MUSIC | Mike Olson’s new adventures in hi-fi


You want to give Mike Olson‘s Incidental (Henceforth Records) a good listen. At least, if you appreciate innovation—sounds by a composer who learned the rulebook, went outside it and, imaginatively transcending, decided to write his own page.

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 heat, 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 (levela: 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, 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. It will be released at a party Monday, November 30 at 7 p.m. at Studio Z. Click on the play button below to hear an excerpt from “Incidental #6.”

Seems you and Frank Zappa went to the same well. Yes, no?
People sometime make this comparison between my music and the music of Frank Zappa. I certainly am a fan of his and would consider him to be one of my influences, though I think that perhaps both he and I have some other musical influences in common. Many of his works show a kind of gestural quality that I relate to, which I think he may have picked up from Varese. Also, one can hear in Frank’s music, something akin to visual action, which is what Incidental is all about. I call the project Incidental, because it sounds to me like music that was written to reinforce visual activity—like incidental music in a film.

You’re billed as genre-defying. Aren’t you writing and playing jazz?
There are those in the jazz world who could never accept what I’m currently doing as being definable as jazz. As for me, I certainly am aware of a strong jazz dimension in my work, but I’m not trying to write in the jazz idiom. I’m not trying to write in any particular idiom. In the case of Incidental in particular, I think that the jazz element is quite apparent, though there are also very clear rock, contemporary concert music, world music and experimental electronic music elements. I do think that it is somewhat difficult to nail the piece down as being is one clearly definable genre. It’s a fusion of many things. That being said, I don’t think it’s a collage or pastiche of disparate and conflicting musics. For me, the whole thing holds together and makes sense. It has a coherence and unity, and a kind of organic continuity that feels right to me moment to moment as the piece unfolds, even though there are all of this different musical influences that one can hear in the piece.

What made you decide to become a musician?
We are all born with talents of one sort or another. Somewhere along the line, I became aware that music was an area where I happen to have natural talents, and I think it’s important that once you’ve become aware of a talent in yourself, you find a way to serve that talent. I create music because I can and because it comes naturally to me.

Why piano?
It was the instrument I was first attracted to in high school. I was also very interested in synthesizers.

What made you decide to become a composer?
I started writing music almost at the same time I started playing the piano. Improvisation came naturally. This logically developed toward composition. For many years, I identified more as a keyboardist than as a composer, but now the reverse is true. I find great satisfaction in realizing musical ideas into finished musical compositions. There’s nothing else that compares to it for me. It feels like it’s what I was meant to do.

What’s on the horizon?
I’ll be going to work on a new choral piece that I’m doing with the Rose Ensemble, a fantastically talented and highly musical group of singers here in the Twin Cities. I’ve already done some of the preliminary work on it and am looking forward to plunging in with both feet in the very near future. I haven’t done a choral piece in over 20 years and I can’t wait to immerse myself in that particular sonic world. It will make for a nice change of pace.