Aerial #1 by Spencer Grady, May 2005
Along with Stockhausen, Henry and Varese, Tod Dockstader should be recognized, not merely regarded, as one of the great figures of musique concrete composition. His ‘organized sound’ pieces from the 1960s are undoubtedly among the most radical and important ever conceived. Yet Dockstader’s contributions have been constantly overlooked by his peers and the more snobbish elements of the academic establishment, and were neglected by record companies and reviewers alike. As he became increasingly marginalized, he retreated further from music-making to concentrate on other aspects of the art world.
Recent years have seen a change of fortune. Fed by a clutch of CD reissues and the appreciative efforts of former Henry Cow/Art Bears member Chris Cutler - and his label ReR - a renewal of interest in his work has taken place. The Aerial project is a long overdue return for a man ready to take his rightful place at the head of the table.
As a very young child, Dockstader would spend hours listening to his radio set. At a time when the medium served as a home’s main source of entertainment, listeners would often make reference to ‘playing the radio,’ imbuing it with the same properties as any musical instrument. It is this idea which lies at the center of the Aerial project (this volume being the first in a proposed three-part series). His raw materials are the sounds inhabiting those regions between the stations - the audio wastelands. Back in 1994, he embarked upon a series of nocturnal trawls - a quest for shortwave spirits. These, he found, emitted something which Dockstader himself has described as “cosmic breathing.” The process left him with 90 hours of potentially usable archive.
Years later he would return to the material, using a computer (a new experience for him) to further edit and mix his recordings, selecting the best 59 mixes for inclusion on these CDs. The results are a revelation. Ethereal broadcasts from heaven’s own channel (and no advertisements, either). Each track retains an individuality all too rare in this field, the descriptive titles (“Rumble,” “Trembler,” and the particularly mesmeric “Myst”) accurately indicating pace and mood. But each retains the distinctive mark of its architect, a master of his craft whose work should be heard and cherished. Dockstader has performed an act of sonic alchemy, siphoning off the ether to produce nuggets of pure sonic gold.
Eight Electronic Pieces by Jon Dale, January 2004
Tod Dockstader would not have you assess his modules of ‘organized sound’ under the banner of music. Nor does he wish for you to restrict the work to musique concrète (in the liner notes for 8 Electronic Pieces Dockstader discusses his love of the idea of musique concrète, but not the outcome of pieces by artists like Schaeffer, whose music Dockstader damns as “kind of…dull. Extremely simple.”) And certainly 8 Electronic Pieces, a CD reissue of a self-released LP that was originally optioned by Moe Asch at Folkways in 1961, doesn’t really fit any pat maneuvering toward tape music or ‘early electronic music’ terminological allegiance. Which is not to say that Dockstader’s work is entirely out on a limb – although within the social climes of avant-garde music of the mid-20th century, Dockstader was definitely, definitively an ‘outsider’ (both the social and the aesthetic resonances of the term apply) – but that it’s rather of itself. The product of a film editor’s romance with the endless malleability of sound, 8 Electronic Pieces has a sonic remit and a drama that’s both highly instructive and charmingly approachable.
Of course, most of the elucidatory work regarding the pre-history of electronic music has already been done; thanks in no small part to the ides of reissue culture, the terrain has already been mapped. Dockstader’s history is as out in the open as his more celebrated ‘peers’.
Ultimately, what one hears in 8 Electronic Pieces is an artist sourcing joy in the simple thrill of the mutation of sound. Captured through both concrete and pure electronic means, he approaches his clutch of sounds with a sculptural view. The first half of 8 Electronic Pieces assembles small studies which bristle with drama, pieces which capture the strange, pervasive sense that one’s aural knowledge has been not-too-subtly re-aligned, wrenched out of one’s immediate perceptual/cognitive frameworks and reinscribed in mutant languages.
The final two pieces on the disc are the strongest. As Dockstader extends the length and the reach of his constructions, one begins to feel like the ecouter academic Katy Stevens invokes in her work on aural spectatorship in the cinema. It’s an ear’s-eye view of the breadth of Dockstader’s abilities, a catalogue of sounds that, while at any point clearly set within the dialogue of early electronic music, expands outward to catch the myriad resonances of the ear’s wonderfully distorting work. It’s the sound of someone thinking of sound, around sound, and through sound.