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NPR Arts & Life

Composer Olivia Block In Her Own Words

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Composer Olivia Block is happy enough writing for violins.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: But she really loves sounds that don't often count as music. Olivia Block is a connoisseur of noises, urban noises - the grunt of a bus, the whir of a fan - so we asked her to take us on a sonic tour of her city, Chicago.

OLIVIA BLOCK: I think that Chicago is actually one of the loudest downtown areas that I've ever heard. It's really, really loud. I mean, you can hear already there's so much going on. The word noise is interesting because noise is basically sounds that people don't want to hear, kind of. But of course to me, in what I do, I really value noise. I mean, that's what I find really beautiful and what I actually try to seek out. I always like the sound of the brakes on the elevated train. I think it's a really beautiful sound. It has a particular tone to it. Of course, the train here is elevated, so you really can hear all of the nuances and you really get a sense of the lumbering weight of the train, the wood and the metal.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN RUMBLING)

BLOCK: In the train, you can't understand what they're announcing, really, because the speaker is so blown out, which I really love.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Unintelligible).

BLOCK: And it's really interesting because it makes your ear listen to language in a different way. It's just like hearing a texture.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Unintelligible).

BLOCK: Basically, I just have my portable recording device with me all the time. And, you know, whenever I'm walking around I'll just - sometimes things will just strike me almost in a cinematic way, like someone who makes films might see something and say oh, that's such a striking image. I will, like, hear a sound and think oh, that's such a striking sound image. Something as simple as just two bottles rattling together or water lapping up against the rocks. My cell phone and my portable recorder is just full of these weird moments

(SOUNDBITE OF URBAN SOUND MONTAGE)

BLOCK: (Laughter) Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF URBAN SOUND MONTAGE)

BLOCK: One of the things I really like about walking in Chicago is just to hear the snippets of conversation. In my work, now I'm really interested in language that's kind of buried under noise, things that you can't quite hear but you're right on the verge of being able to hear. People are rushing by, so you can only hear a couple of words that they're saying. Cell phones have changed the soundscape. It's not only just a passing piece of a conversation. It's a passing piece of half of a conversation.

So right now, we are going up the stairs of the Aon Center, which used to be the standard oil building in the '70s. It's really tall. It used to be one of the tallest skyscrapers, at least in Chicago. But if you look - I mean, it's huge. And as you can hear, there's a sculpture where we're looking at this tall kind of vertical line of metal rods. And the wind is kind of banging these rods together, making these beautiful bell-like, resonant sounds. I'm going to actually turn on my own recorder and get some of this sound, which I do a lot, and which the security guards can tell you about because they come up to me a lot at night. So right now, I'm recording this sculpture that was created by the sculptor Bertoia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCULPTURE RATTLING)

BLOCK: And I love it because it's kind of like a mixture of the prairie grasses, the way that it sways back and forth, and these tall skyscrapers that you see everywhere. So it's just a really beautiful blending of this Midwestern prairie feel and this really urban structure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCULPTURE RATTLING)

GREENE: Composer Olivia Block. That tour of her favorite sound spots came to us from independent producer David Schulman, part of his series "Musicians In Their Own Words." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.