Reviews » Dockstader - Radical Sound Explorations observed by Alan Freeman, Audion Summer 1995

The following is an abridged version of the text originally published in Audion #32 (

Tod Dockstader was born in 1932 at St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. He went on to become a graduate art student, working in painting, film, and also as a cartoonist for newspapers and magazines. This talent took him to Hollywood in 1955, where he became an apprentice film editor, working on animated cartoons like “Mr. Magoo” and “Gerald McBoing-Boing”. Moving base and working at animation studios in New York and taking an apprenticeship as a recording engineer, Tod began to realise the potential of the sounds and effects he was working with, and experimented in creating works of musique-concrete. During this period of 1960 to 1965, Tod Dockstader spent all his spare time at Gotham Recording Studios, creating some of the most phenomenal music around. His early mono recordings were documented on an LP issued by New York’s Folkway Records, and from thereon as the studio went on to get stereo equipment and more and more sound processing devices, the more radical and advanced the music became.

It’s ironic really, that as a creative artist going from strength to strength, that upon moving to Canada and working upon the Montreal Expo 67, he lost the use of the studio he needed to be able to create his music. Obviously, it was unlikely he’d find anywhere else where he could work for hours on end, undisturbed and virtually at no cost. And, having no academic credentials in music, he was unable to secure work at any studio with advanced equipment. It was the end of a highly prolific but short-lived career, after which he returned to what he did originally: working in film production.

When stereo records were of adequate quality, the label Owl Records issued three LP’s containing all of Tod Dockstader’s major works. Although critically praised by some, on large these records went unnoticed at the time, but gradually over the years the word has spread about this remarkable sonic artist. Intrigued by electronic music, many have discovered and been surprised by his music. I first heard him via a tape recording of his phenomenal QUATERMASS album in the early-80’s. But nowadays he’s much quoted as an influence, and rightly revered for the creative genius he was, notably David Myers (aka Arcane Device) dedicated his early work to Tod Dockstader, and I doubt the soundworks of When, Zoviet France, or Nurse With Wound would have existed as such, if Tod Dockstader hadn’t done the groundwork.

In explanation, Tod Dockstader has referred to his music generally as “organised sound” quoting Edgar VarÈse, who he feels his early work is comparable to, though really his sonic creations became more like composed and orchestrated sound, precisely created with great care and attention.

EIGHT ELECTRONIC PIECES is a collection of Dockstader’s earliest works in organised sound, actually as you’ll gather quoting these as “electronic” pieces isn’t really true, though such music couldn’t really be created by any means but by electronic processing, although all the majority of the sound sources used are in fact all acoustic. It’s amazing that this LP dates from 1961, only Pierre Schaefer and Pierre Henry had done extensive work in this genre, and Stockhausen was only just beginning to get to grips with this new technology. But, right from the start Tod Dockstader embraced the possibilities of the tape recorder: variable speeds, splicing, looping, echo, every technique that he could muster. The eight tracks show the roots of what he would develop further in more elaborate extensive excursions, and scarcely is the feel here as musical as what he went onto. Obviously there are shades of VarÈse’s Poème Électronique and Pierre Henry’s Voile d’Orphee, yet Dockstader had an individual style of dynamics, form and counterpoint, and could create the most spectacular and complex constructions. The likes of wind, rifle fire, water, jet engines, gongs, animals, vocal sounds, and much more, are the sources of Dockstader’s creations, but only occasionally is anything recognisable. “Organised sound” is really too simple a definition, as such modest sources are turned into something spellbinding and so precisely executed. The culmination of all this also lead to creating works of complex composition, as opposed to the almost random cut and splice of his earliest experiments, Electronic Piece No. 8 was the first such excursion and it revealed a new side to Tod’s creative prowess, that of a composer with a sense of dynamic, space and texture.

The two CD’s released by Starkland catalogue his three albums on Owl Records along with some previously unreleased recordings.

Traveling Music (1960) is basically a revised and embellished stereo version of Electronic Piece No. 8 and is all the more rich and dynamic. But all the more revolutionary is Luna Park (1961), Tod’s first work composed for stereo, named after the old Luna Park at Coney Island fun fair, it’s a work with a plethora of sounds: laughing voices, all manner of percussive sounds, piano and electronic generator. A weird day at the fun fair perhaps!? When I first heard Ralph Lundsten and Leo Nilsson’s early works (dating 1967-69) I thought they were remarkably advanced, but this evokes the same textures, power and humour, and is several years earlier. Two Fragments from Apocalypse (1961) are works that were originally omitted from the full Apocalypse suite. Kind of snapshots of ideas that were condensed into Apocalypse proper, they act as a more atmospheric prelude to the main work. Apocalypse (1961) itself is amongst the most frightening, intense, disturbing of Dockstader’s works. Here the use of sounds is breathtaking: wailing cats, creaking doors, Gregorian choirs, explosions, screeching metal, almost every-thing spine tingling and strange. Probably the lest inspired title of all, Drone (1962) in fact offered a very different twist on his sound in that it implemented experimental use of guitar and piano amongst its sound sources, and with its stochastic rambling textures it’s probably the closest Tod came to the sound of musique-concrete works by the likes of Pierre Henry, Luc Ferrari or Bernard Parmegiani.

In Water Music (1963) Tod created a work that went far in advance of Toru Takemitsu’s Water Music of three years earlier, in twisting the sounds, with dextrous splicing, Tod attempted to create a music of violent water: liquid, solid and shattering ice-like textures, but he had to resort to cheating to get the effects he wanted, so he used related objects like drinking glasses, a Coke bottle and various objects to drop into water. With six parts in all Water Music is amongst the most seriously conceived of his works.

The ultimate Tod Dockstader creation however was the monu-mental 46 minute opus Quatermass (1964). Too long for an album originally, two of the surplus edited-out works made it onto the CD release as a bonus: Two Moons of Quatermass, these two 4 minute pieces offer a taster to the awesome power of Quatermass itself. To quote Tod himself ‘Quatermass was intended, from the start, to be a very dense, massive, even threatening, work of high levels and energy’ - it was pure coincidence that in Britain at the time there was a sci-fi TV series called “Quatermass”, as this would have made the ideal soundtrack. It’s scarcely believable that virtually none of the sound sources are electronic, many of the textures are created by unlikely things like balloons, vacuum cleaner hoses, toys and the like, as well as the stable selection of percussive devices. This is dark nightmarish music, of great power and phenomenally dynamic execution, with astonishingly complex rhythmic and sequential passages, crescendos of such vigour, and use of stereo panning and bouncing that’s far too dizzying to listen to on headphones.

Finally, as a bonus, is the previously unreleased Four Telemetry Tapes (1965), his very last work, and also his most truly electronic, it’s an hybrid betwixt those 50’s-60’s electronic effects used in sci-films and early Cluster believe it or not, but still with those unique Dockstader characteristics.

To experience the music of Tod Dockstader is like entering another world, a musical world where the normal rules don’t exist. What other music is still so challenging and fresh after thirty years? Very little!