It all began with a black and white photo, chanced upon in a book on the history of 20th century music. A decidedly cool looking fellow, sharp suited, cigarette precariously balanced on his lip, cleanly cropped hair, a knowing smile, confident, playful, his hand moving over an indeterminate machine, surrounded by a bank of reel-to-reel tape machines and other enticing analogue gear.
A caption underneath revealed his name. Tod Dockstader. Even his name was modish. I had to search out his music, which, in the late 80s, was most certainly a challenge. But a cassette tape was to be the revelation that led me on quite a journey into his mutant sound world.
A series of sonic postcards broadcast from the furthest regions of the universe, ‘Eight Electronic Pieces’ plays as if time is compressed. Sirens speed past, a radio dial is turned, an evaporating heartbeat pulses beside a cartoonish swish, sizzling filaments explode in the light, undulating aliens transport their space cargo as industrial kettles boil, a ball bounces as oscillators rumble and tumble across this futuristic horizon. There is no map to guide you on this journey.
Name-checked by both Autechre and Aphex Twin as an inspiration, Dockstader was a recording engineer who created the sound effects for ‘Tom & Jerry’ and ‘Mr Magoo’ cartoons in his daylight hours. When his work colleagues left at the end of the day, he would remain in the studio, “organising sound” as he called it, experimenting with magnetic tape and tone generators. Taking inspiration from the chance operations of John Cage, combined with Edgar Varèse’s astonishing musique concrète ‘Poème Électronique’ from 1958, he admitted he never knew where the work was going or would end. “In the early pieces on this record I simply set two or three tapes of sounds going at once,” he wrote. “Chance combinations, accidental themes, chaos, all were recorded. Then I sat down and edited the half-hour result into three or four or five minutes, into something that seemed to be a ‘piece’.”
Almost 60 years after release ‘Eight Electronic Pieces’ continues to challenge and surprise, flirting with chaos at every turn, like a shepherd trying to reign in his sheep as they try to escape the sonic pen. This is the sound of someone thinking beyond time and music, sculpting the future out of their present and past.
TOD DOCKSTADER Eight Electronic Pieces Folkways (1961)