Mike's Musical History

photo by Tom Corcoran

photo by Tom Corcoran


Mike was born and raised in Minneapolis.  He sang in choirs all through high school and college, but the real spark that started him on his musical path was his discovery of the piano and improvisation.  He stumbled upon his ability to improvise quite by accident toward the end of his senior year of high school.  What followed was a rapid and passionate musical immersion, which lead quickly to his first Rock and Jazz Fusion band experiences.

Those initial piano exploration/improvisations happen with, (and really because of) Mike's friend Bear. The same thing was happening to him, and one day Mike just happened upon him monkeying around at the piano and joined in. Amazingly, there's actually a photograph of one of these initial piano encounters with Bear.  (What are the odds? Remember, there were no cellphone cameras in those days.)  The picture was taken in the Waconia High School choir room one day after school, and shows Mike and Bear immersed in joyous exploration. Not long after this, they would be in a band together. 

It wasn't until years later that Mike realized that his improvisational musical abilities, were an innate talent.  This lead naturally to composition.  His head is always filled with music that he strives to filter into satisfying musical forms, and he didn't think this was anything special or unusual until he had met and worked with many other musicians.

This is a picture of Mike's first band, straight out of high school.  Left to right, that's Mike, Dean Ward, Joel Rundell and Scott Makela.  (Bear joined the band shortly after this photograph was taken.)

photo by Scott Makela

photo by Scott Makela

photo by Dave Sorensen

photo by Dave Sorensen

Mike's early self-taught musical roots would eventually lead to a formal musical education. He went on to receive a Bachelor of Music degree in music composition and theory from the University of Minnesota, where he studied with Dominic Argento, Eric Stokes, Lloyd Ultan and Paul Fetler.

After college, Mike started his own music production company called Intuitive, which evolved into a general audio and related media production company over time. It has provided him with a living since the mid 1980s, not to mention a facility in which to pursue his personal art music work.

The picture below shows Mike in the 1980s, seated at his keyboards with a couple of his pyramid demo tape mailers. Mike designed these packages to contain the first demo tape that he sent out to prospective commercial clients.  

photo by Tom Corcoran

photo by Tom Corcoran


It wasn't long after Mike began doing music work for corporate clients, that he made what was for him an important distinction, or separation, between the music he created for clients and his own personal "art" music. This is not to say that he doesn't care about the quality of the work that he does for clients. It's just that he sees a distinction between the two.  It is really one of craft vs art. The work he does for clients is his craft, and he brings as much of his artistic sensibilities to it as the project will allow. On the other hand, when he is creating a personal art music piece, he answers to nobody but himself. He is only trying to create music that he finds aesthetically and emotionally satisfying on a deeply personal level.  The two sensibilities have a way of reenforcing each other.  The composition and audio production work that he does for his clients is constantly developing and refining his skills, (his craft), which in tern improves the quality of his art music. While his art music work is constantly pushing him to go beyond his comfort level, break boundaries, learn new skills and techniques, and develop his ability to express with his music the inexpressible core of who he is as a person.  This expressive ability then feeds back into his client work, making it richer and stronger.  It's a somewhat symbiotic relationship that serves to enhance both.

An obvious advantage to this duel track approach to creating music, is the removal of commerce from Mike's art music making process.  He is not reliant on grants and commissions to cover his expenses, though when those cash infusions come they are always welcome and helpful.  Not having to subordinate his artistic vision to that of another, gives his music a more purely personal character. 

Mike's compositional techniques and processes have gone through many changes and refinements over the years: from strictly prescribed through the use of conventional music notation, to guided improvisation, but improvisation in some form has always been at the heart of his music.  Even the strictly noted music comes from improvisational source material.  In fact, now more than ever, Mike sees his compositional process as a kind of slowed down improvisation.  His work is constructed in a very linear through-composed fashion, with ideas growing, developing and transforming from one to another in an organic evolutionary way.  He is always striving to tap into and trust his own innate musical instincts; giving them preeminence over self-conscious formalism.  He's often been known to say things like "when making a compositional decision, do the thing that makes your music feel right to you, regardless of whether or not it's the thing the makes sense". 

Mike was always a fan of Keyboard magazine, particularly in the earlier years when he identified much more as a keyboard player than a composer.  So, he took some pride in being selected as a "Discovery" in May 1988 issue of Keyboard

photo by Tom Corcoran

photo by Tom Corcoran

Keyboard "Discovery": May 1988

"Style: Electronic. Age: 29. Influences: Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, cartoon music, The Residents, Ornette Coleman, John Cage, Brian Eno. Main Instruments:  Macintosh 512K with Mark Of the Unicorn software, 

Yamaha KX88, TX816, REV7, D1500 digital delay, CP-80, and three SPX90s, Akai S900, Minimoog with JL Cooper MIDI interface, LinnDrum. Contact: mike@totallyintuitive.com.

Mike Olson reports that the Twin Cities' music scene is burgeoning as never before. The town treats him well: He has received a McKnight Fellowship for composition, numerous commissions for compositions, and enough work for commercials and industrials to support himself.

Recently, the prestigious Children's Theatre commissioned him for a production of Mall Dolls. Another recent commission, Enigmatic Interludes In South Minneapolis, exists in two forms – the original for bassoon quartet and the second for Olson's keyboard setup.

Olson's work will be included on several forthcoming recordings. The first piece features prepared electronic piano; this will be one of five pieces on an Innova Recordings CD called Freefall. (For details, contact the American Composers Forum: jmichel@composersforum .org) The second, a soundtrack for Scholastic Books, features electronic music for children's stories, which, Olson gleefully states, "I made as zany as I could." In addition, publishers Fedogan & Bremer (fedogan@millenicom.com) have just released a cassette of readings of 36 H. P. Lovecraft horror sonnets with Olson's scores."

In 1990, Mike's piece "The Basketball Scenarios" was presented at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Though the piece was well received and resulted in Mike being offered a full evening length concert of his own works there at the Walker, Mike was ultimately dissatisfied with the piece. He felt it worked as a piece of performance art, with the visual theatrical aspects of the piece functioning well to provide a satisfying multi-media experience, but for him the bottom line was - he just wasn't happy enough with how it sounded.  This resulted in Mike taking a step back and seriously reassessing his work.


Score page from "The Basketball Scenarios".


His next piece, "Song of the Badger", marked what would be for him a new beginning.  He abandoned the idea of beginning work on a composition with any sort of a plan or conceptual framework, and instead just set out to write a piece of music that sounded and felt right to him from moment to moment all the way through.  The piece was written for the contemporary music ensemble, Zeitgeist. So, his guiding limitation would be that it would have to be a piece of music that could be performed live by that ensemble.  The entire piece was strictly notated, with some aleatoric interpretive graphic notation elements thrown in.  He began by composing an opening gesture. Once he was satisfied with how that sounded, (and felt), he listened through it carefully repeatedly and tried to feel what should come next.  He wrote that bit of music and then listened through from the beginning again, including the new material and tried to feel what should come after that.  This is the slowed down improvisation idea mentioned above.  The process of listening through and feeling what should come next was followed through the entire construction of the composition, resulting in a highly linear through-composed piece of music that was unlike anything he had done before.  This ethos of trusting his musical instincts and avoiding self-conscious formalism has remained central to his approach to music composition since that time and he continues to refine it to this day.  

Score page from "Song of the Badger"


The next big change in Mike's compositional life would come in 1992.  He had just finished his piece, "Antiphonal Winds", a conventionally notated work for double woodwind quintet and piano. He would now make a radical departure from this type of composing.  The transitional piece was a studio project entitled "Shift".  In it, he essentially constructed a Minimoog performance in the last section of the piece by means of digital audio editing.  That was the first step into a new world of music making.  What followed was a headlong plunge into a completely new way of creating music. In his next piece, "Actual W", the worlds of digital audio editing and music composition became fully merged into a new fragment-based compositional process.  The piece is created entirely from musical fragments taken from other preexisting recordings.  He was at first concerned that he might be misappropriating the work of others, but he soon discovered that he could create truly original new work using this technique.

Screen shot of fragment-based composing for the piece "De Novo".

This movement into his new fragment-based method of composing has been revolutionary and transformative.  Mike has retained his highly linear through-composition ethos and taken it to a deeper level through the implementation of this technique.  It combines the three elements of audio recording and editing, musical performance, and the manipulation of musical materials into one tightly integrated process.  This was a natural evolution for him.  In the years leading up to this change, he had spent thousands of hours doing computer-based digital audio editing.  As the power of these editing tools and his own technical skills using them developed over the years, he began exercising a finer and finer level of control over the recorded material.  Eventually, he found that he could create convincing new musical performances through the use of his editing techniques.  He was able to take a number of discrete audio recordings of musical material, and then combine, edit, mix and process them in such a way as to create a completely new piece of music that sounded is if it was being performed by the musicians.  Mike was now creating not only a new piece of music, but a new performance of that music. He was surprised to discover the degree to which he could manipulate, not only the musical materials, but the actual musical performance - the feel of the musicality of the performance.  

This was a revelation for Mike.  In the past, he would of considered it to be out and out heresy for anyone to assert that it was possible to create a musical performance that felt truly musical through means of computer-based audio editing.  But the truth of his experience was unavoidable. He was constructing performances in the computer that sounded and felt as though they had been played by an ensemble performing together.  

It should be noted that at the time Mike was developing this fragment-based method, he was on his own.  He was unaware of anyone else doing anything like it.  It was a natural outgrowth of his own life and experience with music and technology.  He was exploring what was for him truly new compositional territory and there were no footsteps in the snow to follow.  Of course now in retrospect, it is clear that many other composers have since come through similar transformations, and indeed, young people today are creating music using these computer techniques very naturally, seeing as working with recorded media on computers is just part of their DNA. 

Mike's first fully realized fragment-based piece, "Actual W", was created from preexisting recording of music, some sound effects and some George W. Bush speech fragments.  He then went on to create three more pieces constructed entirely from preexisting material.  The first of these was "Short Black Winter".  It was created entirely from musical fragments extracted from three Kronos String quartet recordings.  This piece showed noticeably more refinement and control.  Then came the piece, "What They're Doing", which was constructed from fragments extracted from live recordings of the contemporary music ensemble, Zeitgeist.  By now, Mike was becoming well acquainted with what constitutes a useful musical fragment.  "Dick and Don" was the last of the fragment pieces to use preexisting material.  It was constructed entirely from Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld speech fragments.  

This is a graphic score fragment from the piece, "Incidental".

After "Dick and Don", Mike was ready to start creating his own musical fragments from scratch. He set to work on a major new six-movement fragment-based composition entitled "Incidental" in 2004. It would employ 18 musicians and would take a number of years to complete.  The project used a small amount of conventional music notation, but the vast majority of Mike's communication with the musicians was done through verbal instructions and graphic notation.  He was careful to select musicians who had strong improvisational abilities, but were not bound by traditional Jazz improvisa-tion conventions.  The resulting music constituted for Mike what he would consider to be the strongest and purest musical expressions he had yet been able to achieve through composition.  He considers this the beginning of his mature period as a composer.

This is a verbal instruction from the score for the fragment-based choral piece, Noopiming.


Sing a series of random notes of your choosing on the vowel sound "u" (long).  Fade in and out on each one and keep them relatively short.  Randomize both the duration of the notes that you sing and the amount of silence you leave between notes – do not imply a rhythm.  Avoid rhythmic entrainment with other singers around you.  As a group, you should all be singing different notes of different durations with different amounts of silence between notes.  Make each note beautiful.  Keep the group sound going until you are directed to stop.


2013 marked the next significant change in Mike's compositional work.  He describes it as being a kind of awakening.  He'd been involved with electronic music to one degree or another since the 1970s. His path followed the development of the technology, starting with analogue synthesizers, then digital synthesizers and samplers, MIDI sequencing and on into the seemingly inexorable logic of the all-in-one-box computer-based electronic music vortex.

Then one day he stumbled upon something online that drew him to a shop in his neighborhood.  He walked through the door and received his first introduction to eurorack analogue modular synthesis.  This is something that he had been completely unaware of.  He'd heard of small companies trying to make a stab at reintroducing analogue modular’s by offering do-it-yourself kits or flakey approximations of the Moogs of yore, but he had no idea that in recent years, there has been an explosive, if somewhat underground, renaissance in the development of hardware-based analogue modular synthesizers.

This was an earth shattering realization for Mike.  What followed were weeks of online research. There are currently approximately 100 companies building analogue synthesizer modules.  These are small companies – usually just a few people.  They're creating these modules because they're passionate about what they're doing.  It is unlikely that anyone is making a lot of money at it.  The market is relatively small.  That's why none of the major electronic instrument manufacturers have gotten into it.  What's happening right now, is what I'm sure will be a very temporary and intensive flowering of creative output by these small companies.  Most of them probably won't be around in a couple years, if for no other reason, because the electronic components used to create these analogue modules are going out of production and are disappearing world wide.

Closeup of some of Mike's eurorack analogue synthesizer modules.

photo by Mike Olson

photo by Mike Olson

Mike is now exploring this exciting new world as though he were exploring a garden filled with fantastical flowers of every description – some familiar – some bizarre and alien – each unique and beautiful in it's own way.  This process of discovery has reawakened something in him that is difficult to put into words.  It has changed the course of his work.  To say that it has been stimulating would be an understatement.  To quote Mike directly, "Quite frankly, I didn't know that I was still capable of being this strongly stimulated by anything when it comes to my art, at least in terms of technology and process."

It's kind of like going back in time and forward in time, at the same time.  Forward, because of the explosively creative hardware developments mentioned above.  Back, because these developments are being spurred by a longing for something from the past that has been lost. Of course, analogue modular synthesizers have their roots in the 1960s when Moog and Buchla developed the first commercially available instruments.  These were handmade assemblages of various sound generating components, referred to as "modules", that were interconnected to create sounds using patch cords plugged into jacks on their front faceplates.  These instruments were prohibitively expensive and primarily the province of Rock stars, major recording studios and educational institutions.  Over time, synthesizer technology underwent numerous major advancements, but with each "advance", something was lost.  These were usually considered insignificant losses compared to the new capabilities afforded by the latest advancement, but eventually, synthesizer technology had advanced so far beyond it's origins, that those seemingly small losses amounted to something truly substantial. 

Those of us who had hung on to one or two of our old analogue synthesizers, began to develop an increasingly strong appreciation for their somewhat idiosyncratic sonic characteristics.  It's a case of what is sometimes referred to as "lost technology".  Quality vintage Moog instruments are now highly prized and sought after by electronic music aficionados around the world.  Mike is the proud owner of two such instruments, which, much to his amazement, he is now rediscovering anew as he directly inter- patches them with his new analogue modules.  A combination of the old and the contemporary, quite literally working together synergistically as one to create something new.

Another aspect of working with this technology that Mike finds strangely compelling is it's inherent ephemeral nature.  It's not like working on a computer.  You can't really save anything.  You might spend hours or days developing a patch, and if you want to capture that sound, you have to record it.  There are those who spend weeks or even months developing complex patches.  They then listen to it for a while without recording it, before completely unpatching it.  Very much like creating a sand painting.  It seems a little crazily counterintuitive to find this kind of thing attractive in this age of computer-based work with multiple backups of everything and complete documentation of all aspects of our work on the cloud, but Mike kind of likes it.  He knows he'll never get the same thing twice.  Even if he were to completely recreate the patch exactly the same, it would be different, because the slightest differences in voltages resulting from small variations in resistance due to contacts in the jacks or the slightest of differences in knob settings, will result in the patch behaving/sounding differently.  So, when he get something he really likes, he does record it. 

Mike continues to create highly linear through-composed fragment-based compositions using analogue modular synthesizers to this day and is having the time of his life.