132 Ranks by Olivia Block


Olivia Block | 132 Ranks
Room40 (CD/DL)

I first heard of composer Olivia Block in the early 00’s when she was collaborating with Seth Nehil on the risk-taking Sedimental imprint. In the ensuing years, this here is her thirteenth record on Room40, either solo or collaborative, and her sound has only become more robust than ever. 132 Ranks is a 49-minute piece that begins with a very distant drone and organic microsounds up front. The work instantly comes off as reverent, but to what, at first, is unclear and mysterious. From the outset you may want to slip on a pair of quality headphones, or crank the volume as this is quite restrained. The atmosphere starts to slowly gyrate as if you are listening to the innards of a vacuum in slow motion, but in essence she composed the piece for pipe organ in 2016-2017, a commission for LAMPO and The Renaissance Society. So the centrifugal sensibility is captured in ways unexpected, and the output is an industrial meditation, a cross between ocean waves and rushing wind filled with ball bearings.


The tones shift to sharp, suspenseful sine waves and for the first time you get the presence of the organ, it’s dramatic when it makes its entry, bleary and tense simultaneously.  Along with the long tones that somewhat mimic a bagpipe, you also get a crumbling low drone rumble in the foreground, and sudden silence, but the quietest high pitch echoes on, testing ones ability to perceive stillness, and the agility to listen in those cavernous moments. Block manages to shy from stylish production, and rather keeps her sound fairly raw in its sequencing. If you twist your head from your personal speakers the sound dances like a tone test. Another shift brings a layered set of chords that are paced with each other until a roaring rev kicks in. You can even hear Block pull or push the footpedals, it’s pretty dramatic, the whole powerful roar of her wielding this massive instrument.

Wiggling octaves, tones as bright and warm as well as thrusting and brazen, 132 Ranks offers a portrait of an artist at her most irrepressible. There is an uncanny way in which the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel becomes a new channel for Block’s already intense experimental signature sound. It’s hard to imagine the ominous instrument having the innate ability to offer an intimate sound without overwhelming with intensity which it is built to do for a packed house of churchgoers. And though she gets fairly intense in spots here, it’s her restraint that courts the highest intensity. After the midpoint there’s this conjuring of separation that seems to seep into every corner of the room in which she is playing. The live-ness of it all it underscored by a few quiet coughs in the audience, and the overall sense of containment.

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Once the room dims again she plays a light harmony for a split few seconds until the voracity of the organ dazzles with its full throttle. This record is all about counter/balance, light/dark, volume and pitch vs repose and self-discipline. Block manages to find an elegant balance given her access to this grande noisemaker – at times practically rocking out, but composing herself, by way of the audience-at-large, instead sculpting sound that is all in the flex and range of the fingertips. So, though you may image the many opera phantoms who have come before, this here composer is contorting her own most un/Earthly saucer sound transmissions into a specious perspective. The listener is left with a perfect sense of tension in the end, as it sounds as if a storm heads out to sea or as if she is draining a waterway (a swamp?) into the din of silence.


This review is part of Womens Work Week – a celebration of international women working in experimental and electronic music genres. If you enjoy this review you may also be interested in one of these additional releases that we are covering this week on Toneshift.net:



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