In the history of experimental music in the United States, Tod Dockstader is as much an original pioneer as are some of the better known composers, such as John Cage and Edgard Varèse. Following his graduation from the University of Minnesota, where he studied both painting and film, he began work in Hollywood as an apprentice film editor but then moved into sound engineering. He would not be the first to realize that splicing techniques he had learned for working with film could also be applied to audio tape. The result was that Dockstader cultivated a talent for creating sound effects with electronic gear, which he was able to exercise on thirteen Tom and Jerry cartoons directed by Gene Deitch at Terrytoons.
Shortly thereafter, he realized that he could apply his talent to a new approach to composition, creating a series of works that were recorded on albums produced by Owl Records. Whether he knew it or not, he was exercising techniques similar to those Pierre Schaeffer had been using for the genre he called musique concrète. Dockstader applied to use the facilities at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, but his application was denied. Whether this was because academics such as Vladimir Ussachevsky could not consider sounds effects for Tom and Jerry to be “aesthetically legitimate” is anybody’s guess; but, by way of context, it is worth recalling that Nicolas Slonimsky was fired for having arranged to have Varèse’s “Ionisation” performed at the Hollywood Bowl (and that only involved a percussion-only ensemble)!
In 1992 and 1993 Starkland released two CD albums that accounted for much of the work that had originally appeared on Owl vinyls. These included, on the 1992 album, “Water Music,” which was my own “first encounter” with Dockstader’s work, and “Quartermass,” which the author of Dockstader’s Wikipedia page describes as “what many consider to be Dockstader’s masterpiece.” About a month ago, Starkland released a new album, Tod Dockstader: From the Archives. Those archives consisted of 4200 sound files found on Dockstader’s personal computer after his death on February 27, 2015. These were his “last works,” created between 2000 and 2008, when he had to stop due to the onset of dementia. Starkland harvested fifteen pieces from those archives, all of which were given premiere releases on the new album.
For those familiar with the genre of tape music and with how digital technology expanded the technique of that genre, there is likely to be an almost refreshing sense of familiarity in the grammar and rhetoric of these discovered works. It is also worth recalling how many of the Columbia-Princeton composers immersed themselves in convictions that one could not make music without an underlying theory that was, in some way or another, “logically legitimate.” (Perhaps it is a bit unfair to single out Columbia-Princeton. Any number of Europeans were just as punch-drunk on the need for theory.) By coming out of the Hollywood trenches, Dockstader had no trouble prioritizing practice over theory. He made stuff on the basis of wits skillful enough to command techniques for audio capture and editing, eventually to take their place alongside later generations of software processing tools. Thus, what is probably responsible for that refreshing quality was the extent to which Dockstader’s compositions were products of spontaneous engagement with his equipment and techniques.
Those of us who have gotten our hands dirty with such techniques (in either analog or digital domains) will easily appreciate what Dockstader was doing in making the pieces on this recording. We can probably even appreciate that element of spontaneity. However, others less familiar with the genre may still enjoy each of these relatively short pieces, because each of them amounts to its own unique search for new paths in the overall terrain of possible sonorities. If that enjoyment spurs those listeners to seek out recordings of earlier work, particularly from the days when only analog equipment was available, so much the better.