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Sound artist Olivia Block explores the infinite possibilities of the organ at Rockefeller Chapel

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One of the recurring tricks in the tool kit of extraordinary Chicago sound artist Olivia Block is to toy with the listener’s perception by playing with the boundaries between natural and artificial sound. Back in 2003, as part of the long-running Florasonic series in the Fern Room at the Lincoln Park Conservatory, she created a purely electronic installation that meticulously mirrored the space’s babbling water sounds before zooming into white-noise abstraction, prompting attendees to think about what was real and what wasn’t. Tonight Block premieres a new site-specific work that uses the massive organ in the spectacular Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of University of Chicago. She paid five visits to the venue and worked with house organist Thomas Weisflog to get a handle on the instrument and the complex acoustic properties of the space, and she’ll share her research in a piece called 132 Ranks, named for the groupings of pipes in the cathedral. For the first half she’ll use the instrument’s foot pedals to create ultralow bass tones that are felt more than heard, summoning psychoacoustic interference combined with prerecorded electronic white noise and sounds from an old Korg electronic organ. The second half of the piece will explore the organ’s highest tones via a series of thickening timbres that descend and collide with sine tones. Block told me she hopes listeners will walk around the space to experience how the collision of sound can generate radically different effects depending on one’s location. She said that the organ—which contains 8,565 pipes in 132 ranks and 150 different stops—is like a synthesizer in its richness and range, with seemingly infinite possibilities. Based on her previous work, I can’t wait to experience some of them in person.   v

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