Brave Old World

First captivated by the radio programs he heard as a kid in St. Paul, Tod Dockstader went on to help invent electronic music--and retire a virtual unknown. Now in his 70s, he's back at it and as daring as ever.

An old Coke bottle, a nail, marble, some deflated balloons, a few rolls of adhesive tape. In the hands of Minnesotan Tod Dockstader, these trivial items and certified junk all conspired to create masterworks of electronic music in the early 1960s, during the hazy, pricey dawn of the genre. His scant half-decade of work revealed a world where sound itself became the organizing force, rather than melodic logic or linear progressions. His loops, jump cuts, and juxtapositions anticipated the next 40 years of synthesizers and sampling culture.

But let's wind the tape back to the beginning. Tod Dockstader was born in St. Paul on May 22, 1932. "That was the year the Great Depression came to stay," Dockstader says via e-mail from his current home in Westport, Connecticut. "I had severe eczema from birth; I lived in a darkened room, wrapped in bandages soaked with boric acid. In the middle of summers, I lived in a hospital. Since I often couldn't go outside in the daytime, and wasn't allowed out at night, I listened to the radio all the time." Dockstader was kept company by programs like Orson Welles's Mercury Theater on the Air and CBS's groundbreaking The Fall of the City, but something more general about the radio also enchanted: "It was alive, full of sound." Taking the federal amateur radio-operator's test ("when I was supposed to be doing schoolwork"), Dockstader got his license and crafted his own ham radios from crystals and Quaker Oats containers, reaching out to other Midwestern operators from his Highland Park neighborhood.

Tod Dockstader
Courtesy of Forced Exposure
Tod Dockstader

Cartooning for the University of Minnesota's daily paper and illustrating Archer-Daniels-Midland's in-house magazine while he studied art and abnormal psychology ultimately led him to Terrytoons in Hollywood. "I went out West to work in films--any kind of films, in any kind of way. I had no intention of doing cartoons, but a good editor edits anything that moves," he says, and while out in Burbank, he cut sound and picture for the Expressionistic "Mr. Magoo" and the Oscar-winning "Gerald McBoing Boing" alongside Ralph Bakshi and Jules Feiffer. Dockstader even anticipated his own sound work with "The Freeze Yum Story," wherein a Good Humor salesman tricks out his ice-cream truck until it's a sonic behemoth.

An apprenticeship at Gotham Recording led the young Dockstader to New York in 1958 and gave him the technology necessary to try his hand at this strange new music he had heard broadcast on WQXR and other adventurous FM stations. What grabbed Dockstader's attention were works by composers such as Pierre Schaeffer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, music realized in European state-subsidized studios or in the ivory towers at Columbia-Princeton's Electronic Music Center. These compositions were created by room-sized computers instead of bands or orchestras; test-tone generators were played instead of brass or woodwinds. It was music never conjured on a stage, but in the aspic of the studio and broadcast through the ether. Performances were captured on metal-oxide tape, resolute through time. Dockstader could hear a new world and set about trying his hand at it with the equipment he had at work.

Gotham, both the studio and that restive city itself, unfurled before Dockstader, and his exploratory nature ran rampant during off-hours. Empty bottles chimed out overtones, dumped garbage cans clanged in polyrhythm, alley cats mewled like a jazz ensemble, and Dockstader captured these minute noises onto tape. "Some things worked and a lot more didn't," he explained about the arduous task of assembling motley sounds. "I learned what was which by trying whatever came my way and working at making a piece out of it. A lot of failure, but I gradually began to hear what I'd hoped for." He poked microphones into elevator shafts to dig that motor music, and could hear sonorities in both sonic booms and laughter, even in Hitler's zealous crowds. Dockstader built up a massive library of such sound cells, then sped up, spliced, and Frankensteined it all back together into what he called --using Edgar Varèse's term--"organized sound."

The sonics of Dockstader's 1960 debut, Eight Electronic Pieces, still shock. Startling in their lyricism, cartoon-quick and equally violent, kaleidoscopic yet chaotic, these vignettes convey equal doses of anxiety and giddiness (perhaps that led to their inclusion in Fellini's Satyricon). More quicksilver, volatile works soon emerged, expertly manipulated with new studio techniques like tape-delay, reverb, and stereo panning, all underpinned by the simplest of sources. 1961's Luna Park came from sped-up laughter while that same year's Apocalypse wrought its cries from a moo-cow toy and creaky door. For 1964's Quatermass, Dockstader carved down some 12 hours of tape--most of it the sound of a deflating balloon--into five movements conjuring drones, discernible laments, march and tango rhythms.

The amount of work that Dockstader put into hand-cutting the attack, sustain, and decay of Four Telemetry Tapes the next year was instantly rendered obsolete by the advent of the personal synthesizer. He soon left Gotham to work as the audio-visual designer at the 1967 Montreal Expo, and, unable to afford the expensive equipment (he was unimaginably turned away from Columbia's program), Dockstader gave up music, focusing instead on multimedia presentations and educational filmstrips for elementary and high schools.

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