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.

In his absence, electronic music finally left institutions, becoming more personalized in bedroom studios, where Dockstader's seed came to fruition some 30 years on. His sound gets evoked in the wily, sly noises of Aphex Twin, in the crackling sinewaves of Finnish group Pan Sonic. Turntablism's hand-manipulated maximism draws from him, as do the daredevil jump cuts of early John Zorn. He's in the handmade onerous crackle of Wolf Eyes, in how Matmos makes spastic tracks out of rhinoplasty sounds and latex suits.

Now it's Tod Dockstader's turn to catch up. Finally familiarizing himself with the organizational possibilities of personal computers, he has resurfaced with two new compositions. His first major work to be released since 1966, Pond (a collaboration with sound artist David Myers released earlier this year), amasses the sound of frogs and mixes it with synth drones to create a stunning ambient amalgamation. Yet the septuagenarian's grandest, most daunting work is Aerial, recently released by Sub Rosa Records.

The first disc of a proposed three-CD box set, Aerial #1 gleans a decade's worth of shortwave radio recordings and atmospheric interference, during which fading signals converge to create new noises. Aerial deals with the same analog sounds Dockstader recalls from childhood, the sounds "between the stations on the dim yellow dial, the electronic shrieks and squeals of tuning...the explosions of static that approaching prairie thunderstorms ignite."

Tod Dockstader
Courtesy of Forced Exposure
Tod Dockstader

While work at Gotham was physically demanding--doing splices on the fly and moving between the enormous tape machines, not to mention running around to record sounds--the composer says that "gathering the sound-material for Aerial was almost restful. I just sat up nights...slowly tuning a short-wave receiver and capturing what I needed onto cassettes." The piece was cooked down from over 90 hours of tape, with nearly 600 separate sections ultimately reduced to 59, all mixed together as a piece and spread across the set. Bland names belie the turbulent nature of the atmosphere in motion. The 12-minute opener "Song" is simultaneously Doppler-effected and cinematic, its restless ambience broken by a flare midway through. "Rumble" sounds less like something from up in the ionosphere and more from beneath a continental plate. And while "Lala" chirps and gurgles like a pond of frogs, "March" could soundtrack an alien abduction.

Working with the old sounds in this gleaming new world of computer technology, Aerial transported Dockstader back to his earliest, fondest memories, as he told Ken Hollings in The Wire: "I remembered the mysteries as a child...I was delighted that it was still there. It brought me back to a time when I was much younger." Dockstader details the shift in time and the difference it makes: "As a child, I was a passive listener; this time, I was an active one. My purpose in doing it was...to make music out of the chaos." When I asked if he felt like Aerial had some time-travel properties, he confessed, "I've never felt I was going back in time: I'm very aware of running out of [time]." What resounded within him and captured his childhood imagination some 70 years ago gets revitalized in the present moment, though. Somewhere in the invisible night, the signal remains strong, broadcasting anew.

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