Tag: electronic music pioneers

At the Intersection of Digital Audible Histories and Experimental Music Practice

large spacial cube

So much of Seth Cluett’s concert music and installation practice deals with memory and embodied experience. Cluett, who grew up in rural upstate New York, recalls the experience of standing on the porch and hearing the wind come through the trees before he could feel it on his body. “There’s always been this haptic connection between being present in a space that makes sound and feeling the source of that sound.” That is what draws me to Cluett’s music—the way it evokes memories and his attention to how the listener interacts with the sound in space.

I recently met up with Cluett, acting director of the Computer Music Center at Columbia University and artist-in-residence at Nokia Bell Labs, to discuss his current exhibition at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, “Sounding Circuits: Audible Histories” (January 15 – March 23, 2019). The exhibition adopts the concept of the circuit to rethink the histories that are told about electronic and computer music. Equally significant is how the exhibit sits at the intersection of research on digital audible histories and experimental music practice’s treatment of historical objects and past technologies.

In the process of walking through Cluett’s exhibition, I had a strong sense of the personal relationships that existed between artists and researchers working at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (CPEMC) and Bell Labs. Bell Labs, which has been a key site for research and development in technology during the 20th century, regularly engaged artists and composers to work on projects relating to sound and recording technologies.

Two letters documenting Edgard Varèse's connection to Bell Labs

Two letters documenting Edgard Varèse’s connection to Bell Labs and the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center; (left) letter from Varèse to Vladimir Ussachevsky, dated March 11, 1960; (right) letter from Ussachevsky, dated May 11, 1972. Photo: Molly Sheridan

I asked Cluett about the circuit between Columbia, Princeton, and Bell Labs, and how it encourages us to think about the history of electronic music in new ways. He illustrated the connections, explaining:

The traditional histories that you read of electronic music often involve a positivist, teleologic unfolding that is tied to available technologies. There’s the classic triumvirate of musique concrète, elektronische Musik, and music for magnetic tape in the United States—all of these things leading to the next step down the chain. Often the histories of electronic music and computer music are even told separately. In my current roles as acting director of the Columbia Computer Music Center and artist-in-residence at Nokia Bell Labs, I started to see evidence of a blurring of those traditional historical boundaries. I read accounts of people like Charles Dodge, who was a graduate student at Columbia and was working on the code at Princeton and then going on to Bell Labs to have the sound rendered on their digital-to-analog converter. The idea of a circuit of these relationships, interconnections between people who would go back and forth between two of the three poles—or would pop out to Brooklyn College and back—seemed to suggest a non-linear, constellation history that was more generous to the real human relationships that existed between people.

This non-linear history is evident in the exhibition’s juxtaposition of eclectic historical artifacts such as oscillators, an enlarged color photograph of the CPEMC’s RCA Mark II Synthesizer, a loudspeaker from the 1919 Victory Liberty Loan Rally in New York, Pauline Oliveros’s Apple Box, and sketches of Varèse’s Déserts—just to name some of the highlights. I asked Cluett how his knowledge of electronic circuits shaped his understanding of the circuit as a metaphor for networks of people. “As an undergraduate at New England Conservatory in the mid-1990s, I was working in an electronic music studio that didn’t have a single computer in it. Because the circuits in that studio consisted of things like patch chords, oscillators, filters, and ring modulators, I started to get a real appreciation for electricity as a living thing. But even earlier than that, because I grew up around a dad who was a machinist—a sort of self-taught engineer, who builds things and tinkers—and a mom who is a craft jeweler, I’ve always thought of things connecting to other things.” He later went on to add that “circuits are a great metaphor for history. Things come full circle constantly, but they still do new work each pass. I think the circuit is a great metaphor for new music… you have moments where, like a capacitor, something stores up energy and then when it’s time, it releases the energy. There are moments where things slow down because either the culture or the community is resistant to that change. You have composers who are pushing current through in a way that is relentless and non-stop, and when these things interact, you get some magic.”

Cluett’s collaborative project with the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts began last year when he was asked by the International Contemporary Ensemble to participate in its OpenICE program at the library. Several months prior to Cluett’s concert in November, he began a research residency at the NYPL and the library commissioned him to compose a series of works in response to their collections of electronic music. However, Cluett noted that his work at the NYPL actually started much earlier. While he was in graduate school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the early 2000s, he was the processing archivist, digitizing the collections of Pauline Oliveros, Eric Siday, and helping with Charles Dodge. The majority of the Sounding Circuits exhibition consists of materials Cluett selected from the NYPL, though a few items are on loan from Columbia’s Computer Music Center and Bell Labs. Ted Gordon, Mellon post-doctoral fellow at Columbia, wrote the prose for the contextualization of the historical materials.

What particularly fascinated me about Sounding Circuits is how it provides a fresh perspective on audible histories. (For another important example of audible history, see Emily Thompson’s project The Roaring ‘Twenties: An Interactive Exploration of the Historical Soundscape of New York City.) As scholar Rebecca Dowd Geoffroy-Schwinden writes, audible history is not just the recovery of past sounds—whether through sound recordings, historical artifacts, or models of acoustic space—but also the reanimation of past ways of listening. Similarly, Cluett’s exhibition sheds new light on the history of early electronic music by reanimating the experience and feelings that listeners had when encountering this music in its original historical context. Cluett reproduces a similar experience by means of an ambisonic cube: an 8-channel loudspeaker system that creates the effect of 360-degree sound.

Ambisonic cube

Ambisonic cube, an 8-channel loudspeaker system that creates the effect of 360-degree sound. Photo Molly Sheridan

Cluett described how his exhibition works to reanimate the history of early electronic music:

I think so much of the history of electronic music now, the early history that is, is replayed on YouTube or Spotify playlists, or people going to the library and digging through the archives and putting on a pair of headphones and listening to it in isolation. There’s something much different about standing inside an ambisonic cube of speakers. In this environment, you’re sitting in the middle of a voice; you’re embodied in sounds that are creating air pressure around you. By doing things like repositioning these works not as a frontal presentation in a proscenium or in a headphone presentation in isolation, but putting people right in the middle of the sound, you get a remarkable new life to these pieces. That’s been a comment that comes up over and over, as people have gotten back to me about their experience in the exhibition.

Similarly, Cluett explained, the exhibition’s photos and historical artifacts bring new life to the hopes and aspirations that inspired early electronic music composers:

Then there’s reanimating the history by putting the color back into black-and-white photographs. We have a custom green mixer that in the photos looks black-and-white, and it’s kind of boring and scientific. But [in the exhibit] you see this absurd green that could be nothing else but the 1960s, and it breathes new life into these artifacts—in a way that when people see them, they see the sci-fi, the futurism, and the lofty goals of a bunch of people that were really optimistic about the future of electronic music.

Custom Green Mixer from Otto Luening's studio at Columbia

Custom Green Mixer from Otto Luening’s studio at Columbia. Image courtesy: Jonathan Blanc/The New York Public Library

What makes the audible history of the Sounding Circuits exhibition so different from other projects is the way that it incorporates Cluett’s own personal history. A highlight was learning about his relationship with Pauline Oliveros. The collaboration began with a commission for poet and accordion sent via a postcard from Trudy Morse, who never said Oliveros would be the accordionist. After performing the piece with Oliveros, their work together continued, including making field recordings in Italy and performing her Apple Box Double, a piece that involved contact microphones placed on an apple box and improvised sounds that she had first developed with David Tudor in the 1960s.

A crucial aspect of the exhibition, however, is how Cluett uses sound recordings, historical artifacts, and past technologies as a reference point in his own experimental music practice—in particular the works that he was commissioned to compose for the NYPL. (For more on composers and sound artists who make use of historical objects and past technologies, see the scholarship of Jennie Gottschalk.) These newly composed works are responses to classic works from the history of electronic music, many of which had an impact on him as a composer. They do not attempt to imitate their models stylistically, but rather respond to the experimental mode that the composers were working in. For example, Cluett’s Affordances responds to Laurie Spiegel by being algorithmically generated, but it is in his own vocabulary. Cluett nevertheless acknowledged that his vocabulary “has a lot of Laurie Spiegel and Oliveros in its practice.” In the exhibition, these new compositions are played alongside the classics that inspired them. “The ambisonic cube has a playlist that rotates around the room like a clock face, consisting of Cage, Varèse, Pril Smiley, Laurie Spiegel, Charles Dodge, Paul Lansky, Jean-Claude Risset, and Pauline Oliveros. And as it does that, each of those works has a piece between them that I composed that mitigates the experimental difference between the poles of pieces adjacent to my work.” Cluett aimed to highlight how “audible histories are an attempt to think about how earlier generations of sound practice influenced current practice, and how current practice recontextualizes history—both in a personal way for me, but in a real way for the objects on their own, for everyone who comes to the exhibit to see and hear them.”

Seth Cluett’s Accordion Alone

The exhibition Sounding Circuits: Audible Histories is on display at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts until March 23, 2019.

Hold On—A Celebration of the Life of Olly Wilson (1937-2018)

“The role of any artist is to reinterpret human existence by means of the conscious transformation of his experience.”—Olly Wilson, “The Black American Composer” (1972)

It is difficult to summarize Olly Wilson’s influence on my life as a composer, scholar, and human. (I had similar difficulty distilling my father’s influence on my life a few years back.) I do want to share some thoughts about Olly Wilson to celebrate his contributions to American music, especially African American music history, and to me personally.

TJ Anderson introduced me to Olly Wilson in April 1989 at the premiere of Wilson’s A City Called Heaven, commissioned and performed by Boston Musica Viva. The concert was a mentor to mentor exchange triggered by my acceptance into UC Berkeley’s PhD program in music composition where I would study with Wilson. I sat next to Olly Wilson during the performance where I followed the music with his personal copy of the score. Wilson often discussed Duke Ellington’s largess as an important element of his life and music. I experienced the same largess from Olly Wilson the first day we met. I had heard Sometimes for tenor and tape before this meeting in a composition class with TJ Anderson.  I was amazed by the new musical vistas in A City Called Heaven. This piece influenced a few of my first compositions in graduate school. After the concert, I received my first assignment in preparation for graduate school in the fall: Listen to more Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, and Charlie Parker.

There is a tendency to separate morality and music instruction. Music instruction usually focuses on the notes or the historical facts. Wilson’s lessons, by contrast, were holistic. After my first encounter with Olly Wilson, I realized that I had entered into an artist apprenticeship with a master artist. His teaching humanized the learning experience in numerous ways.  He was very much aware that I moved to California at the young age of 22 without knowing anyone in the state but him. Something as simple as attending my first San Francisco Contemporary Music Players concert with him via BART from Berkeley was a quick study in Bay Area mass transit. (As someone who only knew the NYC MTA and the Boston T in the 1980s, BART was an alternate universe to me.) The entire trip was a lesson in critical thinking. Teaching critical thinking was not the purpose of the trip, the concert was the goal, but discussions of the performance, notational issues in the music, the music’s effect on the audience and a discussion on choosing a barber—culturally an important decision connected to settling into a new area—were all covered from Olly Wilson’s typical approachable intellectualism.

Olly Wilson’s indirect teaching came from merely spending time with him. Months into my new home in California, I was invited to Thanksgiving dinner with Olly and Elouise Wilson, Mr. and Mrs. Bill Bell, and the children of both families. This may have been the first time I realized that thinking critically would not be limited to music or history in graduate school. If you read Olly Wilson’s writings on African and African American music, you will note that his arguments are supported by a combination of facts, observations, and experiences. Even the process of smoking the turkey for dinner received critical assessment. I made the mistake at dinner of saying that the NY Giants would beat his beloved San Francisco 49ers. He wryly asked, “Do you want to bet?” His critical assessment explained the obvious, the Giants were indeed doomed. Details ruled his discussions. Wilson’s knowledge and talent were intimidating, but he was affable. I will never forget the obvious kindness demonstrated by the invitation to Thanksgiving dinner. I cannot recall the number of times Bill Bell asked me if I had called my mother when I saw him on UC Berkeley’s campus after that dinner.

Olly Wilson encouraged intellectual curiosity.

Olly Wilson encouraged intellectual curiosity. I know that my use of analogies to explain concepts in class are the result of listening to Olly Wilson teach or discuss a variety of topics. All of us who studied with him modeled our teaching accordingly. Anthony Brown (a fantastic composer, performer and scholar whom I consider my older musical brother) and I realized a few years ago that we both prepared our talking points before we called Olly Wilson so that we had something interesting to say. Olly Wilson promoted the model of the composer scholar. Composers who were also musicologists become deeply interested in investigating music’s connections to larger concerns of cultural expression and historical placement.

Music composition lessons with Olly Wilson were humanistic. By that, I mean he assessed my music by: 1) what I actually wrote; 2) what I perceived to be its musical intention; 3) how an audience will perceive it; and 4) and whether or not there was a disconnect between those three previous concerns. This may not seem so obviously humanistic, but connecting the human reaction to the music with the construction of the music and the musical concept was a unique approach to me. I use this method to teach composition now. Recently, I spoke with a group of younger composers and shared a representative comment on my music from an Olly Wilson composition lesson. The original opening to my dissertation for orchestra contained pages of music without the strings doing anything. At the time I thought this was radical. Olly Wilson pointed out, “You do realize there are 50 plus musicians in the string section not doing anything? The majority of players of the orchestra are in the strings. The tradition has always used the strings as glue for the orchestra.” His comment reminded me of an important reality. My music was not stylistically wrong but it was poorly conceived for human performers.  My take away from that lesson: The human experience is wrapped up in the writing, performing, and witnessing of a musical composition. One is not disconnected from the other.

I also learned over time that his concern for humans was not limited to musical issues. Olly Wilson’s largess touched many musicians. While living in 1995, Paris, I met Gérard Grisey for a composition lesson at the Conservatoire de Paris. Grisey’s demeanor visibly changed when I told him that I had studied with Olly Wilson. He was the first of many composers to ask me, “How is Olly?” While teaching in a small college in rural Indiana, I met William Bolcom who was invited as a special guest composer. After telling him my educational background, Bolcom asked, “How is Olly?” During an interview for a teaching position in at a school in the Southwest, I was asked, “How is Olly? Will he give a lecture at our school if you are hired to teach here?”  It was obvious to me that Olly Wilson’s reputation was larger than his music.  He made numerous personal connections with musicians everywhere.

His concern for humans was not limited to musical issues.

A particularly important connection for Olly Wilson was his friendship with the famous musician Earl “Fatha” Hines. Fate seemed to connect them together because Hines and Wilson’s father were born on the same day and died on the same day. After Hines’ death, Olly Wilson became the co-administrator of the Hines estate. One of the many special moments I remember working as an apprentice occurred when I had to search for specific charts in boxes of Earl Hines’s band arrangements. Preserving the Hines Estate is an example of a gift of stewardship by Wilson of important artifacts of American music. Likewise, establishing the first electronic music studio at an American conservatory, Technology in Music and Related Arts (TIMARA) at Oberlin Conservatory in 1967, is another important gift to the development of electronic music in America. Generations of musicians have benefited from Olly Wilson’s work in promoting and preserving American music.

“The ideal I strive toward as a composer is to approach music as it is approached in traditional African cultures.”Olly Wilson, The Black Composer Speaks (1978)

Traditional West African cultures believe that music is a force and not a “thing,” a concept I learned in Olly Wilson’s African American Music History class. Music’s essence is its affect or functional use. Considering Olly Wilson’s vast musical output, one can easily hear that his music was composed as an intentional force to affect or motivate listeners. I often begin discussions of electronic music in my classes by listening to Sometimes. Even though some of the electronic sounds are unfamiliar to undergraduates, Wilson’s interweaving of live vocal performance and recorded vocal performances of the spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” is haunting and arresting. Powerful musical statements in the piece are often rooted in the Black musical tradition in the context of Western art music. The music’s function is to communicate elements of the Black music’s vocal tradition explicitly or implicitly. In Sometimes and Of Visions of Truth, the use of folk songs is a starting point for presenting Black music in an abstract context. Sinfonia, A City Called Heaven, and Hold On use cells of blues riffs integrated in 20th century avant-garde vocabulary. In essence, Wilson’s compositions are demonstrations of the title of one of his important essays, “Black Music as an Art Form.” Music of perceptual interest, Olly Wilson’s works are a powerful voice of American music. Dvorák thought the direction of an American school of composition should be based on Native American and African American folk music, primarily, spirituals. Sometimes, A City Called Heaven, and the slow movement of Hold On fulfill Dvorák’s vision of American Music. At the same time, Wilson’s music ostensibly represents Béla Bartók’s vision of modern composers using a musical language totally integrated with the purity of folk music to create the new way.

Great minds help us answer big questions. In Olly Wilson’s case, he explained through his research what makes Black music identifiable. Not defining the music by the performer but by its musical organization and characteristics that allows us to trace elements of Black music in many genres of American music.  Wilson’s research and scholarship also addressed related areas of inquiry: What makes Black music an art form? What is the role of the Black composer? His scholarship laid the groundwork for future research in the nature and significant contributions of African Americans to the development of American music.

I consider Olly Wilson’s six conceptual approaches to creating music to be the Rosetta stone of Black musical analysis.

My first week in Wilson’s African American Music History class, spring 1990, was life changing. Anthony Brown was one of the teaching assistants for the course.  Wilson’s lecture on African culture began with a discussion of Black Athena by Martin Bernal, a book, given to me by my father, outlining the African/Egyptian sources of Western European civilization. A thorough discussion of West African culture in the opening week of the course was followed by Olly Wilson explaining his six conceptual approaches to creating music that link sub-Saharan West African music to African American music:

  1. rhythmic and/or metrical contrast
  2. a fixed framework (e.g. repeated patterns) and a varied part played or sung over that
  3. a percussive approach to vocal and instrumental performance
  4. musical forms featuring call and response
  5. a tendency to fill up all the musical space
  6. body motion being integral to music making

I consider these concepts to be the Rosetta stone of Black musical analysis. It is the key to understanding the organization of music in the African diaspora. Wilson’s work embraces the complexity of the subject making his discussions and explanations more potent. After centuries of convenient or expedited explanations of the nature of African culture and its connection to African American music, Wilson’s work takes the important perspective that this tradition’s artistry demands a more substantive exploration into the complexity of the historical, geographical, and sociologic factors that resulted from the Atlantic slave trade.  Wilson’s work illuminates the misunderstanding of what occurred historically so that everyone will understand Black music better. His last published writing appears in the Cambridge Companion to Duke Ellington, in Chapter 5, “Duke Ellington as a Cultural Icon.”  After a career of intellectual discovery and exploration, Olly Wilson uses his discussion of Duke Ellington to illustrate how this American icon rose above America’s cultural expectations of his musical output. This chapter points to the essential concern of all of Wilson’s writing through a quote by Thomas Jefferson. In Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson states, “Whether they [Blacks] will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved.” Olly Wilson’s life’s work demonstrates the “proof” Jefferson mentions and counters the common negative associations of Black artistic capability embodied in this quote. In a sense, Olly Wilson’s research addressed the artistic residues of America’s original sin evident in a founding father’s writing on the nature of Black musical creativity.

“In that sense my music is directly related to the struggle in that it aspires to inform, motivate, and humanize my fellow men in their aspirations.”—Olly Wilson, The Black Composer Speaks (1978)

Many of us are mourning the huge loss of a talented musician and intellectual. We also celebrate the many numerous gifts Olly Wilson left us. His work demonstrated to all that there was a traceable link to the music made by African Americans and the musical traditions found on the African continent they left during the Atlantic slave trade. African performance practices inform and are readily noticeable in any form of American music connected to the continuum of African American music. There has been a long tradition in this country of individuals identifying characteristics of African American music as weird/funny (minstrelsy) or interesting but non-essential, at best.  Sometimes this music is deemed inappropriate in serious musical expression. For example, one of my compositions was criticized for asking a “classically” trained choir to stomp their feet and clap like a tradition African American vocal ensemble. Wilson discussed the importance use of physical body motion in the process of making Black music. The movement is integral to the music. Understanding this concept explains why the Temptations danced while they sang and many traditional Black churches stamp their feet and clap as they sing. The movement is the music.

Olly Wilson has demonstrated the strength of African American musical traditions through his compositions. Black music is not limited to one form of musical expression. In the same way that the defining characteristics of a waltz can be heard in music by Johann Strauss, Chopin, Ravel, and the composers of the Second Viennese School, blues expression is heard in the music of Ellington, Louis Jordan, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, and A City Called Heaven. This is an important point. Some limit Black expression to its folk genres, others to American pop recordings. The strength of any culture is revealed in the diversity of its various forms of expression. Black musical expression “exists” if it is identifiable in various forms. When Olly Wilson wrote “The Significance of the Relationship Between Afro-American Music and West African Music” (1974) he provided for us the keys to analyzing and composing music in the African American tradition and in turn, insight into American musical culture.

Olly Wilson’s compositions and research were his ultimate answers to every question he raised in his research. He never complained, but I do think that he felt an affinity to Duke Ellington’s dilemma: Famous and respected but not recognized in the same way, at that time. If you believe that Wilson’s work revealed important observations about Black music to have a better understanding of ourselves, then we might consider Wilson’s last essay on Ellington addressing the important issue of implicit bias with respect to assumptions about relevance of music created by African Americans or music created with the influence African American music. Inclusion in concert music is currently under more scrutiny. Olly Wilson was a pioneer.  He started teaching at UC Berkeley in 1970 and I was the first composer of African descent, to my knowledge, to enter the graduate program in composition at Berkeley 19 years later in 1989.  Olly Wilson paved the way for many people in composition and encouraged serious study of African and African American music in the Academy.

Olly Wilson paved the way for many people in composition and encouraged serious study of African and African American music in the Academy.

Finally, Olly Wilson did have a wry wit, a good sense of humor, and a kind heart. During a class discussion on Louis Jordan, he mentioned the dances that he and his friends did to “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie.” I chuckled a bit like a doubtful nephew which encouraged Olly Wilson to demonstrate by dancing across the stage in Hertz Hall while we listened to the recording. It was a mic drop moment before we started to use this term. He gleefully played for me the lullaby he wrote for his first granddaughter and quietly bragged that he was asked to be the best man at his son’s wedding. Although we mourn Olly Wilson’s death, we can say that he lived life to its fullest and left many gifts that have enriched our lives.

In “Duke Ellington as a Cultural Icon,” Olly Wilson described Ellington with words appropriate for its author. This quote seems to speak to Olly Wilson’s wonderful contribution to American society.

Ellington’s [Wilson’s] music reflected a more nuanced, subtle, and complex reading of African-American culture, and, ultimately, projected a sophisticated and realistic understanding of African-American life. Duke Ellington [Olly Wilson] used his music to communicate the complexity, depth, joy, and beauty of the contemporary African-American and American experience.

Thank you Olly Wilson for all that you shared with me and all who knew you.

Olly Wilson dancing with his wife Elouise at Trevor Weston's wedding.

Olly Wilson dancing with his wife Elouise at Trevor Weston’s wedding.


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.]