Reviews » Introduction to the Starkland CD release of Apocalypse, by Craig Anderton

When listening to Tod Dockstader’s music, it’s difficult to tell whether you’re hearing a reminder of the way electronic music used to be done, or a preview of what we’ll be hearing in the future. Dockstader was one of the few to master musique concrète, the art of assembling tape-recorded sounds and painstakingly splicing, cutting, dubbing, manipulating and mixing to create final compositions.

If you think that sounds similar to the procedures used to create today’s cutting-edge pop music, you’re right. Three decades after Dockstader’s work, musicians in the rap, house, and techno genres are using related techniques to create a new generation of aural collages - the main technical difference being the replacement of the industrial-age tape recorder with the computer age sampling keyboard.

Stylistically, though, much has changed. Whereas today’s artists go for the beat and body, early practitioners of electronic music went for the mind. Dockstader’s sonic landscapes are almost like a punkishly intellectual version of new age - music stripped of conventional notions of harmony and beat, and replaced with pure sound. His expansive, yet detailed, soundscapes would fit right into today’s sci-fi film extravaganzas (and his work is also ripe for sampling and laying over dance grooves, however heretical that may seem to the “old school” of electronic musicians).

How does music created over thirty years ago retain its relevance? Part of the answer, of course, lies with the composer. To those familiar with musique concrète, it is obvious that Dockstader’s works were carefully assembled; there are no random bloops and bleeps here. The pieces flow, with the right balance of extended background sounds and short, percussive “lead” sounds. Well-executed craft always has a timeless quality.

Amazingly, however, some classicists still question the “staying power” of electronic music, despite its having been appropriated by rock groups in the 60s, jazz/fusion players in the 70s, and hip-hop/techno/rap artists in the 90s. Some want to know where the “masterpieces” are that will form the backbone of a standard repertoire, as exists in acoustic classical music. This misses the point completely. Early electronic music was generally a product of academia; a great deal of the experimental music of the 40s and 50s was essentially research and development. Like all experiments, some were failures but others have stood the test of time (in addition to Dockstader, pieces by Edgar Varèse, Pierre Henri, and Vladimir Ussachevsky come to mind). It is a testimony to the composers, not to a particular musical style, that music recorded decades ago with primitive techniques and equipment still matters today, and in some cases, sounds cutting-edge.

As you listen to these pieces, remember that the early tape music pioneers did not have digital technology, synthesizers, or samplers. Sounds were recorded on tape and manipulated by hand using razor blades, splicing blocks, and adhesive splicing tape, and often “bounced” from one machine to another to create overdubs (multitrack recorders were not available until much later). Techniques we take for granted today, such as automated mix-down, were but a dream. Sound generators consisted of recorded “found sounds” and equipment available at the time (primarily for broadcast use) such as test-tone oscillators and filters. Even echo units were a rarity; generally, tape recorders provided delays and other special effects.

Not just the equipment, but the compositional techniques were different too. Standard music notation was of little help, so the scores of that time were also experimental, and often used non-conventional symbols that meant something only to the composer. And of course, you couldn’t go out and hire players to play your composition; it was completely a creature of the recording studio.

As you listen to the sounds on this CD, let your frame of reference wander back to a time when electronic sound represented a new frontier, before synthesizers filled the airwaves. There’s a sense of discovery in Dockstader’s works that remains vital today, and stands ready to inspire a new generation of audio collage makers.

Craig Anderton has worked on ten major label recordings, from classical to rock to new age, and written ten books on various aspects of musical electronics. He is also a music industry consultant, and lectures around the world.