Olivia Block is perhaps best known to Fluid Radio readers for her electroacoustic works such as “Aberration of Light” and “Dissolution”. This music draws on plenty of acoustic sound sources, but is generally constructed on a computer. However, the Chicago-based composer has also developed a live performance practice using acoustic keyboard instruments, specifically piano and organ, and it’s this work that features on her first solo recording for UK label Another Timbre. The first time I came across this aspect of Block’s music was at a concert at Café Oto earlier in the year, but the home recording gives perhaps a more distilled and focused impression of her intentions.
Like many contemporary performers, Block prepares her piano by inserting different objects between the strings and plays those strings in a number of non-traditional ways in order to coax different timbres from the instrument. Sudden, sharp stabs in the higher registers give way to quiet tentative phrases lower down; the constant juxtaposition of accented and effaced notes creates a mysterious, suspenseful atmosphere. Reverberation and the afore-mentioned preparations lead to interesting resonances, but Block also demonstrates how resonance changes with pitch through a lovely descent from one end of the keyboard to the other. She then moves on to play directly on the strings, emphasising the piano’s curious double status as both a stringed and percussion instrument with spindley, metallic, rapid-fire tingles and chinks.
The organ first enters as a very quiet hum, with strange, squeaky fireworks occasionally shooting off into the distance. A gentle pattering builds into frantic storm-like chattering, clattering, and scraping. Towards the end of the recording, a very low quiet tone is felt more than heard, drawing attention to the way these acoustic instruments sound in (and sometimes shake) a physical space. Block uses the full range of options at her disposal to animate the keyboards and the mechanical contrivances behind them, with extremes of dynamics, pitch, and timbral contrast all deployed. If anything, the results seem to me a little less singular and distinctive than her electroacoustic work — but there’s no doubting the quality of this music, or the attentiveness to the myriad possibilities offered by these instruments and the spaces in which they sound.