Olivia Block Aberration of Light

[NNA Tapes; 2015]

Styles: ambient, electroacoustic, field recordings, epistemology
Others: Sabisha Friedberg, Alex Cobb, Jason Lescalleet, Supersilent

We’ve mistaken “ambient music” for something it’s not. Thinking that the term refers simply to music or sound of a largely atmospheric bent, we’ve forgotten how ambient is an adjective meaning “[l]ying round, surrounding, encircling, encompassing, environing” (OED, A.3.), and how it’s etymologically derived from the Latin ambire, meaning to go about or around the sides of a certain object. As such, we’ve lost touch with how ambient is actually a form of music distinguished by its indirectness, by its unwillingness to confront its subject matter head-on. We assume that the genre is planetary in scope, “the musical version of a geological survey,” when on the contrary, it’s not so much a direct representation of the immensity of the Earth or the cosmos as a refusal to represent anything directly.

Olivia Block knows something about this. Having opened her career with the no-doubt ironically named Pure Gaze in 1999, the Chicagoan sound artist has been talking around things for what is now her sixth solo album. Her albums have encompassed field recordings, electroacoustics, chamber music, and diffuse electronics, and in the process, they’ve done everything in their power to hint, tease, and wink at the world surrounding her, without ever apprehending or penetrating any of the objects that constitute it. Aberration of Light, an entirely reworked version of her 2011 collaboration with visual artists Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder, is no exception to this trend, plunging deeper into the realm of pure suggestion and circumambience. Its oblique slithers of feedback and gauzy blackouts allude to a presence that remains perennially out of reach, and it’s precisely this unbroken absence that infuses the album with its suspenseful vastness.

How exactly Block can signify an absence while presenting a continual stream of fuzz, hiss, echo, and pulsation is still something of an unexplained mystery, yet it nonetheless must have something to do with the blurriness and dimness of the tones she uses, their embodiment in soft edges and diluted borders. Throughout the 30 minutes of Aberration of Light, these borders remain permanently dissolved and faded, preventing the listener from ever outlining a clear image of their referent. Uncertain as to what they portray, this listener doesn’t experience anything definite in any definite way. Instead, she merely experiences her own inability to experience.

Moreover, this incompletion or poverty of sensation provokes the suspicion that Aberration of Light’s scope of representation is potentially galactic, if not infinite. Its sustained radiations of horn, electronics, and noise amass without ever assuming a particular form or without ever tracing a particular harmony or melody. Because nothing unequivocal is ever said by its condensations and dissipations, and because its “light” perpetually remains in “aberration,” it thereby says everything all at once. Indeed, its vague droning and ominous dispersion is consistent with any number of possibilities, none of which its hazy confusion ever comes near to excluding.

Consequently, the album acquires a nearly overwhelming tension. Never crystallizing enough to represent any one particular scenario, Block’s layers of ghoulish whistling and incidental sampling appear to threaten a multitude of disastrous eventualities all at once. This becomes almost insupportable for the listener at numerous junctures, particularly when a colossal wall of interference or treble rises out of the amorphous ether to portend the approach of some event or entity, but without being helpful enough to specify what such an event or entity might be.

And in the end, it’s this relationship to specificity and ambiguity that allows Aberration of Light to raise some big epistemological questions, questions about what we ever truly know of the world that we inhabit and the selves we are. In talking around its objects, in never committing to one definite scheme of things, its poly-vocal waves and washes of electricity ask us to consider whether reality is similarly multiple, whether more than one scheme of things might coherently and usefully be applied to the universe. Yes or no, one thing is definitely for certain: Aberration of Light reveals Olivia Block at her absorbing and edifying best, even if it doesn’t actually reveal anything else.

Links: Olivia Block - NNA Tapes

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