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.