Interviews » Tod Dockstader by Ken Hollings, June, 2005

This article first appeared in The Wire issue 256 June 2005. © The Wire, Reproduced by permission. Special thanks to The Wire and author Ken Hollings for allowing me to reproduce this article here.

Tod Dockstader wanders down the fluorescent aisles of his local supermarket like a polite ghost. Self-contained and quiet of manner, you may not notice him at first amid the busy shelves and stacked freezer cabinets, but then some detail will catch your eye: his neatly pressed khakis, the knitted white sweater or the crisp Reebok touchline jacket he’s wearing. At 73, he displays a casual elegance that allows him to both blend in and stand apart from the suburban sprawl that surrounds him in Westport, Connecticut, a quiet stop on the Metro-North Railroad about 50 miles out from New York’s Grand Central Station.

A couple of fire trucks race by outside, their sirens and horns blaring. He consults a handwritten list, peering closely at the items on it. “Soda, bag of ice, spring water, KEN,” run a few of the entries. “I write a lot of lists,” he explains. He sometimes finds he’s lost track of which pair of glasses he should be wearing at any given time. He’s also responsible for some of the most exciting electronic music you’re likely to hear these days.

“To me it’s just a continuation of what I’ve been doing all this time, with long periods of nothing,” he remarks casually of the two most recent releases to bear his name, then pauses to light up another cigarette from one of the two packs placed carefully on a side table close to where he’s sitting on the back porch of his home. The sights and sounds of a fresh spring day in rural Connecticut filter easily in through the fine mesh screens. Out of those long periods of nothing to which he has just referred, however, has come Pond, a collaboration with David Lee Myers and the first new Dockstader work to be published in nearly 40 years, plus Aerial #1, part of a three-volume series of compositions derived from shortwave radio transmissions being made available as a part-work by Belgium’s Sub Rosa label. Its scale and complexity, not to mention the painstaking technical skill with which each piece has been assembled, reveal a composer of unique talents and singular perception.

“Or a worker,” Dockstader adds, recalling the resistance displayed in more traditionally minded musical circles during the 1960s towards his early compositions on magnetic tape. “‘Composer’ has always meant notation, instrumentation. But yes, I compose what is and has always been, to me, music. Back then there was a great deal of conflict about the word ‘music’. Everybody went through this at the time. You know: ‘What’s this? Sounds like sound effects.’ But I was very clear on what I was doing. See, I came from a different background entirely than most of those people because they were all, you know, capital M musicians. I came from a background of film sound effects and studio engineering, so I thought of myself as a worker more than a musician with a capital M. I was just working in sound.”

It’s a technical grounding, accumulated over the years, that still allows Dockstader to “go directly into the sound and work with it” in an age where quarter-inch magnetic tape has been replaced by the hard drive, and music, with or without its protective capital M, is being transmuted into a malleable onscreen presence, a stream of visible data. In fact, he seems right at home in such a period of transition. To create Aerial, for example, Dockstader used sound editing software to build up a selection of lo-fi recordings of shortwave signals made directly onto cheap audiocassettes into a vast, expansive work in both depth and scale. The source material for this project had lain around for some time as a series of two-track mixes until Dockstader’s daughter finally persuaded him to buy a computer so that they could email each other. Prior to that, its potential as a compositional tool had left him fairly cold.

“I got some LPs of early computer music and it sounded so sterile,” he recalls. “To me the ideas were lacking. So you did it on a computer. You can’t play the harmonica? Come on, let’s make some mistakes here, let’s make it live rather than this ticking.” Dockstader’s deep brown eyes flash and roll dismissively. He has always shown a preference for what he calls “acoustic sounds” - that is to say, ones that move through and inhabit auditory space. “I like the way they breathe,” he once remarked in an interview. Whether dealing with radio waves or frogs, his approach remains fundamentally the same. To create Pond, Dockstader swapped sound files with fellow composer David Lee Myers (Arcane Device), gradually transforming field recordings of local aquatic lifeforms into a teeming selection of exotically hybrid digital mutations.

“Myers had these recordings of frogs from some place in New Jersey,” Dockstader explains, “and I like frogs.” He nods towards the bare expanse of trees and low sloping roofs beyond the back-porch screens. “This was all swamp when we first came here, and it was filled with all kinds of frogs. We even had big muskrats running around. It’s gotten very civilised now and I miss it. The frogs were wonderful. I listened to all their songs.

Aerial was done and put away right before Pond. I do that a lot. I’d get to a certain point and I’d just be stopped or run out of steam, I don’t know what happens. Then I’d put it away and go on to something quite different just as a refreshment. We were doing Pond out of fun really, and I was learning computer as fast as I could go, you know. ‘Let’s throw a frog into it, because who cares if it eats it up or not? It’s just a frog.’ We had a blast.”

Between them, Pond and Aerial exemplify an exacting approach to the compositional process that has remained a constant throughout Dockstader’s long career. “It might just be a fragment,” he explains, “but I’d hear it and think, I can use this somehow. So I’d collect these things and build them up and try to make them breathe. If I could hear exhalation, or something that moved me somehow, then I’d go for that. I wanted them to sound alive. I always liked acoustic sounds. Still do. Even Aerial sounded acoustic to me, and when it didn’t,” he laughs, “I pushed it.”

“It’s funny it took me so long to do a piece on radio,” Dockstader remarks. “I was practically born with a radio in my hand, thanks to the strange childhood I had.” Growing up in St Paul, Minnesota in the 1930s, Dockstader suffered from an extreme form of eczema that often required whole summers to be spent in hospital, submerged in baths against possible infection, plus long hours passed alone in a darkened room, reading books and listening to the radio. “I lived with that radio,” he recalls, “because that was the medium for the imagination. The radio then wasn’t like we have now. In those days there were all kinds of stories, plays and the use of sound effects, music… that was a real world. That was my window.”

Dockstader still retains vivid memories of radio dramas presented by Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre and the 1937 CBS production of Archibald MacLeish’s The Fall Of The City: A Verse Play For Radio, with music by a young Bernard Herrmann. “Quite an amazing radio broadcast,” he says. “It had these choral effects in it and was about the world war to come, but without mentioning Hitler or anything. I never forgot that one. Although it was done live, it had that kind of roaring, receding sound, coming forward and going back.”

His observation recalls McLuhan’s remark on radio’s “power to turn the psyche and society into a single echo chamber”. The scale of its effect is intimate and overwhelming at the same time. As a small child in the 1930s, listening in the dark to broadcasts of speeches and rallies relayed directly from Nazi Germany, this descent into echoing choral antiphony was all too real. “They’d play these things when I was little,” Dockstader explains, “and I remember the terror not so much of the voices themselves, although they were pretty scary too, but the combination of the voices with the roaring that’s on shortwave radio - these outer space sounds going on behind them, non-human, chiming in. That’s where Past Prelude came from, my memory of that.”

Appearing for the first time on ReR’s reissue of Omniphony - Tod Dockstader and James Reichert’s legendary 1966 composition for chamber ensemble and electronic sounds - Past Prelude represented an early study on radio by Dockstader. A potent example of carefully constructed audio montage, it features a selection of Nazi songs and speeches caught up by the heavy surging of radio atmospherics and reduced to the murmuring roar of some vast invisible crowd. “They didn’t have many kids running off to listen to the Führer in St Paul, Minnesota,” he laughs, shrugging off the memory; but the collection of vintage radios in his home testifies to a lifelong fascination that has been retained from earliest childhood.

“I’d lie with my ear stuck right by the radio so I wouldn’t wake up my parents,” he says. “I was always fascinated when it went wrong. Most people would turn their radios off but I’d leave mine on. Somebody would make a mistake, but there was still a presence I could hear. That interested me. I always thought radio was a great mystery; so Aerial #1 is about some of that mystery, much more than parts two and three. Aerial to me is like going all the way back to the beginning, to some of the first sounds I heard on the radio.”

Often it’s only when technology functions in an imperfect or imprecise manner that it truly begins to reveal itself. Tuning through an old radio dial put you in touch with the space between stations, a mysterious zone of harmonies and distortions that existed and functioned according to a strange and distinct logic. “A lot of really funny things would happen,” he concurs. “You know, two stations would get off-frequency and their signals would start colliding, so you’d hear something that sounded like a demented carousel or a pipe organ gone badly wrong. The old tube radios were very imprecise. We had a lot of storms in Minnesota, so you’d have atmospherics that would come onto the frequency. Sometimes it was like a cosmic breathing or something.”

His fascination led the young Dockstader to become a ham radio enthusiast, building a tuner coil out of a Quaker Oats can wrapped in wire. Eventually he went on air with his own amateur broadcasts. The experience eventually led him to what he later described as “the drama of sound” and to the feel for technology he would need to work in the expanding magnetic field of electronic music.

Shortly after World War Two, while he was still in high school, Dockstader first encountered the new phenomenon of magnetic recording. “I was taking a class in physics,” he remembers, “and the teacher came in with a wire recorder, US army surplus, and he was trying to explain to us this new idea of magnetic sound. We were really interested. Then he said: ‘Unlike any other recording, you can edit this. You can take out a word or you can put one in.’ The thing was, if you wanted to edit it you had to smoke cigarettes because of the thin steel wire,” he laughs. “You took the end where you wanted to make the join and you tied a square knot in the wire with the cigarette in your mouth glowing hot and at the precise time put the cigarette into the knot, which fused it. Otherwise it wouldn’t work. I was the only one in the class who smoked. You’re not supposed to, you know, but I just happened to have some cigarettes and a Zippo lighter, so I became the owner of the machine as I was the only one who had perfected the technique.”

High school physics also introduced him to some of the earliest forms of recording tape. “It was paper tape in those days,” he explains. “Yeah, it was paper. There was a company in Minnesota called the Minnesota Mining Manufacturer, 3M, and they had all this rust, iron oxide, from the mining, and they were wondering what to do with it. They also made adhesive tape so they said, ‘Let’s sprinkle all this waste product on this paper with some gloop on it, and maybe this will be better than the wire, because we won’t need to smoke and we can edit with a razor blade’.” Then the company tried testing their product on local communities. “They were going around saying, Here’s a tape recorder - tell us what you think.”

After studying painting and psychology at Minnesota University, Dockstader moved with his wife Beverly to Hollywood, where he found work at UPA in the 1950s, cutting picture and sound for the studio’s animated cartoons, including the Mr Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing series. “UPA were a bit more creative than the standard ‘hit the cat on the head with the baseball bat’ feel - even with the sound they were really tired of the usual cracks, so it was, ‘What can we do?’ Usually sound effects are from a library. You’d go in and select them. If you needed a coconut here and a bop there, or if you needed an elephant sneezing…”

Yes, well, they didn’t call the show Gerald McBoing-Boing for nothing; and since most libraries didn’t cover such eventualities, other solutions had to be found. “One of the other editors had worked as a drummer for Spike Jones and he’d figure out what we needed,” Dockstader continues. “You know, boings and whatnot. He’d put it right on optical and then we’d mix that. It was all done very fast, because it was a small studio and very hard pressed by obligations that they just threw at us. We learned and made mistakes. It was really good.”

Increasingly imaginative storylines, plus the studio’s constant demand to “bring me something funny”, forced the creative pace. “Yeah, make it funny,” Dockstader recalls. “It’s got to be funny and outrageous. So we’d say, ‘Well, let’s try running it backwards and then mix it with something else.’ It was like making a kind of music. Magnetic sound was just coming in, but I was still working with optical sound, which you could read. So when someone on the soundtrack says, ‘Tiptoe’, you could see that the T is at frame 47 and the O is at Fframe 50.”

Being able to read and manipulate a visible representation of sound meant that Dockstader had little difficulty running some of the new editing software on his computer. “Sound to me was waveforms and here it was again,” he observes, giving a small whoop of pleased surprise. “After all this time, there’s the T, there’s the O. I felt right at home right away… Yeeaah, of course. That’s the way we did it. I was back in Hollywood, and it just came back to me naturally. It worked for me very, very well. I really enjoy it much more than when it was just tape.”

When Tod Dockstader speaks, his hands do most of the talking. While his voice keeps its soft register, his delivery remaining amiable and unhurried, punctuated by subdued exclamations and bright smiles, his long, slender fingers are busy folding and manipulating space. His arm gestures remain expressively graceful, alive with a wiry masculinity. They signal his enthusiasm: “Wow, yeah.” The only thing more animated is the constant play of astonishment and mild surmise in his eyes. “A tape recorder is a musical instrument,” he says. “It has keys and moving parts, and it’s temperamental. You’ve got to clean it all the time. You have to tune it - the bias must be just so. Every day you had to check the head azimuth. I was constantly aligning those heads, because they’ll drift. The head gap has to be perfect or it mushes the sound, particularly the highs. It’ll soften and blur them. So you start out every day, first thing is the alignment, and that’s about half an hour, like tuning a piano.”

When UPA went out of business towards the end of the 1950s, Tod and Beverly loaded up their car and headed for New York, where Dockstader apprenticed as a studio engineer at Gotham Recording. It was also here that he first undertook the physical work of composing directly onto magnetic tape, using studio downtime to pursue initial experiments in the organisation of sound. “I’d do a lot of overtime. Night sessions,” he says. “Everyone would go home, and I’d stay and work on my own stuff in an empty building at night. I’d use ends and half-reels of tape, stuff they’d throw out, and splice it together.”

At UPA Dockstader had already started to “hear music in sound: pitches, duration”. But in the Gotham studios the plastic manipulation of recorded sound began in earnest. Gradually a first series of compositions, Eight Electronic Pieces, took shape. Working with open-reel tape was hard physical work, moving from machine to machine, coordinating playback, cutting and mixing individual tracks, hoping against hope that you had enough footage to realise an effect. “You had to stand up to do it,” Dockstader recalls. “You couldn’t sit down. It really was industrial, very physical. Like a ballet.” He would later write of the process as having “a muscular joy to it”.

Cutting across all abstract theorising, the recording had unequivocally become the score. Dockstader’s early work was characterised not only by the precision and richness of the sounds, but also by the force with which the sounds come at you. Study No 7 from Eight Electronic Pieces, first realised in 1961 (and now available on Locust Music), has a sense of attack that’s rare for electronic work from this period. “I always liked dynamics: the percussive,” he remarks. “I like to have edges. Sound to me is always very physical. I can feel, not just hear it. It has personality. It has weight, proportion. It’s like I can pick it up and hold it. It’s always been that way, I don’t know why. It’s not abstract at all. It exists. It isn’t invisible to me.” Westport’s fire trucks go by again, unseen and unacknowledged in the far distance, their sirens and horns still blaring.

Completed in 1963, Dockstader’s Water Music brought form to the most formless of matter, combining recordings of running water, splashing and drips with sound produced on an ad hoc selection of objects, including a toy gong, Indian finger bells, a Coke bottle and a piece of sheet metal. It displayed an inventiveness that reached back to both his time cutting sound for UPA cartoons and to his days as an amateur radio enthusiast, converting old cigar boxes and germanium crystals into pieces of functioning equipment. “I’d just walk around,” he replies when asked to describe the process of collecting sounds for Water Music. “There was a sewer one night where I lowered a microphone down into it. The sounds came from all over. Just running a faucet, putting it through a trumpet, trying different mutes on it. I made little mutes to see what would happen to the drops scattering. It’s affected by the depth, the height and velocity of the drips. I just kept on recording, recording, recording. I built a library. It’s always been that way - start with some idea and just go out from there, searching for things that go with it or against it. It’s hard to describe. It’s kind of intuitive.”

Water Music had its premiere in June 1963 on FM music station WQXR as part of a programme that also featured Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gesang Der Jünglinge. At the end of the show, the presenter announced that since electronic music had no future, this would be the last broadcast of its kind. “I’ll never understand that,” Dockstader laughs, recalling the announcer’s words. “Why did they play it? I think the show was called What’s New In Music.” This particularly choice detail provokes another wave of laughter. “In the end the whole programme died, although I don’t think I was responsible for that.”

More likely it was the result of a general uneasiness over what music should be doing at that time. The high technical demands imposed by the production of these new sounds, together with the unprecedented structural possibilities they offered, brought with them an extended period of uncertainty. Did the tape recorder and the sound engineer foreshadow an end to music? Was John Cage, as Arnold Schoenberg once observed, really not a composer but “an inventor of genius” after all? Seen from the right perspective, the distinction can become extremely problematic. “I didn’t have any of these troubles because I just went into the sound,” Dockstader remarks of such hesitancy. “I don’t care where it comes from or what you call it. I listened to it and heard the music in the sound.”

It was the FM stations, their existence fostered by a generation of amateur radio and hi-fi hobbyists, that provided a venue for Dockstader’s tape compositions in the early 1960s. During this period, he would send out copies of his work to “WQXR, WEIA, anyone who had a music programme that I thought might play it”. Occasionally a Dockstader piece would be broadcast alongside work by Cage, Schaeffer or Kagel. “I just sneaked them in,” he recalls. “I’d send them around to stations, and every so often they’d put me in a programme of New Music. Some of the people in these programmes were important people, and electronic music was a kind of curiosity, so I’d get included.”

Acceptance was far from total, however. Dockstader’s background as a studio engineer made him an unschooled ‘primitive’, so far as the music establishment was concerned. The frequent references to contemporary popular culture in his choice of titles also set him apart. Luna Park, for example, is the name of an old abandoned Coney Island attraction; Travelling Music is derived from a term Jackie Gleason used to describe musical filler on his TV show, while Dockstader’s 1964 masterpiece Quatermass was titled after the British science fiction series. “I’d never seen the film,” he explains. “I found this book and thought that’s a great title. I didn’t see a Quatermass film until years afterwards. I wanted titles that sounded well, instead of Study In This…

The flipside of uncertainty is openness: a willingness to accept and work with other possibilities, no matter where they might lead. “No one had ever heard of me,” Dockstader says of this highly creative period. “I didn’t know any other composers. I was totally outside. I was just some kind of plumber who came in and built sculpture out of pipes. In art, which I studied, that was acceptable - you know, urinals signed by R Mutt. But in music, ‘What are you doing with this plumbing? What is this? Is that a faucet?’ Visual art was much more accepting.”

Despite the sense of isolation, Dockstader found interesting work being produced by other composers. He speaks warmly of Bebe and Louis Barron’s electronic score for Ian Hugo’s 1956 film Jazz Of Lights and Dick Raaijmakers’s tape piece Tweeklank, created at the Philips Research Laboratories at Eindhoven in Holland. Poème Élèctronique, created by Edgard Varèse at the same studio facilities in 1957, made the most enduring impression.

“The one piece that convinced me that what I was doing was worthwhile, that it was or could be important was Poème Élèctronique,” affirms Dockstader. “Before that electronic music was all kind of raggedy and tentative stuff. There were jokes connected with it or it was performance-based. The piece stood up. Still does. It’s got the simplicity and yet the size too.”

The inclusion of a piece by Dockstader in a broadcast featuring Poème Élèctronique was enough for Varèse to contact him, suggesting that they work together at some later date. Unfortunately, the two never met, so nothing came of the proposal.

A terse metallic roaring comes from beyond the trees as someone starts up a power tool. “We have our own concert going on,” Dockstader remarks calmly. “A chainsaw sonata.” His manner betrays the gracious, unfazed attitude of one who has nothing to prove any more. Whatever discouragement he received way back in the past remains way back in the past. The renewal of interest occasioned by the release of Pond and Aerial represents for him the chance of creating new work and having it published. That’s still of great importance. “It wasn’t just a question of doing it and playing it to a few friends,” he says of his early albums. “It was important to publish. I wanted it out there,” he says. “I wanted it to have a life, not just for a little circle of people sitting listening on the floor. I wanted it to go out and be tested, to stir things up a bit.”

Dockstader brought Eight Electronic Pieces out privately until Folkways made it part of their catalogue in 1961; later works were released under his supervision by Owl Records, a small label based in Colorado originally specialising in nature recordings. The craze for high-fidelity stereo created an expanding market for new sounds. “I think hi-fi and stereo definitely made an audience for the kind of music I was making, because electronic music - at least the kind I made - needs space. I’m not sure it would have survived or prospered without those two.”

In 1966, while working on Omniphony, a project commissioned by Owl, Dockstader caught a glimpse of the future. In order to blend the individual cells of his recorded sound with Reichert’s orchestral sequences, the two transferred operations to Bob Moog’s Electronic Music Centre in Trumansburg, New York. “He was very interested in music,” Dockstader recalls, “but he was really messianic about his equipment. He was interested in musicians’ problems because that would tell him what was needed. He was a businessman and a promoter. I don’t think he understood a lot of what we were doing.”

The advent of the switched on and well tempered keyboard led to magnetic tape undertaking an increasingly subservient role within the creation of electronic music. Unpredictable and unique, but laborious to uncover, the plastic mysteries of the recording head would soon become a thing of the past. “It’s a curious thing,” Dockstader remarks, contemplating how Aerial reaches back to his earliest memories of valve technology. “The origin is very homely, the old shortwave analogue signal. I chose the subject because of my experience, because I remember the mysteries as a child. I started to see things because of these sounds and I was delighted that it was still there. It brought me back to a time when I was much younger.”

The initial collecting and mixing of the recorded signals were done on two-track analogue equipment. The piece began to take on its final shape and character only when Dockstader acquired a computer. “The material had the potential for that scale,” he points out. “I could hear it in the original. You know, to anyone else it might just be noise, but I could build with it. I don’t think anything from Aerial comes direct from the radio at all. It’s all been treated and worked and made into something.”

What you finally get to hear in Aerial, however, is not the radio or the processes used to transform it, but rather the painstaking precision that Dockstader brings to its creation. “I guess because of my background as an engineer I’m so used to the tedium of detail,” he explains. He has, after all, put in the time working with tape and a razor blade to “get to the soul of the thing”, as he puts it. “I have to say that I’m glad that I had to go through the analogue world when I was younger,” concludes Dockstader. “I couldn’t do that kind of work today. For me it’s lovely that the computer programs came along just at the time I needed them. You have no idea what a luxury it is to sit there quietly and make a calamity in my ears with just minimal movements.”