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Techno-Babbling Brook

Sound artist Olivia Block has always made extensive use of sounds taken from nature: the chirping of locusts, the crackling of ice-covered shrubs, the snapping of tree branches. But the Texas-bred composer, who’s lived in Chicago since 1996, usually processes the source recordings until they’re unrecognizable. In her new work Transgenesis, a sound installation in the Fern Room of the Lincoln Park Conservatory, Block continues to explore the boundaries between natural and artificial, but this time she’s going the other way, using a purely synthetic source to imitate nature. The 12-minute piece both complements and comments on the gentle gurgling of the Fern Room’s small waterfall.

“People that go into that place don’t want to hear electronic music,” says Block. “So I wanted to do something that might sound pleasant too.” She constructed Transgenesis from a single feedback tone: she slowed it down into a pulse, which she then ran through a series of electronic filters, recombining and tweaking the processed sounds. Block sees the result, similar to the sound of rushing water, as analogous to the conservatory’s idealized simulation of nature. “The idea was to create this sound that augments the fantasy of the space. But if you sit and listen to it for a while you realize that it’s kind of skewed and that it’s not a natural sound at all. It’s completely artificial. You can choose to stay in that fantasy, or you notice the architecture that contains the plant life itself and think about what made the sounds.”

Block started out in Austin in the early 90s, singing and playing guitar and trumpet in the avant-rock band Marble Index. She began recording sound collages to fill the gaps between songs in the group’s live set and soon became more interested in the collages than in the songs. Immersing herself in experimental music, free improvisation, and sound art, she was drawn to the intellectual abstraction of pure electronic noise but missed the visceral quality of traditional instruments and harmony. “My disappointment with sound art was that it was kind of throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” she says. “It was really interesting conceptually and it invited an entirely different way of listening, but it also lacked something emotional.”

It wasn’t until moving here–with her boyfriend, writer Alex Shakar, who was getting his PhD at UIC–that Block found other musicians to help her put that emotional element back into her work. Jim O’Rourke answered an ad she placed in the Reader, and through him she hooked up with players like Jeb Bishop, Kyle Bruckmann, and Ernst Karel. Her two solo releases, Pure Gaze (1999) and Mobius Fuse (2001, both on Sedimental), are deeply intuitive works that mix environmental and abstract sounds with evocative passages scored for brass and strings.

Block works at a glacial pace; she spent nearly three years creating Mobius Fuse. “I wish I was a lot more prolific,” she says. “It’s kind of hard–if labels ask me for something I have to say, ‘I would love to do something for you, but it’s going to take about five years.’ It’s not the best kind of calling card.” She tinkers endlessly with her pieces, remixing and reconfiguring, considering every possibility. “Time itself acts as a way of being objective about your own work. If you allow enough time to go by, you can hear it in a different way and make decisions accordingly, with fresh ears.”

Sunder, Unite, a collaboration between Block and Seth Nehil, an old Austin cohort, is due out later this year on Sedimental; she’s currently working on a piece with Bruckmann, as well as an all-electronic piece for the local Locust Music label. Transgenesis opens Sunday (with a reception from 3 to 5 PM) and runs through February 28. The work is part of the annual Outer Ear Festival of Sound, presented by Experimental Sound Studio; for more information go to expsoundstudio.com or call 773-784-0449.

Seam Like Old Times

On Saturday night Seam will play its first show in three years, headlining a benefit performance at the Abbey Pub for the Steven K. Pak Memorial Fund. (Pak was a supporter of the Asian-American arts community who died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in April at the age of 30.) Guitarist Soo-young Park started the noisy minimalist pop band in the early 90s in Chapel Hill. By ’93 Seam had relocated to Chicago, where it went through a number of personnel changes; drummers John McEntire and Bob Rising and guitarists Bundy K. Brown, Craig White, and Reg Shrader all served time in the band. The lineup that opened for Wire at the first Noise Pop Chicago festival in May 2000 featured Park, guitarist John Lee (who’d formerly led San Diego indie rockers aMiniature), and bassist William Shin–all Korean-Americans–with drummer Chris Manfrin. But the day after that gig Park moved to San Francisco with his fiancee, Fiona Cho, who was beginning grad school at the University of California at Berkeley in the fall.

“The original idea was for me to come back here and practice a lot, at least once a month,” says Park. “But that didn’t really work out.” Although Seam did play a handful of shows after Park left town–including one in South Korea–after a few months the band fell silent. Lee had started a project called MirrorAmerica, Manfrin was playing with Archer Prewitt, Shin was raising a family, and Park had a new job as a programmer.

In the Bay Area, Park joined an Asian-American noise-pop band called Ee, playing guitar and keyboards. They made an album and spent a month touring the U.S. “Of course you miss having your own band, but playing in Ee was really great,” says Park. “It was the first time I was in a band where I didn’t have to worry about stuff. Just concentrating on guitar and not worrying about singing was good for me.”

When Park and Cho got married in November 2002, the erstwhile Seam members discussed reviving the band, a possibility raised by Park’s decision to seek a master’s degree in computer science at the University of Chicago. He moved back this June, and by July the band was practicing again in its old Humboldt Park space; Park’s amp was right where he’d left it three years earlier.

Seam will be playing old material at Saturday’s performance, although Park says they may try out one new tune. Prior to its sabbatical the band had done some recording, but none of it was deemed worthy of release. “At this point I feel like we’re starting over,” he says. “We’re going to keep playing, although I don’t know how often or what form it’s going to take.” Also performing are Ee, who are continuing without Park (though he’ll join them here); Aden, the pop band led by Jeff Gramm; Pete the Genius, a funk-noise project led by Ee drummer Pete Nguyen; and MirrorAmerica. The show starts at 10 PM.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.