Vinyl Arts Magazine – September 1986
Control Current, an electronic music composition, was funded by the Saint Paul Riverfront Commision as part of their program to encourage new creative work with themes related to the riverfront. "Control Current was supposed to get at some impressions of the river and how people have always interacted with it," said composer Mike Olson. "In general it moves down river and forward in time, but it also moves backward and forward in a cycle."
On stage was an intriguing collection of keyboards, boxes, and lights. Computers waited silently with programs displayed on their screens and electric chords and cables ran off in all directions, giving the equipment the appearance of a tentacled creature ready for animation. Mike Olson and fellow musician Ted Greebaum performed the composition as two video monitors showed Robert Vaaler's selection of black and white photographs and line engravings of people and the river from the Minnesota historical Society. The camera moved in close over the dark and silver surfaces of the photographs and retreated slowly backward as the imagery of the past met the music of the future. Mike Olson described the performance: "I was interested in doing live electronic music because I've been locked into the studio for the last 10 years. There's more control with tape, but I enjoy live performance. We had only five keyboards and had some of them running all the time - some with four-handed parts. Logistically the computer frees your hands. The computer can run many parts, and you can give it the tedious repetitious work. We got the sequencer running and we'd be watching the videos and respond with improvisations to the images as they'd come by. We had fish sounds, train wreck sounds, and there were certain thematic, motific sounds that would begin with native Americans, then industry came in and things would develop, develop: then destruction, and then a return to the native Americans."
The concert was unusual in terms of performance because both Olson and Greenbaum sat almost completely still. There is none of the physical movement between musician and instrument which is seen in most traditional music concerts. Their concentration was intense, as they listened closely to each change in the sequence of preprogrammed music. Occasionally each musician made a quick movement over a keyboard to add a new improvisation, but more often the movement consisted of flipping switches or punching a computer keyboard.
I asked Olson about the differences he perceived between traditional and electronic music: "It's a good tradition and it's a tradition of craft, and there is a step beyond that craft and within that tradition that is artistry. Because of the emphasis on rules, traditional music has become an abstract science. There are a lot of raging debates about the value of content and whether electronic music is musical. I think musicality is intangible. It's musical performance that makes something musical. I've heard musical performances on the spoons."
Olson began his study of music following some nontraditional routes. He was a self taught musician and played with rock and jazz bands before he bought a synthesizer and began to experiment with it. He then entered the music school at the University of Minnesota and completed a degree in composition.
"I did a lot of Bach, and Haydn, and Mozart in school, but I was a terrible reader, and always got through on my ear. I got the physical feeling of the notes into my fingers so quickly and the sound. My teacher would try to get me to look at the page. When I was playing, she would stop me and ask, 'Where are you?', and I wouldn't know."
In spite of this difficulty, Olson felt that his formal education was valuable, and besides electronic music, he does commercial work, composes choral, chamber, and orchestral work and has just completed two commissions, one from The Children's Theatre and one from the South Minneapolis Bassoon Quartet. But it is electronic music alone that is "most like the music in my head," Olson said.
The computer and special software programs record and play back musicians' compositions as fast as their creative thought process can invent them, and synthesizers produce an incredible range of sound inaccessible to musicians of the past. The restless quest for musicians to capture the "music in my head" and their search for the ultimate in sound produced generations of musical instruments which approximated these ultimate sounds. Some musicians even composed music for instruments that did not exist, such as the "vapor organ" called for in Charles Ives' early 20th century Fourth Symphony, or Bernard Herrmann's electric organ suite in 1959 entitled Atlantis.
This search for the ultimate in sound and composition became part of an evolutionary process which resulted in electronic music. I saw this evolutionary concept in composition and sound when Olson demonstrated his compositional process for me. He begins with one musical theme which, through the use of special software, is fed directly into the computer as he plays it. After inputting the theme, Olson can have the computer replay it and is able to correct, add, or delete any part of the music in a matter of seconds. To one basic musical theme Olson can also add additional layers of music. "Simple musical phrases layered this way sound very complex," said Olson. "The computer accesses my brain faster. I can compose, cut, and paste an improvisation whenever I want. The computer works a lot like a multi-track tape machine. You can have up to 200 tracks or as many as you can program in a composition. Each one can play a different instrument or as many different instruments as I like. It's called sequencing via a Musical Instrument Digital Interface."
The computer gives a musician the eerie ability to "play" several different keyboards simultaneously without touching them after the initial programming. Olson also displays remarkable skill in interrelating layers of music, creating amazing structures that work together. Previously, musicians had to compose by writing their music down or transcribing from tape. Olson still composes on paper for some of his work: "I still use calligraphy on paper to compose, but I've also put many of my scores into the computer. The difference with the computer is when you're done composing, you can hear it. I can transfer my files to the sequencer program and have it play on the synthesizer. So I find those mistakes that I could only find before at rehearsal."
I admit to an addiction to the radio program "Music from the Hearts of Space." Electronic music seems like a dissolution of the historic divisions between technology and art, because in this art form technology and art are closely interdependent. Electronic music is a fusion: ancient and futuristic sounds. Many "space" musicians acknowledge this connection employing wood flutes, harps, Tibetan prayer bells, and human choirs in their work. Others explore a connection with physics and time, linking their work with such science-fiction-like concepts as inter-dimensional, interplanetary, or intra-species exploration. The sounds and rhythms of earth and the human body are also included in their work. Listening to electronic music is a unique experience which brings the listener to the edge of a new frontier of sound, perception, and expression. The music can be like a mind expanding drug, awakening the psychic, spiritual, and image centers of the brain. It is also a direct channel to the subconscious. Electronic music seems like the realization of the ancient concept of the "Music of the Spheres," the essence of Edgar Varese's Poem Electronique and the voice of the "Soul of the Machine."