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.