On average, my ‘virtual orchestra’ comprises 400 members… — Gramophone, UK
… the ideas are so refreshing that they tumble over themselves in almost gleeful haste. — Gramophone, UK
- Composer(s): Paul Dolden
- 1Who Has the Biggest Sound? (2005-08), 52:11fixed medium
- 16The Un-tempered Orchestra (2010), 18:30fixed medium
- Label: Starkland
- ST 220 / 2014
- UCC 754702022029
- Total duration: 70:53
- 128 mm × 144 mm × 6 mm
- 45 g
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In the press
Who Has the Biggest Sound? is the most substantial of the two pieces on the CD…
In this work, I go on a journey around the world, looking for sounds produced by insects and animals. Who has the most beautiful melody? Who can play the fastest? I found a direct relationship between animals of a specific geographical region and the unique music style from that area — for example, when it’s slowed down, the rhythm of crickets matches flamenco and other Latin rhythms; the rhythm and pitch-bend of barnyard animals matches country and western music. This project suggests that humans hold their musical creative abilities in too high an esteem.
One wouldn’t necessarily think you were always using sounds from nature…
I didn’t want a nature-sounding work — you should only hear pure music. But what you are in fact hearing is the sound of insects and animals translated on to musical instruments, and into a musical structure we can understand.
Are the sounds electronically generated?
All my music is based on the live performance of instruments. Musicians are hired and recorded one at a time — although I play all my own string parts, from violin to double bass, from banjo to electric guitar. I then do whatever editing is needed before mixing all the tracks together. On average, my ‘virtual orchestra’ comprises 400 members, and the size of different sections changes within a piece or even within an individual movement.
What’s The Un-Tempered Orchestra about?
Part of my ongoing quest since the 1980s has been to make us feel vibrations or music in a different way. I find our tuning system quite ugly and its vibrational combinations a cliché. I use the recording studio to create vibration or frequency patterns that you cannot achieve with conservatory-trained musicians in the concert hall. In this particular piece, I’m fascinated with non-octave tuning systems and the emotions and colours they create. When there are no octaves, it forces the ear to feel new sensations.
What are your musical influences?
I listen to all types of music from across the world and these genres are put through a huge ‘Dolden filter’ when I sit down to write. Who Has the Biggest Sound? is a piece in which I most directly mimic the colours and gestures of other genres — country, rock, Latin, Baroque — although this has a lot do with the musical material that the insects gave me! But the work isn’t simply a pastiche of styles, as each section is united by the use of the same melodic and harmonic material.
What can your music offer traditionalists?
Classical listeners may be turned off by the distorted guitars and pounding drums but an ‘ideal listener’ will be open-minded enough to join me on a journey into microtonal heavy-metal hell and through to sustained, blissful, consonant choirs accompanied by soft instrumental sounds. I believe this ‘ideal listener’ exists in the mind of every artist.
For his first new recording in nine years, and 20 years after his breakthrough two-CD set, L’ivresse de la vitesse, which The Wire listed as ‘one of the top 100 recordings of the 20th century’, Montréal-based Paul Dolden reportedly spent 8000 hours in the studio preparing his electroacoustic works Who Has the Biggest Sound? (2005-08) and The Un-Tempered Orchestra (2010) by layering together hundreds of studio hours of live, acoustic recordings, complete with the composer’s own narration at some points. It’s easy enough to throw the resulting 71 minutes into your daily mix at what seems like a reasonable volume level and let it buzz randomly and pleasantly through your daily soundscape. It’s only when you crank up the volume, however, that the impact of Dolden’s conceptual juxtapositioning, combined with the stunning spatial precision of the recording, begins to cook. At times the ideas are so refreshing that they tumble over themselves in almost gleeful haste. And the strong theatrical flow of the 15 tracks of Who Has the Biggest Sound? seem to group themselves into a series of larger episodes — most notably the rambunctious energy of The Saddle Song and My Hound is Out of Harmony, and an absorbing trio of Village Orchestra dance experiments — before concluding inevitably with a track of More Unanswered Questions. For the six tracks of The Un-Tempered Orchestra, despite the occasionally awesome dimensions of its super calliope-sized sound, the nature of Dolden’s philosophical conceit would seem to require close, intimate attention to nuances at those tightly squeezed intersections where space and intonation collide.
One of Canada’s great maverick composers, Paul Dolden, has a new CD out on the Starkland label showcasing one of his more recent major works, the title of which could be said to encapsulate much of what Dolden’s music stands for: Who Has the Biggest Sound? It has to be heard to be believed. Dolden’s practice of piling up layer upon layer of instrumental sounds until they become a rockface of highly compacted strata plays its part here, although there’s a clarity running throughout the work’s movements that is refreshing, and a recurring emphasis on beauty that seems to reflect a shift in outlook from his earlier work. All the same, no-one does a full-force tutti like Dolden, and the combination of voices and orchestra is used to initiate some almighty pile-ups, along the way peppered with weird carillon/jazz mash-ups with more superimposed saxes than you could shake a stick at, florid episodes running at Nancarrow-like breakneck speed, rock-out reveries a la Buckethead, Zappa-esque synth ensemble passages and a surreal take on country music. If this makes it sound like the piece is all allusion, it isn’t; every moment screams out (sometimes literally) Dolden’s handiwork, singling him out as one of very few composers prepared to make not the slightest effort at holding back. As electroacoustic onslaughts go, Who Has the Biggest Sound? is simply amazing (head over to YouTube for a sample). It’s coupled with The Un-Tempered Orchestra, a unique exploration of different tuning systems that may well cause the connection between your ears and your brain to malfunction.
Who has the biggest sound? Paul Dolden, of course. Who could forget the dense, far-reaching, implacable sonic environments of L’ivresse de la vitesse and Délires de plaisirs? Dolden, after eight years of silence on record, is back with one of his strangest, deepest, most off-kilter works to date. This CD features two works. Who Has the Biggest Sound is a 15-movement, 52-minute opus where minute details pile up (and up, and up) to form… high-speed musical chases… dysfunctional country songs and tangos… and choirs of human, mammal, and insect voices. A master of ceremony steps in at times to try to put some order in the proceedings – comic relief that works well at times (More Unanswered Questions) but falls flat elsewhere. It’s the only weak link in an otherwise astounding work. And spoiler alert: it’s nature who has the biggest sound, the nicest melodies, and who plays the fastest. By a long shot. The second work on this CD is The Un-tempered Orchestra, a highly entertaining ride through non-Bach-approved tuning (and detuning) systems that can’t fail to evoke Harry Partch – if he’d ever had access to a 100+ ensemble. Dolden’s work – like Noah Creshevsky’s or MC Maguire’s – is so rich in layers that a single listen won’t reveal everything. Actually, this is the kind of record that will always give you something more. Strongly recommended.
I have not often experienced epiphanies in this life. The first I remember was as a teenager on a family holiday which took us to Washington, D.C. and included a visit to the National Gallery of Art where, wandering off on my own, I turned a corner and found myself face to face with Salvador Dali’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper. That was a profoundly moving moment and all at once I understood what was meant by the term masterpiece. That would have been in the late 1960s. The next came in 1984 while attending the finals of the CBC National Radio Competition for Young Composers. That year the only prize awarded in the electronic music category went to Paul Dolden for The Melting Voice Through Mazes Running. Although this extremely dense and dynamically intense work drove a number of people from the hall with fingers plugging their ears, I was enraptured by its visceral power. It was that work which inspired me to commission radiophonic works for my program Transfigured Night (1984-1991) at CKLN-FM. With the assistance of the Ontario Arts Council and later the Canada Council I was able to commission a dozen composers, beginning with Dolden who produced Caught in an Octagon of Unaccustomed Light which went on to win the Third Prize of the Luigi Russolo International Competition (Varese, Italy 1988).
Some 30 years later Dolden is still at it, honing his technique which involves recording and layering hundreds of tracks of instrumental and vocal sounds, and more recently including field recordings — cicadas, grasshoppers and crickets in the current instance — to create works of vast sonic complexity. The predominantly acoustic nature of the sound sources — although there is an extended electric guitar solo included here — is integral to his process which, while using technology to stack the layers, does not manipulate the samples electronically thereby leaving the purity of sound intact. In essence Dolden, who plays most of the instruments himself, creates and conducts a vast orchestra which could not exist in the everyday world.
Paul Dolden’s latest release, Who Has the Biggest Sound? (Starkland ST-220 starkland.com), includes two titles. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek, or at least playfully self-referential, title track which includes a narrator (Dolden) asking questions such as “Who can play the fastest? Who has the dreamiest melodies? Who can talk faster: crickets or man?” was co-commissioned by Réseaux des arts médiatiques (Montreal) and Diapason Gallery (New York). Although the narration seems a little condescending and self-indulgent, the layered textures that constitute the bulk of the composition are incredible to behold, or more accurately, behear.
The companion piece, The Un-Tempered Orchestra, commissioned by the Sinus Ton Festival (Germany), takes Bach’s exploration of the equal-tempered tuning system in the Well-Tempered Klavier as its point of departure. Whereas Bach demonstrated the viability of the then new symmetrical division of the octave into 12 equal steps, Dolden’s intention is to establish a “non-symmetrical building which uses non-tempered tuning systems, many of which have no octaves […] to create a new musical space within which Western and non-Western musical practices can co-exist […] a big modern multi-cultural family.” He goes on to say “In order to construct this house, first I wrote simple diatonic melodies and chord progressions. Then I recorded Eastern and Western performers reading these lines in their native dialect or tuning system. With the aid of new technologies I edited all these performances to fit under one symmetrical roof. […] Specifically we see our current Western [style] of playing reflected back to us and distorted by ancient musical tuning systems. By combining different musical languages and styles we invert time: what is old becomes new and vice versa. Please enjoy these moments of musical transcendence.” I know I did, but buyer beware. These sounds are big, bold, brash and often abrasive, and listening is not recommended for the timid.
Paul Dolden is a Canadian composer of electro-acoustic music. He started at a young age playing guitar, cello and violin. Exploring the possibilities of recording techniques he gradually entered the realms of electro-acoustic music. His music is often made from hundreds of digitally recorded instrumental and vocal performances, creating a virtual orchestra. This is his main tool. He became a very respected composer of electro-acoustic music, with his composition L’ivresse de la vitesse (Intoxicated by Speed) released by Empreintes Digitales, as a landmark recording. His new work Who has the biggest sound? is his first release since nine years! This is due to the fact that Dolden follows very time-demanding procedures. For the title work “he worked full-time over a 3-year period from November 2005 to December 2008, logging over 6000 hours in the studio”. The second composition, The Un-Tempered Orchestra took about 1800 studio hours. In both works one can identify the original instruments, as Dolden uses long samples. But also processed to an extent that cannot be realized by playing the instrument. There is a similarity with the work of Noah Creshevsky, who also sticks to identifiable acoustical sources for his electro-acoustic music. Concerning the structure of the pieces, Dolden’s music remains close to popular music, which is the case for other American composers on Starkland as well. This makes this music accessible and also humour is not far away. Some pieces sound as an speeded up Philip Glass-track. It is at a more detailed level that this multi-layered music moved me. One hears strange combinations of sounds and odd patterns that simply fascinate.
When your ears meet the immediate present, the music that notifies you that it is not, certainly, 1910… Nor is it 1930, 1950, 1970, or even 1990… When you hear music that tells you it is 2014, is it a cause for celebration? Perhaps not celebration necessarily, but certainly it causes you to wake up a little bit, take stock of where you are and where we all are. To rethink the possibilities that music holds for us.
Electro-acoustic wizard Paul Dolden and his Who Has the Biggest Sound? (Starkland 220) has that kind of abrupt contemporaneity. He is a sample creator and manipulator, sample here meaning a recorded sound sequence of any sort. His samples can be quite lengthy (as opposed to the typical use of samples in the commercial music world) or quite short. Most importantly the samples, whether they are borrowed from source materials or fashioned by Dolden himself (I believe here much of it is the latter), are made anew by virtue of Dolden’s acoustic-musical vision, his eccentric and unexpectedly wayward combinatory logic, which is the critical element at work here.
He combines, electronically transforms and re-sequences diverse sounds into often surprising juxtapositions, for an electro-acoustic orchestral melange that shows extraordinary creativity and a sense of direction.
There are two interrelated works presented on the album, the title track Who Has the Biggest Sound? (2005-2008) and The Un-tempered Orchestra (2010). Both have a jagged abstractness about them, yet an organic through-flow, an asymmetry and also a sense of poetic humor, which is somewhat rare these days.
The Un-tempered Orchestra seeks to counter Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier by creating something the opposite, a six-movement work that uses non-tempered tuning and is as formally amorphous as Bach was formally ordered and symmetrical in his brilliant way.
Who Has the Biggest Sound? is in 15 parts and following the tongue-in-cheek title creates a sonic largess and diversity that adapts and parodies styles at the same time as it has sound-color innovation as its most serious goal.
The results in both cases are almost unworldly at times, gamelan sounding clanks, orchestral audio super-exotica, insects, animals, rock chaos, percussion blasts, a cowboy melody, a tango, you practically name it and there’s something in there you will find. And the point of all this diverse material is an intent to refabric our perceptions and expectations of what is what in a rather radical way.
That he succeeds in creating phantasmagorical universes that give you genuine pause attests to his ingenuity, vision, brilliance even. Paul Dolden shows us that he is one of the most consistently interesting and inventive electro-acoustic composers-assemblers today. He is most definitely a force to contend with here in 2014 and no doubt (I would hope) for many years to come.
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, Denis 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.
This disc contains two very different works, each in several sections. Who Has the Biggest Sound? (2005-08) 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.