Interviews » Interview with John C. DeWitt for WRVR FM 1963 (transcript)

Presenter: This is Riverside radio WRVR FM in New York. Listen, listen as composer Tod Dockstader discusses with WRVR’s Director of Music, John C. DeWitt, the process of composing electronically produced organised sound.

John C. DeWitt: I think most people think of that sound as perhaps being musical because they’re used to hearing it in science fiction, and then maybe used to hearing it even on electronic music by other composers.

Tod Dockstader: Yes, that’s the usual sound, electronic sound

John C. DeWitt: What I’m here to find out is what a composer does to get the sort of sounds organised and in some fashion, a composition, and also to find out why. Why go in for this sort of thing?

Tod Dockstader: That’s a question I don’t think I could answer, anyone could. But I can answer the first one about how the things are, the parts of a composition, and how they’re made. I’ll go wind is tape back and then start at the beginning…

John C. DeWitt: Well, most interviews take place in the studio - here we’re in the control room. Now, what I really mean is why do you compose this as opposed to some other form of music or form of art? What is it that draws you to the sounds and these ways of making sounds into a artistic whole?

Tod Dockstader: Well, in my case, it’s a little less pure than a person who simply decided he wanted to be a composer, and had studied music and then heard or came in contact with electronic music, liked it, and decided to turn his training to that

John C. DeWitt: Everyone I’ve ever known has done it that way.

Tod Dockstader: Yes, it’s always been done - as far as I know - there may be somebody else in the same situation I’m in someplace, but in my case I started out engineering - mixing, editing - first, and about the time I’d learned that - the first electronic music that I heard, well, in fact, the first electronic music I heard was the old music concrète. And because of the engineering knowledge I had, I had some idea how they’d done it. In other words, I could listen to it and tell some of the things they’d done and how they’d done it, and I thought, well, that’s the old thing - I can do that. And I began working and working on the thing, and it got, I got caught up in it, and I found that I could do it, or at least I thought I could do, and I just started going into it that way - and of course by now, it’s gotten much more complicated than that.

John C. DeWitt: Do you call it electronic music? Or do you call them electronic pieces?

Tod Dockstader: No, I don’t call it electronic music. To me electronic music is, as - it’s very hard, everyone refers to it as electronic music - I mean, that’s the whole title. But what I call it is organised sound - organised sound is really what it is, especially in my case, because I don’t use just oscillators. I use many, many sounds. And so it really is organisation of sound.

John C. DeWitt: But there must be elements which control the structure of the organised sound, which you’re composing. Now it could be done by combining sounds in such a way to get harmony and melody and rhythm in a very traditional way. And some of the Dutch composers of electronic music have done just that, but you’re not doing that - but what are the elements structurally that go into everything? I’m not talking about the kinds of sounds because we’ll get to that in a minute. I’m saying how do you organise a piece of music in terms of its form, in terms of its having a cohesiveness?

Tod Dockstader: Well, I suppose that because I’ve had no schooling in traditional music, I, in a way, start back where, I suppose, hundreds and hundreds of years, thousands where the first guy who picked up a rock or something started - to me music is just very simply a matter of attention, and release. It’s even writing this is that you have the same problem. You have the same problem in theatre, that’s what you’re doing really, as you’re building a kind of tension, even if it’s very, you know, mild, and then you have a kind of release out of that tension. And my music, I suppose has a little more because I just tend, and the nature of these sounds is usually so energetic, that my music possibly, I put more attention into it. I think, in a way, the stuff I do is traditional music in that I’m trying to make it satisfy me in the same way that a piece of orchestral music that someone else had done would satisfy me. And that’s very difficult to talk about what, you know, what is it that satisfies you, but it’s a matter of timing, energy, drive, balance, you know, all these things are not musical terms, I’m afraid but…

John C. DeWitt: No, but they’re terms of art and form, and I think that’s enough. Alright, let’s forget about traditional music, and find out what the elements are that go into this. We have a tape, which Mr Dockstader has put on some of the simple elements which he uses in composing these pieces. The basic instrument is an oscillator, explain if you can for just a moment what that does?

Tod Dockstader: Well, an oscillator is, in all my pieces, as I said I used a lot of different sounds, but one thing I use in almost everything I’ve done, since the earliest pieces I did, is an oscillator. And an oscillator is, has almost become, a musical instrument - the way oscillators are set up in some places, for instance at Columbia Princeton Centre, or in Europe - they are tempered instruments, and you can play music, which no one would argue with, on them. But I use a straight, simple little laboratory oscillator

John C. DeWitt: Actually I think, if we thought of an electronic organ like a Hammond organ or something, that’s a set of oscillators that are all tempered and tuned.

Tod Dockstader: That’s right, it is an electronic instrument, and in a way you could say if you played the “Happy Farmer” on an electronic or a Hammond organ it would be electronic music

John C. DeWitt: Let’s get a very simple sound here.

Tod Dockstader: Alright, this is a simple sine wave. First, you’ll hear one note and then another note added to it.

John C. DeWitt: These are tones that are pure, they have no overtones

Tod Dockstader: Like a tuning fork.

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Tod Dockstader: The sine wave is a very simple thing and I find it fairly dull - it can be interesting, but as a general tool, it’s a little too simple.

John C. DeWitt: A primary colour.

Tod Dockstader: Yeah, that’s right, and so what you do is you turn it into a square wave, that is meaning we call it a square wave, because on a oscilloscope if you look at this sound, it’s square.

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Tod Dockstader: And that to me as a little more interesting in tone.

John C. DeWitt: What else can you do with an oscillator?

Tod Dockstader: Well, another thing you can do with an oscillator is you can make it pulse very rapidly or very slowly.

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Tod Dockstader: Like a snap almost - you can change tempo - its a very useful tempo device.

John C. DeWitt: It has a rhythmic element

Tod Dockstader: Yes, yes, very much so.

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Tod Dockstader: I’m working on a new series of pieces, and this is a little, what I would call a tango, for lack of a better term, but it uses, it’s almost entirely of oscillators or actually one oscillator used in many ways, and you’ll hear the pulsing and the different elements in it - so I’ll play that.

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Tod Dockstader: There are many different lines in there, and different tempos playing against each other, and they’re prepared singly. You know, like lines on paper,

John C. DeWitt: What we heard the very beginning of the programme was what you had here on the tape next, but that’s, that’s already processed. And then following that we have the slower version. Let’s just put that on. Hows that done?

Tod Dockstader: Well its done very slowly, very very slowly and at octaves lower.

John C. DeWitt: Because these notes have to be done separately and then have to be sort of joined together by splicing the tape?

Tod Dockstader: Exactly, note by note they’re done, and as I say - well here’s an example, still sped up but this is more like it. That’s the same melody, but it’s in nearer to its original form.

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John C. DeWitt: Let’s see, what do we have next?

Tod Dockstader: Again, this is one oscillator played originally very, very slowly and much lower than this. And then overdubbed.

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John C. DeWitt: One of the problems - I don’t think we can solve it here - is the, you know, how you actually build it up, it would be like a composer, watching a composer as he wrote the score out and it’s just too long a process for us to completely understand.

Tod Dockstader: Yes where the composer if you wanted to watch him, you’d have to spend day after day with him, I think, and it’s the same thing with me

John C. DeWitt: But it’s a very, it’s a very painstaking process. To what extent once you get some of these pieces together, these, the parts, is it a matter of in a sense sitting down at the tape recorders and the mixing board and so on, and almost playing the competition?

Tod Dockstader: Yes, well, in a way I suppose I could appear on a stage with the five tape recorders and perform in a way because although I have it as footwork - well, this thing we just heard this little conclusion of Luna Park was actually, when I came in here to mix it, what I call mix it, which is a step in composition, of course, but the final combination. It was on 1, 2, 3 - 3 different tapes, I think, at different lines of this little gnarly, little counterpoints, different things accents that I wanted. And in a way, I decide then what’s going to be the strong line, what’s going to - at what point will merge with the next line, and doing this I simply stop and start tape recorders and rewind and change levels on this board. And in a way, it’s kind of a performance of you know, the giant Wurlitzer sort of thing, except it’s full of stops and starts - it isn’t a complete performance. It’s a very slow process -it sounds effortless when you when you play the final thing and that’s the way I wanted to sound. That was great - you know, there’s a lot of sawing and chopping wood sort of in writing music, and but when you hear it, you don’t want to hear that effort.

John C. DeWitt: You have some sounds now on tape of laughter and what you can do with it.

Tod Dockstader: Yes, well, this is again Luna Park, an earlier piece of mine, and laughter is to me, a musical sound. Let me play one.

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Tod Dockstader: You can do different things. In every case, what you try and do is bring out the music, or at least what I try and do is bring out what I think is the music in it. Take it a little bit more away from the immediately identifiable thing.

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Tod Dockstader: Another thing you can do with it - again, trying to bring out the line, melody - is add tape echo. And this is the same laugh but instead with tape echo.

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John C. DeWitt: Have we got a section from one of the pieces that shows some of these combinations using laughter?

Tod Dockstader: That’s right, this is the beginning of Luna Park

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John C. DeWitt: One of the advantages, I suppose, of this work is that you have the whole world of sound to deal with

Tod Dockstader: Everything, absolutely everything that you can do, but there’s a whole world of musical instruments and what you could do with them, which I haven’t explored, because I have no - I’m not able to get at them, and I certainly can’t play them. But I could probably play them well enough for my purposes.

John C. DeWitt: Well, what’s next on the tape?

Tod Dockstader: Well, the next thing is the same idea of a natural sound, which I changed now in this case, it’s a musical instrument, although I don’t know if you could call this thing a musical instrument. It’s the closest thing I’ll probably ever come to a musical instrument. And it’s a piece of bamboo, which cost a quarter and it’s punched with holes. Unfortunately, the holes - or fortunately maybe - the holes are punched more or less at random. Again, like my oscillator, it’s not tempered, it plays notes that are not on pitch, not tuned - if I blow a little of it here - it won’t sound like much I’m afraid.

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Tod Dockstader: Sounds dreadful.

John C. DeWitt: What happens to it when it gets on tape?

Tod Dockstader: Well again, you can do many, many things. One thing you can do is swell it, and here’s a little very slow melody with the same flute I play

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John C. DeWitt: One of the advantages is the richness of overtones now in a flute as opposed to and oscillator

Tod Dockstader: Oh yes, it has its own sounds also theres a little windiness to it - gives it more interest. And slowing it of course increases that, when you slow something down you begin to hear overtones that you couldn’t hear before. Hear the wind.

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Tod Dockstader: That’s it, the same little flute I play, and here’s an example - I’ll play just a little of it of a use of slowed flute, and this is again from Luna Park and it’s in the middle - it begins with the laughter

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Presenter: This is listen, essays and sound to explore a world of ideas and evoke a variety of moods. Tonight composer Tod Dockstader discussed with WRVR’s Director of Music John C. DeWitt the process of composing electronically produced organised sound. Listen is produced and recorded by the radio repertory unit at WRVR, the FM station of the Riverside Church in the city of New York.

John C. DeWitt: We’ve just really begun to touch the surface of some of the techniques, problems, aesthetics of writing music, or composing organised sound with electronic means. Sometime maybe listen I’ll come back and we’ll talk again.

Tod Dockstader: There’s many many things in this media that you can discuss because we just touched on some of the basics really and the problems in putting it together

Presenter This is Riverside Radio WRVR FM, New York.

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