Though they hail from different locations and backgrounds, Olivia Block and Lea Bertucci have plenty in common: a penchant for producing arresting music via unconventional means, a passion for experimental film and illumination, and a knack for conjuring audible architecture through abstract sound design. Block, based in Chicago, recently issued a compelling eponymous solo CD of music for piano and organ on the English label Another Timbre; Bertucci, a Brooklynite, issued her latest album on February 9: Metal Aether, a collection of evocative abstractions built around her lithe saxophone, on the NNA Tapes label.
On February 10, these two celebrated sound artists will share a bill with industrial-music icon Drew McDowall, best known for his work in Coil and Psychic TV, at Issue Project Room – where Bertucci recorded part of Metal Aether during an artist residency, and where Block will revisit Aberration of Light, her own NNA Tapes release from 2015, in its intended surround-sound form. In advance of that auspicious occasion, Block and Bertucci recently connected via Skype for a wide-ranging conversation about their approaches to composition and performance. The chat began with a discussion of Issue’s acoustics, which led Bertucci to cite a memorable performance of works by the French composer Éliane Radigue that she’d seen there last year.
LEA BERTUCCI: I love Éliane Radigue’s music, and it’s been important to hear that, for me.
OLIVIA BLOCK: I can hear that in your pieces, like in the recent release… the layers, especially. It seems like you’re very attuned to and adept at layering material.
LB: Éliane Radigue does that in such a cool way, because it’s almost subliminal. She has this very interesting kind of subtlety to the way she mixes the sounds that she’s producing.
OB: It seems like it’s really challenging, when you’re combining sounds from the same source. That’s a real tricky area, so you have to do some trickery to make that work.
LB: Yeah. I was listening to Aberration of Light, and I noticed that you said it was originally in collaboration with expanded cinema. Can you tell me more about that? I studied photography and film in school, so I’m really active in and interested in experimental cinema and abstract cinema.
OB: In fact, some of the photographs of your reflective stuff kind of reminds me of… I was working with two expanded-cinema artists, Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder, who are actually based in New York but they’re just never there – they’re always touring. And they do stuff with 35-millimeter projectors, so all of the Aberration of Light shows with them were in old cinema houses with 35-millimeter projectors, which are getting more scarce as time goes by. They would set up in the booth, and they wouldn’t use film, or when they did use film, it was like very, very sparse little pieces of film, and they didn’t even know what the film was. It was just little reels, probably like preview reels or something like that.
Mostly what they did was put pieces of glass in front of the lens, and just mess with the aperture and the light and the focus and all that kind of stuff. It was this really interesting and gorgeous display of light, basically, on the screen, but because they weren’t using film, it wasn’t contained within the parameters of the screen; it would sort of splay out everywhere. Light was kind of exploding everywhere. So the idea of Aberration of Light was to have the sonic equivalent of splaying outside the boundaries of something. So it was like speakers everywhere instead of just behind the screen… actually, with cinema it’s always like that.
LB: Yeah, when you’re in a commercial cinema.
OB: Exactly. So it was very much an immersive kind of thing.
LB: That’s really interesting. As someone who has studied both sound and visual, photographic stuff, I always find there to be this amazing kind of similarity between light and sound, because when you look at what those are from a physics perspective, we’re just talking about waves, and the things that waves can do, whether it’s bending, refracting, reflecting: sound can reflect, sound can bounce and diffuse and all these things. People are always asking me, “Why do you have this background doing film and photography? How does it translate to sound?” I see it as the same thing, really – especially because I do a lot of field recordings, so I think that impulse to creatively document the world is also part of it.
OB: That makes sense.
LB: Do you know the work of… when you talk about films that aren’t made of normal, conventional film stock, like Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight? Have you ever seen that?
OB: Oh, yeah. I love that. He’s a hero of mine – I love Stan Brakhage’s work.
LB: I went to a screening of some of his works, and I heard his main historian, P. Adams Sitney, talking about Mothlight. And he said that Brakhage made Mothlight because he didn’t have any money for film, so he just took some kind of clear leader and put leaves and stuff in it. This is the life of an experimental filmmaker. [Laughs]
OB: I can relate to that. It’s funny, because I’m really interested myself in 35-millimeter slides, and so I collect them and layer them and stuff, and I’ve also tried to layer actual thin objects in the slides. So that idea of putting translucent, thin objects and passing light through those is really interesting, too.
LB: If you have a lamination machine…
OB: That would be awesome. Do you have one?
LB: I don’t have one, but I’ve done what you’re describing. [Laughs]
OB: Did you do it with one of those projectors where you put things on the lit surface?
LB: You can do it with an overhead projector. The thing about overhead projectors is that usually there’s a lot of spill from the surface of the bed, so you get a lot of ambient light in the room. The way that I did it was I mounted them into little slide mounts and put them in a tray.
OB: What did you put in there?
LB: I put in, like, some ferns… [Laughs]
OB: My experience was, when doing that, I would get the shadow, the outline, but not necessarily the translucent passing of light through the thing. Did that happen to you, too?
LB: I got color; it just wasn’t in focus. I don’t know if it was just the focal length of the lens versus the space I was in. I’m not really sure. It was not a totally successful experiment [laughs] but that’s okay.
OB: Basically, I find that anything coming out of a 35-millimeter projector looks good. It doesn’t matter what it is.
LB: The quality of light, I think, that they put out is really awesome, and kind of nicer than a digital projector, because with a digital projector there’s that net, and it’s like, am I supposed to pretend that I don’t see that? You know what I mean: you get that mesh behind. It’s more on poor quality projectors – there’s this grid, if you look closely. And with analog projectors, it’s just light.
OB: I certainly see a difference in the quality and the characteristic of it, but I never could name what that was. Maybe that’s what it is. I don’t like the way that digital projectors look at all. I see a huge difference.
From projectors, conversation turned toward the sizes, shapes, and acoustic properties of the venues that housed them, and a light-reflecting technique Bertucci employs in some concerts.
OB: You’re really like touring touring… you’re not just doing one-shot things.
LB: Yeah, I’ve been doing some extended traveling. This past season I was in Europe, Chicago, the University of Notre Dame – which was super weird – and Mexico City. It’s fun, but you get so many different types of venues with different constraints. The nice thing about the reflective patch thing that I do… that’s actually a funny thing, because it’s so effective, it works so well, and it’s the most simple possible thing.
OB: What is it, exactly, that you’re doing?
LB: I have a patch of this reflective Mylar material on my back, and then I have the projector shining light onto that patch, so that the reflected, warped light that spills onto the wall behind me is really interesting visually. It’s a very simple process, but it totally corresponds to whatever kind of movement I make.
OB: It’s dramatizing your physical gestures. That’s cool.
LB: You can even see when I’m breathing, because that’s how sensitive the material is to any slight movement. It’s kind of an easy thing that I can bring around with me, and I don’t have to use an analog projector; I can use digital – although of course I prefer analog light. [laughs] But it does require a certain kind of space. It’s hard to always be able to get that when you’re on tour, for sure.
The best time with this – this was amazing, I didn’t even realize how good this was going to turn out – I was in this nuclear reactor pit…
OB: I saw a photograph of that! It was amazing looking.
LB: It was in Stockholm, this crazy place. I was in this subterranean carved-out rock pit, and I had the reflections happening, and it just filled the entire space. And it was kind of nice, because people were above me looking down, so the process of what they were seeing was revealed: They could see the back patch, they could see the projector. To me, that was really nice, because a lot of times when I do that particular thing in performance, people have no idea what is going on, because they can’t see that it’s reflecting off this thing that’s on my back. So that was kind of nice.
OB: Do you like it when the seams of performances are revealed in that way? Is that of interest to you?
LB: I think it totally depends on the project.
OB: I like that. I think that’s awesome. I love it when you can see how things are being generated.
LB: And if you can find a clever way to reveal that process, I think that that’s even better.
LB: It’s funny, because sometimes when I don’t understand what’s going on, it’s almost distracting from the performance, because I’m like, how are they doing that? Even if I’m enjoying it a lot, it might be somewhat of a distraction if somebody has some big, amazing homemade instrument. It’s good to have that reveal sometimes.
OB: I really like the new [album]. I feel like saxophone is an instrument, and I’d imagine you would probably agree, that there’s a lack of repertoire in these certain areas, but an overabundance of repertoire in, of course, jazz and stuff like that. The tone of the saxophone is quite beautiful, even in terms of classical instruments. It’s a beautiful instrument, but nobody ever really plays it that way. You’re actually using the tone in a different way. It’s not like super squonky, and you’re actually playing these longer lines and things like that.
LB: I think the reason that saxophone isn’t extensively used in classical repertoire is just mainly because it’s a pretty modern instrument. Romantic music, maybe there’s a little bit of saxophone towards the late period, but it’s not something that’s really present. It kind of came about as an instrument around the time that jazz was developing further. I played jazz and classical music growing up, and I had to kind of retrain myself to not play these memorized jazz riffs when I picked up the saxophone again after putting it away for a while. And the horn that I had was actually my dear friend’s mother’s saxophone. It’s from 1924; it’s a really beautiful prewar Conn. It’s silver. [laughs] And it was totally broken when I started playing it – like, you couldn’t really play a major scale on it. It did not sound correct.
OB: What was broken on it that made it not work?
LB: It had sat derelict in a basement for about 30 years. There wasn’t any water damage or anything, but the pads on the saxophone… a really important part of saxophone is having that seal, so it wasn’t sealing. So you would get all these out-of-tune notes and lots of ghost notes and stuff. It was kind of interesting to relearn that instrument as a disabled instrument, so I could only do certain things with it. And it kept me from just rehashing old jazz habits. Does that make sense?
OB: It totally makes sense. It makes sense especially in thinking about the pads and the seals, if there were those hissy notes that you really had to avoid, that the jazz repertoire, which is so much based upon scales and modes and things like that, was really not accessible for you, so you would have to really think about going from note to note, right?
LB: Yeah, and just that I couldn’t play a conventional 12-tone melody. It was all about texture and accidents. It made me embrace the accidentalness of what’s possible on a saxophone.
OB: Are you still playing that saxophone, or are you playing something different?
LB: No, that’s the one I play. What I ended up doing was I played it broken for a while, [laughs] for a really long time, and then eventually it just got a little too broken. So I had it completely restored. And I could totally rip some Charlie Parker licks on it, but I’m not going to do that. [Laughs]
OB: You’ve been retrained enough. It’s funny how important pads are. Not to get stuck on this issue, but I realized recently with piano how completely crucial pads are. And a lot of times when people retune or recalibrate the parts in a piano, they avoid replacing the pads, the felt on the hammers. And when those are too hard or too thin, it just makes the action of the piano almost like a harpsichord or something. It’s very binary: it’s either on or off. You can’t do anything subtle, and there’s no warmth to the tone, so it just makes the piano sound really shrill.
LB: I’d imagine that you can’t really play dynamically.
OB: It’s hard to play dynamically, and timbrally… it’s hard to do dynamic timbral things, too. It’s all shrill, and you can’t coax any warmth out of it. I recently did a recording in Electrical Audio, which is Steve Albini’s studio here in Chicago, and their piano just sounds amazing, because they replaced the pads. They totally redid all the pads, and it’s just a gorgeous-sounding instrument.
LB: Do you know what kind they have?
OB: They have two, and I think the one I played was just a Yamaha. That’s the thing: it wasn’t like a super high-end piano. It was just sort of mid-range. But the fact that they had replaced those pads made all the difference. I was looking for so long for a nice piano to play, and I was looking in all the classical studios, but finally I just found this one at Electrical.
LB: What’s your favorite type of piano to play? Do you have a favorite?
OB: Not really. My primary instrument isn’t really piano; I mean, I sort of know how to play it. I went back to conservatory just 10 years ago, when I was in my 30s, just because I was really interested in doing orchestral music. I’m one of these composers that I feel bad if my score isn’t good for musicians. I’m not the kind of experimental composer that’s just like, it’s cool, they won’t care, there are some skills I’m lacking. I’m more like: I really need to know how to do this right. I need to know every tiny technical thing. So I went back to this small school here; it’s very conservative, and they had all these really nice practice grand pianos. And I should have been practicing, but I was immediately opening up the lid and going inside and doing all this stuff, which I’m sure they didn’t appreciate very much at that school. So my renewed interest in piano kind of came out of that period of experimentation.
Bertucci mentions a recent residency at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where all composers had a Steinway piano at their disposal in their studios.
LB: It’s a great residency. All of their studios for composers have Steinway grands in them that are very well tuned and maintained, and I had never lived with a piano before. It was wonderful. I mean, I definitely was inside of that thing a whole bunch. [Laughs] It’s hard for me, because I have really small hands, so I was trying to play a bit of piano, get my keyboard skills better, so I got this book of Morton Feldman because I figured, okay, it’s slow… I can just kind of plunk some chords. But then, the intervals are so huge that my little, tiny hands just wouldn’t do them.
OB: It’s a mystery why he does that. That’s one of the things about his scores: the piano intervals are too big, and the dynamics are impossible. I don’t know why he did that.
LB: Maybe it’s a way to put tension into the music, because it’s delicate music, but it is also very tense and neurotic. Feldman had a neurotic edge to him.
Something that I’ve always struggled with is… not how do you score indeterminacy, but how do you read between the lines in a musical score? You do that with literature a lot; whole genres of literature use that heavily. I wonder, musically, how you would do that?
OB: What do you think? What’s your answer? Because this is a question I think about a lot, too.
LB: I think this is a place where hand-writing scores can be really beautiful, that kind of imperfect stroke of the pencil or pen. Scrawling certain things can be really nice, because it has a less precision-based look. It’s an aesthetic thing; you’re trying to convey a certain kind of mood in a piece of music, and I think hand-writing can be really useful in that type of thing.
OB: I’d never really thought about that, but that’s totally true. I’ve seen your drawn [scores]… they’re so beautiful, the drawn diagrams that you’re doing. It seems like drawing is part of your process.
LB: Yeah, totally. I mean, it’s nice for me to be able to graphically represent a structure just visually. But it’s funny, because I did this piece for a children’s choir last year, where I couldn’t use any kind of weird notation, really. I had to do it mostly in Sibelius [notation software]. So that was kind of interesting.
OB: How did you do it?
LB: I have no idea what I’m doing, ever, basically, and this was a case of that. I mean, the piece turned out good! [Laughs] I knew that I wanted there to be glissandi in the piece, and because you have so many people, the opportunity to have these multidirectional simultaneous glissandi can do interesting things. So I recorded myself singing a glissando from a given pitch that I played on piano, up to the top of my range and then down from that note to the bottom of my range. I created this insane sample library of myself singing glissandi, and then I made a collage of that on the computer, and notated that. Because MIDI sucks for voice.
OB: So when you’re using Sibelius you’re actually using the MIDI function, where you’re sort of inputting something and then Sibelius is writing it up?
LB: No. I hand-notated the whole thing, because I’m insane.
OB: Sibelius, I find, is lacking in terms of anything outside of very conventional… I mean, I use Sibelius, but if you ever want anything open-metrical, that’s very hard to do.
LB: I’ve heard of people drawing custom lines in Photoshop and then dropping them into Sibelius, but I’m much more lo-tech than that. Also, the process of spending a week going through this weird collage of my own voice that I made and notating it kind of put me deeper into the music in this way. I could analyze and understand it better, I guess.
OB: How do you think of your music in terms of, this is my repertoire, and I can do this piece again here, here, and here? I feel like this realm that we’re in is very much not about it; it’s like, here’s this record, I’m going to tour with it, it’s done, here’s my next record, I’m going to tour that.
LB: Yeah. Basically, I like to tour and then release the record.
OB: Yeah, totally.
LB: And then by the next time I’m ready to tour, I want to play new material. That way, I get to develop that material over time, and then record it. So it’s like, record it when it’s at its best.
OB: I totally relate to that process.
LB: For some of my other pieces that are for other musicians, I have a few different types of things. Some things require a spatialized 10.2 channel sound system and a giant factory space [laughs] and two wireless bassists.
Stuff like that is harder to do more than once, really. Of course, it’s definitely possible, but resources are always a problem here in the United States of America. But I also have other pieces, like I have this piece for trombone and tape that’s very easy to do; all it needs really is subwoofers and a trombonist.
You work with instrumentalists a lot, right? Have you found that sometimes people who are more classical nerds are more open to playing the types of sounds that you want?
OB: I’ve got to think about that… that’s a hard one to answer. I’ve definitely noticed that when I’ve got parts that are more open, an open framework for interpretation, that the sort of jazz-centric people and the classical-centric people will play those things very, very differently. And I feel like I can instruct them in different ways, because they need more pushing in certain ways. What do you find?
LB: I’ve found that a lot of times, jazz people have more strict ideas about music than classical people – which is interesting, because jazz is supposed to be a more freedom-impulse music. But it really does have its own specific vernacular. I’ve had a hard time sometimes getting people to not play so “jazzily.” Or trying to communicate that, in a non-offensive way… you can’t just say, “Hey, stop playing so jazzily.” [Laughs]
OB: Although, I don’t know, they probably wouldn’t care if you said that. It seems like most musicians have a pretty good sense of humor about such things. I know what you mean. I also feel like this is very regional, in a way, because some of the people here who play in the jazz scene are also pretty attuned to the weirder sort of post-classical stuff. There have been some times where I’ve run into the sort of “jazzy” phenomenon, but a lot of times they pretty much know what I’m doing, which I feel pretty lucky about.
What I feel like I struggle with when I’m dealing with any musicians, actually, is trying to get them out of the linguistic sort of way of communicating – which would include call-and-response and that sort of stuff – and more into the realm of, you are one unit, you’re like a machine or some kind of biome. You’re working on this thing together; it’s not like you’re voices talking to each other.
LB: I was trying to come up with terms for the type of playing that I’m interested in, and I sort of settled on “non-idiomatic.” It’s like, a melody is basically the musical equivalent of a sentence. It’s linear over time, it has a conclusion. Same thing with chord progressions. I think that the music we’re interested in making is more like architecture.
OB: Yes. I totally agree with that.
LB: Texture, density, all these things.
OB: I say the same thing. I’ll say, shift from linguistic thinking to space. You are creating a space in architecture rather than a sentence, a linear thing. I’m totally with you. I definitely hear that in your work.
LB: I definitely hear that in your work, too. When I was playing Aberration of Light, it was really giving my speakers a workout in this cool way.
OB: That piece particularly was definitely about architecture and cinema and perception, even, because it was using all these sounds and really working with dynamics so that they entered into the framework very slowly, so that the ear is almost like, “Am I hearing something? Am I not hearing something?” But then you’re feeling this low thing, and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, there’s something there.” So it’s kind of like making ways of hearing music without actually hearing it. Sensing that it’s there, but not knowing for sure.
Olivia Block and Lea Bertucci perform at Issue Project Room on Feb. 10 at 8pm; issueprojectroom.org.