Photo by Michael E. Smith
A Conversation with Lee Blalock On Her New Piece: Stereo Test Program No. 3: Transmutation Assessment
by Jill DeGroot
Lee Blalock’s studio has a tall ceiling and big windows. Even on a cold October day, it’s filled with light. Looking around the room I see a drum set, a chalkboard, a couple dozen miniature buddhas with melted faces painted gold, a soldering iron, a set of color guard flags with amoebas painted on them, and the skin of a de-fluffed teddy bear nailed to the wall.
I ask Lee about the flags, which I recognize from the October 12th performance of her piece Stereo Test Program No. 3: Transmutation Assessment presented by Chicago collective Mocrep. The piece, which was performed in a gymnasium in the attic of a church, functions as a body and mind diagnostic exam inspired by vintage stereo test records used to test audio fidelity in the 50’s and 60’s.
Lee tells me the amoebas painted on the flags are called fiducials, an image that is captured and run through software to trigger sounds. She was inspired by Icelandic performer Björk’s use of a system called Reactable, which is part of the open source computer vision system Reactivision. By using Reactivision and the fiducials Lee was able to create computer vision flag instruments.
“I had worked with [fiducials] before in a very small way and I wanted to do something with color guard flags, because flags really make a lot of crazy sound if you do it with the right material. The choreography was based on the noise that the ripstop makes to add that other dynamic, tearing, aggressive sound to it.”
Before the flags make an appearance, the performers are giving quiet, hurried monologues at the same time. I ask Lee whether the monologues were scripted. She shakes her head and says she instructed the performers to think of something in their life that feels out of balance and talk about it sincerely.
“The whole piece was a test that started at the mouth, went out through the limbs, went through the gut, down through the floor, where they were crawling, and then the whole body was involved. It’s getting whatever’s bringing you out of balance, and working it out by dragging it across the floor like the sludge that it is.”
Lee’s other practice is martial arts: 6 nights a week, 2 and a half hours a night. She describes how she recently trained hard but pulled back right before a competition in order to peak when it mattered. She applied this same principle to the performers in rehearsals as the choreography grows more and more rigorous throughout the piece. I recall how the performers whipped around the color guard flags, raising them above their heads and striking them downward with full force. The painted-on amoebas began to flake off and rain down onto the gymnasium floor.
Lee, who watched the performance from a sound board on the sidelines, remembers wishing she had written herself into the piece.
“I realized the only reason I write performances is to enact a sense of meditation or to get nerves or anxiety- a place to be productive, or to do these athletic or physical pieces… And it’s always for me! It’s always for me.” We both laugh.
The concept for the piece began when Lee found stereo test albums while looking for samples at Reckless Records. She bought them for $2. She was immediately drawn to the synthetic voice narrating these albums and wanted to create her own version. Lee crafted a script for the piece, and sent it to voice actor Scott Fortney, who immediately remembered the exact stereo test albums she had bought.
“He, or his radio manager, used to play them to test the sound before they went on air. And they were also used in people’s homes to test new hi-fi audio players, like record players. He knew exactly what the feel of it was. Identity but no identity at the same, this in-between voice.”
Lee plans to press an LP of the recording to build the physical object the way that it was built in the 50’s and 60’s.
“I love the idea that I can do my version of it through a performance, but also make a record that is music before anything else.”
I ask about the little golden buddhas. Lee is going to outfit their melted faces with cymbals as part of a shrine-like mechanical sound piece. She creates all of her work independently, that includes the building of hardware, software, and the physical construction of her works.
She tells me: “If I can’t put my angst and rage into the physical making of the thing, then I don’t know where it goes.”
Photos by Michael E. Smith