Tod Dockstader: From the Archives

The release of Tod Dockstader's From the Archives is a significant event on multiple counts. The first is, obviously, the fact that not only does the release premiere fifteen new pieces by the legendary electronic composer, the works derive from private archives that were discovered after his death on February 27, 2015. Secondly, the release is noteworthy for appearing on Starkland, the Colorado-based label Thomas Steenland founded twenty-five years ago and which has released world premiere recordings by John Luther Adams, Aaron Jay Kernis, Ingram Marshall, Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, and Carl Stone, among others, and featured performers such as the Kronos Quartet, International Contemporary Ensemble, and JACK Quartet. The connection between Starkland and Dockstader runs especially deep, given that the first two CDs issued on the label featured material by him and proved instrumental in reinvigorated his composing. As someone whose name is uttered in the same breath as fellow pioneers Varèse, Stockhausen, and Subotnick, Dockstader needs no introduction within electronic music circles.

His first flirtations with sound design arose when as a film editor and writer at UPA studios, he learned to create sound effects and cut sound for cartoons, after which a stint as a recording engineer in New York saw him further his experimentation with sounds and lead to the release of his first recordings, four of which appeared on Owl Records in the ‘60s. Yet despite receiving acclaim for such work, Dockstader chose not to issue new material for thirty years until Starkland's early-‘90s release of two CDs,1992's Quatermass and 1993's Apocalypse, brought about a creative resurgence that culminated in the release of Aerial, a three-CD series issued by Sub Rosa in 2005-6.

Though his creative output was stilled by the onset of dementia, he left behind a vast body of work, somewhere in the vicinity of 4,200 sound files that were produced between 2000 and 2008. Upon discovering the treasure trove, his daughter Tina enlisted a Dockstader enthusiast, Justin H Brierley, to sift through the material and undertake the process of selecting pieces for a proposed Starkland release. Fifty sound files were ultimately sent to Steenland, who then reduced them to the fifteen featured on the CD. Geeta Dayal's liner-note comment “From the Archives sounds radical and new, as fresh as if it was made today” is very much on point. One comes away from the collection impressed by how creatively alive its material is and how explorative and playful Dockstader remained during the last part of his composing life. The listener is constantly confronted with a sensibility that's fully engaged and irrepressibly innovative, and From the Archives presents a visionary intelligence that's very much alive.

Though the fifteen electroacoustic explorations are uncompromisingly bold and electronic manipulations are in plentiful supply, the pieces are also more accessible and musical than such characterizations might suggest. Considerations of melody and compositional form are never absent, no matter how far Dockstader ventures into experimental realms. A computer-based convulsion surfaces every now and then, but so too does a bright music-box chime, bell tinkle, or shimmering texture to grant the listener an easier way into his world. And even when those grinding, convulsive effects do occur, they're never of the ear-piercing variety; listenability is never sacrificed in these restless, shape-shifting constructions, and there's a playfulness to the material, too, that's reflected in titles such as “Odd Bells” and Piano Morf.” One of the more memorable settings is “Choral Mix” for the way in which its layers accumulate into a slow-moving mass reminiscent, even if tangentially, of Ingram Marshall's Fog Tropes, while “Big Jig” caps the collection with four minutes of flickering, machine-like combustion. Unlike some collections issued after a figure's death, From the Archives doesn't sully Dockstader's memory with sub-par work. If anything, it enhances it by showing just how imaginative and explorative he was until the end of his creative life.

January 2017