Vinyl Reviews

Olivia Block – Karren

February 22, 2014


Another from the pile of music released a while back but too good for me to shelve away without further consideration.

It has been interesting to spend time with Olivia Block’s Karren today in conjunction with my ongoing discussion with Patrick Farmer on field recording that can be read here. The album consists of two movements, each a little under twenty minutes and on each side of 33rpm vinyl. The two movements are completely different, but closely related, and while the music here is invitingly fine in itself, it is how everything here ties together to one conceptual whole that makes this such a neatly defined piece of work. Composed and arranged over a six year period, Block’s liner notes suggest that the album might be viewed as a series of binary metaphors for the self, expanding on the sociologist Erving Goffman’s own dramaturgical metaphor for social interactions- that we put on a theatrical performance when we interact with others. The first side of Karren, titled Foramen Magnum after the anthropological term for the opening in the base of the skull that allows the spine to connect to the brain, is an electroacoustic construction made up of heavily processed field recordings of various public locations and recordings of orchestral rehearsals. Those rehearsals were for the music that forms Opening Night, the second movement here- an orchestral piece composed by Block and performed by the Chicago Composers Orchestra. The two halves are then acoustically very different, and at first glance disconnected, but here we see Block’s binary metaphors- the two sides of her compositional work perhaps, but also the rehearsal before going “on stage”, the comfort of working alone versus the trust needed to work with others,  and as the electroacoustic work is a fractured, unsettled work, so it perhaps presents the turmoil on the inside of Olivia Block, and indeed all of us, before we flip the record over and witness the gentle, pleasing tones of that which we present to an eager audience.

Without the neat structure that ties everything here together I suspect I would have greatly enjoyed Karren. The first movement in particular is a taut, tense construction that bursts into life with a jarring distorted smear that on first hearing made me think the needle had careered across the vinyl. It then moves through brooding, unsettling passages of murky, blurred movement and resonant yet indefinable spaces before flashing into life again frequently with crashing moments of sudden clarity. Its a bit like being in a state of half-sleep on a train, everything cloudy, distant, ill-defined only to suddenly jolt awake to the reality of the moment before gently subsiding again. The bursts of activity here are made up of clattering inhospitable abstraction and sudden shifts into the orchestral rehearsals, the rich swathes of strings jarring against the ugliness of all around them. As Foramen Magnum feels a troubled, intense, but nevertheless carefully constructed work undercut by brief moments of beauty, so Opening Night is the opposite, a series of soft layers of continuous, luscious, drifting orchestra, so richly layered that it almost sounds like the work was created in post production but it seems it was not. As the piece enters its second half though, a mysterious gurgling, bobbling sound appears, something like empty cardboard boxes caught in a burbling stream, that slowly makes itself more and more noticeable until as the movement ends it is the only thing we hear. The significance of this sound, which seems to try and wilfully compromise the beauty of the piece isn’t clear, but perhaps we have the inner self again here, the subconscious driving back into play as the outer self becomes comfortable in front of an audience.

This is stunning work, a brilliant example of how field recording can be used in thoroughly interesting ways and a nice use of the physical properties of a vinyl record to build on the overarching idea. Worth buying a record player for.

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