From the North Bay Bohemian, 3/19/08
Jesse Olsen honors his grandmother’s life – in her own words
The cherished writer, human rights activist and women’s movement forebear Tillie Olsen, who died at age 94 on New Years’ Day 2007, left behind a poetic and direct body of writing from her experience as a mother in San Francisco’s Mission District during the 1940s. Yet in addition to her pioneering working-class masterpieces Tell Me a Riddle and Silences, Olsen also privately kept what she called her “blueys” – blue sheets of typewriter paper containing her most personal writing. Nearing the end of her life, she chose to share them with her grandson, Jesse Olsen, who for the last several years has been adapting her “blueys” into a musical tribute.
He calls it Makings, a song cycle using lyrics verbatim from Tillie’s journals, and having heard some rough demos, it’s a cross-generational collaboration that looks to succeed very well.
Tillie’s powerful words support the series of compositions, and Olsen’s intimate accompaniment evokes late nights, after the kids have gone to bed, the times when Tillie had time to herself for her most contemplative writing. “Thank you, sleep / Thank you for the being with them again,” her grandson sings on “My Beloved Dead.” In the spirit of his grandmother’s confined life, his singing is reticent and still, a reflection of decades of patience.
Marrying resonant open jazz chords with wide-open, ruminative space and incorporating strange instruments such as a toy xylophone (“Hymn to Life”) and sometimes turning one word into two (“conceal” becomes “cunn seal”), Olsen has a temporal and mysterious approach to music-making; though his technique is refined, his raw sense of composition sounds as innocent as someone picking out notes for the first time and raising them, like children, into being.
Jesse Olsen premieres Makings, a resurrection of his grandmother’s spirit, on Easter Sunday, March 23, at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.