more demanding of my attention then), but I do distinctly recall loving the tuning of the orchestra before the music properly began. In the numerous versions of the process that I have witnessed since, I have never lost my fascination with that exposition of the innards of the musicians’ practice. While the concept of using the warm-up as a compositional structure itself dates back to (at least) Edgar Varese’s ‘Tuning Up’, Olivia Block’s use of the approach has contemporary relevance. First as a structural device for exploring the ever-evolving social nature of composition, and second as counterpoint to the sea of habitually polished and microscopically mastered music production. The attraction to Karren is that it manages both the former’s intimacy and the latter’s meticulousness.
One of the defining elements in the opening ‘Foramen Magnum’ is the diverse range of softly modulated static textures which feel very close-at-hand; due in part to their timbral qualities. The brushing and scuffling of static may well be the sound of the recorder’s (or listener’s) shifting body. This palette of finely tempered pink noise will be recognizable to those familiar with some of her older works, Heave To or Change Ringing. Avoiding the over-amplification of such sounds saves it from being outright noisy while its high dynamic range distinguishes it from the piezo microphone sonics in vogue these days. We are left with sounds invoking spatial immediacy or even intimacy, but which are simultaneously jarring in their busyness and lack of cohesive structure in the short-term.
Shoring up these responses are the field recordings themselves, largely of the aforementioned orchestral tune ups and snippets of conversation. In both cases, the listener is given only fragments of a larger narrative for which they struggle to find a context. Both conversations and symphonies are deconstructed into qualia – single sound fragments devoid of their natural relationships to each other. Only in their purposeful recomposition across the work do they take on recognizable meaning. One example in the first third of the piece has an orchestra progress from tuning up to a closing crescendo within thirty seconds, only to break down just as quickly into shifting electroacoustics. The connotations of each individual event are obvious, but when strung together so quickly, what do we hear? Recital, decomposition, practice, impatience, mistake?
‘Foramen Magnum’ balances all of these elements deftly, never alienating the listener with blunt dissonance but never letting one’s ears or mind settle into the pretty hum of a contrabass or sine wave for very long. This makes for a participatory experience as the narrative arc which builds across the piece is as quick, scattered and concrete as the internal dialogue of the listener engaging with it. Similarly, its diverse and drastic shifts in mood blur expectations of what a composition or performance should evoke.
Block herself speaks to the duality present both in the divergence of structure between pieces (‘back stage’ versus ‘front stage’) and in the physical process of flipping an LP. We have spoken to the ritualistic and social nature of physical media before, and her own notes on the composition are revealing so we won’t dwell on that relationship. While the placement of a piece titled ‘Opening Night’ on the B-side is perhaps a bit cheeky, it is of course logical that if the exposition of the processes leading to performance (musical, social) is presented first, the ostensible finished product follows.
In sharp contrast to the pointillism of the first side, ‘Opening Night’ spends much of its time exploring a carefully structured monolithic orchestral space. Despite its slow stirring and the gentle ease with which sections build and fade, there is a careful poise to the affair which slowly undermines that polished facade. Long before its obvious breaking point the minor chords, the tension between the languorous dynamic envelope and the evenly timed swells, the slightly too occasional percussion, and the odd audible background noise contribute to a sort of fragility of structure and mood.
When sound is delivered staccato, as throughout ‘Foramen Magnum’, it is the tonal and timbral information that we perceive first and foremost. The delivery on ‘Opening Night’ is languorous, and given ample time to discern its harmonics our ears instead focus on the ebb and flow of sound. What would be a melody at moderato becomes a brooding cycle of beginnings and endings. Block refers to some of the sounds on side A as ‘unsettling’, but I personally find the term more appropriate here.
Midway through the score appears significantly time-shifted clapping. The strange timing and contrasting fidelity produce a noticeable shift in scope, bringing the listener back to a more self-aware space. It is impossible not to consider the use of that specific sound as pointed given the dialectic mentioned earlier. The incorporation of the audience into the piece may be a recognition of the ambiguity of the barrier between performer and receiver of communication (the latter contributing discernibly or not to the work of the former). It may also speak to the invariably performative nature of artistic consumption itself. In any case, it makes for hypnotic listening, at times gutturally rhythmic and occasionally humourous. (I am convinced that the tonal glissando of so-called aqueous or bouncing sounds (which is what time-stretched percussive sounds, like clapping, become) is intrinsically funny or happy. Perhaps because of some sort of innate response to cooing and baby talk?) Never one to shy away from a definitive ending, as with the fireworks and brass on Mobius Fuse, it is a fitting final movement.
This is an album which will reward repeated listens. Olivia Block continues to impress with work that is interesting without being overbearing, and inventive without sounding self-consciously experimental. Highly recommended and still available on vinyl directly from Sedimental.