A Journal Of The Dark Arts
On Feb. 27th, we lost two legends of science fiction. The first, obviously, and most nototoriously, was the passing of Leonard Nimoy, as Spock headed for the Final Frontier. The second – less well known, but just as important and influential, particularly for readers of this blog – was the passing of electronic composer Tod Dockstader.
Dockstader was an early radiophonic/musique concrete composer, in the early ’60s, before the advent of synthesizers and multi-track recording. Dockstader – best known for his work on Fellini’s Satyricon soundtrack, as well as designing sound effects for cartoons in the ’50s, like Mr. Magoo and Tom And Jerry.
I’ve been meaning to write about Dockstader, along with numerous other electronic music pioneers for some time now, so I’m taking this rather sad opportunity to report on Recorded Works For Film, Radio, & Television Vol. 2, originally released on Boosey & Hawkes in 1981, and re-released by Mordant Music in 2013, which I selected almost arbitrarily.
Dockstader’s music, created using crude signal generators and recorded onto thin wire, stands up next to the SF greats of the Radiophonic Workshop of the ’60s – Delia Derbyshire, John Baker – and deserves to be just as well known.
Film Music Vol. 2, also called simply Electronic Vol. 2, is funky, thrilling, chilling, warm, cold, human and alien, all at the same time.
Electronic Vol. 2 begins with the mysterious cosmo-drama of “Floatdown”, with its starburst synthesizers and ominous anti-gravity warbles, that recall archaic electronic instruments like the theremin and the trautonium. There is a sense of the otherworldly, without fear or terror.
The idyll continues with the alien pastoralism of “Snowbell Waltz”, a gentle, floating feeling, that gives the sense of listening to flutes and harpsichords from some distance.
And then we have the dithering dissonance of “Rotary”, which sounds like listening to a million phones ringing at the same time, like the end of The Lawnmower Man. The shuffling repetition predicts and predates the digital buffering of bands Animal Collective by 5 decades. One could argue we could not have today’s amalgam of the human and the machine, without the efforts of Dockstader, and other electronic revolutionaries.
Much of Electronic Vol. 2 sounds in line with classic hauntology – of bands like The Focus Group and The Advisory Circle, most notably “Stately Bones”, with its pulsing, plodding bassline, and the Popcorn-like “Knockwhistle”.
Mostly, though, Dockstader’s work is remarkable first, for the care and detail it took to produce. Dockstader would solder his wire edits together with a lit cigarette, and turning things up too much would cause vacuum tubes to explode. For electronic producers working today, I would like to take this opportunity to remember this remarkable man, and all the pioneers of early electronic and musique concrete, and encourage everybody to hold their own creativity to this standard and level of dedication.
Secondly, Dockstader’s music is noteworthy for embracing the alien and sci-fi, without being completely ominous and full of dread. Listening to Electronic Vol. 2 rewinds the clock to a time before dark ambient, when space was still the final frontier, full of promise, potential, and hope.
I would also like to comment on Dockstader’s concept of music as “organized sound”, a concept he expanded upon from influential concrete composer Edgar Varese. Thinking of music as organized sounds offers up the dichotomy of noise as unorganized or chaotic sound. We are very interested in this continuum, this trajectory. Sounds that are too organized become rigid and unpredictable, while sounds that are too chaotic or unpredictable just become, well, noise.
Listening to Dockstader’s legacy encourages us to find a middle ground, a third path, between the polar opposites, as can sometimes be illustrated by recent industrial techno.
Lastly, i take this opportunity to ask for your expertise. Does anyone know any more music like this, either archaic or contemporary? I know we’ve got some retro electronic experts in our midst. Let us know in the comments!
Tod Dockstader may be gone, but his legacy lives on, and is spreading. Let us take this moment to re-examine the future, that we may better define our present.
R.I.P. Tod Dockstader. We admire yr dedication, yr vanguard spirit. We aspire to live up to your innovation, ingenuity, and craftsmanship.
Tod Dockstader – Electronic, Vol. 2