While some Colorado businesses and restaurants struggled to stay afloat during COVID-19, the board of the TANK Center for Sonic Arts recording studio in Rangely shifted its focus to projects on the back burner. One of those: having artists record inside the Tank, a railroad water-treatment facility that was moved to Rangely in the 1960s and offers a unique sonic resonance for musicians to explore.
“The Tank is in a remote place,” notes executive director James Paul. “As remote as anywhere in the Lower 48 can be, and that remoteness adds to its allure in some ways, with dark, dark nights full of stars and true wild silence. But if we are to reach out as a national organization, we need to bring the Tank to people who can’t get there.”
How? Through a binaural head — placing headphones on a fake human head and using a 360-degree camera to give remote musicians a sense of what it's like recording inside the structure. The goal, Paul says, is to give them “a real sense of the place.”
The Tank is implementing this new technology for its annual Solstice Festival on June 19 and 20, where the organization will celebrate Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday, which it couldn’t last year. Modular synth player Todd Barton will also be at the Tank with his Buchla synthesizer on June 19.
“Cellist Jeffrey Zeigler will gather three others to play one of the slow movements of a late Beethoven string quartet at National Sawdust in Brooklyn,” Paul explains. “Engineers there will send that audio signal to the Tank, where the sound will ring in the deep reverberation and be sent back to Brooklyn in its full dimensions. We will record the result for later presentation at National Sawdust and at the Tank itself.
“The performance will have to be extremely slow to allow each of those lush, late, Ludwig-y chords to ring out and fade in the Tank, where sounds may sustain for up to forty seconds,” he adds. “Even a seven-minute movement might take an hour or more to play. The whole thing will be super gorgeous and strange. We’re also planning to make a twelve-hour version of the piece, by stretching it out even further electronically and creating an all-day walk-through installation at the Tank.”
Guitarist and composer Bill Frisell and filmmaker Bill Morrison will premiere their documentary, The Tank and the West, which depicts the Tank’s history and how the studio symbolizes the American West, on August 28. They had time to film it in 2019 while they were participating in the Tank’s artist-in-residence program, which was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.
“Last summer, we applied to the National Endowment for the Arts under their ArtWorks program for funding to help produce the event and a subsequent film about it,” Paul explains. “We were delighted when the NEA funded us the full amount we requested, and can only attribute this success to the stature of the artists involved and the unique public nature of the project, which will celebrate the town of Rangely and the region.
“Frisell’s work in the Tank was astonishing,” he adds. “He could instantly ‘play’ the structure as his own instrument. We used powerful digital mapping projectors to illuminate the exterior of the seven-story Tank and the surrounding desert with Morrison’s images as a 5:1 surround-sound audio system carried Frisell’s music over the hills under a starry sky.”
The main Tank staff include Michael Van Wagoner, technical assistant and sound engineer, and Samantha Lightshade Wade, the new key keeper, guide and audio engineer. Wade’s grandmother, Barbara, was the original key keeper until she passed away in 2015.
While dealing with the pandemic and the other turmoil of 2020, Wade also had to deal with losing her mother.
“Losing my mom has been the hardest thing I have ever been through, and I didn’t think I would make it,” Wade says. “However, the Tank team has been extremely supportive, and with that, I’ve found comfort in that security in a dark world during a dark time, as the Tank has done so many times before.”
One coping mechanism was writing and recording songs in her home studio.
“When I record myself, I do it much differently than I do professional sessions,” Wade elaborates. “I like to take my laptop, interface, microphone and headphones into a dark room, light some incense, turn on my black light, and I like to sit on the floor and record. I like to listen to the beat I’m working with for a few moments to get the count and the feel of it. Then I either write lyrics or I freestyle, focusing on what I’m feeling and the story I want to tell in this beat, and then I try to stay out of my own way so I can express myself.
“I’ve always been fascinated with recording equipment, and have been collecting bits and pieces of gear for the last ten years or so,” she adds. “At the beginning of my Tank career, the board hooked me up with a full recording setup, including a Mac, a microphone, a Scarlett interface, cables, headphones and a recording program called Ableton Live, which I later switched to Pro Tools instead.”
She’s also collaborated with a few rappers, such as Phantom Denver's BLK PNTHR, for the song "Can’t Breathe," inspired by the police murder of George Floyd last year, and Nigerian rapper Lil’Fiercesavage on songs such as ForReal and Better Today via Soundcloud.
“I mostly record by myself since I’m still practicing,” Wade explains. “This year, I started making music with a talented rap artist named Lil’Fiercesavage, and finally made a few complete tracks with him that I really enjoy listening to and creating, and look forward to more collaborations.”
Wade hopes to keep writing songs and doing sound work in the Tank. She also has a few future prospects in mind.
“I want to start livestreaming more at the Tank so that I can show it from my eyes, so that more people can get a closer, inside look,” she conveys. “Also, I am interested in recording some music videos, or short video clips, of me doing something weird and magical in the Tank. I just haven’t fully formed the projects yet. They’re more like future investments.”
As the world slowly starts returning to normal, Van Wagoner hopes more artists and musicians start recording inside the Tank.
“I love to watch how the Tank will change people from the moment they step into it to the time when they step back out,” he explains. “It is a spiritual journey for many visitors as they discover a new way to listen to sound and music.”
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