Reviews » Introduction to the Starkland CD release of Quatermass, by Edward Tatnall Canby

Tod Dockstader was an early and an outstanding experimenter in the use of tape recording and editing to build a type of “Music” made out of non-musical sounds, assembled into sonic structures that were supposed to take on an artistic life of their own - for better or worse.

Mostly, it was worse, as anybody might guess, back in the days when the tape recorder and its tricks were new, at least, in the U.S.A. Some of the dullest, most pompously silly tape sounds came from high places with full University blessings. I heard most of them and was even moved to satire in kind. But not all such art was silly - far from it. There were profound possibilities here, for someone who would be the right person to take them up. in my book, Dockstader was that man, following after the older Edgar Varèse, who ended his long radical career as a tape composer, just about as Dockstader was beginning his.

Long before tape, Varèse, coined the useful term “organized sound” to avoid that fruitless question, is it music? Wise thought, considering that Varèse came straight out of the most conventional French academic music training before his transplant to America! Dockstader’s work is ever so specifically organized sound. Even more exactly, it is musique concrète, a term out of Paris in WWII where for the first time recorded sounds were put together and dubbed back and forth on 78 rpm discs, an impossibly difficult and unsatisfactory medium but still a beginning. I heard some of these, brought back I think by Virgil Thomson after the liberation of Paris, still in mid-war.

The early tape music in this country was not exactly a success, and for good reason. It was radical, yes, but also uninteresting, to put it gently. Scorn was rampant and names to go with it. I remember, for instance, “tapesichord music,” malevolently concocted from the (then) maligned harpsichord and the scorned tape sounds. Who could listen to those endless, pretentious groans, grunts, hums and garbles of noise, sliding up and down drunkenly in pitch, minus any sense of rhythm, like no “organized” Mozart you ever heard! But better things were to come, much better, before the synthesizer slammed the entire movement to a halt.

The synthesizer, first in its Moog-type format (following an outlandish early RCA machine) and now triumphantly in digital, is undoubtedly a very major development in sonic techniques. Beside its amazing present versatility, the older music concrète assemblage of real sounds is hopelessly out of date, even though some brave souls still continue to “organize” whale sounds and such in an effective way.

Few listeners realize the immense technical differences between these two approaches, though continuity is real enough. It is as the pencil to the word processor, the scratch pad to the laptop! Generational too: the synthesizer belongs to the computer age and to its people. But great things have come from pencils and scratch pads, so we marvel only briefly. Yes, synthesizers also use real sounds (as well as synthetic) but they are mostly stored as fragmented digital bits in memory, for instant recall and reprocessing into newly shaped sounds. Often the very same - but playable. The piano, for instance. You hear them every day. In comparison, the earlier organized sound was a handcrafted art. Indeed, a labor of love.

Thus, inevitably, musique concrète is now mostly history - and there is its importance. The technique is obsolete, the sounds, at their best, are not. And so they return. One of the saving graces of an otherwise ever noisier and more meaningless audio world! Listen and enjoy.

Edward Tatnall Canby, who aired some of the first broadcasts of Dockstader’s works, has written for Audio magazine for over forty years.