Weston Olencki: Listen loud

Weston Olencki: Listen loud

This piece was originally published in Classical Post.

Weston Olencki's new album SOLO WORKS comes with instructions: Listen Loud.

“I'm interested in sharing an ecstatic, focused experience of sound and time and its intense, dense, and very physical reality – how it shapes us, moves us, recalibrates our bodies and minds," says Olencki.

Composer and instrumentalist Weston Olencki works at the intersections of improvisation, contemporary composition & extended instrumental performance, new media technologies, and noise-based practices. He has presented work at the Borealis Festival, ISSUE Project Room, REDCAT, bludenzer tage zeitgemäßer musik, philharmonie luxembourg, Mostly Mozart, the American Academy in Rome, Frequency Festival, and was awarded the Kranichsteiner Musikpreis from the 2016 Darmstadt Ferienkurse.

As a composer, he has received commissions from line upon line percussion, Ensemble Pamplemousse, Wet Ink Ensemble, wild Up, Talea Ensemble, Teodora Stepancic, and saxophonist Patrick Stadler.

While Solo Works is Olencki’s second solo album, it is his first for brass and to feature his own compositions.

Olencki shares, “I’ve wanted to make a solo brass record since I left college about 6 years ago. My background is in classical trombone but I have always had adventurous musical tastes, so I got very invested in experimental music early on. However, as my practice has changed in the last 3-4 years, it made more sense to actually compose for myself in this iterative fashion, creating an ongoing book of solo works. This particular set of pieces has taken about 2 years to solidify into what you hear.”

The album is made up of four compositions: seven stones, for trumpet, capacity and bisected mass. Each piece is considered a “discrete object” by Olencki, and in performance he combines the pieces in different ways from night to night resulting in different sets. He says, “I like this approach in that it’s both really versatile set lengths and to what horns I can bring on any given gig, but it also lets each piece begin to speak to each other. It’s also a fundamental questioning of the ‘work-object’ paradigm I lovingly borrowed from Anthony Braxton’s work, in that compositions are materials in and of themselves and can be not only played but ‘played with’.”

Viewing the compositions as “objects” and “materials” is one way that the visual and the structural permeate Olencki’s music. While each piece on the album is it’s own “object”, he explains “I compose form very visually, so much of the organizational syntax & development is shared among all the pieces.”

Olencki composed, performed, mixed and mastered the entire album, which was recorded by engineer Michael Coleman. While the instruments used in Solo Works are all standard orchestral instruments, they are prepared and performed in ways that reframe them to the extent that they surpass what the ear would identify as a classical brass instrument.

“While these recordings are crafted to be a bit ‘larger than life’, there is no overdubbing, layering, or electronic processing. Each piece is for a different fixed ‘setup’ and all of them I regularly perform live,” says Olencki. He continues, “To break it down, seven stones is for a deconstructed/augmented bass trumpet played into a snare drum. for trumpet is, obviously, for trumpet and capacity is for amplified trombone. bisected mass is for euphonium with reed preparations and some unconventional mutes, such as a plastic gelato cup and French horn stop mute.”

Finding the perfect instrumental preparation to create the specifically desired sound is a process of trial and error for Olencki. In his apartment in Brooklyn, Olencki keeps handcrafted orchestral mutes, planes of glass, and literal bits of garbage at the ready because, he says, “you never know what is going to be the right combination of things until you try it”. Olencki goes on, “What the mute is made of brings its own resonant potentials, such as the hard plastic cup in bisected mass, or the metal shade of a hardware store clamp lamp in for trumpet.”

The sounds on Solo Works may be new to many listeners, but they draw from a lineage. Olencki states, "These sounds and pieces are built off of a lot of work that has come before me, particularly folks outside of classical training and those with backgrounds in electronic music, improvisation, jazz, and noise. In particular, I wouldn't have gotten anywhere without the work of artists and brass musicians such as George Lewis, Nate Wooley, Greg Kelley, Bill Dixon, Matt Barbier, and plenty of others. It’s music that I love, and it took a lot of time, consideration, and practice to engage with these traditions in such a way that felt loving and honest.”

The first track, seven stones, is a metallic wall of sound that alternates between high frequency blasts, low rumbles, and dead silences. Olencki’s expert use of circular breathing results in no room for light or air in these sustained pillars of sound, so when the silence comes it is profound and deadening. It’s in these moments that one can see why Olencki’s music has been praised by the LA Times as “…a wild, exhilarating, disturbing picture of our pixelated times” and by Seismograf as “no bullshit music”.

When asked about the role that silence plays in his music, Olencki responds, “I often think of silence in visual analogies – as cuts, holes, partitions, spacers, frames, incisions, etc. Asking can silence carry weight, hold inertia, or create tension? It’s a bit like negative space or the space a sculpture is placed in; how do these planes of sound exist in aural space and time?”

This architectural outlook on silence extends to how Olencki views brass instruments in general, as tubes of varying constructions. It was no surprise that Olencki listed Xenakis, composer and architect, among his influences from the Contemporary Classical canon.

Matt Barbier and Weston Olencki make up the duo RAGE TROMBONES. Photo credit: Andrew Watts.

While some of the sounds that Olencki uses are perhaps new to some listeners, a wall of sound from the brass section is common in symphony orchestra repertoire. Olencki’s early training was as an orchestral musician and as a teenager he was in Drum Corps International. Performing in a symphony orchestra and in Drum Corps International are both very loud and therefore physical ways to experience music, and they led Olencki to where he is today.

Olencki shares, “I’m really fascinated by the physical existence of sound, how it behaves, diffuses, and in turn affects us physically, emotionally, and experientially. In this record in particular, I was interested in spectrally and acoustically complex raw materials and how our listening adapts with them over longer periods of time, particularly at threshold dynamic levels and heightened states of physical intensity. So much of wind and brass pedagogy is rooted in the voice and in turn very specific ideals of vocality depending on genre and context. However, I love a lot of music that deals with the artificial, synthetic, digital, and electronic, so it’s a way of transferring not only the materials, but also the language and syntax of those lineages back on to these older instruments. My friend Sam Pluta has a great expression for this, in that a violin is just a centuries-old compression algorithm. Musical instruments are these bizarre “analogue” technologies we’ve honed over centuries to make sound, which is just ‘synthesis’, of which electronic synthesis is only a more recent development. I also found that many of these more extreme instrumental distortions (such as the sounds in for trumpet) behaved like electronic systems – for example alternating states of stability and chaos actually modeling oscillators frequency-modulating one another.”

Thinking of Olencki’s works as structures is helpful in understanding them as they are deeply rooted in the physical components of sound. They are meant to be physically felt as well as heard. So yes, the initial instructions are apt: Listen loud.

About Weston Olencki
Weston Olencki's practice is anchored around mediated, myriad practices of listening and improvisation, sonic ecology, relationships between psychoacoustic perception and instrumental identity, and the technological, material, and cultural histories of rural spaces, particularly  childhood in the American South.

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