In the early to mid-60s Tod Dockstader created a series of innovative tape loop compositions in his off hours as a recording engineer at Gotham Recording Studios in New York City. His work, building on the early musique concrète of Pierre Schaeffer and the tape manipulation concepts of Edgar Varèse, basked in the newfound potential to manipulate sound directly and without the mediation of a written score, an approach with had only just become feasible, and for Dockstader, who could not write music and had no formal musical training, was the only means of entering into composition of any kind. But whereas many of his contemporaries adhered to compositional techniques similar to their work in more standard formats, Dockstader worked entirely in the new medium, developing techniques more directly suited to it, and producing influential works like his recently reissued Eight Electronic Pieces (1960). Subsequent releases earned him mounting recognition in the music world, but having left Gotham after a final composition in 1965, he found himself without access to the expensive equipment needed for his work, and unable to gain access to academic institutions due to his lack of formal background in music. This closed an intriguing chapter in the development of electronic music, until now, when following recently reawakened interest in older Dockstader work, he has begun releasing again for the first time in 40 years.
Aerial #2 is the second Sub Rosa release in a new three-part collection of manipulated short-wave radio, a throwback to Dockstader’s early fascination with the noise between stations as a kid. Now afforded much greater control and breadth of technique by the advent of computers, this collection displays 21 works out of the series’ total 59, which were in turn culled from over 580 produced in this manner since the beginning of the project in 1990. The results, now far removed from their source material and oddly clear and static free, are ghostly echoes beamed in from the outer reaches of space: disembodied pulses, warbles, hums, and whirs. With a sparse, hollow tonality, the pieces tend to sound unimaginably expansive, each like shining a flashlight beam straight up to be swallowed by a wide-open night sky.
What is perhaps most interesting about this work is not the jumbled, alien quality of the sounds but the hints of order, the occasional rhythmic qualities, and the even more frequent tonality that lurk in it. The disc opens with a warm, gently building hum; a simple sound composed of many complex, shifting layers as it eddies and flows across the entire stereo spectrum, faint tones (voices?) lurking just behind the curtain of sound. The next track, “Omaggio a Fellini” is perhaps the most traditionally tuneful, as sleek, warbled notes move in and out, creating an eerie, dissonant progression. This feel continues effectively with the thin, intertwining chords of the aptly titled “Pipes”, again dissonant but displaying a cryptic sense of precision and composition. From there the pieces diverge, by turns into stretches of deeper abstraction and dense, chaotic noise, all unified by a clear, glossy sheen of Dockstader’s careful production.
Given the decades of history behind this work, it’s an especially odd artifact: here, abstract noise is dragged back to its pioneering days in the hands of the early electronic composers. This serves as a reminder that noise, far from being the product of the digital era that it might appear to be in the hands of newer artists, is actually the result of a strong tradition in modern classical. And this is not merely a museum piece: the compositions may at times be jarring and inscrutable, but each rewards careful listening by revealing near endless detail and variation, and Dockstader finds a surprising order and tonality in his scattered source material. With this eerie, perplexing second volume, we see the promise, both for the remainder of the Aerial series and for Tod Dockstader’s newly reclaimed place in experimental music