Incidental is a relatively large scale six-movement piece which I began working on in 2004 and finished in 2009. I named the piece "Incidental" because it reminds me very much of incidental music – as in, music written to reinforce visual activity of one sort or another. The music sounds like action to me.
As is true of all of my more recent works, this piece is constructed from thousands of small musical fragments. The fragments were performed by live musicians, recorded, edited and then loaded into a software program where I constructed the actual musical composition. Many of the fragments were subjected to extensive signal processing and other manipulations during the compositional process.
There is no actual "score" for this piece. The parts consisted of a number of verbal instructions and graphical gestures, which each of the performers had to interpret. There were also a number of traditionally notated fragments used in the string sessions. The performers were recorded individually (for the most part) without hearing each other. This gave them the freedom to create their own interpretations without being influenced by what the others had done.
These fragment recording sessions yielded a large amount of musical material. This material was edited down to what became in the end a very large palette of thousands of musical fragments with which I could then begin to construct the actual finished music.
Acoustic and Electric Basses
Bassoon and Tenor Sax
Soprano and Tenor Sax
Alto Sax and Bass Clarinet
Acoustic and Electric Guitars
Moog Synthesizers and Fender Rhodes Electric Piano
Henceforth Records / 619-987-6214
Mike Olson Releases New Genre-defying Multi-Movement Epic: Incidental
Henceforth Records is proud to release Incidental, a six-part work from Minneapolis based composer Mike Olson. The music encapsulates his new approach to composition, but its diversity, intellectual rigor and sheer sonic splendor make it right at home in the Henceforth catalog. Its title is at once appropriate and ironic, expressing its intricate construction but not even hinting at the work’s length and vast sonic and structural scope.
On one level, the word “incidental” is an apt descriptor, considering Olson’s background and the mode in which the piece was composed. It implies a series of occurrences, which is appropriate as the work is constructed out of thousands of sound fragments, but the title also has very personal implications. Beyond tapping into Olson’s experience as a rock and jazz keyboard player throughout the 1970s, the music references earlier memories. “I grew up in the TV generation,” he explains. “As a child, I was especially fond of Carl Stalling’s music for the Warner Bros cartoons; I still think his work is great. I perceive Incidental as music that could serve as a soundtrack but which is also self-defining.”
Indeed, there is a visual component to Incidental’s construction. Olson assembled a series of verbal and graphical instructions, many of which he gave to every musician involved in the project. “There were a few instances in which I set parameters specific to each instrument; I wanted key-clicks from the bassoon, for example, so I shaped the instructions accordingly.” The graphics suggested durations and pitch levels, but both modes of instruction allowed a fair amount of freedom and elicited diverse reactions. “That’s exactly what I wanted,” states Olson. “I was collecting tiny chunks of raw material that I could then manipulate in whatever way sounded right to me.” What emerged over the work’s five-year development is music as simple and complex as human intuition, reflecting Olson’s recent compositional philosophy. “I’m not interested in creating conceptual art at this point,” he explains. “It’s difficult to articulate, but I’m trying to compose music that pleases my ear. I start at the beginning, shape the opening material and go from there.”
In keeping with his new aesthetic, Olson guided the sessions for Incidental in accordance with his emerging compositional vision. “I might suggest certain alternate approaches, or I might ask a musician to repeat a sound or gesture that was totally unexpected. In one instance, trumpet player Jon Pemberton was manipulating his spit valve, and though the session was actually concluding, I rushed to record the sound, which became an important component of the second movement.” After the fragments were collected came the arduous task of subjecting each sonic complex to hours of reordering and signal processing. In the alchemist’s laboratory, mixtures were made, discarded and retried until moments of achievement were reached.
The resultant music is precise but malleable; it warps perception and defies expectation as it conforms to no category, environment or genre while embracing many. Even the ensemble size appears in constant and rapid flux. As the first movement jumps to life with drums and bold string unisons and clusters, the actual size of the string section is rendered immediately indeterminate by a disconcerting swell. With the sudden entrance of brass comes a complete change in rhythmic feel before a swift descent shifts focus once again. The work’s truly cinematic nature emerges seconds later as the drum groove disappears while strings and brass evaporate, giving way to chittering saxophones and slowly reemerging rhythms.
Alongside episodes of alarming speed, vast stretches of dizzyingly slow ebb and flow contrast the familiar with sounds that hang just on the edge of recognition. The drums and bass clarinet duet that opens the second movement is supplanted by washes of reverberant ambiance which may or may not derive from woodwind timbres; the ambiguity is refreshing and disconcerting. Ascending brass arcs emerge and disappear, the whole edifice topped off by disembodied voices often stretched beyond comprehension. Word mirrors gesture as plains of sound intersect and diverge, sometimes accompanied by inexplicable laughter. The fifth movement’s opening inhabits a similar territory, a vast open space where guitar, voice, bass and percussion coexist ethereally on a soundstage that seems to grow and shrink with each elastic moment.
Despite the fact that the musicianship of all involved is of the highest order, production is key to Incidental’s success. Whatever density of sound is at play, each gesture and line is presented with stunning clarity. Even at the highest dynamic level, such as the blinding scree of the fourth movement, there is never a sense of overload or supersaturation. As the sixth movement’s celebratory guitar and keyboard lines unfold over percussive polyrhythms and vocal exhortations, there is a very palpable sense of return and accomplishment.
The last movement’s colliding soundworlds and luminous ending sum up Incidental’s attributes. The epic work is an astonishing and bold mixture of power and beauty, but its merits supersede aesthetic judgement. While earlier entries in Olson’s catalog prefigure what’s on offer, such as the seriocomic Dick and Don or the hectic surprise and timbral diversity of Ineffible, they must now be seen as preludes. Incidental’s scope eclipses them as it breathes, shudders, thrashes and blooms. It is Olson’s most mature work and most complete artistic statement to date, a masterly display of miniature and expanded form.