Carl Stone: Electronic Music from the Seventies and Eighties
Unseen Worlds

The only prosaic thing about Electronic Music from the Seventies and Eighties is its title. Otherwise, the eight pieces (one a digital-only bonus) on this three-LP collection of pioneering work by American electro-acoustic composer Carl Stone constitute an oft-mesmerizing two-and-a-half hours; in fact, of the seven album tracks, five are so extensively explored they each take up a full album side. What makes the release especially significant for students of electronic music's history and development is that all are previously unpublished pieces, the sole exception being “Shing Kee,” which surfaced on a 1992 New Albion CD release.

It's no exaggeration to call Stone, who currently splits his time between his Los Angeles birthplace and Japan, where he's a faculty member in the Department of Media Engineering at Chukyo University, a pioneer. He's used computers in live performance since 1986, and the earliest works on the release, “LIM” and “Chao Praya,” date back to the early ‘70s when Stone was a student of James Tenney and Morton Subotnick at CalArts. Similar to current practitioners, Stone was just as happy plundering popular genres such as Motown for source material as he was European Renaissance music. To create the dizzying shape-shifter “Dong Il Jang” (1982), for instance, he used an early French processing machine called the Publison along with micro-samples taken from LPs of Western classical, Asian folk, and American R&B. There's an irreverence to Stone that's appealing, too: he's probably the only composer to have titled pieces after Korean and sushi restaurants, “Dong Il Jang” and “Shibucho” but two examples.

The opening side's “Sukothai” (1977) immediately catches the ear with the familiar strains of Purcell's “Rondo” from Adbelazar, here performed by a harpsichordist. But after a minute-and-a-half, things take a bold turn when Stone, using nothing more than a turntable and a pair of stereo tape recorders, begins multiplying the material until an opaque whirlpool of 1024 layers is present at track's end. What starts out as an arresting canonic effect grows into an impenetrable wash of sonic texture, the melodies in Purcell's setting buried under a mountain of layers. Stone nicely caps this dazzling opening salvo with a brief reprise of the opening section (in orchestral garb this time), the contrast between the familiar material and Stone's treatment startling when juxtaposed.

“Shing Kee” (1986) is as rigorously worked-out as “Sukothai” though in a different way. In “Shing Kee,” Stone gradually elongates a fragment of Schubert lieder (sung by Akiko Yano), in this case the sample time-stretched in real-time using a Mac Plus; shifting gears halfway through, Stone increases the length of the time-unit while keeping the fragment size constant, a tension-inducing move that stretches Yano's voice into a dream-like warble. As with “Sukothai,” the gear deployed is modest by today's standards, but what Stone accomplishes with it is spellbinding. As the vocal sample changes shape, different words and word groupings are suggested, and the lulling sway of Yano's voice proves entrancing. Striking too is 1984's “Shibucho,” in which Motown songs (The Temptations' “My Girl” and The Jackson Five's “ABC,” among others) come into gradual focus when their various vocal and instrumental elements cohere into recognizable if fragmented snippets.

How different from the others in tone and character are the two earliest settings. Eschewing microphone-collected sounds, “LIM” and “Chao Praya,” electronic pieces Stone created using the Buchla 200 series synthesizer, soothe the ear by exchanging the freneticism of “Dong Il Jang” for pure droning tones that slowly undulate and evolve. The quietude of those early settings is especially satisfying when heard alongside some of Stone's busier pieces.

Admittedly, some of them are so exhaustively explored, they challenge the patience of even the most dedicated listener, and further to that a piece like “Dong Il Jang” can prove headache-inducing when its shape-shifts occur so relentlessly. One of two near-half-hour pieces, 1981's “Kuk Il Kwan” was assembled using the Publison and a number of source materials, among them field recordings collected around Stone's home in Los Angeles and live inputs of his voice. Whereas some of the album's pieces can feel hermetic when they're drawn entirely from LP sources, “Kuk Il Kwan” refreshes in venturing outside to places where crickets thrum, dogs bark, and engines roar, even if there are passages where the material flirts with density overload. Speaking of which, the digital-only “Unthaitled” (1978) takes the layering concept of “Sukothai” to an absurd extreme when it dwarfs the earlier work's 1,024 layers with 65,536. Using Purcell's “Rondo” again as base material, Stone threads different versions of the same theme obtained from his music library into a shimmering, phantasmagoric colossus.

October 2016