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Meet: Lance Olsen

Lance Olsen at his exhibition in Canada
Lance Olsen at his exhibition in Canada
Lance Olsen, Camberwell alumnus, at his exhibition at the Deluge Gallery in Victoria, Canada
Written by
Eleanor Harvey
Published date
11 February 2019

Lance Olsen studied Graphic Design at Camberwell, graduating in 1965. A couple of years later he moved to Canada, where he is still based. Having worked in a wide variety of jobs, the one constant thing in his life has always been his drawing. We chatted to him about how his time at Camberwell has continued to influence his work, and how he taught himself to compose music!

Work by Camberwell alumnus Lance Olsen
Momentary Glimpses, by Lance Olsen

Why did you choose to study at Camberwell?

In 1959 I was due to leave school and had no clue what I was going to do I was almost 16 and ready to panic. I was in art class one day when my teacher asked what people were planning on doing when they left school, he went around the class and when he got to me he said “Of course you are going to art school Olsen” I had no idea that such things existed, the art teacher Jack Elvin said,” I think you should go to Camberwell, an old friend of mine Joe Dixon works there so I will set you up an interview”

There it was, I went to the interview with my couple of shitty paintings and was accepted. This moment change my life.

Work by Camberwell alumnus Lance Olsen
Alpha Leporis, by Lance Olsen

What are your fondest memories of Camberwell?

I was just a kid who liked drawing so this whole experience was amazing for me, the people I met and the wonderful teachers who set me on a direction that I never could have imagined. The whole business of being around people whose major focus was on producing creative work.

Work by Camberwell alumnus Lance Olsen
As Above So Below, by Lance Olsen

What did you do after studying?

I worked at an advertising agency for one week that cured me of the whole make a living in commercial art thing. I realized that if I wanted to be my own person and produce what and when I wanted, that my life was going to be taken up with “Day Jobs” that had nothing to do with painting. So I have been a labourer, a teacher, a carpenter (I actually loved building houses in Western Canada where I moved to in 1968 with my wife) I built and ran a small luxury inn for 10 years; and before I knew it I was 65 and retired from all these fascinating occupations.

The one thing that never stopped was constant painting and drawing, I saw my work go through many changes and eventually begin to look like my work instead of the work of other artists.

Work by Camberwell alumnus Lance Olsen
Black Dog Highway, by Lance Olsen

You now work on paintings, sound scores and performances; has your time at Camberwell had any influence on your work, and if so, how?

Well if it was not for Euan Uglow I never would have learned to observe and draw as I do, I loved the work of Frank Auerbach particularly and still have a great admiration for him. There were so many people who, with a word or gesture gave me so much. The sound work came from a much later time, but given that I compose using space and text and visual marks and even perform as if I am painting, these things are inextricably linked. I guess that also answers question 5.

Work by Camberwell alumnus Lance Olsen
Brain Leak, by Lance Olsen

As a self-taught composer, when did you realise this was something you were interested in? And how did you teach yourself to compose music?

I got involved in audio work and experimentation in about 1997-98 and view it as painting and drawing with sounds. At that time a young man named Jamie Drouin showed me a piezo microphone, I taped it to a copper plate that I was working on, and there it started, sounds outside of a classical approach, everything was available to me.

The first performance that I was involved in I used the piezo mic and amplified various objects for their sounds, I also had an old electric guitar that I stuck under the table and stood on allowing it to make whatever sounds it wanted whenever it wanted. This was a very liberating experience for me and I became interested in the quiet spaces that gave each sound its potency. At this point I had not heard most of the music that was happening around the experimental scene. To this day I don’t listen too much, I just work on my own concepts with a few collaborators in various locations around the world.

The advent of computers allows for file transfers, editing and almost every other method for production of albums.

I still do not read or use tradition notation and rely on my graphic work, text, written instructions and a trust in the musicians I work with.

I have been working with Jamie Drouin for over 20 years now producing a lot of material. The first work that we had published by the great label AnotherTimbre was called “Sometimes we all disappear” and still is one of the works I am very proud of.

Work by Camberwell alumnus Lance Olsen
Cardinal Sins, by Lance Olsen

What is your proudest achievement?

This would be the album released as part of the Canadian Composers Series by AnotherTimbre. You can read a review here.

I have also had 2 exhibitions of paintings in my home town of Victoria recently, I was very proud of the works as I feel that I am producing the best works of my life. I don’t show much anymore as I don’t travel and I don’t have the time for pleasantries with gallery owners, and producing the work is enough.

Work by Camberwell alumnus Lance Olsen
Dark Time, by Lance Olsen

What is next for you?   

I am working on a series of recordings from graphic scores with the Venezuelan composer and musician Gil Sanson. I sent Gil a set of graphic scores and he sent me a set of graphic scores, we have worked on each others scores and the resulting 2 CD set will be published at the end of January 2019 by the New York Label ELSEWHERE.

We are also working on new scores for possible release later in the year. I also have albums being released on my own small label, Infrequency, with Jamie Drouin, Dan Godlovitch and the singer Erin Cunes.

Related Links

You can see more of Lance's work on his website