The work of American sound artist Tod Dockstader (1932-27 Feb 2015) ran parallel to the technological changes that took electronic music from tape manipulation to the synthesizer.
Dockstader started out in the visual arts, working in the mid-1950s as a cartoonist and then as a film editor and writer/storyboarder for the Hollywood cartoons “Mr. Magoo” and “Gerald McBoing Boing.” In the late 1950s he learned sound engineering and worked as a sound effects specialist as well as a recording engineer. During this time he began experimenting with tape and musique concrète on a military surplus wire recorder, completing his first composition in 1960. This work, Eight Pieces, later appeared on the soundtrack of the Federico Fellini film Satyricon.
Dockstader was drawn to musique concrète because, lacking training in traditional composition, he could work directly with sounds without having to go through the mediation of conventional notation. Instead, his background as a sound engineer, which had him dealing with such abstract sound qualities as rhythm, frequency and dynamics, provided the relevant foundation.
Dockstader’s concept of composition is probably best epitomized by his preference of the term “organized sound,” borrowed from Edgard Varèse, to describe his work. Varèse’s Poeme Electronique was an important early influence on Dockstader, as were the early tape pieces by Otto Leuning, Luciano Berio, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Vladimir Ussachevsky.
The term is apt. Early works like Luna Park and Apocalypse, all from 1961, combine blocks of sound into aggregates that retain a certain transparency of structure without having to rely on conventional musical devices such as counterpoint or harmony. Instead, Dockstader’s structural units consisted in contrasting passages of singly-sourced sounds as well as in hybrid, overlaid sounds of denser sections. An echo of Dockstader’s history in audio special effects may be heard in his choices of the unusual, often unpitched sounds found in these works, some of which—such as the eerie, theramin-like glissandi of Luna Park—wouldn’t have been out of place in a contemporary science fiction film. And it’s possible that his early background in the visual arts made itself felt in the way he arranged sound colors and densities in well-balanced, tonally contrasting and complementary fashions.
In subsequent years Dockstader created works on synthesizers, but his early, tape-based sound art is still of interest today. Some excellent examples can be heard on UbuWeb.