Graphic Score Example
Press Release / 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.
Ampersand - December 2010 - Jeremy
Another release from Henceforth further undermining my characterisation of them as a jazz label: let's call it modern eclectic.
For this album by Mike Olson, I want to do something unusual in a music review - put in a spoiler alert. When I finally got around to listening to this, I hadn't read the liner notes or PR material. It struck me as a complex ensemble work - horns, woodwind, drums, guitars, vocals, keyboards, strings - which slithered and moved around. Then I read how it had been made, and it revealed a whole new perspective - what had already impressed now amazed. Because the whole work (45 minutes) is an assemblage. Each musician was recorded separately, playing a score (verbal instructions and graphic gestures), and Olson cut, selected, manipulated, layered and combined these pieces to form the 6 Incidental tracks. The method reminded me of John Wall, but the outcome is quite different. Rather than the minimal pieces Wall works with, Olson has taken full units and combined them. It is a seamless construction and the knowledge was a little like the reformatting of the your understanding of the whole that comes at the end of a movie like Sixth Sense or The Others.
And while sometimes method trumps outcome, in this case the outcome is well ahead. Olson titled the music "Incidental" as it reminds him of that form - 'written to reinforce visual activity ... the music sounds like action to me'. You could also say it is composed from incidents which have been brought together.
The feel is of experimental freeform jazz - there are fluttering woodwinds and some squonking brass. But there are also lovely strings - creating a foreceful opening, or orchestrated beautifully in Incidental 3 - driving drum percussion, guitar, and voices - soft, processed, laughing. Some periods remind me of Zappa, others are tonal ambience, while the fragmented origin is also heard in some passages of super-human playing. The shift between active and at times aggressive playing (4 has some NINish elements) and ambient passages is handled dexterously The narrative of each track reinforces the filmic element, (6, for example, starts quietly, builds a rocky fusion middle before easing into an ambient final section) and like a good filmscore separated from its visual home, this is music that makes you take notice and listen - to the skill of both players and composer.
An exciting release.
Electronic Musician - September 2010 - Brian Heller
MIKE OLSON PIECES TOGETHER INCIDENTAL USING HIS MUSICAL INSTINCTS
Minneapolis composer Mike Olson’s genre-defying CD Incidental (Henceforth Records), which was five years in the making, is 45 minutes long and comprises six movements that Olson built from thousands of audio region fragments that he edited, combined, nudged, and processed, using “whatever sounds good” to create a sonic landscape for each movement.
“I consider the two worlds of music composition and performance to be fully merged in my overall compositional process,” Olson says. “I freely incorporate signal processing and other manipulations of my source recordings, and see it as a natural extension of my sonic palette. Live string glissandos sound great, but they also sound great backward through a ring modulator.”
By day, Olson is an engineer whose business, Intuitive, offers voice-over and post-production services to corporate clients. His studio houses a Yamaha 02R digital mixer, MOTU 2408, and Avid (formerly Digidesign) Mbox 2 audio interfaces; a Summit Audio MPC-100A compressor/limiter; a Drawmer 1969 vacuum-tube compressor/preamp; and soffit-mounted Tannoy System 15 and PBM 6.5 monitors. Olson’s vintage synth collection includes two restored Moog synthesizers and a Fender Rhodes, which Olson plays throughout Incidental.
For Incidental, Olson created abstract graphic scores and presented them to guest musicians. “I was collecting tiny chunks of raw material that I could then manipulate in whatever way sounded right to me,” he says. Eighteen Minneapolis-area musicians appear on Incidental, both solo and in sub-groupings, including session bassist Anthony Cox, guitarist Steve Tibbetts, woodwind player Pat O'Keefe and percussionist Heather Barringer.
In a kind of improvisatory coaching process, Olson combined some of his own preconceived ideas about what his graphics might sound like with the performers’ interpretations of them. Olson recorded the musicians in no particular order and with no agenda as to what the final composite mix would end up being. Musicians also recorded their parts without hearing each other’s performances. To record drums, Olson went to Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minn., and used its room acoustics, Neve console, and vintage Neumann mics.
Olson then engaged in extended periods of editing, primarily using MOTU Digital Performer and BIAS Peak Pro on a Power Mac G4. He processed the audio using plug-ins within those programs, starting with a sound and then asking himself what would sound good next. “I typically used multiple channels for each instrument, with different signal processing configurations on each track,” he says. “I generally prefer this method to automating my effects, though I do use some automation on them. I like being able to drag a clip between the different tracks and quickly hear how it would sound with the different processing setups.” (See Web Clips 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 for excerpts from Olson’s six movements.)
This entire process is dedicated to creating what Olson calls a “transcendental musicality” that speaks to the composer and listener emotionally, and comes purely from Olson’s instincts in concert with the music: “I have absolutely no qualms about using anything and everything at my disposal in the creation of a piece of music.”
All About Jazz - May 2010 - Angelo Leonardi
Mike Olson is a composer from Minneapolis who began as a keyboard player for Jazz and Fusion groups in the 1970s and then pursued formal composition studies at the University of Minnesota under Dominick Argento, Eric Stokes, and others. Since then his professional activity has followed two distinct paths: musical composition for advertising and other commercial endeavors, which in turn finances his experimental projects, (the other of his two paths).
The composer informs us in the CD notes that he began work on this six movement piece in 2004 and completed it in 2009: "Incidental" is a suite patiently constructed in post-production, which carries forward the experimental jazz philosophy of Teo Macero and Miles Davis, from whom it has apparently taken some expressive reference. To clarify, it is the result of assembling thousands of tiny musical fragments, performed by musicians and then elaborated at the computer by Olson through his own software.
There exists, therefore, no scores for this work except short parts for the strings. The other musicians involved followed the verbal or graphic indications of the leader who then reworked them individually to totally reform them into the final work. The work is ambitious and distinguishes itself coherently among references to ideas from electronic music and computer music all the way to encompassing Frank Zappa, Miles Davis, Bill Laswell, and many others. It is difficult, and altogether useless, to enter into the details of the individual movements which develop above synthesized tapestries in a game of continuous rumbling lacerations, pulsing layers and "alien" sonorousness.
The result is suggestive, playing with continual surprises of rhythm and timbre of the "traditional" kind as happens in the central section of "Incidental 3" where the atmosphere directly recalls Weather Report, or in the final passage where more diverse references (from Fusion to Free) meet each other in suggestive developments rich with tensions.
Kathodik - April 2010 - Marco Carcasi
"Incidental", by Minneapolis composer Mike Olson, is an intricate and amusing work, which chews and spits the author's accumulated experiences with a constant alternating tension between 1970s vintage Jazz and Rock. His scheming and fumbling with the Moog and Fender Rhodes exemplify this. One can also hear a love for sound tracks composed by Carl Stalling for Warner Brothers cartoons and Walt Disney.
The work consists of six passages, composed of rapid flows of sound, which get squeezed to perfection. The malleable and elastic materials are changing continuously. Jazz and Prog Rock in opposition, with an obvious kinship to the contiguous works of The Fantomes, (on Ipecac, a label on which Olson could appear).
The music is fast and subtly tribal. It chops avant into a sauce, quickly and subtly melding the elements of Jazz and Rock, with a slight preference for the darker moments, where the listener is drawn inside a 1950s horror sound track.
Also beautiful are the muscular outbursts of passionate rage, using saturated guitars and noisy arhythmics, from a vision close to that of Bill Laswell. A slight executive self-gratification weighs down certain passages, but hardly impairs the overall impression, which is very positive.
(Take caution, given the peculiarity of the proposition. It is something, however, not to be underestimated. Seek to listen to it first.)
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San Diego City Beat - March 2010 - Todd Kroviak
I don’t listen to modern jazz (who does?), but there’s some next-level shit going on here. Apparently, Olson spent a few years directing 18 different musicians without sheet music, then uploaded all the recordings onto a computer program and manipulated them as he saw fit. Not exactly something to throw in between Drake and Lady Gaga on your next party mix, but fascinating for the right type of listener.
Point of Departure - February 2010 - Brian Morton
This breaks lots of rules, and for better and worse, will break lots of hearts. There’s little of a familiar jazz aesthetic in Mike Olson’s music. He sets out verbal and graphic instructions for the players, with only the strings notated conventionally, and then records each part separately. No player hears any other player at this stage. Instead, Olson compiles a large database of sounds and these become the material for the finished composition, which is an artifact entirely under Olson’s control. As he suggests, the method collapses the different stages of composition, performance and recording into one continuous process. This is music that will appeal to those who introduce words beginning with ‘meta-‘into polite conversation. One can almost hear readers of Jacques Attali draw breath to point out how well or not this squares with the utopian models of Noise.
Utopics might well be the correct discipline here, because Olson’s music does emerge like a series of imaginary spaces, crystal lattices in three dimensions, comprising instantly recognizable sounds – saxophones, brass, strings, a “rhythm section” – but not in familiar performative arrangements. The first and obvious point to make about the music, and for the moment this is description rather than criticism, is that Olson makes no real attempt to overturn the familiar hierarchy of instrumental roles: horns do play ‘lead’, drums do sustain the meter. One immediately wonders why, when Olson has the opportunity to subvert this, he chooses not to. His own Moog and Fender Rhodes parts often don’t seem to take a structural role but to propose a background, rather like the washes of color behind a Manet painting where the foreground subject would otherwise float free in an empty canvas.
His own analogy, puzzlingly, is cinematic. These six pieces are all labeled ‘Incidental’ as if they were cues in the soundtrack to an imaginary film. This is the most pervasive of all musical metaphors now, it seems, and it is a curious one in this context, because almost all of these tracks outlast the narrative atmosphere it might be expected to accompany and illustrate. Which is a roundabout way of saying that Olson’s music is very much better and more interesting than the metaphor he has created for it.
What does it sound like? Jangly, faster than a working band would be able to pull off and with inch-perfect co-ordination of parts. Acoustically, it is strikingly reminiscent of some of Frank Zappa’s Synclavier essays on Jazz From Hell, which is a perfectly respectable lineage in this house. It’s vivid music, funky and involving after its fashion, and it interestingly confronts something subjective about jazz records. If it’s a standard objection to recorded jazz that it imposes a kind of fixity on what is defined by flux, then the point is interestingly taken here, because Olson’s music seems fixed in a way that Kind of Blue and Ascension aren’t. I’ve had both of them for decades and they don’t change one iota, one playing to the next. The important thing is that they sound as though they might. Olson’s Incidental offers no such promise. Again, an attempted description rather than a wounding criticism. As should be clear, I was fascinated.
Downtown Music Gallery - January 2010 - Bruce Lee Gallanter
Mike Olson is a Minneapolis-based composer, producer and keyboard player. For this most auspicious debut disc, he has gathered some 18 musicians, only three of whom I know from previous sightings: cellist Michelle Kinney, who used to live in NY and work with Louie Belogenis and Joe Gallant; Steve Tibbetts, prog guitar great with numerous discs on ECM and hot-shot bassist Anthony Cox, who also used to be more involved with the NY scene. None of that really matters that much since Mr. Olson is in charge and manipulating the sound as it unfolds and providing verbal instructions and graphical gestures. It starts with quirky Zappa-like strings over some sharp rhythm team action and soon turns into a swirling mass of tight fibers. Steve Tibbetts flies in to provide some great Frippish guitar while Mike creates some mesmerizing cosmic swirls by manipulating the overall sound. It is true that Mike keeps a tight hold of the music as it evolves through sections, fading one section into another seamlessly across different layers. Some of this sounds both ritualistic (ancient) and modern, simultaneously. It also sounds like the soundtrack to a brilliant but slowly shifting series of scenes for a great short film. "Incidental 3" has that charming Canterbury whimsy that you don't hear very often nowadays, sounding as if it can handle complex rhythm shifts and is about to fall apart at the same time. There's a section where Mike plays some fine Dave Stewart meets Chick Corea - like electric piano, yet everything changes into something else soon thereafter before the spacey electric piano re-enters. Mike Olson's 'Incidental' sounds like some long lost prog masterwork that has somehow escaped from the looney bin of popular spotlight. Don't let this gem escape your grasp.
Bad Alchemy - December 2009 - Rigobert Dittmann
Mike Olson's "Incidental" represents, if not the future of Orchestra music, then perhaps some future of music. The 18 members of the ensemble use voices, strings, reeds, brass, guitars, percussion, and drums on Olson's new 6-part work, by following his verbal, graphic, and notated instructions. In the creation of the piece, the musicians performed the material as directed by Olson, who then converted it into a patchwork of virtual, quasi-sampled and collaged music. The result is too agitated, uneasy and "jazzy" to be considered an ambient sound scape, but it's also too "in-the-flow", protean and horizontal to be a focus point for one's attention. Olson's way of working has elements relating closely to Furt and fORCH, and also to Carlo Fashion. The time and effort involved in the creation of this work were no doubt enormous. Olson plays Moog and Fender Rhodes himself and produces echoes of Bill Laswell's "Panthalassa-Remixes" in certain passages. Other moments remind one of the ""Out-of-Context"" conductions of J. A. Deane. As music to read books by, or as intelligent music for any situation, it definitely has its attractions. It was also probably a lot of fun to create - this detailed, meandering 45-minute stream of sound, with its moody form and color fluxations. This music is a kind of wizardry which draws upon abundant resources; and now as I approach the end of my second listening, it's obvious to me that I have become bewitched by it.
Paris Transatlantic - December 2009 - JG
Minneapolis composer Olson writes/assembles fragments for his ensembles, here an eighteen-piece of strings, brass, guitars, keyboards and rhythm section, which the composer then breaks down and reconstructs on his Mac, similar to the computer process music of Bob Ostertag. On this CD the pieces are like cinematic incidental music – hence the title – "because it reminds me very much of incidental music". The result is a storm of ideas ranging from a wild harmolodics-like opening, to wide-open airy Ligeti-ish string pieces, deep jazz-rock grooves in the manner of early Weather Report, interruptions from hard rock guitar, big band buffoonery reminiscent of the Willem Breuker Kollektief or early Carla Bley, all treated through the composer’s computer and accompanied on his trusty Moog. What impresses most here is the ambition of Olson’s vision – as well as similarities to Ostertag, you can also hear Ives and Cage, as well as TV cop show car chases and ghost movie atmospherics – perhaps we have to wave hello to Holger Czukay as well. The whole may not entirely hang together (perhaps by the very nature of the "incidental" enterprise) but for sheer breadth and scope, it resembles a miniature, electroacoustic Escalator Over the Hill.
Twin Cities Daily Planet - November 2009 - Dwight Hobbes
The label's press release extols the CD as having "diversity, intellectual rigor, and sheer sonic splendor," heralding the disc as an "intricate construction." All well and good. Accurate, too. Olson waxes madly adventurous into cerebral territory at the same time, making music the listener can feel. No mean feat.
He changes time signatures at a hairpin turn, delivers outlandish creative voicings—often downright bizarre—and keeps heart and soul intact. Gifted with his own vision, his own heart, the guy gets to you in singular fashion. And spared no horses in nailing Incidental down. Olson, producing and playing piano, enlisted almost 20 monster musicians from the rich Twin Cities bedrock, along with acclaimed vocalist Ruth MacKenzie (Kalevela: Dream of the Salmon Maiden) to realize his ideas. The result is something that knocks one's socks off. It's a work installed in six parts, each distinct and compelling.
If your music listening could stand a good jolt or if you're simply game to try some wildly fascinating stuff on for size, Incidental is right up your alley.
Funding for this project has been provided in part by grants from the McKnight Foundation, the Jerome Foundation and by the American Composer Forum.
This 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.
The compositional style is a kind of highly linear through-composition. I’m striving to avoid self-conscious formalism in favor of following the rule of “what sounds good next”. It’s an attempt to capture my own instinctive improvisational impulses. It is in fact a kind of slowed down improvisation. I started by creating the opening seconds of the piece. Once I was satisfied with how that sounded, I listened for what I thought should follow immediately thereafter. Once I had that in place and I was happy with how it sounded, I listened through from the beginning and tried to feel what should come next. I tried to think in terms of, “if I were improvising, what would be the next thing that I would do,” or more simply, “what sounds good next”. I followed this ethos strictly all the way through the composition of the piece. Whatever structure, aesthetic unity and/or coherent linear through-line one might perceive, is simply that which came naturally by following this rule.
One thing that I find particularly appealing about this method of music creation, is that it combines the elements of composition, performance and recording into one tightly integrated process. Of course, a composer generally has control over the musical materials (pitches, rhythms, etc.), but the performance is always a bit of a wild card, and if you're fortunate enough to get a musically transcendent performance of your material, you've got to hope that you were able to get a good recording of it. With my method of composing, an excellent recording is a given, seeing as I have complete control over that. I've also found that I am able to exercise a remarkable amount of control over the performance, or what the listener would perceive as the performance. As I construct the finished piece in the computer, I essentially create a new performance as part of that same process. At that stage of construction, I am manipulating musical materials and creating a performance as one integrated process. The two are now inextricably interwoven
When listening to this piece, one may have the impression that they are hearing a group of musicians playing the music together in a room, live. This is not the case. The piece was created from many small fragments, which were recorded separately, and with very few exceptions, the musicians playing the fragments did so without hearing what any of the other musicians had done. By very carefully manipulating and combining these fragments in the computer, I am able to create finished pieces which often give the impression that they are being performed live by a group of musicians. This impression of "liveness", however, is not my primary objective. All I'm trying to do is to make music that feels right to me.