I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that this disc is a major and important release. The history of music includes a fair amount of instances in which a second look at a particular composer who had been neglected yields a rediscovery which places said composer to their proper place in history. Such was the case with Mendelssohn famously rediscovering Bach and Sir Thomas Beecham championing the works of Hector Berlioz. Conductor Robert Craft brought the work of Anton Webern to a larger audience with his recording of the complete works back in the 1950s and, more recently, Michael Tilson Thomas did a similar favor for the work of Carl Ruggles. Of course not every musico-archaeological effort yields great results but the present release would appear to be auspiciously positioned to bring delight to listeners as well as place its composer in a more appropriately prominent place in the history books. Now we are treated to a previously unknown cache of musical treasures from such a master, the digital equivalent of discovering Tut’s tomb. It is an amazing disc on many levels.
This recording is nearly as much the accomplishment of Starkland Records’ producer Tom Steenland as it is of the composer Tod Dockstader (1932-2015). Starkland’s first two releases were CD reissues of the composer’s four Owl Records albums from the mid-1960s. It was the musicological acumen of Steenland whose love for those albums that helped provide motivation for him to found Starkland Records and promote this important electronic composer to proper historical recognition. Dockstader was, in turn, inspired by the very positive response to those reissues to end his thirty year hiatus and return to composing. He subsequently released the three volumes of Aerial (2005-6) on Sub Rosa and two collaborations with David Lee Myers (whose thumbprint is to be found on the present recording as well), Pond (2004) and Bijou (2005).
As if all that weren’t quite enough a new chapter dawned shortly after Dockstader died in 2015. He left behind his archive of tapes and record releases and something more. Justin Brierly, a radio host, was a fan of Dockstader’s music and wanted to interview him for his show. He contacted Tom Steenland who was able to put him in touch and he was able to visit and interview the composer on several occasions. The composer’s daughter, Tina Dockstader Kinard, gave Brierly the computer tower containing work files which had been saved on that hard drive over the years. There were thousands of files in various stages of completion, some just sample files, some duplicates, but many complete or nearly complete compositions that had not been heard since they were created. Brierly sorted through these and sent some 50 files to Tom Steenland who carefully selected 15 tracks for the present release.
Tod Dockstader was a composer with a day job, that is he worked as a film and sound editor and took advantage of his access to what would have been prohibitively expensive equipment at the time to create his own brand of electronic music. Sadly Vladimir Ussachevsky denied him access to the Columbia-Princeton Studios back in 1961.
Stylistically he holds much in common with his antecedents Edgar Varese, Pierre Henry, Louis and Bebe Barron, Pierre Schaeffer as well as contemporaries such as Morton Subotnick and Andrew Rudin. His albums from the 1960s of course utilized the tape splicing techniques and analog equipment of the time. Some of the music from his Eight Electronic Pieces (1961) album was selected (as were some of Andrew Rudin’s electronic compositions) for inclusion in the soundtrack for Frederico Fellini’s Satyricon (1969).
When he returned to composing in the late 1990s studios were digitally driven and computers ruled. He reportedly had little difficulty learning and using computers for his later works. Despite the change from analog to digital media however Dockstader’s style remained extremely consistent, a clear and unique voice in the musical landscape.
Prior to this release it had been thought that his last word musically was the three volume Aerial series of 2005-6. Now Starkland presents this lovingly selected cache of the composer’s most recent works. He had effectively stopped composing in 2008 wrestling with the ravages of dementia but did listen and comment at times with Brierly during his visits on some of these files and, fittingly, enjoyed the fruits of his own labors to the very end of his life in 2015. There’s no doubt more of a story to be told there for sure and here’s hoping that we may soon see a comprehensive biographical and musical assessment of his work.
For the wonderful liner notes Steenland recruited Geeta Dayal, a San Francisco based writer whose writings on music can be accessed from her website and are well worth your time to investigate. She comes with quite a pedigree as a writer on the subject of electronic music both old and new. Her liner notes are both authoritative and good reading. She would be my vote for a Dockstader biographer.
The exact intentions of the compositional process cannot be determined (Dockstader left no notes about these files) but it seems clear that these are all late period pieces. They are all dated between 2005 and 2008. The titles of these pieces were made based in part on the computer file names for the pieces which had not gotten their final naming by the composer. One can only imagine the labor of love involved in Brierly’s and Steenland’s distillation of these final 15 tracks but the end result is a very satisfying collection consistent in quality to previous releases and a worthy representation of his last works (though this reviewer is given to hopeful wonder that a volume II might emerge in the near future). At any rate Dockstader’s legacy is now secure and no doubt there will be much research done on his work made easier now by the dedicated sleuthing of these producers.
The first track, Super Choral (2007) contains some collaboration with David Lee Myers as mentioned earlier and it is used with his permission. I won’t try to describe the rest of these pieces except to say that they seem to be a worthwhile contribution to the art of electronic music, are excellently crafted and eminently listenable.
The liner notes with their studio porn images of Dockstader’s beloved Ampex machines are tastefully mixed with images of the composer and his family. The mastering was done by the wonderful Silas Brown and is about as good as it gets. I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute to the composer’s legacy than this and I can’t imagine this not being nominated for a Grammy. Bravo gentlemen!
Release is scheduled for November 18th. You can pre-order both the download and the physical disc on Amazon.