Today September 29 is the birthday of:
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Another composer who has been polishing off, smartening up and reissuing old works recently is Canadian Paul Dolden. It always surprises me how underappreciated and even unknown Dolden’s music continues to be, particularly as it’s among the most extreme stuff I’ve ever encountered (and, for good or ill, people love to get worked up by extremes), and in many respects is both sonically unique and way ahead of its time. One of the key characteristics of a lot of Dolden’s work is the creation of what we might call a ‘supra-pseudo-orchestra’ through the assembling and layering of a vast number of individually recorded instruments. At full force, the effect would surely have caused Hector Berlioz (whose never-realised ideal orchestra included well over 400 players, including 30 pianos (!)) to squirm with delight, making the climactic tuttis of Mahler seem puny by comparison. Yet one’s always aware that what we’re hearing is not, in fact, real, partly because of the sheer impossible enormity of it, but also because of the curious effect of amassing that many sounds at once, leading to a weird kind of hypercontrapuntal trammelling in which the music’s internal machinery, so to speak, seems to grind against itself and threaten to explode apart. As a consequence Dolden’s music sounds uncanny in its not-quite-but-almost-verisimilitude, dangerous in its precarious volatility, and breathtaking in the audacity of its proportions.
Dolden’s work is primarily represented by a series of releases on the empreintes DIGITALes label, the first of which was the double album L’ivresse de la vitesse (1994). One of the standout works on that album is the fixed media piece Beyond the Walls of Jericho. From the perspective of being reissued, this piece has had an interesting history, one that’s far from unique in Dolden’s output, and which raises important questions about the nature of ‘remastering’. Completed in 1992, the work was originally released two years later on L’ivresse de la vitesse. This album was reissued in 1999 with no changes, and then reissued again in 2003 but with the two discs now split into separate albums L’ivresse de la vitesse 1 & L’ivresse de la vitesse 2, and featuring newly-remastered versions of the music. The liner notes included a text by Dolden directly addressing this, titled Why Remaster Old Works? , citing the challenges of working with early technology and “compositional concerns” as the basis for the remastering. Most recently, in the last few weeks Dolden has reissued Beyond the Walls of Jericho again in another new remaster (apparently created in 2012) as part of an ongoing series of digital releases that presumably capture Dolden’s definitive take on these pieces (some of which have never before been released).
The first thing to say about this is that the word “remaster” isn’t remotely adequate to describe what’s going on here. Usually that term indicates a digitising and cleaning-up of old materials to make them as pristine as possible and then reassembling them into a new master that, in essence (and ideally), is the same as the original but showing greatly improved clarity and balance. In Dolden’s case, the process has involved compositional changes — in some cases quite considerable ones — to the actual musical material, such that to describe it as being “the same piece” is harder to justify. The 2003 and 2020 versions are therefore not really “remasters” but revised and reworked versions that fit the same general shape, narrative and demeanour as the original — we could say that that its dramaturgy is the same — but with many of its inner details and intricacies changed, altered or replaced. In essence it’s Beyond the Walls of Jericho Redux.
The second thing to say is that there shouldn’t be any perceived issue with an artist wanting to do this. The gripe about technological issues is something many composers (including myself) have made about their earliest electronic works, and the desire to get closer to the original musical intent is surely an admirable one. Of course, it’s an attitude that can run amok, and one only has to look to Pierre Boulez or, in cinema, George Lucas, to see the problems that can arise from an artist’s irresistible urge to never let go of their works and keep tinkering away under the illusion of ‘improvement’. Even that, though, is forgivable as long as — and this is utmost important — the earlier versions are still regarded as valid, and as a consequence remain available. The process of revising in this way is not at all a case of simply tweaking something like tuning up an engine so that it continues to run well. It’s a process of re-creation, recomposing a piece such that it bears considerable similarities to — and of course many of the same materials as — an earlier piece. But that act of re-creation doesn’t undo, cannot undo, the earlier act of creation. So just as, despite Lucas’ worst intentions, there is not one definitive work that we can call Star Wars but in fact a plethora of different works that all bear that name and look and sound broadly the same but are in fact quite different, so there is not one work that we can call Beyond the Walls of Jericho but three of them, all the same and all different. And I love them all.
I don’t blame Dolden for returning to this piece several times. I said before about the audacity and enormity of Dolden’s supra-pseudo-orchestra and in Beyond the Walls of Jericho he pushes this to almost ludicrous extremes. That being said, it makes sense that the work should be as extreme as it is, being (originally, at least) the final part in Dolden’s ‘Walls’ trilogy, preceded by Below the Walls of Jericho (1989) and Dancing on the Walls of Jericho (1990). The title alludes to the mythical tale of Joshua and the Israelites, who were able to cause the city walls of Jericho to collapse by marching around them for six days and then blasting their trumpets. Dolden’s interest is primarily in the idea of sound as a catalytic and revolutionary act; hence why the ‘Walls’ trilogy (and above all Beyond the Walls of Jericho) is one of the most unrestrained paeans to the glory of sound that i’ve ever encountered. No — scratch that: not one the most, the most. One of the key aspects of what makes this piece everything that it is, is its willingness to disregard such conventions as clarity, balance, nuance and order. It’s music at the cusp of chaos, as if Dolden has assembled 500 players, given them a bare bones outline of what he wanted them to do and then just set them loose, recording the result. It does have a structure, it does display a sense of narrative and dramatic shape — but continually pushed to the very limits of what can be described as control, and certainly beyond the limits of clarity.
Yet — and this is one of the main reasons why I absolutely love Beyond the Walls of Jericho, in all three of its extant versions — it’s as exhilarating as it is not because we’re being swamped with mere sound but precisely because of its perilous teetering on and over the edge of clarity. Sometimes, not always, we’re able to perceive all manner of detail shifting and moving within its hugely stratified and superimposed textures, details which in turn become overwhelmed, subsumed, squashed or eroded away by the force, friction and weight of the whole. So I really don’t blame Dolden for returning to the piece and doing his best to present, as best he can, both the small-scale detail and large-scale mass contained (barely) within this piece. However, its effect is pretty consistent across all three versions of Beyond the Walls of Jericho, so at a risk of annoying the composer, I don’t actually believe Dolden has particularly ‘improved’ the piece with each iteration, though i’ve welcomed the opportunity to re-experience it, and to hear it anew again most recently has been marvellous.
I have to admit I miss the original 1992 opening of the piece, where vague and elusive hints of instruments slowly grow into an increasingly dense texture. That’s gone in both the 2003 and 2020 versions, which hit the ground running with frantically busy tuttis. There are some structural hiccups too in the 2020 version that, to me, somewhat diffuse the flow — most notably around four minutes in when everything briefly stops before the funky bass and drums start up, dissipating the energy amassed by that point; in 1992 and 2003 this progressed smoothly and maintained that energy. I have to concede, though, that Dolden has managed to increase the intensity significantly from its original form. There’s a sequence around nine minutes in, that in the earlier versions sounds darker and more mysterious; the 2003 version makes it seem as it we were entering a cave-like expanse. In the 2020 version (where it now occurs a minute later) Dolden has kept this perception while making it feel much less distant, upping the power of this strange sequence. The massive climaxes have also, somehow, been made more massive. Overload will always sound like overload, of course, yet the 2020 version lends these overdriven passages a distinct death metal quality, rather wonderfully coating the vast walls of noise in additional pulsating layers of sonic razor wire. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to suggest that the earlier versions of the work are in any way lacking in this respect; perhaps it’s more accurate to speak of different kinds of massive, in terms of quality rather than quantity.
Anyone discussing Paul Dolden’s music, particularly a work like this one, runs the risk of reaching too readily and too often for superlatives. Suffice it to say that Beyond the Walls of Jericho, in 1992, 2003 and 2020, is among the most monumental works of electronic music you’ll ever experience. It’s therefore very likely indeed to polarise listeners — but personally, I always find it utterly energising and exhilarating. My fantasy concert would definitely finish with a live version of this piece.
My recommendation is to seek out all three versions, as they each have something that the others lack. For the 1992 original you’ll need to turn to Discogs to track down a copy of the earliest releases of L’ivresse de la vitesse. The 2003 version is still readily available from empreintes DIGITALes on L’ivresse de la vitesse 2. Sadly, neither of these earlier versions is available digitally, a situation that one can only hope will change. And the new 2020 version can be had — for just a single Canadian dollar — from Paul Dolden’s Bandcamp site.
Paul Dolden is a unique and unmistakable voice in Canadian contemporary music that deserves a re-introduction to a new generation of music fans.
But first, some history. Waaaaay back in a time known as the 1980s, this Ottawa-born composer, after doing hard time as a rock guitarist, decamped to the Sonic Research Lab at Simon Fraser University [(SFU)] in Vancouver where he forged some of the most unique music ever carved out of the Western formal tradition by using the recording studio to sculpt masses of meticulously recorded instrumental tracks into fantastic walls of sound.
By the end of the decade he had released a 2-CD set titled L’ivresse de la vitesse (The Intoxication of Speed) which was named by The Wire as one of the “100 Records That Set The World On Fire”. Except nobody was listening. Now we are in a different place and perhaps the ears of the world are more receptive.
At first, Dolden’s music comes on like forboding, jagged mountain range of sound, in the shadow of which stands a listener. It’s daunting music, even deemed “oppressive” by some. And if music is a language all its own, then this work is telling you to abandon sentimentality and acknowledge that the earth beneath us might split asunder at any moment. For a listener ready to do a bit of work, and with a serious hi-fi system for playback (remember those days?) it will leave you breathless, alone and exhilarated. It’s actually genuinely exciting music, which is a rare commodity.
Dolden’s oeuvre took shape at a time when the machinations for the political and social darkness we are now enveloped in were fully underway, turbocharged after the dawn of Reagan and Thatcher era. For those who believe that life is full of violent ruptures and artists are obliged to harness and channel that energy to reflect the reality of our times… and, ultimately, all time, this music is exemplary of that goal being attained.
Dolden’s music demands concentrated listening and an ear that is capable of acting like super fast CPU to take in rapidly evolving, multiple strands of sound and keeping it all distinct from noise. That’s a skillset one also needs for processing modern life, ever more so these days. At its most useful it helps a person feel less anxious in the face of the random chaos of existence.
From Veils to Walls
Things really began in 1985 with “Veils: Studies in Textural Transformations”, Paul’s SFU MA thesis piece which, oddly enough, was a relatively listener-friendly tour de force. And by “listener friendly” I mean for those who enjoyed the music of György Ligeti that accompanied the monolith scenes in Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi classic “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Veils was a seductive half-hour of massed instruments that enveloped the listener in slowly shifting dense and overwhelming textures. The piece marked the beginning of his use of extraordinary numbers of multi-tracked instruments, to a degree never attempted before. Miraculously, Veils was even played at The Xerox Theatre as part of the Expo 86 “entertainment” line up, continuing in the tradition of world fairs paying minor tribute to music as an art form on a par with, at least, architecture. It should be noted that the temporary, quickly knocked-up, Xerox-branded venue is long gone while Veils persists. Ars longa indeed… at least until the sun explodes.
In pop music, by contrast, we might remember English pop group 10cc’s 1975 hit I’m Not In Love for its gorgeous and distinctive multi-tracked vocal chorus, a first for a commercial radio hit. Previously, the best known popular music created using the studio as an instrument would have been The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” or The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” albums (and, of course the Good Vibrations single) but it was 10cc that really introduced a lengthy and sustained textural component to popular song craft. One could also mention Phil Spector’s “Walls of Sound” production style but let’s not.
Fast forward ten years and Dolden is developing a “maximalist” aesthetic in which hundreds of digitally recorded instrumental and vocal performances are combined in multiple layers. It is truly “next level”. And as the number of tracks increased so did the intensity and power of the music. It all came to a head by the early 1990s with the “Walls Cycle”, beginning with Below the Walls of Jericho and ending with Beyond the Walls of Jericho. The allusion is to the Biblical story of the actual walls of the fortifications of Jericho tumbling under the force of loudly blown rams’ horns in an ancient acknowledgement of the power of sound.
The titles also represent the 3 stages of revolutionary history as discussed by historians:
1) Below the Walls signifying revolution, usually violent.
2) Dancing on the Walls is the celebratory dance on the rubble of the revolution.
3) Beyond the Walls is the post-revolutionary period, usually turning counter revolutionary and more violent than the first period.
There were those who found it all too much, especially in Vancouver where, at the time, contemporary music was (and largely still is) seen as a less confrontational and more communal endeavor.
The late Doug Hughes, a classical music critic for The Georgia Straight (remember when such things existed?) demonstrated the level of resistance, even among the so-called intelligentsia. And that was in one of the few media channels then available for providing public exposure and critical context. In response to Below the Walls of Jericho he talked of his cats yowling in response and how he didn’t want the current events of the day amplified. Vancouver was clearly hostile territory. Paul moved to Québec and immediately enjoyed far greater recognition and a growing international audience base.
You could say the music was ahead of its time but Paul, being interviewed in 1992 said that the idea was absurd, that you simply cannot be ahead of your time. Our best hope is that audiences will find the music of the true present at the time of its creation.
During a 2017 visit to Québec’s Laurentian region where Paul now lives and records, I conducted an informal interview at a roadside diner near Val-David. It coincided with the release of his CD [
“Music for Another Present Era” or] Histoires d’histoire.
I had only sporadically kept up with Paul’s music in the years since he left for Québec and was fascinated to hear its evolution into something much different but with the familiar stamp of rigourous conceptual formulation and production excellence. Since creating the Walls cycle, Paul’s music has evolved, been pulled apart, given more space and fully embraces the music of the world. It is friendlier… and funnier.
Paul Dolden: I’ve been developing in my work over the last ten years the idea of a “historical imagination”. So what interests me now is imagining other times using the language of contemporary music combined with the compositional techniques I like to use. For example on Music for Another Present Era the first movement is the story of Marsyas, a Greek myth. I actually use some Greek tuning systems, though I don’t actually use Greek instruments. I’m not trying to recreate ancient Greek music. It’s more of an imaginary reflection on that time. The second section is inspired by an African myth that uses alot of percussion instruments but actually has more to do with jazz and latin rhythms in many ways.
I suppose, overall, it’s a post-modern play on how we can have different historical periods of music existing at the same time. To me that very imagining is a contemporary thing. I can imagine ancient Greece because I’ve seen films like Fellini’s Satyricon where the soundtrack is a fanciful mash-up of styles, or images of Syrian ruins that you’d see in a history book.
We’re so conditioned by the number of images and sounds that we’re constantly consuming that I think it’s important to be playful with it all. I think I’m being “of my time” by doing so even though I’m often talking about historical themes in my music with pieces like Bebop Bagdad or Sumerian Starlight. I think it’s very “of our time” to be thinking of other cultures and times simply because we can.
Mark Mushet: We’re use to the instruments and superficial motifs of other cultures’ musics for mere colour in pop music. In the classical new music realm there are often a lot of earnest attempts to collaborate by having different cultures meet in the concert hall. Although this is starting to yield some interesting work, a lot of it seems too tentative and polite, as though too many accomodations are made to account for differences in approach that the end product is unsatisfying, if pretty. You integrate things in a much more thorough and cohesive way to the point where it sounds like all the history of the music of the world is being compressed into one intense piece. That’s more interesting to me.
Paul Dolden: It’s been decribed that way and I like that idea but it’s really more of a personal thing. I just really want to hear it all. I’m an avid listener of other peoples’ music. I’ll do a three hour hike in the afternoon and listen to all kinds of music in the evening. I’m constantly listening to music. I float in it.
Mushet: It didn’t always used to be that way. I recall you being more into Xenakis, Ligeti et al., the more established new music canonical heavyweights.
Dolden: Oh yeah. But I always had a really large record collection, like you! In the 1980s I was probably talking too much about myself but that’s because of “young composer disease”! I finally got some medication for that!
Mushet: We consume endless streams of visual art works that revel in the the messy dark aspects of modern human existence. People binge watch things like “Breaking Bad” for example. It’s a brilliant sprawling indictment of modern America that like “Deadwood” or “The Wire” are celebrated for expanding the idea of what’s possible in TV serial form. But as a society we can’t be assed to sit down and listen to a 15-minute piece of music that threatens to upend the idea of what’s similarly possible in music.
Now there’s been a massive expansion of the technical capacity for music creation and it’s become affordable and ubiquitous. But in the public at large there’s been a serious loss of attention to contemporary music outside of popular forms. It seems that there’s been no “trickle down effect” of discovery despite the fact that we have more and instant access to every kind of music 24/7.
Dolden: Communications theory is really interesting right now. For example, when radio was the standard consumer device for first hearing music, people in the classical and art worlds thought this device was finally going to “educate” the public, that we would all be listening to Bach and Beethoven within a few years! But with each stage of development of the various music distribution technologies, there’s been an idea that we’re bringing all the music of the world and making it availabe to everybody and this is regarded as a plus.
But it’s the employment of algorithms that’s the problem. They suggest that “if you listen to such and such then you will also like such and such”. So if I listen to one heavy metal album (because every so often I need to hear some metal!) then I’m bombarded with more metal recommendations. Then, if I listen to a piece by Morton Feldman I’m instantly guided to a whole stream of music by post-Feldman composers. So a lot of people get stuck on that. The technology is supposedly “neutral” but it’s clearly not. Everybody wants things customized to themselves so in reality there’s a narrowing of listening habits.
Mushet: But that’s the effect of turbocharged tech-capiltailsm. They are guiding us to similar products because they need to sell in predictable and increasingly reliable quantities and without producing a physical product at the end.
Dolden: But its also the service they’re selling. We both started by going to record stores and shuffling through records, except that I grew up in a home full of classical music playing constantly. But I didn’t end up knowing anything past early Stravinsky. So one day, when I was about 15, I was in one of those record stores shuffling through the delete bins. I should have taken note; notice how all this stuff is in the delete bin! It’s not out front with the Led Zeppelin and Coltrane! I should have turned around and gone back to the sections which were selling! Anyway, there were some Iannis Xenakis albums and I remember they were only 69 cents so I picked them up.
I started reading the back covers to learn how he made this music. I thought it sounded so insane that I had to buy it just to hear it. It was his stochastic 60s work with all the math involved in the composition and I thought “What? He’s definitely not using blues scales!” I didn’t understand a thing but wow, what a sound! So I looked up who Iannis Xenakis was and what he, in turn, talked about. And that’s how the journey began. A flukey accident with a 69-cent deleted record. Now with Spotify etc. you maybe wouldn’t come across something like that.
Mushet: The musical language and working techniques you are using, are largely the same as before but the density in your work has given way to something that feels pulled apart, more spacious and accessable for lack of a better word
Dolden: I think most composers look for increasing clarity as we get older. That’s part of it. And I now appreciate more music that has more room to breathe. So it’s aging, a maturing artistic process and overall refinement.
You have to remember that when I made Veils I was dealing with 250 tracks and by the end of the Walls cycle I was using up to 800 tracks! At the time I was still a young composer thinking it was all original and great and new and really cool. Now when I hear it I hear how scary it is. I don’t listen to it too often myself and I know many people don’t. But I knew I was hitting a wall. There was nowhere further to go so I had to start spreading things out.
Mushet: I think the Walls cycle holds up beautifully, still simultaneously frightening and exhilarating. It’s like setting off on a journey through a very dark mountain landscape where you are forced to realize how insignificant we are. I don’t mean to be overly dramatic but that may be why it put some people off, though it realy ultimately is life affirming. And the gentle or soft moments really stand out in relief with such a dynamic range.
Dolden: You know me as a friend and that I have a sense of humour. There’s no sense of humour in those 1980s works. I sound like a cranky, cranky dude but you know I wasn’t. So I think my personality is coming out more in my music now.
Mushet: All the music of the world seems to find its expression in Music of Another Present Era.
Dolden: That’s just where my interest is now. For the past five or ten years now, half of my listening time is dedicated to music of the world so it’s really starting to come out in the new work. Whenever I’m writing, composing and producing I’m primarily in a dialoge with the music of the world and the history of composers and compositional techniques.
Mushet: But you don’t want to be seen as some kind of great musical imperialist / colonizer, especially now!
Dolden: Yes this is a problem. I’ve made it very opqaue in terms of how its actually operating within my music.
Mushet: It’s really clear that you’ve looked at each intrument’s character, sound and use in its original context. It’s never just a sound source but its history seems considered as well.
Dolden: I’ve really had to seriously contemplate non-Western musical language in relation to ours. It’s a “problem” for a Western composer because a lot of it involves traditions that incorporate a lot of improvisation and a lot of music is meant for ritual and ceremony. I’m working in a highly written tradition, so the question becomes how do I integrate Arab or Indian or Asian musics into my compositions. That’s where the deepest musical thinking needs to happen on my part. I don’t want to do that thing that so many do where somebody simply arranges Balinese music for alto flute and vibraphone or whatever. That kind of approach sends me over the top!
Mushet: I think our eggs Benedicts have arrived! (Tape ends.)
So we should assume then that the power of sound and complex music may well have reached its peak with the Walls Cycle and may never be absorbed or appreciated by any but a small band of fanatical devotees. Fair enough. The sun will explode one day and none of this will matter anyway. In the meantime it seems as if Paul Dolden has finally embraced the community model in his own unique way.
But history, as we now plainly see, sometimes bears repeating if only to recall how we may have missed its lessons. Accordingly, Paul has put the Walls Cycle up for listening at Bandcamp. It is sad that many will only listen on a computer speaker system. I’d urge you to go full retro and order the CD for hi-fi home playback. Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream…
Then bring yourself up to date with Music of Another Present Era and this time, let’s hope Paul is presenting a future ahead of our time.
Debut solo release by the Montréal composer and sound artist Chantal Dumas is Oscillations planétaires, and it turns out to be electro-acoustic music themed on various geological phenomena of planet earth. On her annotations, Dumas discourses with a certain amount of authority as she sets out brief encyclopedia entries regarding earthquakes, the shifting of tectonic plates, the formation of mountain ranges, and geysers, as well less tangible things like seismic waves and the magnetic field of the earth. The music, structured in nine episodes across a 49:21 symphony, is intended to “evoke geology”. I’ve long thought this to be a popular trope in the field of electro-acoustic composition, for instance parts of Parmegiani’s La création du monde from 1986, or Tremblement de terre trés doux which François Bayle composed in 1978 (although the latter might be more of a simple landscape narrative than a journey to the centre of the earth). Dumas certainly succeeds in conveying the sense of the earth groaning to itself as it stretches its body in preparation for another day, and although the music is largely very abstract, it also feels generally rather prosaic and descriptive, with none of the imaginative leaps that Parmegiani brought to the task. However, it’s much more eventful and packed with more volume than some of the understated pieces we normally get from this Canadian label.