A Composer Finds A Trove Of Ghostly Voices, Stuck Out Of Time Olivia Block ordered blank cassettes off eBay — the tiny kind you find in old answering machines — and quickly discovered they weren't blank. Now, those voices are finding their way into her work.

A Composer Finds A Trove Of Ghostly Voices, Stuck Out Of Time

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Olivia Block is a Chicago composer who bought an old tape recorder on eBay. It came with an unlabeled cassette with voices on it. And that inspired her to become an avid collector of microcassettes - those tiny tapes used in old answering machines. The eBay sellers say the tapes are blank, but often, they are not blank at all. Yesterday, we heard some of Olivia Block's sounds of the city. Now we'll hear some quieter and stranger sounds - the remains of conversations past.

OLIVIA BLOCK: Let's see what's on here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: On my way home.

BLOCK: There's something about these little tapes, these microcassette tapes, that people really used them for these, like, really personal uses. So I have all of these, like, old answering machine recordings that I just cut off at certain times.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Good afternoon.

BLOCK: I'm just kind of interested in, like, the noises around the events, you know? And I like the sound of tapes stopping and starting.


BLOCK: Yeah, just a lot of recordings of basically just, like, the noise of the machine itself because I like to work with these sounds and kind of bring out the tones. And there's just something about the tape noise that's just different from any other kind of noise. It's just - I find it really beautiful. And this one has good clicks on it. But all of these sounds - just, like, the whirring sounds and the clicks and the sort of fan-like sounds - I really like those sounds. I have entire tapes and tapes of - oh yeah, that's a creepy one. That's, like, somebody whispering on an answering machine.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: ... Cell phone number, so if you'd like to call that, it's...

BLOCK: I find it slightly nostalgic. I definitely feel, like, nostalgic about the noise. I mean, if you listen, this is somebody that just recorded themselves in a room, just kind of, like, shuffling around. And it just reminds me of my childhood. When I had...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: On my way home.

BLOCK: (Laughter) So it just reminds me of, like, how I used to use recorders when I was little - recording the room I was in, just arbitrary kind of scenes. So you get a lot of those kind of shuffling sounds. And I just feel like that - you don't hear sounds like that anymore. With digital technology, it doesn't...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK, I'll talk to you in a little while. Bye.

BLOCK: The technology itself doesn't reveal itself in that kind of awkward way which...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Good afternoon.

BLOCK: ...Which I find really charming.

MONTAGNE: That was Chicago composer and sound artist Olivia Block with excerpts from her collection of microcassettes. That piece came to us from independent producer David Schulman. It's part of the series Musicians In Their Own Words. Olivia Block's recent compositions are a mix of music and found voices often taken from those microcassettes. Here's how that sounds in a project she calls "City Map."


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: A, P, R, O, M, S and W, E, I, S, Z attorneys at law. 7610 Magna Technical Services.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: 7614 American Currency Association.

MONTAGNE: You can hear more from Olivia Block at npr.org.

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