The path between the past and future is rarely a straight line. Weston Olencki’s Old Time Music is a dissection, time capsule, and crystal ball all wrapped into one. Taking familiar sounds and channeling them through matrices that are time-traveling mechanisms from a distant future, but imbued with a spirit from faded history, Olencki causes us to pause and reconsider the interconnected nature of American musical tradition and the intersection of instruments (in this case banjo, tenor saxophone, and pump organ) with genre and their own material histories. As a conceptual framework, it is fertile ground. Old Time Music doesn’t so much search for answers as it does create a space to consider.
Across four parts, “a vine that grew over the city and no one noticed” cuts a serpentine trail through the deep South into deep space. Mechanized banjos create sophisticated aural shapes and drones from familiar scraps. On “pt. I. Cripple Creek // Pretty Polly,” AI and machine learning guides the resonant silhouettes along grid-like patterns, plucking out automated, bright bluegrass rhythms with Scruggs-style picking and the weight of tomorrow. A joyous camaraderie, even if it’s machine-driven, lights the midnight sky.
Like so much of “old time music,” the social aspect that permeates evening serenades and barnyard stomps is as vital as the sound itself. Olencki manages to bring this spirit through surprising means, but it’s alive and well in these passages, at least for a while. Locomotives howl in the background as the piece barrels ahead toward a brick wall. Glitches creep in. The works get clogged. Static wins the day. The future isn’t quite as resplendent as the fairytales promised.
Olencki covers a lot of ground throughout the remaining three parts of “a vine that grew.” Deconstructed scrapes sniff out fresh landscapes, looking for a new plot where something special might be hiding. Grinding through layers of sediment and bone, through the burnt pages of forgotten hymnals and blackened frames of worlds destroyed, the noise wall rises. Just before it becomes too much, the sky clears and insects sing in the distance. “the by and by” tunes into airwaves real and imagined. Once again the familiar becomes distorted. Using OpenAI’s Jukebox engine, Olencki paints the plains with static reverie. All are welcome even if there’s nobody else here.
Even though I’ve spent hours with Old Time Music, I still feel overwhelmed by its breadth and lost within its expansive framework. “tenor madness” opens the album with a fervor. Led by the great Anna Webber (her 2021 album Idiom is magnificent), “tenor madness” explores the history of improvised tenor saxophone music. Using samples from over 300 albums spanning from 1939 until the present, Webber leads a generative program through abstract, angular pathways and spirited sonic dialogue. There are moments of lyrical bliss and elegance next to alien visages, leaving us open to what is possible in collaboration with machines and what is possible with or without human intervention.
Again, there are no simple answers on Old Time Music or otherwise, but listening to these three pieces has my mind awash with possibilities and reconsiderations. In the dying embers of closer “Charon guiding the weary ‘cross the Long River (or, how to care for a dying instrument),” voices and instruments interact with the landscape. Using an array of field recordings, machine-driven reed organs, Sacred Harp music (“Windham”), and more, Olencki keeps going until there is nowhere left to go. The foot pump keeps pushing air into the last lifeless organ, holding on until something has to give. Even the machines have limits. Everything does. There’s common ground to be found in these final breaths, but where does it go from here?