A quick self-introduction: I am the founding artistic director of two women’s ensembles based in Boulder, Colorado. Sound Circle is a group of 18 singers, and has been together for 23 years. Resonance Women’s Chorus is 125 singers, singing together for 15 years. Both ensembles are members of GALA and of the Sister Singers Network.
In June 2017, Sound Circle went on a profoundly interesting sonic adventure, and I wanted to tell my GALA colleagues about it: we went to sing in “the Tank.”
With the encouragement of Bob Burnham, a Boulder producer and recording engineer with whom we’ve worked several times, and after a reconnaissance mission by a handful of us the previous Fall, Sound Circle singers drove six hours across Colorado to the Western Slope, on the other side of the Rockies, to the small town of Rangely, Colorado. Rangely is the home of the TANK Center for Sonic Arts, which is the new incarnation of what used to be known simply as “the tank.”
The Tank is a large ½” thick metal structure, rusty and graffiti-ed, strikingly tall at 65 feet, with a slightly convex curved floor. This fortuitous combination of structural qualities creates an astonishingly long reverb time, but what happens inside the tank is much more than simply a long decay of sound. I had heard mention of it from Boulder musician friends in the past, but never quite understood what it was.
It’s original function was to store water for steam engines on the railroads. At some point, it was relocated to a hill on the edge of Rangely—and then deemed unsafe to hold water in that location, so it just sat empty. It had been a hang-out spot for local teens and a secret mecca for musicians in the know for forty years. When the tank was on the verge of demolition a few years ago, a core group of the people who had been making music there decided to rescue it with a vision of making it more accessible.
A couple of Kickstarter campaigns later, the TANK Center for Sonic Arts has a door (formerly, one crawled through a small round portal), and electric lights instead of candles or an extension cord from the neighbor’s house. There’s a brand new recording studio adjacent to the Tank, in a donated shipping container. Composer and sound artist Bruce Odland has been one of the visionaries throughout this transformation, as was Boulder musician Lois LaFond, and I talked with them at length before we went.
There’s a lot of oil and gas development in the area, and because Chevron was conducting a massive operation and workers were living in motel rooms for several months at a time, there were no motel rooms available. Firefighters were living in tents on the college campus as a wildfire had moved across the highway north of town the night before we arrived. Most of us stayed among the tall cottonwoods of the quiet Rangely Camper Park or in dorms at the local junior college for the three nights we were there. There are just a few restaurants in town, and a small grocery store. It takes one minute to drive from one end of town to the other.
The short version of my TANK experience is that it was the most interesting musical experience I’ve had in a long time—perhaps, ever. My ears and my musical heart and mind have been invited into new realms of curiosity and enthusiasm. I could hear the lingering effect as I engaged in repertoire search this summer; my ears were craving color. There’s a lot to think about at the Tank in regard to just intonation and overtone series.
One’s own sound sets the Tank sound into play—the Tank sings—and immediately the experience is about engaging with the Tank sound in a compelling musical conversation, a layering of sound, a kind of slow-motion acoustic choreography. We created qualities of sound and engaged in a process of musical unfolding that I could never have imagined before I stepped into the Tank, and that we could never replicate outside the Tank. In a time when sane discourse in public life is in short supply, I have been sincerely heartened by the organic sanity of this wordless discourse. It is the sound of people being exquisitely present with each other: listening, offering, responding, receiving.
Some singers were relieved to experience the Tank as “friendly.” I wouldn’t call it womb-like but I have heard others use that phrase. It isn’t claustrophobic. The first time I stepped in and heard the sound (there was a viola player inside at that moment), I had the thought that I wanted to stay there forever. Since that’s not literally true, I’ve marveled about what kind of neurological/physiological/emotional/spiritual experience inspired that response. A local woman, an Army veteran, spoke to me about her response and the Tank’s catalytic impact on her healing from PTSD.
Sound Circle does a lot of simple free-form improvisation, so we were primed to be comfortable with a free kind of sonic exploration, but individuals in the group who were less comfortable with improvisation reported feeling supported and encouraged by the way the Tank holds the sound, and said they expected it would have a lasting impact outside the Tank. We sang songs, too. My personal feeling is that the experience of engaging with the Tank sound is what’s most interesting, and that happens in improvisation. Songs can quickly get muddy, and they can wrestle with the Tank’s acoustic field rather than complement it. My sense is that composition for performance in the Tank would most naturally take the form of road maps rather than specifics. I’m interested to see how my own musical imagination develops on return visits. I think there’s an endlessly fascinating learning curve.
The Tank staff is intent on deepening relationships between Tank and town. They ask that people share something with the town when they come to be in the Tank, and they offer ideas and support. While Sound Circle was there, we sang a free concert at the local high school for members of the community. We stopped for another concert in Steamboat Springs on our way home.
Many of the singers in my other chorus, Resonance Women’s Chorus, expressed interest after hearing about Sound Circle’s trip, so I returned again in September with 22 Resonance singers—a randomly self-selected group, ranging in experience and confidence—and they loved it, expressing the same kind of delight, awe, and sense of safe space. I’ve been back again recently, with my partner, just because my ears are so happy there.
The Tank “season” is April through October. During the summer, as the Tank sits exposed to full sunlight, it gets too hot to be inside during the day, so we sang from about 9:00-noon, and then in the evening from about 7:00-10:00 pm. Rangely is near Dinosaur National Monument, where the Yampa River flows into the Green River. There’s gorgeous scenic driving to be done, great hiking, overlooks, and dinosaur fossils—some of which could be done on days at the Tank, but more comfortably done on either side of a Tank visit.
The Tank has been getting a lot of publicity and exposure in the past two years. I’m guessing many of you have seen articles or have heard stories about it. Roomful of Teeth’s performance in June, the week after Sound Circle was there, resulted in coverage on NPR and in the New Yorker magazine. You’ll find a lot of information online, and I’ve listed a few articles below. You can also find press listings and other information at The TANK’s website and Facebook page. Please email me if you’d like to hear a preview track from Sound Circle’s CD of soundscapes recorded at the Tank, to be released in December, 2017, or if you’d like to hear more about our experience.
I liken the Tank experience to my experience of the recent total solar eclipse. In both cases, you really cannot know what it is until you experience it yourself, and in both cases, no matter how much hype you’ve heard, the reality will exceed your expectations. That has been my experience of the Tank. Obviously, I recommend it very highly.
- The TANK Center for Sonic Arts: tanksounds.org
- New Yorker article: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/07/24/a-water-tank-turned-music-venue
- Colorado Public Radio: http://www.cpr.org/news/story/rangely-s-tank-is-a-sonic-wonder-the-earth-laws-of-acoustics-don-t-apply-here
- Denver Post article: http://www.denverpost.com/2016/06/24/sonic-wonder-of-the-world-opens-in-rangely/
- Los Angeles Times article: http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-colorado-the-tank-20170918-story.html