BUSINESS NEWS: A Water Tank Turned Music Venue

In 1976, the composer and sound artist Bruce Odland participated in an arts festival sponsored by the Colorado Chautauqua, which presented shows across the state. Odland’s contribution was to create a sonic collage portraying each place he visited. The last stop was a town called Rangely, in northwestern Colorado, on the high desert that extends into Utah. Odland was outside one day, making recordings of ambient sounds, when a pickup truck pulled up beside him. Two burly oil workers were inside. One asked, “Are you the sound guy?” Odland nodded. “Get in,” the worker said. Odland hesitated, then complied. They drove to a sixty-five-foot-tall water tank, on a hillside on the outskirts of town. Odland was told to crawl into it, through a drainage hole. He obeyed, now feeling distinctly uneasy. The guys instructed him to turn on his equipment, and then commenced throwing rocks at the tank and banging it with two-by-fours. Odland found himself engulfed in the most extraordinary noise he had ever heard: an endlessly booming, ringing roar. It was as if he were in the belfry of an industrial cathedral.

The Tank, as everyone calls it, still looms over Rangely in rusty majesty, looking a bit like Devils Tower. Late one afternoon in June, Odland welcomed me there. He’s a wavy-haired sixty-five-year-old, with the sunny manner of an undefeated hippie idealist. In recent years, he and others have renovated the Tank, turning it into a performance venue and a recording studio; it’s now called the Tank Center for Sonic Arts, and is outfitted with a proper door. “Go on, make some noise,” Odland told me. When my eyes had adjusted to the gloom—a few portals in the roof provide shafts of light during the day—I picked up a rubber-coated hammer and banged a pipe. The sound rang on and on: the reverberation in the space lasts up to forty seconds. But it’s not a cathedral-style resonance, which dissipates in space as it travels. Instead, sound seems to hang in the air, at once diffused and enriched. The combination of a parabolic floor, a high concave roof, and cylindrical walls elicits a dense mass of overtones from even a footfall or a cough. I softly hummed a note and heard pure harmonics spiralling around me, as if I had multiplied into several people who could sing.

A few minutes later, actual singers, in the form of the nine-person vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, arrived. They had come to the Tank to make a recording and give a concert. They specialize in contemporary music, and gained notice when one of their members, the composer Caroline Shaw, won a 2013 Pulitzer Prize for her piece “Partita for 8 Voices,” which she wrote for Roomful. The ensemble exploits a wide range of sounds, from ethereal harmonies to guttural cries and yelps. That evening, the singers laid down tracks and rehearsed for the concert, which would take place the following night. They knew in advance that the Tank would favor slower-moving, more static repertory. Quick chord shifts can create momentary chaos; to compensate, Roomful’s director, Brad Wells, slowed the tempo.

During a break, I went outside and found Odland looking nervously at the sky. “The weather was supposed to be clear,” he said. “But this red blob just popped up on the radar.” As lightning flashed and the wind picked up, he and several colleagues ran around, moving audio equipment to safety. I went back in, and the door clanged shut with a Mahlerian crash. Roomful of Teeth began to sing “my heart comes undone,” by the Baltimore-based composer Judah Adashi—a rapt meditation that draws elements from Björk’s song “Unravel.” A moment later, the storm broke. Gusts buffeting the exterior created an apocalyptic bass rumble; lashes of rain sounded like a hundred snare drums. The voices bobbed on the welter of noise, sometimes disappearing into it and sometimes riding above. As Adashi’s music subsided, the storm subsided in turn. In my experience, music has never seemed closer to nature.
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By Alex Ross
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