Tamed Beast

John Keillor, Vancouver Review, no. 6, June 1, 2005

After decades of pissing people off, Burnaby-boy-cum Montréaler Paul Dolden has written an irrefutable masterpiece. Entropic Twilights (ET), the 49-minute opening track of his new CD Délires de plaisirs, is a postmodern genre-romp of colossal scale. While the rest of the CD treads more recognizable ground, this piece is new territory for the internationally fêted, if locally ignored, electroacoustic composer, with its playful irony and original synthesis of classical, popular, and non-Western styles.

Until this release, Dolden’s music can be summarily described as ferocious, featuring huge, raging blocks of musical colour seething with electric invasiveness. The older material’s shocking amounts of input at exceedingly high volume (in concert settings, anyway) recalibrated listeners’ blood flow by sheer aural force. Back in the ’80s, many of Dolden’s musical peers were, frankly, offended by the overwhelming character of his output, and these people will be interested to know that ET is a different sort of work. While not an artistic olive branch by any means, it is definitely approachable.

A downright populist piece, ET features jokes, simples tunes, and pratfalls of sudden stylistic redirection: huge orchestral episodes culminating in stoner guitar rock, for example. Yet the integrity of the language doesn’t fall apart midstream; it careens on without losing steam. The work was constructed through a digitized version of his former audiotape technique. Dolden records hundreds of individual instrument and voice parts, then stretches or compresses these beyond idiomatic performance possibility. He then layers them by the hundreds to create previously unimaginable soundscapes.

One big difference from the earlier material is the grab bag of styles from which he freely draws. Palestrina’s vocal writing can be heard alongside Ravelesque orchestration, punk rock, jazz, disco, African drumming, and gamelan gongs. In his hands, this approach is no mere crazy quilt of alternating musical genres. He not only layers sounds but also lays them out sequentially. The parts weave together thematically, reinforcing each other via four brief, friendly tonal melodies in the key of C, producing musical pranks of lightness and subtlety.

ET even goes as far as outright, delighted cheesiness. One such moment is right at the beginning as a portentous heavy-metal guitar solo wails tearfully, metal-ballad style, over gongs and winds heard at super-low registers. The composer himself performs the solo, in real time. He’s an immaculate, feeling player, and this ballsy overture hails the central theme of the piece: Bring the entertainment factor back into classical music, for god’s sake!

The 20th century and all its unsmiling avant-garde composers, such as Pierre Boulez and Morton Feldman (whose music I actually like), managed to alienate the world. They did so in search of a perfect musical language while ignoring the interests of the general public. Today, it’s almost impossible to sell 20th-century classical CDs. Record companies produce them in order to appear aesthetically concerned, and so they should. Today’s classical music needs all the help it can get.

In the 19th century, classical music actually competed with all other forms of entertainment, often holding its own without patrons or government funding. Sometimes its composers did, however, have unstoppable competition. There’s a tale of one 1860’s night in Paris, where three illustrious piano virtuosos, — Sigismund Thalberg, Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann — were all performing at separate venues. Each naturally wanted to outsell the other two. But on this particular night, all three concerts were embarrassingly under-attended because there were giraffes in town for the first time, and everyone went to see them instead.

Of course, on other evenings all three pianists made heaps of money and endured a dozen curtain calls. On those occasions, no other marketable distraction could compete with the public interest in their playing, or with the scores that had been written for them. The point, here, is that classical music used to be a competitive cultural force and now it’s moribund, swept aside by movies and cheap internet pornography-and that fact angers Dolden.

But ET doesn’t sound angry. It’s like a rectified collusion of the musical patter we hear in public spaces. Imagine all the piped-in music from different stores in a shopping mall playing simultaneously. What Dolden hears here, I believe, is a sort of musical ship’s graveyard, filled with floating corpses of gutless reggae and world beat and flaccid Mozart and techno, lolling uselessly as the shoppers meanders about, obliviously comparing prices. Regard this situation for what it is: a consumerist victory over music, its meaning drained, its fleet broken. Dolden’s work attempts to revamp the rigging and get real music back into the battle for a place in our collective psyche.

It’s a battle worth fighting, and, on this front, Dolden’s captaincy his producing some notable gains. Two years ago, he sold out a South American tour. More recently, he was the featured artist at the Borderline Festival in Malmö, Sweden, with half a dozen concerts showcasing his work. Some of his previous discs, such as Seuil de silences, sold out and had to be repressed. And unlike almost every other professional composer in the world, he doesn’t have to teach. He makes enough money just composing. He’s walking the walk.

ET demonstrates how the world can be drawn back to classical music through entertaining sophistication. While the avant-garde searches for a new musical language by means of wispy dissonance, this piece consists of comically consonant counterpoint, producing a visionary artistic direction in the form of a wild ride-like a roller coaster designed by NASA. This is Dolden’s Valhalla and his Disneyland, and he is clearly enjoying himself.

The importance of a composer’s pleasure cannot be underestimated. It brings to mind a tame about Claude Debussy’s conservatory days: Upon hearing him perform on of his youthful compositions, his affronted professors complained that their student was not following conventional harmonic rules. Debussy replied that he did not follow conventional harmonic rules. The academic rejoinder was, What rules did Debussy follow, exactly? “Mon plaisir,” he famously replied. Debussy is not perhaps the last of the avant-garde composers in history to be found in mainstream concert programs.

Debussy’s oeuvre began with an anti-Wagnerian fire that cooled over time into something personal and impressionistic. Similarly, Dolden’s belligerence is now more genius than rebellion. Academics may still sniff at his approach, as they did at young Debussy’s. Check out ET, dear reader, with its assured grasp of today’s jumbled commercial anxiety, and decide for yourself who is right.

The piece is Dolden’s Valhalla and his Disneyland, and he is clearly enjoying himself.