The Biggest Sound, Paul Dolden’s Eclectic Musical Visions

This new Starkland release (due out on July 29th) is actually the second time that Paul Dolden‘s music has appeared on the label.  The groundbreaking Dolby 5.1 surround audio DVD with images,  Immersion (2001) contains his Twilight’s Dance (2000).

Paul Dolden is a multi-instrumentalist born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada in 1956.  He has worked as a musician since age 16 playing violin, cello and electric guitar. His work has been described as post-modern, the new complexity, electroacoustic and ambient but none of these descriptors can give you a clue as to how his music actually sounds.  In addition to his instruments he makes extensive use of recording technology and sampling techniques.  But Dolden is not a tinkerer with a laptop and Garage Band software.  His music appears to stem from a variety of influences and ideas which embrace acoustic instruments, tape techniques, digital editing, alternate tunings, rock, classical, jazz and perhaps other influences as well. His album L’ivresse de la Vitesse (1994) was listed in Wire Magazines list of “100 Records That Set the World on Fire”.



This was indeed his breakout release.  Two previous albums are essentially retrospectives of his work.  ‘Threshold of Deafening Silence’ (1990) contains works from 1983-1989.  And ‘Seuil de Silences’ (2003) contains works from 1986 to 1996.

Seuil de Silences (2003)

Seuil de Silences (2003)

Threshold of Deafening Silence (1990)

Threshold of Deafening Silence (1990)





He followed L’Ivresse with ‘Delires de Plaisirs’ (2005).  Both his biographical sketch on and his Wikipedia page were both created by Jean-François Denis, the Montreal based producer of the empreintes DIGITALes label which released most of Dolden’s recordings along with a treasure trove of music by mostly Canadian electroacoustic composers.  There is a great deal more to Canada than hockey.  There is a rich musical culture which inscrutably is very little known in the United States.  This new release would be welcome if only for its making some of the best of that culture better known.

Delires de Plaisirs (2005)

Delires de Plaisirs (2005)

Dolden has written over 30 commissioned works for various ensembles from chamber groups to symphony orchestras.  His works have been played by the Espirit Orchestra (Canada), Phoenix Orchestra (Switzerland), the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet and the Bang on a Can All Stars.  He has been most favorably profiled in The Village Voice and Wire Magazine.

So this Starkland release is the fifth CD devoted entirely to Dolden’s work.  His work appears in several collections, most notably the sadly out of print  Sombient Trilogy (1995) which places Dolden’s work in context with many of his peers including Maggi Payne, Dennis Smalley, Stuart Dempster, Elliott Sharp, Ellen Fullman, Maryanne Amacher and Francis Dhomont among many others.  Perhaps the San Francisco based Asphodel records will re-release this set or it could even wind up on one of those treasure troves of the avant-garde like Ubuweb or the Internet Archive.  It is worth seeking out.

Dolden’s work is pretty consistently electroacoustic, meaning it contains live musicians along with tape or electronics.  And while this is still true on the disc at hand ‘Who Has the Biggest Sound?’ would be difficult to stage in a live setting.  Its dense complexities would require very large forces.  The specter of Glenn Gould and his ultimate reliance on studio recordings rather than the unpredictable nature of live performance looms here.

The album is very competently composed, produced, mixed and mastered by Paul Dolden.  The recording is consistent with the high sonic standards by which Starkland is known.  Executive producer Tom Steenland contributes the appropriately enigmatic cover art.  Starkland’s genius here is in promoting this amazing artist.

Back cover

Back cover

This disc contains two very different works, each in several sections. ‘ Who Has the Biggest Sound?’ (2005-2008) is the major work here.  Dolden’s intricate methods are put to very effective use in this sort of virtual electronic oratorio describing the search for the sonic Holy Grail with mysterious poetic titles to each of the 15 different sections.  In my notes taken during multiple listenings (this is not a piece I think most listeners will fully grasp the first time through, I certainly did not) I struggled to describe this music.

In it I heard some of the collage-like elements of John Cage’s Roaratorio and Alvin Curran’s Animal Behavior.  Certainly there are elements of free jazz and the sort of channel changing style of music by the likes of Carl Stalling and John Zorn.  I flashed back to the overwhelming complexity of a live electronic performance I once heard by Salvatore Martirano and felt nostalgic for the sounds of Robert Ashley’s similarly electroacoustic operas.

Repeated listenings revealed more depth and coherence.  Dolden reportedly spent hundreds of hours in the studio mixing this magnum opus so I didn’t feel badly that it initially eluded my intellectual grasp.

The second work ‘The Un-Tempered Orchestra’ (2010) is described in the liner notes as owing a debt to Harry Partch and while that’s certainly true I would suggest that it owes a debt to other masters of microtones such as  Ben Johnston, Alois Haba, Ivan Wyschnegradsky and perhaps even La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, James Tenney and John Schneider among many others.  It is cast in six sections which, curiously, do not have the poetic titles accorded to the sections of the previous work and which are generally ubiquitous in Dolden’s output.

That being said, Un-Tempered Orchestra in its six brief sections shares much of the same sound world as the former work.  It is more intimate in style and is similarly difficult to anchor in any specific tradition.  It is in part an homage to Bach whose Well-Tempered Clavier celebrated the introduction of equal temperament tuning which would become the standard tuning system for the next 200+ years.  This is a deconstruction, if you will, of that system and explores some of the endless possibilities of alternate tunings.

This is a fascinating and intriguing release which will spend many more hours in my CD player.  It is a great new addition to the quirky but ever interesting catalog of Starkland Records and a welcome example of a composer at his peak.  It is available though the Starkland Records website as well as through Amazon.  Highly recommended.




10 comments on “The Biggest Sound, Paul Dolden’s Eclectic Musical Visions

  1. […] regularly pays attention to Canadian composers.  I previously reviewed their Paul Dolden release here.  This challenge to the curious apartheid we seem to maintain with Canadian culture is most […]


  2. […] Who Has the Biggest Sound? by Paul Dolden. (Starkland ST-220) A difficult to categorize recording that brings two major works by this (previously unknown to me) Canadian composer to the listening audience. I reviewed this disc here.  I am still working on absorbing its subtleties. […]


  3. […] Dolden‘s new Starkland release Who Has the Biggest Sound?, due out on July 29th, will use Dolby 5.1 surround audio DVD with […]


  4. Dorothy Martirano says:

    Great article. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Bruno says:

    Great article! This is an amazing record and I hope this helps spread the word.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ann Starr says: August 2014


    “Ann Starr’s evocative descriptions of Powell’s music translate experienced sound into verbal expression…and their sympathetic vibrations reflect the scope of Powell’s musical language.” — Angela Schwartz, Former member, Bern String Quartet,
    Musikfabrik Nordrhein-Westfalen (Ensemble musikFabrik).

    In Sounding Our Depths: The Music of Morgan Powell, author Ann Starr brings Morgan Powell’s unique power and pleasures home to general and professional readers alike. In non-specialist prose, Starr has written an intuitive yet precise collection of essays that highlight the fundamental role of improvisation in Powell’s writing; that analyze and interpret his works for solo instruments; explore his youthful development from trombonist to composer. She uses his composition notebooks to plumb his compositional process.

    Sounding Our Depths: The Music of Morgan Powell, the book, is accompanied by a 72-minute compact disc of the same name, which includes 9 tracks of Powell’s music spanning 1972 through 2008. Each work is discussed in the text.

    Morgan Powell, born in West Texas in 1938, is a composer and jazz trombonist. Among the awards Powell has received are three National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships; a Fromm Scholarship; two appointments as Associate to the Center for Advanced Study – University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC); an American Music Center Grant (1992); six Illinois Arts Council; numerous Meet the Composer Awards; ASCAP Awards, 1976, yearly to present; selection by The International Rostrum of Composers. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for “The Waterclown.” Powell’s primary composition teachers were Ed Summerlin, Samuel Adler, Kenneth Gaburo, and Sal Martirano; he taught at The Stan Kenton Clinics, 1960-1964, North Texas University, 1961-1963, Berklee School of Music, Boston, 1963-1964, and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, 1966-1994 where he was chairman of UIUC composition/theory division 1978-1983.
    Starr writes far beyond the biography, into the heart of an oeuvre that knows no rules. “My music process now involves chance, mistakes, and orderly process not in that order,” he writes of his concern to write beyond ego.
    “The music: truly beyond category. Labels, pointless. Morgan’s magic happens in the cracks.
    Zhuangzi: ‘Forget the years, forget distinctions. Leap into the boundless and make it your home!’”
    ¬ —Jim McNeeley
    Pianist and Composer-in-Residence, Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, New York
    Chief Conductor, Frankfurt Radio Big Band

    It was 40 years ago I heard “Midnight Realities.” He had taken the solo tuba work and composed an ensemble to frame the work for the Chamber Players. I was immediately taken by the emotional content of the music. It was at times unsettling and brooding but in the end it rose above the turmoil to find a higher sense of being…
    —John Fonville
    Professor of Music
    University of California San Diego

    What Powell’s done all those years, he’s done quietly, yet he’s one of the best in avant
    garde writing. He’s the king. He’s the fountainhead.”
    —John Von Ohlen
    American jazz drummer
    Professor, Cincinnati Conservatory of Music
    University of Cincinnati

    MP (Morgan Powell) could be a Member of Parliament, or Military Police, or Monty Python. Or he could be MP, medium-soft—what a ludicrous idea!

    But, certainly, MP is a fit subject for Meticulous Prose … exactly what Ann Starr has (Magnificently!) Provided. Thank you, Ann …
    —William Brooks
    Composer and Professor of Music
    University of York, England
    University of York, England


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