Tod Dockstader heard poetry in the airborne electricity. The musique concrete pioneer recorded more than 90 hours of shortwave radio noises; connecting points between his amassed tapes and magnifying those lines 260x times with a computer. It is the first time he used such a machine in his nearly five decades of stitching recorded noises together for academics and cartoons like Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing. This past year also saw Pond, a collection of fingerprints that he and feedback composer David Lee Myers digitally smudged on recorded frog croaks.
It is difficult to determine if shortwave radio is really heard on Aerial 1, Dockstader’s first solo album in nearly 40 years. Whatever “music” is heard are drone symphonies slightly tainted with disembodied melodies all wandering around in the ether. The composer seemingly boiled away all traces of humanity in the broadcasts; leaving the listener with a mesmerizing and near-phantasmagoric din akin to freeway noises, refrigeration, engines, jetliner sonic booms, and other banalities of the factory-produced age.
Once devoid of broadcasting information, the radio returns to being a defective machine that fascinated and often haunted Dockstader as a child who pressed his ear to a radio while growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota during the 1930’s. He recalled to The Wire about being troubled by the call-and-response noise between Hitler and the Nazi German masses and the discord of the radio transmissions. “…these outer space sounds going on, behind them, non-human, chiming in,” he told Ken Hollings, in explaining his 1966 piece, Past Prelude for chamber music and samples of Nazi speeches and songs.
Aerial is a three-volume epic, with its first release curiously packaged in a thick slipcase containing the CD along with two empty cases for the upcoming volumes. Dockstader belies his age with an ear still razor-sharp for sounds that hit the gut. Opener, “Song” sets the album template with a 12-minute drift through the clouds: a roiling drone exhales its tones, only to dissipate into thin air; brief radio frequencies snap; and near-flanged timbres rise and fall in volume, all maintaining the tension that never ceases. The follow-up, “Om,” takes the same palate and swipes it with violent strokes of a radio trying to correct itself, while “Raga” is striking for its faintest of spiritual chants heard amid a frequency noise tweaked into that of a sitar’s melody. “Second Song” is a humidifier drone rendered into what sounds like passing cars and “Harbor” washes the static into the sea for boat horns lost in the fog, blaring in the distance. “Aw” stretches a choir’s vowel into what seems like an eternal drone emitting from the center of the earth through a 10-mile crack in a deserted city. As to what mysteries arise about the origin of that beckoning noise, here’s looking forward to two more albums that could further entice.
An Anthology of Noise & Electronic Music / Fourth A-Chronology 1937-2005
“The perpetual vexations of someone looking for a needle in a haystack” is how Guy Marc Hinant describes his work. That’s well-put for a curator of significant noise and electronic music pieces for Sub Rosa’s often dubious, but admirable A-Chronology series. His task, to cover such music’s early stages in the 1940s and 50’s, is (in a way) a simple one. Back in those days, there were only a small number of technicians and composers in university and corporate laboratories creating this music—spending countless hours translating metal and electricity into sound.
Today, there is more firepower and possibility in a pirated audio program on a laptop than there was in the entire Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center four decades ago. Which is where our friend Hinant got lost. Subgenres in electronic music have been piling up for the past decade, while virtually any audio track has been made available for consumption through a few clicks on the Internet. Hinant came to a realization, though, while having tea with musique concrete composer Francisco Lopez. It was a meeting that “made [Hinant] realize how beautiful this undecipherable flood [is].”
In the liner notes, from which that quote was taken, Hinant stops telling us what happened after that realization or what it meant to him, but his fourth A-Chronology is still a diverse and fascinating survey of what the human imagination has heard in noise and electricity for the past sixty-eight years. His previous collections suffered from obvious flaws such as insufficient coverage of Germany’s electronic music heritage, and inappropriate selections (Sun Ra and a Captain Beefheart spoken-word track on an “electronic” compilation). However, he deserves credit for including brilliant and alien works such as Tod Dockstader’s mammoth drones built from shortwave radio broadcasts, along with tracks by the great Eraserhead sound designer Alan R. Splet and BBC audio engineer Daphne Oram—all pioneers that made the included pieces by today’s post-techno mavericks Autechre and Scanner sound weak and uninspired.
This time around, Hinant dedicates more coverage to international noise, musique concrete, drone, and modern composition artists. The chief attraction is Egyptian composer Halim el-Dabh’s “Wire Recorder Piece,” a phantasmagoric moment of operatic vocals that drift about like early morning fog. The altered 1944 wire-recording was broadcast in Cairo, several years before Pierre Schaeffer’s magnetic tape mixes premiered on French radio. Hinant portrays his exposure of el-Dabh’s piece as an earth-shattering event in the liner notes. “Musicologists, revise your books. Facts keep scrambling up what we hold as the truth,” he announces. While this recent discovery is impressive, I’m more curious about how the two minutes of “Wire Recorder Piece” affected listeners in Cairo. Was it general appreciation, rejection, or indifference? Did el-Dabh inspire many of his countrymen to play around with wire recorders, just like Schaeffer (eventually) did?
Further on the international tip, Hinant includes Chinese artist Wang Changcun’s contemporary “Sea-food.” The track is a crude, but oddly soothing collage of electronic thuds, time-stretched harmonies, and a recording of what seems to be rainwater leaking through a roof in a seaside shack. Another collage work is the “Broken Music Composition” by the Czech Republic’s notorious Milan Knizak. The track is composed of stuck-together pieces of vinyl records that he sliced up, several years before New York noise-artist Christian Marclay famously did so in the early 80’s. The amusing result sounds more like someone smacking a TV set to get it to work right than a jittering turntable. Beat writer William S. Burroughs’s collage, “Present Time Exercises” fits the image of TV set abuse as well, as he drowns out a recording of his voice with haphazard interruptions by the noises of TV movies and radio news announcements. And then there is The Loop Orchestra’s “Circa 1901,” where the Australians stitch together songs sampled from turn-of-the-century wax cylinders and make them sound like fairies chattering in a garden.
Along with the collages, Hinant picked strong examples of the human voice turned inside out by electronics. Sound art pioneer Alvin Lucier renders a high-pitched female vocal into a ringing harmonic through two loudspeakers’ meticulously measured sound waves on “Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas: Voice.” While Lucier’s piece is better read on paper than heard on the home stereo (eleven minutes of tinnitus-like ringing on the hi-fi could lose you friends and maybe a spouse), The Soft Machine’s psych-rock travelers Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers, and musique concrete composer Francois Bayle simply hypnotize with their eerie layering of mutterings, scat, doo-wop percussion, and chants of “Armageddon” and “I did it again” in their track, “It.” But if anyone extracts the raw energy and strength of the voice in this collection, it’s Norway’s Maja Ratkje who mutates her voice to dance between long drones and growls that chew through cages in “Vox.”
Just like previous volumes, Hinant has tossed in some pleasant surprises that sound awfully contemporary despite being nearly 30 to 40 years old. Japan’s Les Rallizes Denudes’s “Fucked Up and Naked” uncannily resembles the Stooges with a shoegazer makeover all drenched in liquid nitrogen vats of guitar distortion, while Gottfried Michael Koenig’s 1969 piece, “Funktion Grau” sounds like Kid606 cleaning out garbled static noises out of his laptop.