by Weston Olencki

July 7th, 2020

I wrote the following text in May preceding the riots, protests, and actions against police brutality towards BIPOC and the systemic, racist, white supremacist foundation of this country. I am complicit in this system, and will continue the work needed to dismantle these structures of oppression and violence in favor of equity, equality, love, and justice on all levels of our communities. Before talking about my own work, here are a few (among many) resources where you can learn, support, donate, and grow forward. 

Huge selection of texts


In a time of both severe geographic isolation and frequent displacement, I’m preoccupied with our experience of place, both in and over time. Through writing and performing, I seek to highlight ecstatic experiences of sound, but for a while now I have been left wanting more in terms of a relation to things in musical performance and composition. I’ve become engrossed in what surrounds music, in what sound has to do with the world and how what’s around us feeds back to our sound-making and listening practices. I’m interested in how a work of art engages in these references, significations, metaphors, or associations. It’s a way of anchoring a work in things outside the practice of music making; of selecting, shaping, and working with materials for what they can signify and embody in a sonic medium. 

Material is not just some formless stuff to be shaped, but already comes imprinted with how it's made and where it comes from. In a way, there is no raw material -- everything leaves traces of its past and points towards other things it relates to. The sound of a saxophone recalls both the material qualities of the instrument and the entire history of who played it. A recording of a river references historical technologies of sound recording, the politics of transmission and displacement of natural sound, as well as the events, geographies, and communities that have surrounded both that particular river, as well as metaphors of water, its physical states, what it signifies, and so on. I’ve found that pursuing this conceptual method has required me to give up an adherence to a specific compositional voice or “brand,” instead shifting my practice from project to project, thus adapting myself both to what is required and also to what possible material is in my immediate vicinity. It has become a way of expressing my relationships with what’s around me, embodied and mediated by sound. 

I’ve begun to see composition more as a set of listening practices and continual gathering of material, a careful attentiveness to the histories and presences of the living and nonliving things one is surrounded by, and an openness to the possibility that anything can and might sprout significance. This attention to places and their histories inevitably includes the complicated ecology we call ‘nature’: the sounds of our environments and how sound travels through them, into and back out of us. Much of our experience with sound is constructed on references to space, whether real or imagined. I’m very interested in this process of location, in how we orient and disorient ourselves toward specific geographical, psychological, and experiential places. An idea of place also focuses on the relationships between multiple locations of sonic realization (performance space, stage, venue, neighborhood, city, etc.) and the manifold spatial metaphors we use in listening practices. The expectations for a composer, as I’ve understood it, are fundamentally in opposition to this kind of locality, the normal practice viewing instruments, traditions, spaces, and ultimately people to be molded to construct a specific sonic worldview, able to be relocated and transposed at will. I’m interested in taking a different approach, one that values plurality, adaptation, and flexibility in order to work with what is around us. 

There are a few descriptive terms or qualities I keep coming back around to:  

Embeddedness: How sounds carry their histories and how extra-musical concepts are realized through sound. 

Audibility: The degree of abstraction from, or fidelity to, an original sound source or idea. 

Adaptability: Making art with what is at hand rather than an idealized set of circumstances, and creating work that can fit a wide array of presentational formats. 

Porosity: A certain flexibility between input and output of a system, instrument, or work; a willingness to acknowledge and ‘bend’ to what’s around it. 

Site-Specificity: Building works and integrating material outward from specific places, histories, objects, or instruments: a bottom-up creative process.

Below are a few examples of recent work that I feel expresses these concerns. I’ve struggled for a long time with a way to synthesize my disparate approaches into a singular language, only recently realizing that that’s not really the goal at all. However, I have noticed these strains of my practice are routinely preoccupied with how we listen to and experience what’s already out there. 

bisected mass, for solo euphonium, from SOLO WORKS

A few months ago I released an album of compositions for solo brass instruments, which until recently have been my primary instruments and working media. SOLO WORKS is a series of pieces based on the resonant properties of metallic tubes. When the ideas for this album started to form, I was at a point in life where I didn’t know if I should really play trombone anymore. I felt very bored with its normal roles and my relationship with it, and I had been excitedly preoccupied with electronic sound and developing new skills for making and capturing audio. When I began to have a wider set of artistic methods, why play these archaic instruments anymore? What has made me build my life around them? Looking back into the autobiographical ‘why’, my formative playing experiences were marching drum corps (DCI) in my mid-teens. In this activity, music was not a cerebral pursuit but quite literally exercise, an aerobic activity, built on discipline, razor-sharp precision, and rigorous athleticism. The important thing I took from this is music can be a thing you make and experience with your whole body, that it’s about feeling sensation and literally being moved by sound. What’s fundamental to brass instruments is their ability for high-gain amplification and the necessity of full-body involvement. This energy creates a kind of cathartic physicality that initially drew me to contemporary music, free improvisation, and noise a decade ago. I really wanted to capture this direct, physical aspect of brass instruments, but also dive into analogies of synthesis and electronic composition by treating the instruments solely as big, dynamic resonators. I love the way these instruments filter and adapt to anything you put in them. 

seven stones (parallax), for prepared bass trumpet with snare drum

capacity, for solo trombone

In the case of seven stones, the piece itself consists of a specific double reed placed into a specific trumpet, mic’ed in a specific way on a sympathetically resonating snare drum. Pared down to these sets of restricted materials, I try to throw the listener into the disjunct spaces of this de/re-constructed instrument. It’s a way to divide one space into many, whether the undulating sizzle of the drum head versus the rich sub-bass in the removed valves. I feel these bass vibrations so strongly when playing, so in writing capacity as well it was a way to exchange heads, to bring these body resonances into a space where others could feel them with me. bisected mass tries to harness and cut the raw energy of particular plastic reeds embedded in a euphonium, which behave in this overpowering, emotive, and chaotic way when pushed to physical and durational limits. I keep coming back to how simple the concept of a dynamically resonating tube is, yet how infinite its sonic possibilities are. I wanted to write music that envelops you with this premise, that there’s nothing beneath this phenomenon, but in it there is a certain magic, an invisible but very audible filtering that exists in these interior spaces. These pieces are sometimes algorithmically esoteric, always physiologically convoluted, but seek to highlight the weird, yet fundamental acoustic reality of these instruments. What I’m after in these pieces is a shared, intense listening space, a place to shape and be shaped by these sounds that I think are special, sculpted by the psychoacoustic oddities of sound (additive harmonics, chaotic behavior, interference tones, etc). They’re an initial result of trying to find my fundamental attachment to brass instruments, a personal root position in my long relationship with them, a metaphorical Grundton

chime array, performed by Ensemble Pamplemousse

While in other projects I was seeking restriction, reduction, and refinement, chime array is fundamentally an outwardly-spiraling web of audiovisual resemblances and metaphors. I made this almost concurrently with SOLO WORKS, each as a way to explore different, often conflicting methodologies. chime array is a multimedia performance work with only basic staging directions with highly specific custom software and instruments. The piece highlights wind chimes as loaded signifiers of the rural, but also as a matrix of nodes in an autonomously controlled network of digital audio signals. Initially I was preoccupied with autonomy, or how a work can have agency or a ‘say’ in how people learn it. In what has now become the first section of the piece, an early prototype used erratic capacitive sensing on a collection of arbitrary metal rods to open and close gates in a feedback network that could synthesize audio but also analyze and use it as control data. All visual material is translated from nodal points in this network, the video a metaphorical array of oscilloscopes, and the lights scanners for individual pixels of this display. 

While I was making these esoteric systems, the sound and shape of these suspended metals reminded me of wind chimes, which my family hung everywhere around my childhood home. Spiraling outward from these metonymic associations with rurality, I became interested in this layered process of displacement, of placing the outside world into the interior performance space, bringing the pastoral and natural into an urban environment, of using green-screening to replace and layer imagery, and bringing all of this and embedding them within music and image. I wanted to make a space to play with audibility, specificity, and embedded relationships between all of these sound sources. There are a lot of layers going on by the end (I didn’t want to prescribe a particular path through them, other than the moment of revealing the aching nostalgia of a washed-out Beethoven’s Sixth...). Images of greenery are composited according to the amount of green (essentially, nature) in them, color balances in the video navigate the parameters of a granular synth of a single chime sample (itself the seed for the initial section’s neural net processor), the color of the ending lights is the chromakey itself and its amplitude is measured like a vocoder to other samples, and recordings of the three chimes are continually pitch-tracked to provide banks of sine tones, ad nauseum. I didn’t intend for much of this to really be audible, but to give this deeply embedded feeling of intentionality and contingency, listening to an ecology take form - and that there is no arbitrary data. Following logical decisions on this molecular level, no matter how inaudible or buried they might be, led to places I couldn’t ever have imagined with this piece. 

portrait self portrait score
portrait :: self-portrait (with still life), score excerpt

still life excerpt (tape part)

Lastly, I wrote a piece called portrait :: self-portrait (with still-life) for Wet Ink in 2018 that was actually the first step in my shift toward this relational practice. It is a study in compositional perspective, or how we orient ourselves as listeners to the sonic experience. As an initial step, I was interested in how we use sound to re-present an actual place, and the opposite paradigm of how to make sound about our internal perception of it. I transcribed a series of field recordings (sonic ‘photographs’) made in Manhattan, juxtaposing increasingly higher ‘res’ versions of them against increasingly displaced methods of recording. Self-portrait is heavily indebted to the work of Maryanne Amacher, and attempts at music made from auditory masking, otoacoustic resonances, mobius strips of Risset tones, re-sampling, and memory. All material is extrapolated from and tuned to the 18.98Hz resonant frequency of our eyeballs, reaching toward a kind of listening that spills over into sight. The piece delves into the spatial metaphors we use in listening, in localizing real and imagined places, essentially ‘where’ we hear from. I think sound’s ability to ‘take us’ ‘somewhere’ ‘else’ while we remain in a space together is really fascinating, and I wanted to juxtapose different vantage points through the metaphor of traditional art practices. I’ve included the tape part to still life, a brief interlude which dredges up an occasional fragment of a Bach prelude, a decaying shard of music history surrounded by the sounds of broken technology and sedimentary instrumental remains. It’s an intentionally brief segment of listening to history from our ears of the present. 


In developing future work, I’m attached to the idea of an experimentalism of the American South, and exploring a noisy rurality more broadly. I’ve been lucky to live in and travel around many cities for a decade now, but recently, I moved to southeastern Vermont, to a city around the same size as my hometown and located in a similar beautiful mountainous geography. This has accelerated a lot of my interests in a more ecologically-positioned practice and (longstanding traditions of) experimentalism outside of urban spaces. I was born in a very small town in South Carolina to a photographer and a high school art teacher and seamstress. My relationship with where I’m from is complicated - its stunning geography, rich musical traditions and the sticky, humid progression of molasses-like time are embedded in my consciousness. Its history is also underwritten with the literal blood of slavery, genocide, bigotry, destructive industrialization, and of untold, ongoing injustice. But I am from this place - no amount of mental games will extricate me from this fact, from my ties to a place whose facets both inspire and disgust me. Sparked by my mother’s sudden death in 2017, I began to personally reforge my relationship with this place I worked so hard to artistically, culturally and geographically distance myself from. A few years later, I’m preoccupied by grappling with these messy contradictions, researching everything from the mountainous roots of bluegrass and community brass bands, the inhumane history of cotton and textile mills, the wide expanses of exposed blood-red clay of the Blue Ridge soil, the encroaching rivers of displaced water and nationalistic Americana that built the countless towns like my own. We’re all embedded in the world whether we like it or not, as I’m embedded in this place. Similar to initiating this ongoing book of solo pieces, I’m trying through art-making to find a deeper, more foundational relationship with something that feels tenuous and uncertain. I don’t know what to say about it yet, and don’t have anything to demonstrate for it, but I’m finding this process fulfilling.

Writer headshot

WESTON OLENCKI is a South Carolina-born musician working 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, Ghent Jazz Festival, Blanton Museum of Art, Squeaky Wheel, Mostly Mozart, the American Academy in Rome, Frequency Festival, Indexical, and the OPTION series, and was awarded the Kranichsteiner Musikpreis for performance from the 2016 Darmstadt Ferienkurse. Weston is an active member of RAGE THORMBONES, Ensemble Pamplemousse, the Wet Ink Large Ensemble, and performs regularly as a soloist and ensemble member on low brass instruments, modular synthesizers, and various electronic media.