One in Two Thousand: Hal Olson ’22

Irene Loewenson

Irene Loewenson/The Williams Record

Each week, we randomly select a unix from a list of all current students at the College for our One in Two Thousand feature. As long as the owner of a selected unix is willing to be interviewed and is not a member of the Record board, that person becomes the subject of our interview. This week, the computer (using a script in R) chose Hal Olson ’22, who talked about playing Björk on the bells, chatting with professional puppeteers, and naming his mean cat. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Irene Loewenson (IL): At the start of this interview, we’re hearing a bell clanging in the distance. Well, I understand that you’re a bell ringer. Tell me what some of your favorite songs are to play on the bells. 

Hal Olson (HO): It’s mostly stuff that I’ve brought up there and arranged myself. And it’s really quite selfish — I have all these Irish folk songs and stuff that I brought up because I wanted to hear them, not because anyone else wanted to hear them. So I think those are particularly fun. I have a Björk [correctly pronounces it “byurk”] chart that I like to do.

IL: A what? 

HO: A Björk. 

IL: What’s that? 

HO: Icelandic singer. 

IL: Oh, Björk [incorrectly pronounces it “byork”]! Has anyone ever said, “Great job with the Björk song”? 

HO: No one has ever complimented me on the Björk song before. I did a really quick arrangement of “September” on the 21st day of September that I got compliments on. I think that’s the only time I’ve done anything recognizable.

IL: You also play other instruments, including the banjo. How’d you learn to play the banjo? 

HO: I taught myself, mostly. It was really a good quarantine thing for me. I’d only been playing for about three months when we all got sent home. So I just got to practice and practice and practice. 

IL: How did others in your house feel about that? 

HO: They really don’t mind. Drums were my first instrument, which [are] way louder and more obnoxious. And I started those when I was way younger and just sucked so badly. So in comparison, the banjo is easy. I did piccolo in high school, which is even worse. 

IL: Wait, how many instruments do you play? 

HO: Depends how you count. The conservative estimate would be three. I perform on drums, guitar, and banjo right now. I’ve played saxophone here. And I was really into flute in high school. I was never very good, but our high school band was horrible. So they would just let me have at it and, you know, try not to ruin the show. 

IL: And you play the bells! 

HO: I do play the bells.

IL: What’s the best job you’ve ever had? 

HO: Well, I really like ringing the bells. The summer after my freshman year, I did run lights and sound for puppet shows all summer, which was so fun, just being surrounded by the weirdest people you can imagine.

IL: Where?

HO: This was in Atlanta, where I live, just a local performing arts center. 

IL: What kinds of puppet shows?

HO: All sorts — we had all sorts of styles of puppets. Someone did a mixture of a hand-and-rod and shadow puppet thing that was really cool. And all the other puppeteers came to that one and they were talking to me afterwards like, “That’s the most adventurous puppeteering I’ve seen in years!” There were some marionettes, which are freaky. As someone who loves puppets, marionettes still really scare me. The hand-and-rod stuff is always cute — that’s Muppet-style.

IL: What are professional puppeteers like — if you can generalize?

HO: They’re really into puppets — that’s probably the only thing they have in common. They’re really interesting. All these people, they write their own stuff, they build all their own puppets, build all their own sets. It’s a pretty lonesome thing, I think. They just spend a lot of time in their basement trying to get the fur on their puppets just right. So if you’re willing to talk to them about puppets, they’ll talk to you for hours. You know, one of my favorite puppeteers that was there was also into the banjo, so we talked about that. But yeah, they’re just a really, really strange bunch, I guess. 

IL: What are some of the puppet-specific considerations for doing lighting design for a puppet show, as opposed to other shows? 

HO: Oh, it was the easiest job in the world. I mean, they can’t move beyond, like, eight feet, you know? They’re so constrained. I didn’t have to move any lights. I basically just had to set them up beforehand and turn them on. So no puppet-specific considerations. It’s really a puppet-specific lack of considerations that would define my work.

IL: I hear you are a fan of cats. 

HO: I do like cats, yeah. 

IL: Do you have a cat? 

HO: I do have a cat. 

IL: Tell me about your cat. 

HO: He’s Boris. I chose that name. 

IL: How did you choose that name?

HO: I wanted to name him Václav because I was really into Václav Havel at the time. And my mom said no. She said, “I can’t pronounce that name. So you have to choose a different one.” I guess my mind was in the world of late-Soviet, post-Soviet Eastern Europe, and so I just went to Boris, like Boris Yeltsin. 

IL: How old were you when you were in your Havel phase? 

HO: I was 16. [Laughs.]

IL: What is Boris like as a cat?

HO: Oh, he’s the worst. I mean, I love him, but he sucks. He’s really moody, like all cats, and he has a set number of interactions per day that he’s willing to have with you. He’ll maybe deign to let you touch him twice. He doesn’t really claw me, but [does claw] the rest of my family. I guess he just likes them less. He’s brutal. He beats up on the dog. We think he got into a fight with a raccoon. He’s missing a lot of claws now.

IL: What makes you think that he got into a fight with a raccoon? 

HO: I mean, we were just kind of feeling the vibes. Because there are a lot of foxes, a lot of raccoons, and a lot of coyotes in our neighborhood. And we think if it was a coyote, he would be dead. And foxes don’t really fight that much — we looked it up because I was nervous about it when he was out at night. So we’re just guessing a raccoon. We’ve also had a prior cat that got his ear ripped off by a raccoon. 

IL: Oh my goodness. What was that cat’s name? 

HO: That was Newton.

IL: After…?

HO: You’d have to ask my parents. I do not know. That cat naming predated me. I didn’t get to get my paws on that.

IL: Changing gears a little: Do you believe in extraterrestrial life? 

HO: Yes, I do. I think the universe is so infinitely expansive. There are just infinitely many chances for it to happen, right? I’m just kind of playing the numbers here, I guess.

IL: Do you think that there is a sophisticated civilization of intelligent life? 

HO: Also yes, but I think that — hmm, this is a great question, actually. I do think so. And I was going to initially qualify it and say, [self-mocking voice] “Well, maybe we don’t understand what intelligence looks like to extraterrestrials,” which is true, but I do think there is one that meets our definitions of intelligence. 

IL: Why haven’t they contacted us? 

HO: It’s too soon, man. We haven’t been around for long enough. Light years are light years.