a retrospective (1977 – 2009)
New World Records
It may be unfair to say that the genre of electronic music is one that ignores its history. Of course that isn’t entirely true, there is always attention paid to the past, rarely does that attention manifest itself in the presentation of music more than ten years old. Concerts that feature or include electronic music typically showcase the “newest in new” as if anything prior to 2004 is the sonic equivalent of day-old donuts, anything from the 1990s is “quaint” and literature found before 1980 is approached the way a music appreciation class approaches Machaut.
I know this is a brash generalization and a stunning example of hyperbole, but it is rare that the pioneers of electronic music are given much air time in concert halls when compared to acoustic composers who also paved the way for future generations. And since fixed media pieces lack the element of performer interpretation, there seems to be no need to release a composition more than once. That the work is available at all seems to be enough.
New World Records does a great service here by releasing a collection of works by the venerable master Charles Dodge. Dodge, a paragon of the early American pioneers, is someone who made exquisite compositions from the digital equivalent of banging two rocks together. Most of those early compositions, released on vinyl, haven’t found the larger distribution in part because earlier electronic compositions are not as valued as more contemporary pieces. Sites like Ubuweb and the now defunct Avantgardeproject.org offer access to earlier experimental electronic recordings. New World’s commitment to preserving, promoting, and distributing cornerstones of the genre is worthy of praise.
What about the music? The bulk of the disc is occupied by Dodge’s seminal Cascando, based on the radio play by Samuel Beckett. Cascando dates from 1977 and makes heavy use of the vocal synth/sampling techniques found in Dodge’s earlier Speech Songs. Cascando is to Speech Songs, though as Reich’s Drumming is to Clapping Music. Cascando’s texture is sparse and draws the bulk of its sound world from the speech synthesis engine. My reaction to the work is similar to my reactions to much of Beckett; I don’t feel a strong narrative arc but I find the events compelling in and of themselves.
New World includes two other more recent compositions alongside the 30 minute Cascando. Fades, Dissolves, Fizzles for fixed media, from way back in 1995, connects well to the older work and demonstrates a through line in Dodge’s compositional voice. Fades, Dissolves, Fizzles is built from fairly plain and simple synthetic bell-like timbres. The event language is similar to Cascando in that there is rarely a counterpoint of ideas. Dodge favors single events and a slow unfolding of activity. Fades, Dissolves, Fizzles has quite a bit more pep, though, as the active pseudo-gamelan textures that arise help motivate the narrative and provide formal continuity. Fades, Dissolves, Fizzles is also strongly concerned with just intonation. The pure timbre of the synth helps the tuning relationships shine through.
The final composition is the 2009 work Violin Variations for violin and computer, played here by Baird Dodge. Again, just intonation and the slow unfolding of simple textures are the motivating factors in the construction. The synth sound is subtly refined from Fades, Dissolves, Fizzles with more overtones and richer sonic fabrics behind each pitch. The four movements rarely move past a contemplative affect, a faster tempo and pizzicato third movement help break monotony. Like the other pieces on the disc, I don’t feel a sense of a traditional dramatic narrative but find the work sonically compelling.