A rusting water tank in the Colorado desert emerges as one of the sonic wonders of the world
RANGELY — Bruce Odland was a long-haired aural artist in the 1970s, a wild-eyed hippy who traversed the country recording unique sounds for his eclectic albums. He was rambling through northwest Colorado in 1976, gathering sounds for a roaming arts festival when a pair of roughnecks picked him up in their truck. He said he was seeking sound. They brought him to a 60-foot tall water tank on a muddy hill above Rangely.
They showed him a small portal at the base of the steel tank. Slide in there and turn up your recording equipment up to 11, they said. It was pitch black inside.
“I can’t believe it, but I did it,” Odland says.
Bottles clanged as he shuffled in the hot darkness. The two men slammed the outside of the tank with lumber. They hurled rocks at the steel walls. Awash in euphonic echoes, Odland hatched a vision that 40-years-later has become rural Rangely’s one-of-a-kind Tank Center for Sonic Arts.
Connect and explore with your ears
Hold up. What the heck is a center for sonic arts?
“We don’t know that yet,” says Lois Lafond, an always laughing Boulder musician and teacher who was among the first sound seekers to join Odland and embrace the tank as a sort of audio laboratory.
“The people will tell us what it is. We are offering an opportunity for people to define it,” says Odland, 64, who recently spearheaded two crowdfunding campaigns to buy the former water tank and transform it into what they hope will become a local treasure and an international destination for sound artists.
The tank already is a refuge for a culture that lists too much toward the visual, Odland says.
“And this is an antidote; some place where your ears can hear and tell you what to do instead of marching around taking little postcard images of the world and thinking you understand it,” Odland says. “Open your ears and go explore right there through that door.”
Odland, who lives in New York, has been returning to the tank ever since that August night in 1976, bringing musicians and artists who consider the hulking, mellifluous marvel to be one of the world’s premiere sonic wonders. For all those years, it was their secret. They would travel from afar — San Francisco, San Antonio, New York — to sneak, illegally, into the tank to make music, record albums and bask in the emphatic thunder of the tank, where every sound sticks around, melding into a harmonic hum in the key of E. Several dozen musicians, including two-time Grammy winner Tom Wassinger, have recorded inside the tank.
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Bruce Odland comes from New York to sing and play music in an old railroad storage tank in Rangely.
Four years ago, as the tank’s owner — a friend weary of the insurance, taxes and liability that comes with owning a popular hangout for bottle-smashing teens — pondered selling the rusting giant for scrap, a band of tank lovers united to save their acoustic Eden.
The nonprofit Friends of the Tank approached the town’s leaders at a memorable meeting in the spring of 2013. Liberal sound artists from big cities were asking rural conservatives for permission to create something unlike anything. It wasn’t easy, but they convinced the mayor and council members to come up for a visit. They all slipped through that portal, the steel buffed smooth from half a century of sliding butts. Inside, two cultures collided and merged. It took mere moments for the locals to recognize the resonant significance of the tank, Lafond says.
“This has been a really amazing project for a lot of reasons. It’s really pulling these two different communities together. The side effect of all these sonic arts and this incredible cathedral of sound is developing this relationship with what traditionally would be very opposing forces,” she says. “I feel it really comes together with the harmony of the tank so I can sing with a conservative councilwoman who is a trucker and gun owner and we bring it together in harmony. That’s pretty exciting.”
The tank was assembled on the hill overlooking the ambling White River in the early 1960s. It was supposed to be part of a fire suppression system for a nearby power plant. That plant has long been dormant and the tank, scrawled with graffiti, spent most of the last half century as a hangout for local kids and an occasional destination for auditory artists. It never actually held water.
Samantha Wade grew up across the street from the tank and was 8 when she first visited it.
“I just remember a bunch of strange dudes with long hair,” says Wade, now 25.
They would slide instruments in through the portal — didgeridoos, drums, anything percussive, and small enough to fit through the 24-inch hole — and play all night in flickering candlelight.
“I was pretty shy about singing back then,” says Wade, who is now celebrated as “the voice of the tank.”
Her symphonious song fills the void with harmonies that layer, one on top of another, as if a choir was piping a soothing concert into the tank. Odland gathers his instruments — rusting steel flanges harvested from the detritus of nearby oil fields and battered gold panning pans — and taps a rhythm that grows into a percussive orchestra. A visitor offers a deep-throated “ohm” that lingers. Another raps a conga. Someone stamps their foot and a peal of thunder shakes the room. Desert sunshine trickles in through a fan hole cut into the roof, where an Oregon light artist has installed diffraction grating that throws slashes of vibrant rainbows across the walls. A toddler, wielding a tape-wrapped stick, taps a gamelan — a sort of vibraphone cut from a steel pipe that once traversed the tank’s interior. A man lays down on the floor and closes his eyes.
Accordion acoustics inside the Tank Center for Sonic Arts
The sounds swirl until they have no source; no beginning or end, just a vibrating, otherworldly resonance.
“You felt it, didn’t you,” Odland says later as he lounges outside on a deck where all the slats point to the center of the tank. “The dimensions are crazy. You don’t realize what you are hearing until you hear it and you realize ‘I must be hearing that.’ ”
The tank captures you, says Heather Zadra, a Rangely mom, teacher and writer who also serves as operations manager for the Tank Center for Sonic Arts, the tank’s first employee.
“It makes you belong to it and you don’t have any choice,” she says. “Then you meet the people who also are captured and then you realize you are part of a community.”
The tank community swelled to more than 1,400 in the last couple years, as two Kickstarter campaigns raised more than $100,000 from donors in more than 20 countries. Their names are inscribed on the tank’s freshly painted interior walls.
That support paid for a storage container sound studio that flanks the tank. Built by Louisville’s Rhino Cubed, the artistically styled shipping container is wired for audio, video and data recording to capture the sounds inside the tank. Already musicians are lining up for recording time, although the tank is open to all comers, including people who simply want to sit and hum or test a new instrument or relish reverberation.
Before entering the brand new door, visitors remove their shoes. It’s a sign of respect and it allows guests a moment to transition from the myriad senses of the outside world to the overwhelmingly aural surge inside. It’s best to just sit and listen. It takes time to adjust to the tank, Lafond says.
“It takes years to really get how to use this as an instrument,” she says. “That’s what this place is. It’s an instrument. And it plays you. You are not in charge here. You do what you do, but it does what it wants to what you are doing.”
It’s taken the town a bit to adjust to the tank as well. But locals are learning to love the strange visitors. Especially if they are bringing friends.
Rangely has suffered as the oil and coal industries wither. As town leaders seek ways to diversify the region’s economy beyond a reliance on singular industries, they are embracing new ideas, even the notion of drum-tapping, ohming hippies gathering inside an old water tank.
Townsfolk are “increasingly receptive” to the tank visitors, Rangely town manager Peter Brixius says.
“We are committed to helping to drive activity up there,” he says.
Fiber optic cable has arrived in Rangely. A private auto collector recently opened a classic car museum. The BLM is expanding nearby trail access for motorized users. Colorado Northwestern Community College’s flight-training program is drawing students.
The tank joins a “list of shining stars in our community,” Brixius says.
“We are working on that pallet of economic drivers that should help us diversify,” he says.
The Tank Center for Sonic Arts officially opens to the public on Saturday. The non-profit Friends of the Tank group is searching for an executive director to help guide its future as a venue, gathering place, community asset and recording studio. The group hopes to host open houses every Saturday, when kids and adults alike can come “explore with their ears,” Odland says.
“Really this is a place for everyone to come explore and experience and take something away,” Odland says. “Over a long period of time I see this an oasis of local and international collaborations that just gets more rich. Richer every second.”
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