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.

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.

Tod Dockstader
Courtesy of Forced Exposure
Tod Dockstader

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.

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."

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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