Tod Dockstader is a rarity in musical circles - he claims he is not a musician but rather an engineer. And that’s refreshing when some of our self-styled musicians making various, odd, and random noises all in the name of music. Dockstader does not even call the tapes he produces music, but rather organized sound - a term used by Varèse. As an engineer he is skillful and aware. He chooses his sounds at will and is not bothered by any of the silly arguments that insist that all tones must be electronically produced, or that they should be organized according to any arcane formulae. He is not plagued by theory and, since he maintains that he is not a musician and in fact has never studied music, he is quite uninhibited in assembling taped sounds into a satisfactory organization. And in so doing he actually becomes a composer. The end result is, for the most part, really musical - more so at times than that assembled or composed by many of his more pretentious academic colleagues.
I first encountered Tod Dockstader in 1963 when Folkways released Eight Electronic Pieces. Currently he is exposed on three LP discs released by a label new to me, Owl Records of Boulder, Colorado. On reviewing a single disc three years ago, I observed that a little of this can go a long way. But now with three LPs available, a lot seems to go much further. For Dockstader has continued to produce music - and I feel content in calling it that - that is quite absorbing, particularly when taken in adequate doses. At all times it is an innately musical assemblage reminding one of those produced by Alwin Nikolais, who maintains he is not a musician either, but a choreographer.
The titles of various works are suggestive, but not always highly relevant. One of the earliest examples, from 1961, is a piece - or organization - called Luna Park, which is in a conventional three-movement order with laughter which ranges from the silly to the sinister. Apocalypse, produced the same year, is a taped orchestral assemblage of bells, guns, chimes, wind, cats, drums, and the ragged voice of a sawtooth oscillator. Such a combination would have been a delight to that wonderfully gifted eccentric, William Billings, who in 1778 advocated that, in order to perform one of his pieces correctly, one should, “Let an Ass bray the brass, let the filling of a saw carry the Tenor, let a hog who is extream hungry squeal the counter, and let a cart-wheel, which is heavy loaded and that has been long without grease, squeek the treble; and if the concert should appear to be too feeble you may add the cracking of a crow, the howling of a dog, the squalling of a cat; and… the rubbing of a wet finger on a window glass.” Water Music, Dockstader’s kitchen La Mer, is made of the superimposed sounds of drops of water in the kitchen sink. This is intended a drippy tour de force. Drone, an extended twelve-and-a-half minute piece, begins with the single germinal sound of a racing car, to which later are added the sounds of a guitar, since the car seemed to go only in circles. Both source sounds become transformed and varied, guitar glissandi approximating the Doppler effect of a passing motor. It is all most effectually handled and is quite evocative. Quatermass, a fifty minute work organized in 1964, is in five movements: “Song and Lament”, ;”Tango”, ;”Parade”, ;”Flight”, ;”Second Song.” The name Quatermass comes from Bernard Quatermass, a creation of Nigel Kneale and the hero of such films as The Creeping Unknown, which I regret I have not so far encountered. Dockstader came across the name, liked it, and later felt it quite appropriate for his work. As a composer in this vein - with science fiction as the background - Dockstader might make an impressive mark.
In an interview broadcast, Dockstader was asked whether his work is similar to an LSD experience: “Taking someone into a world where he doesn’t know what’s going to happen, he doesn’t know what he’s going to see, what he’s going to feel - he doesn’t know anything about it - and the whole point is to go into this world and see what it’s like, and to be receptive to anything it has to offer.” “Yes,” he answered, “that’s what you’ve got to start to do; but then you’ve got to come out alive and you’ve got to come out with something. It isn’t enough just to go into it, you’ve got to come back with something under control.” See what I mean?