Interview

Thomas McLennan, Musicworks, no 64, 1 mars 1996

Paul Dolden has been touted by many critics as one of the most original and innovative musical voices to take us into the next millenium: a fin de siècle artist. With his emphasis on a maximalist æsthetic, he walks a compositional tightrope by combining traditional western music practices with electroacoustic techniques, non-orchestral instruments, and the energy and drive of popular culture.

Dolden has kept in sight the fact that one can be simultaneously entertained and challenged by the conceptualization of a reality never dreamt of before. One is seduced on many levels: by the virtuosic manipulation of musical language; the myriad gestures, colours, and contrasts; the speed; and the vigorous forcefulness of expression. One can be held in a state of rapture in the presence of music of such unreal beauty, but this sphere of existence continues long after the music stops. The voluptuous sound world of Paul Dolden always leaves one motivated to contemplate oneself and the world in novel and fantastical ways.

Since 1981 Dolden has won eighteen national and international awards for composition. These include three first prizes and a Euphonies d’or at the Bourges International Electroacoustic Music Competition in France, and, most recently, Canada’s Jean A Chalmers Award for his composition L’ivresse de la vitesse. His works have appeared on numerous recordings includinq two solo CDs.


Thomas McLennan: What in your mind creates a good performance of a piece for live instruments and tape?

Paul Dolden: First, you must have a good sound system and everyone must know their musical parts extremely well. Beyond this, a richer musical experience happens when the performers know the tape part extremely well and therefore can play in a manner which seems as if they anticipate or lead the tape’s gestures, colours, rhythms, etc. If the live parts are played with this type of savvy, then the difference between the live part and tape seem to disappear and the two components seem to be working together on the same musical goal or idea. I should say that this illusion is possible only when the writing of the live and tape parts relate to each other timbrally, rhythmically, harmonically, and melodically. What is musically boring is if the performers sound like they are just following the tape, or are “slaved” to the tape.

Could you comment on your reuse of materials in the current works of the Resonance cycle for live performer and tape.

The mother piece for the Resonance cycle is the tape piece L’ivresse de la vitesse. All of the works for live instruments and tape in the Resonance cycle at particular moments allude to, or “resonate,” to the mother piece. This self-quotation is intentional and is an attempt to deal with the balancing of old and new information in the musical discourse. Moreover, it becomes a type of musical play or game of recognition, semi-recognition, and non-recognition. This game plays with musical memory which is the basis of musical structure. In the same way, the Walls cycle uses the Walls of Jericho tape pieces as a basis or “resonator” for the soloist and tape cycle entitled the Physics of Seduction. Invocation #3. Therefore, I am usinq the word “cycle” in its historical sense as each of the cycles could be played in their entirety and produce an evening-length work.

Reflect on musical performance as you perceive its importance to musical language and composition.

It is hard for me to imagine not having the experience of being a performer and trying to be a composer. Instrumental and vocal performance is the living history of musical thought and gesture, and to really understand instrumental writing a background in performance is necessary. Also, during a performance, whether it is for six friends in the front room or more than 800 at a professional concert, there is an excitement, an adrenalin rush, and a certain type of concentration that one can understand as a performer. To write utilizing that energy and style of thought will always lead to more interesting music.

In the last two years, performance, for me, has taken two directions. I no longer play other people’s music. I have learned two of my own compositions, one for guitar and tape, and one for violin and tape. This process has informed me of what it’s like to play one of my scores, and what it’s like to be a soloist with a tape accompaniment. The other type of performance I am doing is free improvising on guitar, violin, and cello. For me this is primarily an exploration of sound and gesture that I keep more private because I do not find it musically profound. It is a process to go through in which i enjoy the discovery of combining notes, sounds, and colours wliich sometimes feeds back into my compositional practice.

How do you retain a balance between the individual character of instruments and orchestration with so many tracks? (For example your work with 400 tracks or musical parts occurring simultaneously.)

First of all understanding orchestration, and secondly, engineering. In terms of orchestration, it is important to understand how each instrument sounds in each register, and what happens when different instruments are combined. This goes beyond a textbook knowledge and requires a good aural memory because there are endless permutations. Important aspects of this are knowing which instruments mask which sounds, and which ones fuse with others at particular dynamics and/or ranges.

After one has created a score of notation, this must be translated to a recorded signal which is well produced. For my music, the most important aspects of engineering are: microphone placement during the recording of instruments; submixing (because I do not have a 400 track board to control levels between different members of the orchestra); and panning and equalization. Panning is not used much because each track is a beautifui stereo image using a particular technique of stereo microphone imaging. What is more important is which instrument receives what type of EQ curve to achieve a particular musical sound.

As far as maintaining the individuality of instruments, my work in the ‘80s was primarily concerned with the concept of the fused sound, therefore there was a decreased emphasis on being able to hear a particular line or instrumental colour. Over the last few years I have become more interested in hearing individual lines or groups of lines in the multiplicity of 400 parts.

Could you comment on your present exploration of twelve-tone equal temperament? And, do you see this continuing?

Tuning has been very important in my work. In the ‘80s I was only writing in microtonal systems, many of which I designed myself. I used just intonation and particular microtonal systems which often meant there would be anywhere from thirty to sixty notes per octave, which led to the fused sound of those works. I do find a certain clarity in twelve-tone equal temperament, and in some ways it almost seems sparse after ten years of microtonal work.

The main reason for the return to equal temperament is that all microtonal systems, I discovered, led to a certain type of stasis. It seems that I have, at this level, reinvented the wheel, because equal temperament was designed to facilitate faster moving harmonic rhythm. My music has gradually become more concerned with harmonic rhythm, so that moving to equal temperament has been quite a natural progression.

I find the return to equal temperament makes writing much easier because everything is instantly transposable and invertible. The problem with many microtonal systems is that when a harmony is inverted or transposed many notes have to be slightly adjusted. So I am able to write much faster now. One of the reasons I left twelve-tone equal temperament originally is because all of the intervals are mistuned except the octave, and you hear this particularly with the more consonant intervals.

However, I am primarily writing fast music these years, so you do not really hear the mistunings, because at higher speeds the ear does not have enough time to register this aspect of equal temperament. I am slowly starting to think about how to integrate my current writing with all of the experience I gained in microtonal music. I am trying to envision a type of music that has a very fast moving harmonic rhythm, but also moves through different types of microtonal ideas, and comes back to equal temperament and keeps moving to avoid that whole static aspect of microtonal systems.

You have stated a belief in the revolutionary potential of music lyinq in the transcendental aesthetic experience or moment. Can this moment live on in the listener/society and develop into something beyond itself?I believe that one of the important aspects of successful aesthetic perception is the search for the ecstatic moment: that moment of the loss of self which we also experience during extended drug usage and during sex. In these moments there is a loss of memory of who you are, what you stand for, what/where you are, etc. What is fascinating about these moments is that they allow for new ideas, visions, feelings, and thoughts to emerge. Now, the aesthetic/artistic experience is unique among these three experiences in that it is a completely safe environment, you can never physically harm yourself.

I would like to think this ecstatic aesthetic experience is always goinq on in every culture. Certainly in western culture/society it has a different emphasis in different art forms, and areas of human endeavour, at different times. At present we definitely live in a film culture as people say to me they go to the film to “lose themselves.” For art music right now, most people do not search out these moments. In fact, the most common response we receive is that we tend to confuse people rather than allow for transcendental ecstatic experiences. But this is a larger social problem because the musical languages we are using are currently unrepresented in the media, which is where most people find out about works of music.

Which composers are your major influences now?

Composers who always inspire me, and will probably always inspire me to write, are Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Mahler, Stravinsky, Bartok, Ligeti, and Berio; and Lutoslawski and Xenakis to some extent. After this I have musical flings with different composers at different times that last anywhere from a few months to a few years. Right now I am very fascinated with Brahms, and with contemporary composers Magnus Lindberg, Robert Saxton, and Alfred Schnittke.

How often do you visit historical structures in your music? What are the forms you create yourself?

When you listen/write/perform music all of the time, inevitably you absorb without thinking the historical structures. For instance, we all speak in sentences and paragraphs, which immediately creates a structure in our verbal discourses. Obviously not all structures are equally fascinating or equally great. I think most historical musical structures operate implicitly in my music and I may not even be aware of them. I am, like most composers, more aware of structures that I think are more original, or at least those I had to spend a certain amount of time consciously thinking about.

Recently, I started writing pieces not knowing ahead of time where I am going, whereas before I would compose the structure first. Currently, I consider how much new information do I keep introducing, and how much information previously in the piece will be repeated or reiterated with variations. It is that tension between old and new material, and working it out, that becomes the structural tension I am conscious of when writing. For the listeners, structure is somethinq to hang their hats on, so I am always aware of the tension between when they are beinq completely confused and when they are kept at the edge of their seats in anticipation.

Explain the extensive relationships that exist in your cornpositional language between melody and harmony, and notes and timbre. Also, how do you accomplish syntax in the field of electroacoustics, where the focus traditionally has been on sound collections?

Good music is always about numerous things - notes, counterpoint, melody, harmony, colour, and structure. Electroacoustic theory over the last few years has created a paradigm for discussing music in which syntax, or the language of music, is contrasted with morphology, which is the actual sound type, including anything from the sound of footsteps, to oboes, to the final textural quality of the sound. Traditional electroacoustic theorists have argued that what makes electroacoustic music special is its focus on morphology, while instrumental music is mainly concerned with syntax. I do not find this distinction new or revealing. I am convinced that good composers throughout history have always been aware of the colouristic possibilities of music making, but perhaps did not have all of the terminology for it that is currently at our disposal. I would suggest that we could select very syntactically based composers such as JS Bach and Brian Ferneyhough, and one could listen (as I often do) to these composers morphologically. That is, listen to their music in terms of changing orchestration, colours, and density. Likewise, one can listen to what is considered morphologically based music - for instance, Francis Dhomont or Edgar Varèse - in terms of note movement and organization.

To place myself on this continuum: I have always been interested in a maximalist aesthetic, in creating music that somehow combines everything. In some ways I am always conscious of both syntax and morphology when composing. For me, a fundamental link between syntax and morphology is harmony. If one listens to a great piece of music in a musical way, then one listens both syntactically and morphologically as the two work together; in other words, one listens harmonically. Let me expand. The question asks about the relationship between the melody and harmony. I have always loved harmony, and often when composing I define the harmony and then create the lines for each instrument from that. You do not need a PhD in contemporary music theory to know that harmonies and chords lead to a morphological way of listening. Specifically, chords lead to fused chords, which lead to fused timbres or fused textures. By working with notes and building harmonies of thirty to fifty note chords with their horizontal/melodic implications, I am in fact defining the morphology. In short, the 400 tracks have a predefined morphological sound, which is the sound of the harmony being articulated by all the lines. Seventy to eighty percent of my 400 tracks in any given piece are traditional western orchestral instruments, the remainder being gamelan, hand percussion, drum kits, electric guitar, and voice (but we are used to choral and orchestral mixtures). So I would say that at one level, morphologically speaking, there is nothing new about my music, it is just extended orchestration. In other words, morphological transformations are a minor compositional strategy in my music. Ultimately the perceived motion is created through syntax: large scale variety, contrast, harmonic direction, different types of counterpoint, and instrumental gestures and articulations.

With his emphasis on a maximalist æsthetic, he walks a compositional tightrope…