A compilation of soundworks inspired by the visual scores of Lance Austin Olsen, with a written introduction by Jesse Goin.
Someone entered this field last night.
To hear Lance Austin Olsen tell it, every significant event in his life, every step of the way, has been a process of meeting serendipity with receptiveness. To hear him tell it – and you really should, as Olsen spins the yarn of his life with a robust admixture of blarney, Beckettian suchness stripped of sentimentality, and zen aplomb – Olsen’s half-century of painting, 40 years of zazen, and 15 years of musical practice, are “footprints of my journey.”
Recounting entering the Camberwell School of Arts in London at age 15, Olsen maintains that the choices offered were carpentry or art, and it was his failure to craft a decent dovetail joint that tipped him into the realm of drawing and painting. Recalling his stint working at an art gallery in Victoria, B.C. when in his late 50s, he describes meeting the young gallery employee Jamie Drouin, who showed Olsen his photography. Olsen was so taken with Drouin’s work he helped him get exhibited. In turn, Drouin suggested they start making music as a duo. “John Cage opened the door”, Olsen says, “and we just sauntered through.” Olsen sauntered into a now 14 year musical partnership with Drouin; the pair perform and record together fairly frequently, largely on the label they co-own, Infrequency Editions. One more serendipitous footprint (and we haven’t even gotten to his painting practice); Olsen leaves the U.K., aged 25, and lives awhile in California and Canada, traveling with his wife of many years, his itinerary set as much by fluctuations in the cash-on-hand, as by any overarching design. “I have no idea what I’m going to do,” Olsen says about making music, “I make a sound and it suggests something…I like flowing, being one with what I’m doing.”
Olsen’s footprints, continuing into this, his 71st year (as I write this, Olsen is in California, en route to further collaborations with some fellow musicians), can be seen in the seamlessness of his creative work, music and paintings which interface and loop together in an interesting way – in short, a process of the instrumentation he uses as sound-makers (e.g., amplified copper engraving plates) serving both his audio and visual art.
The maps of his paintings and sound works are created in a hermetic setting, a bare-bones studio that would induce claustrophobia in many. Olsen’s set-up, whether the table of copper plates and broken stuff of his concerts, or his workaday studio, are as no-nonsense as the zafu facing the blank wall. The results – and you are encouraged of course, after spending some time with the painting-scores included here, to investigate the spontaneous generosity that is Olsen’s output to date – is art of wildness and discipline. Olsen’s is a practice of getting the “art director” – his term for the aspect of the artist/musician’s sensibility that creates via the over-controlled gesture (and, in Olsen’s view, produces contrived work) – out of the way, bringing to mind the practice of the hitsuzen.
Hitsuzen is the familiar (think Lucent Technology branding) brush-stroke enso – but some zen practitioners engage in a process of repetitively creating the enso from a state of “no-mind” fluency and flow, the intuitive and confident action of the brush-stroke overriding the art director. “A surface,” goes Olsen’s artist statement, “is endlessly reworked.”
Someone entered the dark woods.
Olsen’s engraving plates make music. Scored music indeed. His paintings also serve as scores. The scores, being the nature of his paintings, offer generous space for the musician to add their own footprints. Olsen might provide a hint – “the deepest black is the deepest silence”, for example.
That’s what you have here, seven works chosen by the participating musicians as a basis for their contributions. As varied as the pieces are, anyone familiar with Olsen’s work might hear some recurrent strains in his friend’s work. crys cole’s piece, close in some ways to territory Olsen explores, is restive, scrabbling, very small events amplified, suggestive of life viewed via microscopy; Jamie Drouin contributes sounds as allusive, near-silent, and resistant to direct apprehension as those found in his many duos with Olsen; Johnny Chang contributes the most active, mini-episodic piece; Mathieu Ruhlmann and Joda Clément’s Blood & Memory #32 offers a beautifully lush and contemplative piece, replete with the plangent and occasionally foregrounded caws of gulls.
d’incise’s track really stands out, its ambiguous throb and thrum suggesting the flow of dark blood, which somehow – tested repeatedly with close listens – most strongly evokes for this listener, Olsen’s overall sensibility. d’incise’s selected canvas, Craig’s Stroke #2, really should be re-viewed upon listening to the piece, making my words even more unnecessary. The Craig’s Stroke series is powerful, comprising 88 works, each representing an eight minute increment of a subtracted life, a decade-long disintegration of consciousness. It evokes Beckett’s masterful prose, whose terminus in his famous trilogy was the unnamable flicker of light cast by the last gasp orison in the silence you don’t know you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
Olsen has entered and passed through some dark woods. With each step he has maintained a practice of meeting all things with receptivity, curiosity, and uncontrived artistry. When arthritis gnarled his hands, he developed a technique of clutching multiple brushes loosely, allowing the paint to apply itself sans an art director. When a thief broke into his home in 2010, stealing, among other things, a decade of digital art and sound files, Olsen responded with the composition Thief, a free download available to even the thief who engendered its occasion.
This gift from Drouin and company allows us to view and hear Olsen’s journey, rendered in acrylics, oil, tea and ink, sound and silence, in a dynamic way. I am honoured to contribute my small part. I keep thinking of the composer Antoine Beuger saying “I like to think of scores as confidential letters between friends.”