What's the difference between a rusting hunk of steel in the high desert and an award-winning music venue?
That’s what organizers of the TANK Center for Sonic Arts, winners of Colorado Preservation Inc.'s first-ever Preservation Edge Award, are asking themselves as they reflect with pride on some fifty years of ambient music in a sixty-foot-tall abandoned water tank in the small town of Rangely. The TANK will be honored today, May 18, by Colorado Preservation Inc. at the Dana Crawford and State Honor Awards Celebration at the History Colorado Center at 1200 Broadway in Denver.
The Preservation Edge Award was created this year to celebrate the oddities in Colorado culture, says Colorado Preservation Inc.'s executive director, Jennifer Orrigo Charles.
“We want to have the ability to do something that's different, and promote that creative vision that often happens with our historic buildings throughout the state,” Orrigo Charles says. “So we thought that the Edge would be a great name for an award that recognizes projects that are a little bit on the fringe from what people traditionally view as historic-preservation projects.”
“I have to say, we were completely surprised when we heard about this. We had no idea,” says Mary-Ann Greanier, executive director of the TANK Center. “But I think why we fit the bill is that we have taken something that was just sitting on a hill, and it became a place of pilgrimage for musicians and sound lovers. I think most people would have thought, ‘Well, it’s just another damn rusty water tank.’”
Since she visited the space herself a few years back, Orrigo Charles says that she is still struck by what has been created there, and sees the project as a unique place of preservation and history.
“Preservation is all about collaboration and partnership,” she affirms. “They didn’t know what was going to happen with [the TANK], and they turned it into this edgy place where people could gather and record music and experience sound in a whole new way.”
Indeed, it was collaboration between musical bohemians and locals of Rangely, the neighboring small town, that made the TANK what it is today. Apart from hosting the nocturnal gatherings of local teens, the water tank was nothing more than a languishing piece of agricultural equipment until it was discovered in 1976 by sound artist Bruce Odland, who knew that it was a special place as soon as he banged the walls and heard the sound waves reverberate for what seemed like forever.
“It's not a sound that people hear very often in their lives,” says Greanier. “When you sing, for instance, into the TANK, you’re actually singing with the TANK. The sound waves go up, they spiral. The reverberation spirals and twists and turns. And [when an instrument is played], it starts to play with itself and with the TANK. It’s a hard thing to explain with words, really. You can’t really talk in the TANK. You can whisper, certainly, but even a whisper is something that is taken up and twisted around and turned. It really is an extraordinary space.”
After Odland was captivated by the TANK’s unique sound, an impromptu community of both Front Range-based musicians and locals sprung up around the steel tank and gathered illegally in the space for decades before it was purchased in 1999 — for a grand total of $10.
The community, which calls itself “Friends of the Tank,” overcame another hurdle in 2012, raising $46,000 in a national Kickstarter campaign to protect the beloved hunk of metal from demolition after it changed ownership. With renovations to put in roads, lights and an adjacent recording studio, it became the TANK Center for Sonic Arts, a bona fide business that brings tourism to Rangely.
Ever conscious of the potential for conflict between TANK fanatics and locals, Greanier believes that collaboration with the people and government of Rangely has always been a win-win for musicians and the local economy: Musicians can still play in the Tank, and locals benefit from the tourism.
Although Rangely is a small town dependent on the oil and gas economy, Greanier says that it “never needed saving,” calling the dynamic between the TANK and the town a partnership. When outsiders come to the TANK to record, for instance, they have the option to do some kind of community service in Rangely rather than pay recording fees.
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This collaboration has transformed the TANK into a space that now holds educational programs for the local school and community college, brings in musicians from all over the U.S., and puts not only Rangely culture, but the culture of the entire Western Slope, on the map.
“One of the things we want people to know is that the TANK isn’t the only show in town," Greanier says. "Rangely has two museums, rock art, and [the town of] Dinosaur right nearby, and there are all these festivals on the Western Slope that are plenty within striking distance. So when we look at the Western Slope, we’re seeing it as a place that is growing culturally, and the cross-pollination with all of those, too, is important for us.”
Greanier looks with optimism to the future of the TANK Center, which is currently in its second season of music and community events, like the Summer Solstice celebration. After Colorado Preservation Inc.'s recent recognition, she hopes that more people will be exposed to the TANK's magic.
“You really must go out and listen to it,” she says.