Author: Tom Steenland

Forty Years in New Music

Having produced new music recordings for 40 years, I’ve seen some tectonic shifts in both the welcome expansion of the stylistic landscape of the music itself, as well as huge transformations in how new music is delivered to listeners.

Scene #1:

Mid 1970s, a composition lesson at the University of Colorado. At that point, Terry Riley’s In C and Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain had been recorded. Philip Glass had composed Music in Similar Motion, Music with Changing Parts, and Music in Twelve Parts, performing such works with his ensemble at New York’s Whitney and Guggenheim museums. My professor opines (paraphrased): “Minimalism is just a fad. It’s been done before. Think of the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th.” Poof! Minimalism dismissed. Of course, my oblivious professor was not alone. Minimalism was also severely castigated by Boulez, Carter (who compared it to fascism and Hitler’s speeches), and leading critics at The New York Times (kids nowadays just want to get stoned).

Scene #2

Mid 1970s, a composition lesson at the University of Colorado. Another professor, the inventive Cecil Effinger, mentions his idea that a record label could be a tax-exempt organization, just like symphonies, art museums, etc. This may seem obvious today, but back then no such general purpose label existed. There were just a few nonprofit labels, with built-in restrictions, such as the Louisville Orchestra’s First Edition Recordings (20th-century music by living composers), Composers Recordings, Inc. (contemporary classical music by American composers), and New World Records (American music). Effinger and a few others battled with the IRS for two years, and in 1976 Owl Recording, Inc. became the first broadly purposed tax-exempt label in the United States. With its exceptionally expansive mission of releasing recordings of “high artistic, educational or historical worth not otherwise available,” I sensed a great potential. Owl’s board of directors, seeing my enthusiasm, essentially let me take over running the label.

Owl Recording, Inc. originated as an attempt to save Owl Records, a small local label that was about to dissolve. As I familiarized myself with the existing catalog, I became captivated by the powerful, original musique concrète works from the relatively unknown Tod Dockstader, and I’ve been involved with his music ever since.

Over the next 15 years, I learned about producing, releasing, and promoting new music recordings, as well as how to successfully apply for grants. I worked with such composers as Vincent Persichetti, Morton Subotnick, and Iannis Xenakis. At one point, a talented, environmentally concerned composer from Alaska contacted me, with the result that I released one of the first recordings of John Luther Adams.

While I was proud of the LPs (yes, LPs) I was releasing, I also experienced some growing frustrations. Financial support was generally only available to composers with appropriate “credentials,” which meant being connected to the academic world, and such restrictions clearly limited the stylistic range heard on Owl’s releases.

In the 1980s, the new music world was changing. A vibrant “alternative downtown” scene was emerging in sharp contrast to the “official uptown” scene. Uptown meant The Juilliard School, Lincoln Center, Columbia University, and Pulitzer winners, while Downtown included La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Glenn Branca, Terry Riley, John Zorn, and many more, with performances in alternative, casual settings. In 1987 the highly influential Bang on a Can festival was founded.

Around 1990, several factors converged for me. First, the funding bias toward academic music virtually eliminated music from the promising Downtown scene for Owl. Secondly, CDs were becoming the dominant medium, which did not bode well for Owl’s mostly vinyl back catalog. Finally, Tod Dockstader’s LPs had sold out, and repressing them on vinyl didn’t make sense.

Suddenly, my next step seemed obvious: I’d start my own label, freeing me from Owl’s inherent restrictions in order to cover a wider range of new music that included the invigorating Downtown world, to have full control over design, liner notes, promotion, etc., and to make a fresh start by releasing CDs, not LPs. I’d begin by reissuing all of Tod Dockstader’s classic music on CD.

Tod Dockstader at Gotham 1960s

Tod Dockstader at Gotham in the 1960s

I contacted Tod, who was skeptical there would be any interest. In part, I was able to convince him because CDs present audio a lot more accurately than LPs, such as the deep bass that helps convey the elemental power of his music. For the first time, listeners could hear what Tod had heard in the studio. He agreed to move ahead and provide updated notes.

After forming Starkland in 1991, I released the first Dockstader Quatermass CD in 1992, and the second Apocalypse CD in 1993.

The covers for the 1st two Starkland releases, both of which are devoted to reissues of music by Tod Dockstader

We didn’t know what the reaction would be. After all, we were re-releasing music that was about 25 years old, and technology had greatly advanced over those years. Neither Tod nor I anticipated the more than two dozen rave reviews and robust sales that resulted. One publication ranked Dockstader as an electronic music pioneer on par with Varèse, Stockhausen, and Subotnick. Another, The Wire, claimed that thanks to these recordings “Dockstader will be remembered as the innovative, visionary figure he undoubtedly was.” (Notice the past tense.)

Encouraged, I started to release a variety of new music CDs, typically devoted to a single composer, such as Paul Dresher, Phillip Bimstein, Charles Amirkhanian, and Guy Klucevsek. I somewhat obsessively took over all stages of each release: project development, graphic design, mastering, promotion, and sales. These initial releases were successes, receiving fine reviews in major publications and respectable sales.

A few of these recordings reveal what a small record label can accomplish.

Consider the story of Phillip Bimstein. While he had studied classical music at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, he initially emerged into the music world in the 1980s with his new wave band Phil ‘n’ the Blanks. After moving to Springdale, Utah, one day Phillip chatted with his neighbor, farmer Garland Hirschi, and asked why his cows mooed. Charmed by Garland’s answer and general storytelling, Phillip decided to create an aural portrait of this lifelong rancher by recording their conversations, using snippets of both Garland’s comments and those mooing cows, along with instrumental writing based on Garland’s speech patterns. Shortly thereafter, I met Phillip at a new music festival in Telluride, Colorado, and was delighted by his Garland Hirschi’s Cows piece. It turned out he had more music, and I released his first CD in 1996.

The CD was something of a hit. Airing the title piece often prompted dozens of calls to radio stations. Philip went on to receive grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Meet The Composer, and the American Composers Forum, and his music was performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and London’s Royal Opera House. Later we did a follow-up CD, Larkin Gifford’s Harmonica, which also did well.

The cover for Philip Bimstein's Starkland CD Garland Hirschi's Cows which is a photo of a farmer with a pair of cows.

In 1998, I contemplated doing something special for the upcoming 2000 millennium. Around that time, I became aware of the behind-the-scenes development of a new DVD-Audio format, which, for the first time, would allow high-resolution surround sound to be played in the home. (Standard DVDs, then as now, offered surround sound, but only with less-than-CD quality sound.) Releasing a DVD-A seemed irresistible.

My interest in surround sound began in the mid-1970s, when the industry attempted to put quadraphonic sound onto vinyl LPs and I was connected to a small local company that developed the first digitally-controlled quadraphonic panning device. While both quad sound and the panning device disappeared, a seed had been planted.

But what would be the content of the Starkland DVD-A? The project grew more ambitious: I decided to commission short works from about a dozen composers whose music seemed likely to be enhanced by surround sound. My goal was it would be the first such recording of its kind, though I had no way of knowing if another label was also secretly planning something similar.

I tried to select composers who would use surround in diverse ways. An obvious starting point was composers who regularly worked with technology: Paul Dresher, Pauline Oliveros, Maggi Payne (who had previously composed quadraphonic works), Carl Stone (who had been using quadraphonic techniques in live performance), and Pamela Z.

Other composers were those who used space as part of their music: Ellen Fullman (whose Long String Instrument uses strings stretched over nearly 100 feet), Phil Kline (who used space as part of his massed boombox works), and Bruce Odland (who had created large-scale multimedia installations in public spaces). There were also composers whose music inherently feels spacious: Ingram Marshall (think of his works like Alcatraz and Fog Tropes) and Meredith Monk (with her obvious affinity for the use of space in many works).

Composers whose music was exceptionally dense or worked in polymetrics would benefit from the expanded surround soundfield: Paul Dolden (whose astonishingly layered works feature perhaps 400 individual parts and explore complex polyrhythmic and microtonal tuning relationships), and Lukas Ligeti (who has long worked with polymeters).

Finally, the outlier: Masami Akita (aka Merzbow). If his noise music assaults listeners with dense walls of sound, how much more effective might this be if we can be sonically pummeled from all directions? (Of course, I knew that many would not enjoy this piece, but I feel part of my job is to sometimes shake things up.)

The project consumed over two years of my life, and at times I thought I’d never make it. I was working on a format that did not yet exist, and no one had ever seen a DVD-A.

Released in 2000, Immersion was a major success, and remains Starkland’s biggest seller, for several reasons. First, there was extensive media coverage; Billboard devoted a full page to it. Secondly, Amazon prominently featured it as an outstanding exploration of this new format. Finally, people were hungry for material specifically created to take advantage of the new DVD-A format.

A delightful surprise happened via Amazon: Immersion was often the #1 bestselling DVD-A during its first year there. The other initial DVD-A releases were decidedly unimaginative. The major classical labels issued standard repertoire, and the pop labels tended to reissue rock classics that were not originally conceived for surround. The bizarre result was that avant-garde music was outselling Fleetwood Mac, Metallica, Deep Purple, Steely Dan, the Doors, Neil Young, and the Beethoven symphonies.

One of the biggest honors Immersion received was when New York’s Whitney Museum selected Meredith Monk’s work, Eclipse Variations, as part of their 2002 Biennial. Along with others, Meredith’s piece was presented in a specially designed “surround sound” installation room.

And to my great shock while attending the gala opening night, I discovered that the score of Meredith’s I had commissioned had been used as the cover art for the Biennial’s catalog.

The cover for the 2002 Whitney Biennial catalog which features an excerpt of a musical score by Meredith Monk

After the success of Immersion, I developed a follow-up project: commissioning a major 60-min. work from Phil Kline, whose piece The Housatonic at Henry Street from the Immersion DVD-A I loved. The result, Around the World in a Daze (released in 2009), is likely the largest work ever commissioned for a hi-res surround sound recording.

Phil Kline and Tom Steenland both wearing sunglasses and standing on opposite sides of a traffic pole on a city street corner.

Phil Kline and Tom Steenland at the corner of Henry and Rutgers streets in lower Manhattan, where “The Housatonic at Henry Street” was recorded.(Photo by Aleba Gartner)

Phil’s use of surround is dazzling. We hear hypersampled Wagner, a mournfully multi-tracked “wailing wall,” a buildup to a massive climax of hundreds of thousands of “falling pennies” that dramatically explores the psychoacoustic possibilities of surround sound, a Bach prelude eerily processed into a Zurich train station, and a concluding work that places listeners inside multiple layers of a field recording of 15,000 chattering, African gray parrots.

My enthusiasm for this double-DVD led me to design a uniquely shaped package, unappreciated by some who value a precisely aligned DVD collection.

The oversized cover for Phil Kline's Around the World in a Daze which looks like a boombox.

How the packaging for Phil Kline's Around the World in a Daze looks when it is opened up: two DVDs nested next to each other.

People sometimes ask how I select the music for Starkland. There’s no simple answer. I suppose I look for music that is distinctive, that has something to say, that conveys something special is going on, even if I can’t quite define it. While I don’t shy away from music that seems simple and readily accessible, like Phillip Bimstein’s cow piece, I also have embraced challenging, not-background-for-your-next-dinner-party music which sounds and feels imaginatively different.

An example is Elliott Sharp’s The Boreal CD (2015). For the title piece commissioned by the JACK Quartet, he developed unique bows, substituting ballchain and metal springs for the traditional horsehairs. The results are otherworldly textures unlike anything I’ve ever heard from a string quartet. Other works reveal a sophisticated intelligence that produce music which is captivating in ways that I initially couldn’t define but felt oddly special. Later, I saw the scores reveal his repeating musical cells that constantly shift their patterns. I learned his organizing principles can be based on fractal geometry, chaos theory, Fibonacci numbers, and bio-genetic concepts. Yet the key point is all this underlying complexity can audible sensed; something elusively distinctive is going on.

Several years ago, I noticed most of the composers on Starkland were approximately my age and established. However, I think part of Starkland’s role is to release music from younger, emerging composers who are not so well known. To remedy this, I thought of the outstanding International Contemporary Ensemble, which at that time had already premiered over 500 works, generally by younger composers. I contacted founder Claire Chase about having Starkland issue a CD of ICE performing emerging composers, and she thought this was a terrific idea.

Released February 2016, this On the Nature of Thingness CD has seven works from Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis, both members of ICE.

The title piece is the cornerstone of the CD, and Nathan’s settings of the text are richly evocative. At one point, we hear the soprano Tony Arnold accompanied by a chorus of jaw harps, and in the “Vowels” movement, Tony mesmerizingly intones the text on a just single pitch. Nathan’s other two works, one for solo piano and the other for bassoon and live digital processing, are also convincingly fresh and captivating.

Phyllis Chen imaginatively creates colorful timbres by unconventional methods, employing toy pianos, tuning forks, music boxes, metallic bowls, and tuning rods extracted from toy pianos, all of which results in a magically conjured world of exotic textures.

Remaining flexible has led me down unexpected paths. One example is the exceptionally gifted accordionist Guy Klucevsek. Many years ago, attending his concert in Boulder left me deeply moved and impressed. I introduced myself afterwards and we’ve stayed friends since. (I must admit, when I founded Starkland, I did not expect to release accordion music.)

It’s not hard to be seduced by Guy’s world, which encompasses a cornucopia of styles and approaches. Aside from his technical chops, he’s one of those performers where everything sounds innately musical. Guy’s arrangements are charmingly eccentric. Witness what he does with Burt Bacharach tunes, from his soft, high, ethereal rendition of One Less Bell To Answer, to his wittily worded version of Bacharach’s first hit, The Blob (penned for the fun horror film with the same title).

Then there are the impressively diverse compositions Guy has commissioned. For example, Aaron Jay Kernis wrote a big, powerful piece, Hymn, for Guy, inspired by Aaron’s concerns with the world’s wars and sufferings, coupled with his visits to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Aaron considers the work to have “a central position in my oeuvre.” On the other hand, we have Fred Frith’s humorous, theatrical The Disinformation Polka.

Guy also performs music that is straightforwardly beautiful, without being cloying or clichéd, from Carl Finch’s Prairie Dogs to Guy’s own The Asphalt Orchid (in memory of Astor Piazzolla).

Given this wealth of material, it’s not surprising I’ve now issued four Klucevsek recordings. In September 2016, I released Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy, which presents one gorgeous piece after another. The magic that happens when Guy plays with the wonderful violinist Todd Reynolds is one of those rarities that keeps me going. Here they perform Moose Mouth Mirror at the CD’s release concert at New York’s Spectrum:

Starkland’s most recent release brings me full circle, back to Tod Dockstader and our initial two CDs. The enthusiastic reception of those CDs greatly encouraged him to continue composing. One result was his 3-CD Aerial project (released by Sub Rosa in the mid 2000s). Another result is that, when he died in 2015, he left behind a vast archive of around 4,200 sound files on his computer. With the diligent help of archivist Justin H Brierley, I reduced these to the 15 tracks that appear on Tod Dockstader: From the Archives.

The cover for the latest Starkland CD release, Tod Dockstader From The Archives.

Tod’s music has long seemed original and powerful to me. While determining why any music works is ultimately unanswerable, two factors can help explain the appeal of his music. First, most of the sounds are real-world (i.e., concrète), and therefore have an inherent distinctiveness that is missing in pure electronic sounds. From what I know, he never used a synthesizer. I recall the story from his early composing days, when Bob Moog invited Tod to Bob’s home to demonstrate his new synthesizers. Tod went, listened, pondered, and left – synth-less. Sterile synthesizer sounds lacked the richness of Tod’s concrète palette, and of course the keyboard itself was an anathema to him. The second reason is that Tod worked by instinct, rather than filling out a preconceived formal structure. In his case, being an autodidact instead of having formally studying composition clearly worked to his advantage. I recall Tod describing his process of generating lots of material on tape, and then taking a razor blade to excise the material that didn’t work. He reported that, sometimes, everything simply disappeared under The Blade. Ruthless self-editing was clearly a strength.

Tod also had a spot-on sense of shaping materials: when to move away from a rhythm he’d set up, when to introduce new material, when to return to earlier material in a section, how densely layered a section should be, and how to satisfyingly end a piece.

Released November 18, 2016, the music on this new CD ranges from the powerfully pulsating Super Choral, to the lulling rhythms of First Target, to Anat Loop’s spasmodic juxtapositions, shifting from electric arcing to a xylophone trapped in a hurricane. We also hear driving unnatural machines, organ clusters, meandering buzzes, a slowed-down animal roar, violent whooshes, some ominous German, and garbled, underwater murkiness. The CD ends with a shocking coda, music unlike anything else in Tod’s repertoire.

What is the future for record labels? The simple answer is: I don’t know. The first step is to note what value labels can offer. Some of the recordings I’ve described above suggest the benefits labels can provide.

A typical Starkland CD serves to document and preserve the compositions with high quality recordings approved by the composers and their notes on the music, along with the widespread dispersion of the release and permanent availability from the label. (Starkland has never had a recording go out-of-print.) And in a case like the Dockstader CDs, the updated notes written for the CD became the definitive commentary on the music; he never prepared notes for concerts (because there weren’t any), and he never set up a website.

CDs can significantly advance the careers of composers and performing ensembles. Starkland’s two Bimstein CDs helped him attain widespread exposure, receive numerous grants and commissions, and end up with performances at venues like Carnegie Hall and wonderful reviews in publications like The New York Times. Because of our track record (pun intended), the media is likely to pay attention to the 100-150 promo CDs we send out. We also help draw attention to new releases by having liner notes written by established figures such as John Adams, Laurie Anderson, Claire Chase, Kyle Gann, Allan Kozinn, David Lang, Meredith Monk, Bill Morrison, Pauline Oliveros, and John Schaefer.

Labels can generate new works by commissioning composers (possibly with visual artists) to create content exclusively for a new release. I’m proud to have commissioned over two hours of surround-sound music that premiered on two first-of-their-kind releases.

Finally, labels can help the listening public discover new music they might otherwise miss. How do listeners decide what to buy (and hopefully not steal)? The astute critic George Grella recently answered this question, writing: “That is precisely where record labels matter, have always mattered, and matter now more than ever… The process of gathering critical opinion from friends, critics, and one’s own ears begins with the label, the most important gatekeeper.”

For all these reasons, labels have value, and that makes me think they will continue to exist in some way. The two key questions for the future then become:

  • How will labels deliver music?
  • How will new music recordings be financed?

Today’s au courant prediction for future delivery is streaming will rule and CDs will disappear. Not everyone agrees. Many like physical objects, held in their treasured collections. My guess is that in the foreseeable future, we will continue to see CDs released by major artists, those who value a CD’s high quality sound and documentation, those who want to sell something at their concerts, and those who want to be taken seriously by the major media. Today, there are likely “more labels than ever,” as Grella recently wrote. Starkland currently receives more project submissions than at any point over the last 25 years. Of course, streaming will continue to play a valuable role in discovery. But while we have extensive digital distribution by Naxos, the starting point for all projects is still a physical CD and we haven’t yet done a digital-only release.

It’s hard to predict what we will end up with farther down the road. The public accepts the crappy sound of mp3 and earbuds because of the convenience. This may change. Mp3 thrives because of the limitations of data transmission and storage. With rapid advances of technology along with clever encoding (such as the nascent MQA codec and the Mastered for iTunes format), we may well end up with high quality digital delivery and storage. If it’s well organized, that could change everything.

Future financing will be a challenge. Unless you’re Philip Glass, sales of new music recordings won’t cover the production and promotional expenses. There will still be some grants available, and the emergence of crowdfunding is a healthy approach that I think will grow.

We have to admit the major labels missed the boat on the digital revolution, and tech companies like Apple, YouTube, and Amazon have taken over music distribution. But in my opinion they don’t care about the music like labels do. It’s just another way to get people to buy their products and visit their websites. Standalones like Spotify are different since they only sell music, but they currently lose millions and have no viable business model. What these giants all have in common is the power to pay smaller labels virtually nothing.

Reality check: when someone streams a Starkland track, we typically receive about $0.0043.

Despite this dismal situation, I think composers and musicians will continue to see value in professionally produced recordings, and will find a way to make that happen.

Finally, let’s return to the most important part of this “business” – the music itself. Today, the new music world is healthier than it’s ever been over the last 40 years, a truly unexpected and exciting state of affairs. Today’s audiences meaningfully connect to a lot of new music, a sharp contrast to yesteryear’s dry, academic music that alienated so many listeners. Universities cover a broad range of styles and are far less insular than decades ago. Old school dichotomies such as Uptown vs. Downtown have mostly disappeared. There’s no “official” style for composing. There are outstanding ensembles devoted to new music, and there’s a substantial audience. Music can be heard, more readily than ever, around the world.

Over the years, the once irrelevant and exclusionary Pulitzer Prize changed direction (e.g., David Lang’s award), and the historically conservative Grawemeyer Award has presented its 2017 composition award to the 37-year old Andrew Norman for his nontraditional, rambunctious Play. Props to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which not only commissioned and performed the work, but also recorded it on its own label, which greatly increased the work’s prominent stature and widespread acclaim. (Alex Ross remarks he has “listened to Play at least a dozen times.”)

I feel lucky to have participated in this evolving world over the last 40 years, and look forward to more in the future.

Tom Steenland

Thomas Steenland is the founder and Executive Director of Starkland. “A new music force for 40 years” (Sequenza21), he has released dozens of albums, presenting world premiere recordings of over 160 works by more than 80 composers. Tom studied physics at Johns Hopkins, music theory at Goucher College, composition at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and recording engineering at the University of Colorado at Denver. He lives in Boulder.

Remembering Tod Dockstader (1932-2015)

Dockstader on floor near bookcase holding a microphone near a cat walking by

Tod Dockstader recording a cat, date unknown.

Q: What do Mr. Magoo, Federico Fellini, and Pete Townshend have in common?

A: Tod Dockstader.

I’ve been connected to Tod Dockstader and his extraordinary music for nearly 40 years. In fact, issuing his classic works for the first time on CD directly inspired me to create my Starkland label, and indeed Starkland’s first two CDs are devoted to Tod’s music.

It’s been a rewarding, moving experience to trace the zigzagging path of his career, see the blossoming recognition for his accomplishments, and work with Tod as he transitioned from the world of analog tape and razor blade to the era of computer and software. What’s striking to me is that Tod’s composing, for most of his life, was always an avocation, something he did part-time, outside of his day job, earning him little income.

Certainly, Tod’s path to becoming a musique concrète composer was circuitous. Born in 1932 in St. Paul, Minnesota, he majored in psychology and art as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. As a graduate student, Tod studied painting and film, paying his way by doing cartoons for local newspapers and magazines.

In 1955, Tod married Beverly Nyberg and moved to Los Angeles, where his drawing skills landed him a job as a film editor, writer, and production designer at UPA studios in Burbank. It turned out that a film editor in a small studio was also expected to cut a lot of sound, as well as create sound effects needed for cartoons, and editing sounds came naturally to Tod. Cartoons he cut sound and picture for included “Mr. Magoo” and “Gerald McBoing-Boing.”

Tod next worked as a recording engineer at New York’s Gotham Recording. At this major commercial studio, he surreptitiously used off-work hours to collect and experiment with interesting sounds. Up to 1960, Tod had not heard much musique concrète. He recalled, “I don’t think I modeled my first work after anyone in particular, not consciously anyway. I just knew how to do it.” Around that time, Tod created Eight Electronic Pieces. (Years later, Fellini used parts of these in his film Fellini Satyricon.)

Dockstader manipulating magnetic tape at a reel-to-reel console

Tod Dockstader at Gotham Recording, circa 1965

Gotham acquired its first stereo Ampex in 1960, and Tod revised the eighth piece from that first set into his first stereo piece, Traveling Music. On May 20, 1961, he received his first world premiere on New York’s WQXR: they aired No. 8 along with Varèse’s Poème électronique. After the broadcast, Varèse called him, commenting how nice it was having their works aired, and suggesting that they work together at some later date. (They didn’t.)

It’s quite bizarre today to learn how flippantly these pieces were aired, with the station engineer tossing in some sounds of his own. Tod wrote, “He treated it as an add-a-part composition, contributing a few tones with his test generator during the broadcast, some boops and beeps of his own. I thought I was going crazy: Wait a minute, that’s not in the piece! But, it was typical of the reaction at that time: this isn’t Music, it’s a joke, let’s have some fun with it. And it wasn’t just my piece; he played over the Poème, too.”

Varèse was important to Tod. “That this new sound-art could be rigorously organized I first learned by hearing Edgar Varèse’s Poème électronique of 1958—a powerfully dramatic work in which the strength and personality of choice among all the possibilities is very evident. My choice of the term ‘Organized Sound’ for my own work was, in part, a tribute to the Poème and Varèse.” Tod also mentioned he was inspired by Varèse’s “seriousness, his attitude toward tape music. It was worth the work, it wasn’t a joke or a momentary blip in the history of music, as most people thought at that time. That attitude sustained me in my own work.”

Tod’s years at Gotham (1958 – 1966) were highly productive. He spent long hours there, when the studio was closed, creating his now classic tape works, including: Luna Park, Apocalypse, Water Music, and Quatermass. His last piece at Gotham was Four Telemetry Tapes in 1965.

In addition, working at a professional studio helped Tod promote his music, being able to dub tapes and cut lacquers that he could send to radio stations. Water Music had its premiere in June 1963 on WQXR as part of a program that also featured Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge. At the end of the show, the presenter announced that since electronic music had no future, this would be the last broadcast of its kind.

Early synthesizers did not appeal to Tod. He recalled that, in 1964, “I got a letter from someone named Robert A. Moog, inviting me to look at his new ‘instruments for electronics music composition’—his words—at the AES convention in New York. How he got my name, I don’t know; this was before my LPs came out. So, I went, I looked, I saw a keyboard and a prototype wall of knobs and wires. I listened, and I got a sinking feeling that my kind of music was ending here. My peculiar skills were going to be obsolete, like a blacksmith looking at his first automobile. That keyboard: that meant the writers were going to take over electronic music. And so, we got Switched-On this-and-that and Dancing Snowflakes and all, in just a few years.”

Dockstader working at a reel-toreel tape console standing up and smoking a cigarette

Another photo of Tod Dockstader at the Gotham Recording Studio.

Tod stopped composing around 1966. Why? There appear to have been several reasons. First, he once wrote, “I just got bone-tired. I’d done quite a lot of music in a relatively short time. I’d almost lived in that studio for six, seven years, engineering by day and doing my music in down-time, nights, and weekends there. Concrète and electronic music was an expensive music to make, then; it cost a lot in time and money—too much money, in those days, for someone working alone. And time: not just composing time, but maintenance and repair.”

Secondly, after Tod left Gotham (to work on the Air Canada Pavilion at Montreal’s Expo ’67), he lost access to Gotham’s equipment and couldn’t find alternative facilities. Being an outsider without academic credentials, Tod was denied grants and access to the major electronic music centers; he received rejection letters from both Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.

Finally, by that time Tod and Beverly had a daughter, Tina, and earning a steady income became a priority. The family moved to Westport, Connecticut, where he formed a company that made award-winning educational films for classroom use, notably a series on American history for the American Heritage series. Tod wrote, directed, and created sound for these films.

My contact with Tod began in the mid-1970s when I started to manage Owl Recording, Inc., which arose from the ashes of Owl Records. The original Owl had released four Dockstader LPs in the mid-1960s, and these records did attract some favorable attention in the national media—notably the widely read, mainstream Saturday Review, as well as Audio and High Fidelity. Still, Tod did not return to composing until about 30 years later.

As I familiarized myself with Owl’s highly eclectic offerings, his music became a revelation, powerful and distinctive. I eventually contacted Tod, and our initial communication was, well, rocky. Understandably, he was annoyed that the old, dormant Owl had ceased communications with him. But we worked things out, and a long friendship ensued.

By 1991, Tod’s Owl LPs had pretty much sold out, and CDs had become the dominant medium. Somehow the next step seemed obvious to me: I’d start a record label, with the initial purpose of reissuing Tod’s classic pieces on CD.

Tod was “astounded” by this idea. But he readily warmed to the plan, and we collaborated intensely on all aspects of the two CDs: art, notes, and, of course, the sound. Reviewing his original masters, he had legitimate concerns. “There was some deterioration of the tapes, drying out, and all those hundred of splices peeling apart. When I played them, little piles of iron oxide would appear beneath the heads and tape-guides, and I thought, there goes the music—rust to dust.” He remarked we’d “have to release them as Historic Recordings, like Edison cylinders.” But he managed to create high-quality dubs of the originals. A side note is that I was working with DATs at that point for CD masters, and I convinced Tod to acquire a DAT for checking the masters, marking his first step into the digital world.

Production of the CDs pleased him: “Thanks for the whole works. Now I can let go of it.” And Tod was gratified as the rave reviews poured in. The Washington Post praised this “highly imaginative pioneer” as “one of the giants in the field,” and Stereophile placed him alongside Varèse, Stockhausen, and Subotnick in the electronic music pantheon. The Wire concluded that “these extraordinary recordings should ensure that Dockstader will be remembered as the innovative, visionary figure he undoubtedly was.” These new reviews were “better by far than anything the music ever got in its day, when it was made… I was stunned; I never thought it would happen.”

Tod added, “I feel lucky: to have lived long enough to see the music come back—to have avoided being in the old joke where the composer walks into the publisher’s office with his music and is told, ‘Come back when you’ve been dead a hundred years.’” He savored the international exposure, too. “I never expected to get reviewed in New Zealand, let along so well-reviewed… To have my CD in a Tokyo Tower seems, to me, miraculous.”

When the prominent audiophile magazine Audio commented that these high-quality CDs, with their frequency extremes, could be used to evaluate playback systems, Tod was floored. “Now, somebody wants them to test equipment with! Holy Cow, as we used to say. Between you and me, with our funny old equipment, we seem to have done pretty well.”

Tod Dockstader wearing headphones

Tod Dockstader listening back to a sound, circa 1969

As our relationship deepened, Tod sought my suggestions for keeping up with the electronic music world. His questions and reactions reveal much about his priorities and how he viewed his career as a composer.

One listening suggestion I passed along was Conlon Nancarrow. Tod splurged for the pricey multi-CD Nancarrow set (from Wergo), writing, “I also got the loan of a few of the ms. scores for the Studies, so I could ‘follow’ the music. This involved turning the score pages so fast that I hardly heard the piano; the thing goes by in a blur. Study No. 40 (a/b) is particularly terrifying (also great)… thanks again for your help; I don’t know if I ever would have heard this music without your clues.”

Tod was always acutely aware of what he perceived as his marginal status and the dubious legitimacy of electronic music. He noted that, in the ’60s, Berio announced, “Tape music is dead.” And that Boulez wrote, “Nothing, absolutely nothing, resulted from that almost incoherent ‘method’ of musique concrète,” calling everyone who had worked in it “wide-eyed dilettantes” and “amateurs, as miserable as they are needy.” Tod also mentioned, “I was turned a bit grey(er) in learning that Pierre [Schaeffer] had ‘renounced’ all his tape work.”

I regularly asked if he had returned to composing (understanding this private person would only reluctantly admit this). Several times I suggested he join the American Music Center, investigate working with computers (Tod and sampling seemed like a natural mix), and apply for grants. These suggestions were considered and then, nearly always, set aside.

A typical response ends with some poignancy: ”Thanks for the information on samplers, MIDI and all. Last year, I spent a day with a musician-engineer of my own age (there are a few), who was trying to learn sampling (on a Kurzweil) and MIDI sequencing (on a Mac) simultaneously. His experience with it caused me to turn away from all that (it seems to have driven him quite far around the bend)… All this has convinced me that I have to go on with the tools and talents I have, at least for this time and this piece. Because I want to do music, not wiring, and I feel Father Time standing behind me, gently poking me in the back.”

Tod was unsure how to deal with his increased media exposure. I’d forward invitations sent to him via Starkland, he seemed to consider them, and then decline. I recall an early invitation to France’s Festival International d’Art Acousmatigue. He was perplexed. “Is there any advantage… in my going to this thing?… And, what is a music festival? What happens?… [If you] can give me any advice on this problem, please let me know.” He didn’t go.

When there was a choice between taking time to develop his career and creating more music, Tod always opted for more time in the studio. “At present, I really only want to do some new work… going on the road in pursuit of a ‘career’ would be, I think, wearing, at best.”

He was not attracted to and uncertain about the internet as it emerged. One time, someone doing a doctoral dissertation on electronic music contacted him. Tod wrote, “He said he’d gotten my address from the Internet—which fills me with dread; how could that happen?” And, later, “I’m in deep waters here, since I don’t even know just what a ‘webpage’ is.”

Even after the impressive reviews for his CDs, he saw slim odds for successful grant applications. “I appreciate your offer to help with letters of recommendation toward my applying for grants. But, I don’t know if I should pursue it… I doubt my qualifications: I have no political affiliations, and if they look me up in most Books, they won’t find me… Grant-chasing takes a lot of time… I want to use my time to better, and more immediate, effect.”

Yet nudges from me and others (such as David Lee Myers) occasionally had some effect, and in Fall 1993 he wrote that he planned to apply for a modest grant from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. He got the grant, commenting, “It seems it was the only award given for music in the two-year grant period. It’s shaken my belief in my innate avant-gardedness.”

The acclaim for his CDs, along with his new grant, seemed to have inspired him to inch towards creating new work. In 1994, he wrote, “I’ve assembled, over the past year, a closet studio, mostly out of salvaged analog equipment. It’s more a museum than a studio, I’m afraid. (I did look into digital—hard-disc, ProTools and all—but I can’t possibly afford it, either in dollars or learning curves.)… if people ask you, you can say, yes, the old guy’s at it again… So, in time, the world will know—and yawn.”

By this time, Tod worried that he no longer had it in him “to make something good,” and felt that “all those Good Reviews have become intimidating.” Still, in 1995 his reports turned positive and included his first mention of a major piece brewing. “The music is starting to go well… The piece, called, at present, Aerial, isn’t growing into what I had thought it would… But then, I never expected to be doing it at all. It looks like it will be a Big Piece.”

The following years presented ups and downs for Tod. Summer’s heat would drive him out of his studio, health issues arose, and deaths of some close friends (including Jim Reichert, who worked with Tod on Omniphony) depressed him.

Jim Reichert standing in back operating one of many reel-to-reel tape machines and Tod Dockstader sitting in front of a console turning a knob.

Tod Dockstader with Jim Reichert and a chain of reel-to-reel tape machines, circa 1965

Over these years, others and I encouraged Tod to get a computer as a new tool to experiment with sounds. The tipping point came from his daughter, Tina, who recalls, “I reserved a computer at the library. I sat down with Tod, who was adamant about NOT getting a computer, and I put his name into the search engine. Voila! He was blown away that so many people knew who he was, that so many people had written about him.” Tod promptly procured a computer in late 2001. (One of Tod’s biggest attractions to DATs and the computer was the absence of transfer losses inherent in working on analog tape, a limitation that had shaped his creative work from the very beginning.)

Soon thereafter, he reviewed the wealth of material he had built up for his Aerial project. “I began selecting mixes and loading them into the computer in late March 2002. Out of the 580, I selected 90 ‘best’ mixes—eventually reduced to 59, the ones on the CDs.” The massive Aerial was released on three CDs by Sub Rosa in 2005-6, with highly favorable reviews from The Wire, All-Music Guide, and Dusted.

Tod grew fond of computers for sound work. “For me it’s lovely that the computer programs came along just at the time I needed them. You have no idea what a luxury it is to sit there quietly and make a calamity in my ears with just minimal movements.”

I had much less contact with Tod over the last ten years or so. Later, I learned that, starting in the late 1990s, Tod’s beloved wife, Beverly, developed health problems that led to Alzheimer’s and the loss of speech. Caregiving took more and more of Tod’s energy. In the mid-2000s, Tod’s own health diminished, but he continued composing until dementia stopped him. Tod died peacefully on February 27, 2015, listening to his music, just 71 days after losing his wife.

In Tod’s final years, interest in his music continued to emerge. After emailing me in 2011, Justin H. Brierley contacted Tod’s daughter and started to visit Tod regularly. They became friends, listened to music together, and Justin hopes to make a documentary about Tod’s life.

In 2013, Tina received an unexpected email—from Pete Townshend. Apparently Pete was inspired by and used some of Tod’s music in a demo of Tommy in 1968. He was planning to re-issue a deluxe edition of the legendary rock opera and wanted to include Tod’s music. And, indeed, Tod’s name now appears in these new credits. Tina learned that Pete “is a big fan of Tod’s and he wants to get word out about him.”

Tod Dockstader (wearing mirrorshades), wife Beverly and daughter Tina all smiling

Tod Dockstader with his wife Beverly and daughter Tina

[Websites that helped me for this article: Chris Cutler’s two interviews here and here; an Unofficial Dockstader website, and the Unlocking Dockstader website.]