Remembering Tod Dockstader (1932-2015)

Tod Dockstader’s electronic music composition, for most of his life, was always an avocation, something he did part-time, outside of his day job, earning him little income. Being an outsider without academic credentials, Tod was denied grants and access to the major electronic music centers. Yet fans of his music included Federico Fellini, and Pete Townshend.

Written By

Tom Steenland

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.]