For more than four decades, musicians and sound artists from around the country have trekked to Rangely, about 200 miles west of Denver, to record and perform at what's now known as the Tank Center for Sonic Arts. They are drawn there by an abandoned tank’s extraordinary acoustic resonance and long reverberation.
Such nationally recognized artists as Jessica Meyer, Rinde Eckert, Roomful of Teeth, Jolle Greenleaf, Ron Miles, R. Carlos Nakai and others have visited the Tank. James Paul, executive director of the Tank, wanted to see guitarist Bill Frisell — who grew up in Denver and now lives in Brooklyn — perform in the space.
Paul, who also has a place in Brooklyn, reached out to Frisell, as well as filmmaker Bill Morrison, director of The Great Flood, a film that Frisell had scored. Paul invited the two out to the Tank about a year ago for a four-day residency to brainstorm a collaboration. The result was The Tank and the West, a project that will include a score performed by Frisell alongside a film installation by Morrison that will be projected on the landscape as well as the sides of the seven-story, corten-steel tank. The images and sounds will tell the Tank's story and show how it's an embodiment of the American West.
The Tank was recently approved for a $25,000 grant by the National Endowment for the Arts for the Frisell/Morrison project, which will incorporate interview footage with some of Rangely's 2,000 or so residents, ages eight to eighty.
Frisell and Morrison were originally slated to start their work at the Tank in September, but the coronavirus forced them to push back the project to Memorial Day weekend 2021; their collaboration will also be filmed for a documentary to be released in 2022. This project is also supported by grants from the Neil D. Karbank Foundation and the William H. Donner Family Foundation. The Tank Center itself was formed by the nonprofit Friends of the Tank, which ran two kickstarters in 2013 to purchase the property and make improvements — including an actual recording studio.
Today the Tank seats nearly fifty people inside for performances; another 300 seats can be set up in the parking lot, where guests can listen to concerts over a surround-sound system. The organization that runs it generates most of its income from recording sessions; there have been roughly 125 over the past two years.
Although operations have been formalized in the last half-dozen years, music at the Tank dates back more than forty years. Composer and sound engineer Bruce Odland, who was then based in Denver, was first introduced to the spot in 1976, when he was in Rangely on a tour, collecting sounds in small towns around Colorado.
“It was the last stop on the tour,” Paul says. "He’s walking along the road one night, and a big, muddy black pickup pulls up with two guys, and they look like the oil-field workers, because it’s an oil town. And they said, ‘Are you the sound guy?' He said, ‘Yeah.' They said, ‘Get in, we got some sounds for you.’ They took them out of town up this hill and up to this giant water tank. It was a lovely way to end to the tour.”
Odland went through what was then a nineteen-inch porthole into the tank, and then the two guys started pounding on the tank with rocks and two-by-fours.
“When Bruce stopped being mortally terrified,” Paul says, “he realized he was in a sonic space of the likes he'd never heard, and really has never heard since.” The Tank has profound musical reverberation that can last forty seconds on some notes.
“It was gorgeous enough for him and his friends to come back to cut the lock for years,” Paul says. “That was a completely subversive thing. They went back up there with candles and recorded and played.”
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Decades went by, and in 2013, the owner of the Tank considered selling it for scrap, but thanks to the two Kickstarter campaigns, the Tank was secured along with the surrounding land, and the funds also paid for installing electrical service, ventilation and lighting; building an access road and parking lot; and cutting a full-size door for legal access and to accommodate larger instruments.
Before the pandemic, a Utah-based metal baritone guitarist and a Native American flute player from Tucson recorded at the Tank; avant-garde composer Alvin Lucier will visit from Massachusetts some time soon. In the meantime, some local women occasionally come in to sing “Amazing Grace.” And Colorado Creative Industries sponsored a daylong virtual concert for the summer solstice.
Because of COVID-19, all public events have been canceled into September, Paul says, and the Tank is booking no more than one client per day, in order to maintain social distance and give staff time to clean. There are other safety precautions in place as well.
“It's a very different year for us,” Paul says, “but on the other hand, we've always wanted to share our archive and to have more of an online presence. So this spring we did five online concerts that we called The Tank Master Series.”
For more information about the Tank, go to the website.