In the Northwest corner of Colorado in a small town called Rangely, there sits an old, empty water tank on top of a hill. From the outside, it appears unremarkable and blends in well with the industrial feel of this oil and gas town. But this tank is anything but ordinary. Built around 1940 as a water-treatment facility for steam engines, the sixty-foot-tall tank was dismantled in the mid-1960’s and moved to the spot where it now sits. It was intended to be used as part of a fire-suppression system, but the plan was never realized, and the tank was abandoned and forgotten. By the 1970’s, the weight of the tank on the gravel hill it stood upon bowed the metal floor. Local trespassers, who crawled into the dark, deserted structure through a small porthole on the side, soon discovered that the phenomenon of the concave floor gave the empty tank surprising acoustic resonance with reverbs lasting twenty to twenty-five seconds.
In 1976, sound artist Bruce Odland was traveling through the town of Rangely and was locked inside the tank by a couple of local kids pulling a prank on the out-of-towner. The kids banged on the outside of the tank intending to scare Bruce, but Bruce was not frightened – he was fascinated. “I’d never heard anything like it,” he said. “I’d never heard a sound last that long, with these dizzyingly beautiful reverberation effects going all over the place.” Bruce, along with other artists, began using the tank as a secret place to perform and record music and sound.
The tank was in danger of being dismantled in 2013 when the owner considered selling it for scrap metal, but by this time, so many artists had fallen in love with the unique sound of the tank that they began a Kickstarter campaign to preserve the facility as a performance space and recording studio. Thanks to a large number of donors, the seventy-plus year-old water tank became The Tank Center for Sonic Arts.
Last month, some members of a local choir I sing with and I decided to visit Rangely, CO and experience the sonic wonder of this hidden treasure. We made the six-hour drive from Boulder on a hot Friday evening, the last half of which took us through sparsely inhabited parts of Colorado that I never knew existed. To say Rangely is remote is an understatement. We didn’t see a single car on the road for the last fifty miles.
There were twenty-two singers from the choir and each of us was given five minutes alone in the tank on Saturday – our first chance to step foot inside. It was an opportunity to introduce ourselves to the space and get to know how sound behaves there. I was particularly intrigued by stories I’d heard of people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who had found solace and peace within the tank’s round metal walls. I was curious about locals and regular visitors who claimed to find relief from depression and anxiety in the tank. I wanted to grab on to the healing vibrations offered here and experience what those before me could barely describe in words. I was not disappointed.
I watched with anticipation as other singers entered for their private session – the metal door slamming behind them with a thunderous boom as if they were entering a prison cell. When my time came, and that door slammed behind me, all comparisons to prison left my mind. The room was large – thirty feet in diameter – not at all claustrophobic-feeling. The sound of the door and the echo of each of my footsteps as I walked to the middle of the space was just a way for the tank to say hello. I felt an immediate sense of welcome. There was no hint of oppression or coldness in the metal walls that surrounded me – quite the opposite. The tank was inviting me to make noise.
I felt instantly compelled to lay on my back in the middle of the circle. I stared at the hole in the top of the roof high above me and began to let sound escape from my mouth. Just one sustained note at first, and then I listened to how the tank responded. My simple note was swept up in the space, reshaped, and metamorphosed into something new. The more I continued to resonate, the more I realized that the echo bouncing back to me was the tank’s answer to an inferred question. The tank was speaking to me.
I closed my eyes, wishing the lights that illuminated the room would shut off, and began to offer louder and longer notes that at times sounded almost like wailing. I became emotional, feeling as though I was letting go of some dark unknown pain, but the tank said it was okay. The tank was a safe space. The tank was true and absolute solace from the outside world because I was protected by the uncompromising fortification encompassing me. By the time my five minutes was up, I was in love, and I knew this would not be my only trip to Rangely.
We had three hours the next morning for all twenty-two of us to improvise in the tank together. We played with a variety of sounds, including singing, playing instruments, drumming, banging on the walls with rubber mallets, clapping, yelling, and even blowing a conch shell. We sang a few songs like “Amazing Grace,” but I found that our improvised vocalizations were much more satisfying. I discovered that the trick to a good improvised chant was to genuinely listen to the sound that was happening, and then offer up the next logical thread in the tapestry being woven.
It was a breezy day, and we all marveled at how the wind seemed to be participating in our gathering, getting louder as we got louder, rumbling through the space like a train, and then dying down as we sang softer. There was a vibrational alignment between us and every molecule around us – in the ground, in the air, and in the metal of the tank.
As I left Rangely that day to head back home, I felt struck by how many elements accidentally came together to create this sonic experience, and what a miracle it was that the tank was discovered by man before it was destroyed forever. I wonder, how many other unlikely phenomena have existed in our great state of Colorado that disappeared before its secrets could be unlocked? The tank has changed how I look at the world. When I see an abandoned building, or a structure overgrown with weeds from disuse, or when I drive by the old Valmont power plant that shut down last year, I wonder, what incredible mystery are you waiting patiently to share with us, and who will make that discovery?
For more information about The Tank Center for Sonic Arts, and for ways that you, too, could experience the magic of this little-known Colorado treasure, visit their website at www.tanksounds.org.