Olivia Block

Olivia Block - Aberration of Light, artist sat at grand piano with various electronic devices

Aberration of Light

Optical aberration occurs when rays of light fail to converge on the same focal point after transmission through an imaging system. The most basic manifestation of this effect is defocus, familiar to almost anyone who has used a photographic camera. Surprisingly, aberration of light occurs not because of blemishes or imperfections in the system through which it passes (e.g. the camera’s lens), but because the standard paraxial model of optics isn’t perfectly accurate in its description of how light propagates. The optics you were taught in school is, as it turns out, itself a little out of focus.

Olivia Block’s “Aberration of Light” takes its name from a collaboration with film projection artists Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder, hence the association with light. However, the phenomenon of optical aberration can be taken as a useful metaphor for listening to her music. Her use of field recordings and orchestral instruments, transformed and manipulated to the extent that they become almost unrecognisable, leads to the creation of what might be called a ‘landscape out of focus’: sounds seem intimately familiar, and yet at the same time estranged and distanced. This makes itself audible in two specific and seemingly contradictory ways: there is a blurring of distinctions, a smearing of timbre, pitch, or instrumental voice, and also sudden moments of almost pin-sharpness and instant recognition. These two characteristics often manifest simultaneously, albeit in different registers. In “Aberration of Light”, this is exemplified by the introduction of flutes or of flute-like sounds mid-way through the piece — there’s a sudden increase in clarity of pitch and harmony, like a lens snapping into focus, yet at the same time the tones shift ambiguously with respect to recognisability of instrumental voice (is it flutes or not?).

An anecdote may serve to illustrate this point further. One day I was scrolling distractedly through my Twitter feed, the stream of short posts containing news updates on various wars, announcements of record releases, miscellaneous contextless chatter, and colours from a hexidecimal colour bot slowly blurring and losing their distinction. Then I read a post that said, quite simply, “A deer just ran by me in the middle of Chicago.”. The post was written by Block. The details of this statement were vague (where in Chicago? and what was the deer doing there?), and my imagining of the situation quite hazy, yet there was something about this sentence that shocked me, that stood out in pin-sharp clarity in relation to the blurred, out-of-focus torrent of information that preceded it. Suddenly all my attention was focused on this one sentence, the meaning of which was clear and yet somehow unfathomable at the same time. I experience this disorienting jolt in other contexts now and then, often while out walking — suddenly I come to my senses, surrounded by trees and birds and insects and cars and concrete, with the realisation that I’m not quite sure where I am. Perhaps it relates to the original sense of the word bewilderment. I find that Block’s music has the capacity to induce such a bewilderment.

It’s possible to make loose connections between this aspect of Block’s work and the modern aesthetic of shock, through which movements as diverse as Futurism, Surrealism, and architectural Brutalism sought to shake the people out of their stupor and awaken them to the brave new world of the future. The concreteness of her sounds, their solidity and sheer surfaces, helps to activate this connection: the ways in which the modern city smears and distorts sounds through the built environment resemble Block’s own treatments (and indeed often supplies the raw material in the form of field recordings). Although not in any way nostalgic or didactic, and operating in a very different milieu to the aforementioned movements, compositions such as “Aberration of Light” can be heard as affirmations of the proposition that it’s the blurring of distinctions induced by technology that creates an occasion for the shock of awakening. It’s tempting, then, to hear in this music something of the deer in the city, or the beach beneath the streets — a utopian reference that points not so much to a revolutionary programme as to an emancipatory impulse, a pulse in which we wake up, finally, somewhere else.



Listen to a full stream of “Aberration of Light” here

Photo by Ryan Lowry

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