Mike Olson: Far from Incidental

Mike OlsonIncidental (Henceforth, 2009)

For all its spare demeanor on the outside, Incidental starts with a bang: a snappy, composed line for strings and a strong backbeat on the drums. It’s exciting and dynamic and … nothing like you’d expect after reading the description in the liner notes.

Olson provided some notated string parts, but the rest of the performance was improvised by the 18 players, mostly one at a time, based on graphical scores or outright suggestions by Olson. Olson then cut up those recordings, using the computer to painstakingly manufacture the six movements that make up Incidental. It’s a deliberate plunderphonics, and a radical way to create a composition.

I was expecting a high-art atmosphere, but really, Olson draws from disciplines including jazz, funk, and new age — as well as, yes, high-art classical and abstract improvising. Each track has its own personality, and Washington’s drums, always crisp and upbeat, thread some continuity though the piece.

As noted above, “Incidental 1” starts out like more of a funk jam with strings; in mood, it reminds me of the free but danceable improvisations on Christian McBride‘s terrific, 3-CD Live at Tonic. This track doesn’t stay danceable for long, but the drums, bass, and guitar keep that same fusiony popping sound going.

Of course, that’s not to last. “Incidental 2” opens with a fiery drum solo by Kevin Washington that gives way to a long dark corridor of eerie sounds. It’s like a soundtrack to the corridor/descent scenes in House of Leaves.

“Incidental 3” is swampy and slow, but Washington’s snappy drums bring a ghost reflection of funk into the mix. Springy guitar and spacey moog kick the tempo up a bit later on, a loungy avant-garde occasionally interrupted by swirls of horns. The piece feels built, like a well conducted improvisation, or even a composition with high degrees of freedom. Instruments enter and exit in phases that help the piece shift moods; the music tenses up, relaxes, tenses again.

“Incidental 4” is more what you’d expect from plunderphonic improv: lots of small, sharp-turn snippets held together by some some post-apocalyptic synth sounds. Large chaos built from smaller chaos.  But then, another mood shift: “Incidental 5” is a polished sheet of glass: Ethereal vocals and shimmering droned tones forming an ambient lullaby. Acoustic guitar splashes put a tuneful face on the ending.

“Incidental 6” is a fusiony peek into the future, with far-horizon synths, bubbly electric bass, and some of that snappy, drum-machine-like drumming. There are moments where the guitar noodling and electric piano might give you ’70s flashbacks.

I don’t know how many more times Olson can use this composing method — mainly, I’m wondering what would keep it from sounding the same. (Alternatively, couldn’t he create a wholly new piece from this same pool of fragments?) But I’m glad he did it at least once. The final album sounds like a well put-together group effort.