Spirit of radio: The magnificent comeback of Tod Dockstader

dockstaderby Allister Thompson

[Dockstader passed on in February 2015. This review is now offered in memoriam, with gratitude.]

You gotta love a comeback. When someone says the heck with all this hassle, disappears for a while, then comes roaring back with some work of stunning artistic perfection and innovation. Such is the case of electronic composer Tod Dockstader. His pioneering early electronic efforts from the sixties were usually relegated to compilations of early tape music until the nineties, when he finally got his due then returned with a series of amazing and daring recordings.

This is not to suggest that he wasn’t busy with other things in those intervening thirty years or so, just that he didn’t have any musical releases to speak of. Dockstader was in fact one of the original electronic music innovators, a self-taught recording engineer who started making his own musique concrète compositions, and by the early sixties was releasing such challenging gems as Eight Electronic Pieces and Quatermass. These recordings stand up as the equals of such lionized giants as Stockhausen, Subotnick, Varèse and Cage, and in fact are often more listenable and compelling. Unfortunately, the new music field was too crowded in terms of opportunity for every innovator to have his place, and “he applied to a number of established electronic music institutions but was rejected from them for his lack of academic experience in the field.” (Wikipedia)

Which is quite maddening when you think about it. Here’s a major talent who can’t get a break because he’s not an academic. How quaint. How unfair. How typical of the way the world works. However, when in the nineties an enterprising label re-released a lot of his sixties output, Dockstader finally started getting the attention he deserved.

dockstader_aerialEventually, I assume, this inspired him to start recording and releasing music again, and I’m sure glad he was so inspired. There are five albums that came out of this period, Pond and Bijou with composer David Lee Myers, which are pretty good stuff, but more importantly, the astonishing Aerial series released on the Sub Rosa label in 2005-06.

Dockstader presumably realized that playing around with musique concrète and tapes was old hat by this point, what with the invention of computers and suchlike in the intervening years! Instead he set out, in typically questing fashion, to do something new.

The concept here is shortwave radio, the sounds heard in between the sounds, which Dockstader has manipulated into eerie, hypnotic compositions. Not only has he done this, but he’s also done three albums’ worth of it, and frankly, I could have used a couple more!

333-1This music is likely better-known to aficionados of “new” music, but perhaps not so much to the ambient music community. The effect is, in fact, quite ambient and not so different in vibe (if not choice of instrumentation) to a lot of the edgier stuff we hear these days from sound art composers like Alva Noto, Steve Roden and Richard Chartier, as well as the sounds employed by dark ambient musicians and about half of the 12k/Line label’s artists!

There’s little point in trying to distinguish “highlights” per se, because each of these albums is an immersive listening experience, but you’ll get the point right away with track 1, “Song“, a roaring, rumbling, ocean of sound that overwhelms the senses. “Rumble” and “Pulse” are other gut-shaking drone pieces. There’s also pieces that ominously pulse, like “Harbor“, which is as good as any sound art produced by the laptop whippersnappers of today.

The first release is generally in this vein, while the second and third albums have more variety, with such pieces as the jarringly rhythmic “Harmonic” from Aerial #3, which would probably frighten even the most ardent dubstep fan, the vocal manipulation of “Yaya” from Aerial #2,  the almost peaceful, spectral “Whisper” from Aerial #3,  the eerie “Pipes” from Aerial #2 and the magisterial, almost melodic (!) “Wah” and “Wave” from Aerial #3

R-555806-1162901682It’s really amazing that a guy who was out of recording commission for so long could come back with something so modern that it was actually not just contemporary, but ahead of its time, and it’s a testament to Dockstader’s massive talents. It’s also amazing that he could produce such a variety of compelling sounds from a single kind of source material.

The three-album series is quite available, of course also via the usual online retailers. If you are serious about experimental music, electronic music or adventurous ambient music, you simply must have these albums.

Dockstader site

Dockstader at Discogs

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