Paul Dolden begins his career at age 16 as a professional electric guitarist, violinist and cellist. Excited by the possibilities offered by recording technologies, Paul Dolden turns to contemporary modes of production and dissemination in the creation of his music. At age 29, he wins the first of a string of European awards that establish him as a composer. Now the winner of over twenty international awards, Paul Dolden’s music is performed in Europe and North America to wildly enthusiastic audiences.
In a career spanning over thirty years, Paul Dolden has perfected his unique approach to audio technology, using it as a platform from which to launch or capture otherwise impossible musical performances. In this way, he makes his computer behave like a new, virtual orchestra and manipulates it with as much sensitivity as he would a traditional one. His compositions are characterised by a maximalist aesthetic in which hundreds of digitally recorded instrumental and vocal performances are combined in multiple layers.
Paul Dolden’s music has been described as the “missing link” between jazz and rock and the high-brow concert tradition. Critics have called it “music for the information age, enlisting noise, complexity and beauty in its quest for excess,” and characterised it as “apocalyptic hyper-modernism.”
The early works employ a unified approach to timbral and harmonic variation. Under the influence of post-modernism, Paul Dolden’s concerns have shifted to include the juxtaposition and superimposition of disparate musical styles evident throughout the Resonance Cycle of works (1992-96). Always working to surpass himself, with the Twilight Cycle of recent years Paul Dolden boldly investigates the forbidden fruit of contemporary new music: melody and dance rhythms.
Since 2003 Dolden’s compositional approach has included detailed study of different musical styles and nature sounds to uncover their relationships. Dolden then recombines their unique properties to create an auditory bacchanal of otherworldly textures, polyrhythms and microtonal melodies. For example in the Who Has… Cycle of works (2005-09), nature’s handiwork is everywhere, from the massive swarms of insects to the busy sections of brass and winds which model the same intense microtonal and polyrhythmic patterns.
Dolden considers the relation between culture and geography and takes it to its logical extreme. He first recognizes it is no coincidence that country music sprang to life alongside the howling hounds of the open plains, and that Spain begat Flamenco alongside crickets that chirp in 6/8, and then complements these naturalistic sounds with live performers who accompany and comment on the musical circus. Throughout this cycle unity is maintained by recurring melodic themes, presented by a choir, shredded on guitar, barked by dogs and generally embedded and transformed throughout.
While listeners have always concluded that Dolden “has the biggest sound,” he instead suggests that it is nature itself. Scratching the surface behind the tropes and humor within the Who Has… Cycle reveals a desperate cry for both musical and environmental relief. If nature has the biggest sound, nicest melodies, and biggest noise, then it must be respected and protected.
Since 2010, in a series of works for soloist and tape, and in Music of Another Present Era (2013-16), Dolden is inspired by mythologies. Myths are featured in every culture and continue today in urban legends and in the expansive fictional mythoi created by movies and popular music. The works of this period play freely with our historical imagination, specifically, our ability to imagine another time and culture through its mythological stories. At the same time this imagining is always conditioned by our time and the current state of our own music. For example, Dolden imagines that the myth of Marsyas was like our Battle of the Bands, that Shango, the African God of Storms, had a laid back funky groove, that the original Moon festivals had Girly Songs, that the original Cosmic Circle Dance was like a big band swinging in 5/4, and that the Samaritans in the West Bank during Babylonian times performed Show Tunes.
In short, in Dolden’s most recent music, myths from the past collide with present musical styles in a quest for pure musical beauty.
Ottawa (Ontario, Canada), 1956
Residence: Val-Morin (Québec)
On the Web
No Type / IMNT 0715 / 2007
In the Studio
Cuchabata Records / CUCH 094 / 2016
Cuchabata Records / CUCH 095 / 2016
In the Press
Vito Camarretta, Chain DLK, September 29, 2017In addition, many of us had the dream that a new music would transform culture and society.
Jeremy Owen Turner, Musicworks, no. 96, September 1, 2006He draws hostility from classical music audiences, but the international awards keep accumulating.
Tom Sekowski, The WholeNote, no. 11:1, September 1, 2005… yet another work of genius from this much misunderstood Canadian composer.
Guy Marceau, SOCAN, Words & Music, no. 12:2, June 1, 2005
We recently had an in-depth conversation with Canadian electro-acoustic composer Paul Dolden, following the review of his recent output Histoires d’histoire on empreintes DIGITALes. You’ll understand the reason why his musical production — focusing both on harmonic and tonal research as well as on the superimposition and juxtaposition of different music styles — deserves to be delved into.
Chain DLK: Hi, Paul! How are you?
Paul Dolden: I am good. Thank you for taking an interest in my music and contacting me. I always love to hear from people who enjoy my music.
Chain DLK: Could we take some steps back for readers who are seeing your name for the first time, starting from the very first ones? How did you get closer to “experimental” music?
Paul Dolden: My musical history is a classic North American West Coast baby boomer story. Born in 1956, I practised various musical instruments as a boy. I started playing professionally when I was 16. I grew up in a home where my mother’s side of the family were classical musicians and she was constantly playing the classical literature. My father was not a musician, but came from a long line of string players and was invariably listening to jazz. During these early years, I owned a tape recorder and became fascinated with audio technology.
My curiosity about modern music began when I was about 14 years old. In the late 60s and into the 70s, the idea of a new music, a new art, a new society, etc. was on everyone’s mind. So there I was, a 14-year hippie child buying my Xenakis, Bartok, Muddy Waters, Coltrane and Hendrix albums. Although I had some music teachers as a kid, I am primarily self-taught in music. Therefore, when it came time to go to university, I skipped over music and studied liberal arts. Ultimately, I would have loved to be a historian or philosopher, but let’s just say my talent for music was stronger. During the university years, I started composing short works, mainly using technology to create this music. In Vancouver at that time, there were almost no performers who would play a contemporary score. Indeed, there was really no “new music” scene to speak of. Very quickly, the unique musical possibilities of the recording studio, computer music programming, and live electronics appealed to my musical imagination.
During my 20s, I transitioned from a full-time performer to a full-time composer. Now I only perform on my own recordings and with a few friends just for fun. Composition and audio technology has taken over my life!
Chain DLK: Do you remember the dreams of musicians and composers when technology began to spread into the scene? How did they change over the years, in your viewpoint?
Paul Dolden: For sure, I remember the dream that we would all produce music, and through published recordings, people would hear your sound and you could access the musical thoughts of others without leaving home.
Musicians would all become like Glenn Gould or The Beatles, with the studio being the centre of creation and performance. Many of us announced the death of the concert hall, but we underestimated people’s attraction to public rituals.
In addition, many of us had the dream that a new music would transform culture and society.
For sure, as time went on, and the 70s turned into Reagan, Thatcher, and Mulroney, just surviving as a full-time modern music artist became the dream!
At the level of day-to-day tools, I can remember the excitement of getting my first 4-track tape recorder and then an 8-track tape recorder. I remember programming a mainframe computer in 1977 with Stochastic and Gaussian distributions and thinking I was hearing something new.
Back then, I could have never imagined that today, on a home computer, I would be recording, mixing and processing hundreds of tracks of sound.
Chain DLK: Is there anything you criticize about GRM precepts and teachings?
Paul Dolden: GRM and the German school at Cologne were important for establishing the studio as a place of creation that did not involve live performances.
They are also important for discovering ways to use audio technology to manipulate sound.
Having restated the “official” history of electroacoustic music, I do hope that in the future they tell the full story of technique and tool development. For most of us, it was the development of these techniques, at the same time or earlier, by Les Paul, Hendrix, Pink Floyd and numerous Foley artists since the 1940s, that informed our sonic imaginations when we were younger.
Chain DLK: Any complaints against contemporary musicians and their audience? Is there anything that audience had problems understanding regarding compositional experiments like the amazing ones you made?
Paul Dolden: The “contemporary” music or “new” music scene is so wide and varied that it is hard to make a summary comment. Among the mid-century modernists I still really like are Ligeti and Berio. And there are a lot of composers since then I really like, for example, Adès, Abrahamsen, Sallinen, etc. However, I have to answer the question in a different way.
When we say contemporary music, we usually mean music that does not sound like 19th-century music. By contrast, for years, I have been following a lot of composers who continued writing in the tonal tradition with clear structural articulations or “climaxes”. About 60 of these composers, living or recently dead, are documented by Robert R. Reilly’s book Surprised by Beauty. By definition, they are contemporary musicians, although largely ignored by the “new music” scene.
Among my reasons for listening to these composers is that I still struggle with most modern music that is constantly dissonant in our tuning system. Twelve-tone equal temperament (12ET) was designed to create tonal music that can modulate rapidly. The most accurate representation of our 12ET semi-tone in the harmonic series is the distance between the 84th and 81st harmonic. Let’s face it; even heavy metal guitars or Peter Brotzmann’s saxophone do not produce 84 harmonics! There is an infinite amount of varying dissonance possible in new tunings, so why the semi tone over and over in “modern” music?
As far as audiences go, there are lots of people who love my music in various ways, and when I do a concert the audience is enthusiastic about what I am presenting.
Performers today are amazing, and I have had a chance to work with some of the best over the last 35 years. We often talk about how music language has developed so rapidly over the last 100 years. I suspect an ever-greater growth has occurred in instrumental technique.
Chain DLK: Recently, I heard Histoires d’histoire, but the first time I met your music was on L’Ivresse de la Vitesse — wonderful release! — … Can you introduce it to our readers?
Paul Dolden: The double CD, now two separate single CDs, L’ivresse de la vitesse (Intoxication by Speed) mainly includes works from 1989-1995 and is inspired by postmodern theory. The program notes suggest which part of post modernism I am taking on musically. The music is dominated by speed and density and quick changes in musical style. Indeed, many musical styles occur at once and are transforming at the speed of sound. Since 1983, I have had the same simple working method: first I compose the works with hundreds of musical parts on large manuscript paper, then I hire musicians to play the parts individually, and finally I mix and master all the musical parts or tracks separately. This working method allows for each part to have its own tuning system and/or tempo, if I want.
I could talk on and on about compositional technique in the each work, but most of my concerns are clearly summarized in the introduction to the main score for the CD.
Instead of talking on and on about the early works, I would like to take this space to clarify an important aspect of these works that many people are left confused by.
Two times in my life, I have gone through a massive re-mastering of early works (everything before 2004). This often takes almost a year to do. I go back to the original recordings and remix and master. This habit is inspired by the ever-improving sound of modern audio technology. I also do this because it often takes me years to fully understand the music and how to maximize the mix for the work. Remember, the works involve hundreds of musical parts occurring simultaneously. This musical understanding of a work could be compared to the career of many conductors. Conductors often talk about conducting the same work for 30 years and preferring their later performances because they understand the work better. Likewise, I prefer the later masters and, yes, they are more true to my original music score for the work.
The first major re-mastering job was done in 2000-2002. These re-mastered versions were published by empreintes DIGITALes at that time on CD. After years of listening, I re-mastered the works again in 2012. Only recently have I turned these new masters over to empreintes. I hope they will have these 2012 versions on their streaming service soon.
I promise my listening public I will not re-master or “re-conduct” my works again! I am getting too old!
Chain DLK: Why was the above-mentioned last release titled Histoires d’histoire? Sounding like a ‘best of’?
Paul Dolden: Although I have lived in Quebec for almost 20 years, my French is still a work in progress. My understanding of the title of this new CD is “Stories of History.”
Like my previous work, the main artistic inspiration is history or stories from the past. In this work, a different historical myth inspires each movement, hence the title.
Chain DLK: Some reviewers labeled the triptych of Walls of Jericho as apocalyptic… Would you say the same?
Paul Dolden: When I hear my work from the 80s and early 90s now, I understand why people thought they were apocalyptic. I prefer to think of those dense music worlds as creating a sublime music. Specifically, I wanted the music to create a sense of grandeur or power, and of inspiring awe and reminding us of the things that are larger than our banal lives.
The program notes for the works usually had a historical/philosophical idea I was trying to capture in music. These ideas were based on topics as wide ranging as the biblical Walls of Jericho, the Romantic notion of music creating the social revolution, the postmodern idea that the speed and density of the information of our times are creating an intellectual and emotional stasis, etc., etc. With such big ideas, the music itself had to be larger than life!
But whatever my artistic intentions were is of little importance. The listener will always decide for himself or herself the meaning of an aesthetic encounter. The real artistic or aesthetic moment happens in the relationship established between the listener and the music. For example, the Walls cycle of works has been described by some as transcendentally beautiful. By contrast, I know of two scientific experiments in which the same music was used to create an environment of pain for the test subject.
Chain DLK: Regarding labels, your music has been often labeled as ‘maximalist’ (supposedly to highlight the fact it’s opposite to minimalist) … Do you agree with such a way of filing your music?
Paul Dolden: Apocalyptic and maximal are adjectives that work for much of my music. I understand the need for labels and pigeonholes for music. Indeed, I spend great amounts of time on streaming services finding new music and I always put reductionist labels on it so I can remember what it is at a later time! That is just being human, with brains that only have so much RAM and so much hard drive space. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that music exists to express things beyond words.
Chain DLK: As a former and current fan of drum ‘n’ bass and fast-paced music in general, I still remember a masterpiece by yours, Who Can Play The Fastest … what was the spark for that?
Paul Dolden: This is from the “Who Has…” cycle of works. The largest work in the cycle is the 52-minute studio work called “ Who Has the Biggest Sound? ” which is published on Starkland Records (USA). Then there are five works for instrument (s) and tape. For example, “ Who Has the Strangest Melodies? ” is for chamber orchestra and tape, or “ Who Has the Biggest Noise? ” for electric guitar and tape.
In this cycle of works, I am studying different musical styles and nature sounds to uncover their relationships. In short, nature’s sound patterns create most of the music and are everywhere in this cycle. For example, the same intense microtonal and polyrhythmic patterns of a swarm of insects are modeled onto brass, wind, and string parts. In this work, I found that country music sprang to life alongside the howling hounds of the open plains, and that Spain begat Flamenco alongside crickets that chirp in 6/8; I found Chinese and Thai tuning systems in the insects of south-east Asian rainforests, etc., etc. In short, in these works, I am considering the relationship between culture and geography and take it to its logical extreme.
Many of the titles in this cycle of works are questions, because I am creating an imaginary battle of the bands in which, for example, our soloist tries to play faster than the accompaniment, which is music based on cricket sounds, or our string orchestra tries to play a more mournful melody than the combined pitch bends of a herd of cows.
By the end of this cycle, my belief that I or other musicians were “original” music thinkers was shattered. With the musical styles I explored in the work, I found each of their fundamental music patterns pre-existing somewhere in nature. Perhaps we are only mimicking what already exists, given, for example, that it is now estimated that insects first appeared 480 million years ago.
I should add that, for the listener looking for a Soundscape work, I would not recommend this cycle of works. All my source material, the nature sounds, were transformed into music, and the unsuspecting listener hears what I hope is a series of entertaining and engaging moments and goes on a musical journey unaware that they are listening to insects or barnyard animals. The lack of clear identification on my part, between human music style and natural source, is because I believe that any artwork that is totally complicit in its own absorption, so that it no longer makes apparent sense on the surface, will exercise a remarkable fascination. In short, an artwork fascinates by its esotericism, which preserves it from external logic.
Chain DLK: Is there anything not explained by the liner notes of Histoires d’histoire that you would like to share with us?
Paul Dolden: The program notes do not really discuss the musical problems I am working on. To summarize:
- I have been trying to figure out for years how to combine textural writing and density with the singular identity and memorable aspect of melody.
- I have become frustrated as a listener and as a composer with the metronomic or “steady tempo exactly on the beat” aspect of classical music. Therefore, I have been exploring how to use what are called groove rhythms as a basis for the “skeleton of time” in my work. These rhythms are based on performances of African, Latin, jazz or rock music.
Secondly, the tempo of my work is almost always changing, usually quite slowly, inspired by Indonesian music but also observable in many ragas and Western improvised music, including rock and jazz.
- From the beginning of my career, I questioned the idea of only 12 tones to an octave fixed at set vibrational rates (i.e. A=440). During the 1980s, and for the last 15 years, I have developed my own tuning systems or used historical tuning systems. I often use the more “true” or “natural” Just Intonation, but I am also interested in discovering new types of irrational dissonances. For example, one of my favorites is to design non-octave tuning systems or tuning systems with no octaves or 5ths. By that point, throw out the entire ear training you ever did and start all over!
- Marshall McLuhan coined the term “global village” 55 years ago, and yet most musicians specialize in a specific style of a specific genre.
I have always been fascinated with all the music of the world and have tried in my own humble way to bring it all together into one artistic vision.
I am not interested in “cross over” music, or fusion. Instead, I want to understand and use the deep grammar of different music to create a unified aesthetic picture. I hope this is not another version of cultural imperialism.
On the other hand, I do realize my ambition of combining diverse music and orchestrations is based on being a privileged Western educated male who can listen to Indian or Thai music on recordings and read books on this music. And the fact that I grew up in a surplus economy, which allowed me at age 16 to buy, at the same time, my first Les Paul and Sitar. The same surplus economy which has allowed me access to recording gear which meant I could learn how to balance all these different types of timbres and gestures through the use of equalization, compression, expansion, transient and sustain shaping tools, panning, spatial enhancement tools and extensive mixing.
The listener will have to decide whether my music represents another brick in the wall of Western decadence and decline, or if it is part of a new perception and understanding of what it means to live in the Global Village.
Chain DLK: The core of this release is the 5-piece set of Music of Another Present Era, a brilliant collage ranging from the reverie of Space Age music to African deities (Shango’s Funkyness refers to the god of storms in Nigeria’s old beliefs, if I remember correctly) … Can you tell us something more about this impressive composition?
Paul Dolden: The previous answer covers my main concerns.
Chain DLK: Any words about the other two wonderful ensembles attached to Histoires d’histoire?
Paul Dolden: As I mentioned, I have had wonderful opportunities to work with great musicians over the years. Maurizio Grandinetti (guitar) and Lukasz Gothszalk (trumpet) are both great soloists and amazing musicians. In each of their works, there is a pre-recorded tape part. Like the rest of my works, the tape part creates different musical environments for the soloist and listener. For example, the tape may be in a heavy rock music mode with two drum parts, two electric basses and a wall of electric guitars with the soloist essentially going wild on their instrument. Within a minute or two, the soloist will be surrounded by soft wind instruments from around the world, usually playing the same musical material but in a soothing manner. As much as I love other people’s music, I still feel frustrated that 99 percent of most recordings document a performance. Why can we not have constantly changing orchestration, densities, and moods in our music? The string quartet is one of my favourite chamber ensembles, but after 15 minutes, I am tired of two violins, one viola and one cello. Can we not have, simply, 2 cellos, one viola and one violin, or two of each, or one of each, etc., etc. And why the constant buzz of a bow at 8khz? Can I have a cymbal ride up there, or a shaker every so often?
Needless to say, these two “concertos” that appear on the CD pose a challenge for most listeners, who are expecting a set proscenium arch or background around the soloist. In this case, Maurizio and Lukasz rose to the occasion of a stage that is constantly changing size, shape, colour and mood.
Chain DLK: Are you performing something on live stage, by chance? If so, are you going to make a jump in Europe?
Paul Dolden: All I know right now is that I will be doing several concerts of my electroacoustic work in England in the Spring of 2019, for which I will be attending. Performances of my works for instrument (s) and tape go on without me knowing most of the time.
Chain DLK: Any work in progress?
Paul Dolden: I am doing research for my next cycle of works that will be inspired by String Theory and that our “reality” may be vibrational phenomena at its core.
Paul Dolden is known for his explorations of post-production techniques, striving to create a wholly new concept of the recording. Going well beyond a memoir of the concert hall, he explores the potential of the recording as a piece of art in and of itself. His electroacoustic pieces are in fact meticulously notated, massively multi-tracked compositions of acoustic instruments, with parts numbering in the hundreds — creating the paradox of acoustic compositions impossible to perform live. The often hostile reactions that Dolden’s work draws from those in the classical realm highlights the attitude to technology that prevails there. His technological practice and perceived loudness frequently place him at odds with listeners. His earliest album, The Threshold of Deafening Silence, has an almost industrial tolerance for perceptual loudness. More squeamish listeners usually found his earlier artistic expression to be overwhelmingly abrasive, confrontational, and alien. Many wondered if this was deliberate.
I corresponded with Paul via e-mail about his artistic practice; his experiments with alternative tunings and his surprise return to equal temperament; the role of technology, philosophy, aesthetics, and culture in music; and his own compositional aspirations.
Paul Dolden: Ninety-eight per cent of the music that people hear, they hear through loudspeakers, without the presence of live performers; yet music continues to identify itself as a performing art. Classical musicremains almost hostile towards technology. Its practitioners think it will put them out of work and/or ruin their “authentic” acoustic concert-hall sound. Yet DJs and rock and jazz musicians have proven that the medium can be used to create interest in their live performances, and to expand the technical possibilities of musical instruments. They understand and manipulate the recorded medium in order to get their point across. Note that these are the most popular musics.
The most important musical revolution of the twentieth century was not serialism, minimalism, or new complexity, but the introduction of technology into every form of music making and consumption. Technology has completely changed the social and economic situation of the musician.
My own work springs from a desire to make recordings that are more than postcards from the concert hall. I am interested in using technology to create music that we cannot perform live, and that we can barely imagine when performance is the criterion for diffusion.
I want to create recordings that are inexhaustible for the listener. The density, the number of musical and audio parameters that are being constantly adjusted, allow for hearing the recording repeatedly, and with each listening new musical relationships emerge.
The published audio work — the recording — becomes the final artistic statement. The recording becomes the art object rather than simply a documentation of a performance or an advertisement for a band. In this sense, it is the recording as an art object that now contains the “authentic” experience.
One significant advantage to creatively transforming the recording process from performance document to a stand-alone artwork is that it allows instrumental events to coexist in a way that could not be possible in the real world. If we also appreciate the recording itself as a discrete art form worth our aesthetic attention, we could learn to reawaken our hearing and musical sensibility and be able to transcend our stereotypes of what constitutes a live experience.
For example, one soft flute part played romantically could, through mixing in a recording studio, become louder in the mix than forty microtonal screaming trumpets played in a free-jazz style. This is very simple to do and it is only the beginning. The reason for producing recordings that have the widest possible orchestration is because such a possibility exists for the first time, and we are no longer confined to using the recording medium to represent one configuration of sound sources in one imaginary space.
Recordings that replicate concerts typically set up an imaginary proscenium arch in which the focal point is static. The listener is presented with a number of sound sources that more or less evoke a real-world performance.
My mixed pieces are often disorientating for the chamber music lover because I destroy the transparency and intimacy of chamber music by using dense, large sounds. For the musicians, the works can be disturbing because they involve redefining many musical relationships. The type of recordings I have been trying to produce has upset the listener’s passive concert-hall relationship by constantly changing soundfocus, depth, density, sound sources, and music style, while maintaining a cohesive musical experience.
Jeremy Turner: Given your advocacy of the mediating role of technology in music, why do you still write works for live instruments and tape?
Paul Dolden: I love working with musicians, and audiences want to see something when they go to a concert. Concert-hall writing is a continuation of my studio practice. If I am writing for a dark-sounding instrument such as bass flute, viola, or bassoon, I will produce the tape part so the live element cuts through. Therefore, one can finally hear a driving bass-flute part with a taped accompaniment, produced for the needs of the soloist’s sound, performed by three heavy-metal rhythm sections—that’s three of everything: electric bass, distorted rhythm guitar, and drums.
This is not an original idea, and is no different from a singer whispering, “I love your post-production techniques” over thrashing guitars, bass, and drums. What becomes more surreal in my mixed works is the different types of sonic and musical worlds, and how quickly I can transform these worlds. I should also add that my live parts are generally written for the live musicians to show off their skills. Perhaps it is my years spent as a jazz musician, but I still feel audiences like to be wowed by live musicians.
Most groups have spent a great deal of time developing an ensemble sound. In my mixed works, I am asking the musicians if I can join their band in the form of a tape part. They must now develop a playing strategy and relationship with this new member. On the bright side, this new member will always be in tune, on time, and will not talk back.
Jeremy Turner: Besides density, you have a preoccupation with polyrhythms and new tuning systems.
Paul Dolden: My preoccupation with these musical concerns evolved out of a search for a musical language that would accommodate several hundred simultaneous musical parts.
In dense romantic music, such as Mahler’s Symphony of 1000 or Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony, there are hundreds of performers, but the music is largely four-part writing with extensive doublings. Between 1955 and 1965, there emerged two writing techniques in which the standard sixtypiece orchestra started playing sixty different musical parts (Ligeti’s micropolyphony and Xenakis’ stochastic music). However, I would argue that a sixty-piece orchestra is not large enough to demonstrate stochastic behaviour, and that four hundred or more parts are needed to reach musical entropy.
The possibility of highly articulated, transparent micropolyphonic music is reduced when forty of the sixty instruments are of the same string timbre. By contrast, almost all of my scores use simultaneously fifty to one hundred different musical instruments, each of which contributes four to eight tracks. Micropolyphonic clarity is increased when each instrument has a unique attack, timbre, resonant structure, etc. My virtual orchestra may be the world’s largest orchestra, but the arco strings are usually sixteen of the 400 tracks, or four per cent of the total sound, rather than sixty per cent of the sound.
After establishing my approach to orchestration, I realized that in order to have 400 unique musical lines, I needed more than twelve notes per octave. To further increase clarity, I needed blocks of sound to be moving at very distinct velocities, or the use of large, primary-number-based polyrhythms. At this point I realized I was producing a music that could only be created in the recording studio, one part at a time.
To answer your question about new tuning systems: between 1980 and 1993, I only used microtonal tuning systems that I myself developed for each piece. From 1993 to 2003, I wrote in equal temperament, and have now returned to writing microtonal music. From the beginning, I rejected the idea that every note has an exact frequency. What about all the frequencies between each of our existing notes and new combinations of vibrations? In addition, I have been creating works in which a new tuning system is used every minute, and sometimes I use multiple tuning systems at the same time—once again using the recording studio to create a music that could never be realized in real time.
To this day, I am struck by dissonant contemporary music that limits itself to equal temperament. Equal temperament was developed over hundreds of years in order to modulate triadic harmonies through different keys. The dissonance this system gives is a by-product of this system, and represents less than one per cent of all possible dissonances.
Moving on to rhythmic organization, we must remember that Western musicians cannot perform polyrhythms more complicated than five against four. By contrast, I will have, say, three different parts each playing fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen notes in the same time period, creating a perfect 17:16:15 polyrhythm.
Many score pages can include forty different tempi with each tempo driving five to twenty parts. Sometimes, bar lines between all the parts only line up every twenty seconds. This is clearly beyond the abilities of any conductor. Rhythmic accuracy is maintained in my work by using separate click tracks for each level of velocity. The result is a form of counterpoint through polyrhythms.
I should add that these concerns of microtonality and polyrhythms are not emphasized in the music on my new CD, Délires de plaisirs. My musical focus on this CD is melody and modulation in equal temperament, and counterpoint achieved through multiple lines at the same tempo. What a concept! Now I understand what fun composers have been having for the last few hundred years.
Jeremy Turner: Since your work revolves around exploring the potential of recording technology, to what degree do you feel it is important to document your notational processes? Do you still feel a need to connect and communicate your ideas to a musically trained audience?
Paul Dolden: As far as my scores go, this is merely my way of organizing my thoughts. Yes, I do write the scores before I record anything. However, this is because it is impossible to just grab 400 tracks of sound and arrange them on 400 tracks so that they make musical sense. The scores for me are like a script — a set of directions for making the piece. Indeed, it could be argued that my sounds have so much post-production that they no longer resemble the sound descriptions found in the score.
What or who is the musically trained public you refer to in your question? People who are musically trained are working professionals. We no longer have a subculture of amateur musicians who form the basis of our audience. Musicians in training can study my scores. However, no one seems to know the scores exist. For what it is worth, they are at the Canadian Music Centre libraries across Canada.
Jeremy Turner: Many of your works were, and often are, still greeted with hostile reactions in the concert hall. One such audience member might wonder whether you are intentionally trying to disturb people.
Paul Dolden: If I were to place the “Dolden orchestra” of 400 performers in one room, it could get as loud as 200 dBa and you would be instantly deaf. However, I produce recordings in which each person is recorded one at a time. When assembled together, I play it back at normal listening levels. Because of the density and post-production techniques, the music may seem louder than it actually is. The ability to make a recording appear louder than the actual decibel level is the Holy Grail of every commercial music engineer. For example, the kick drum in popular-music recordings sounds like the huge orchestral bass drum, and yet somehow maintains the fast articulation of a normal kick drum. Another sonic illusion is in the recordings of guitar amps that sound twenty feet tall, yet behave like a plucked mandolin. Cutting through both these sounds is the softly whispered lead vocal line, “I love your post-production techniques.”
Jeremy Turner: In your new work, what is your attitude towards romanticism?
Paul Dolden: Romantic music was a reaction to the perceived dryness of baroque music, with its advanced counterpoint puzzles. Therefore, one has to take the entire romantic attitude with a large grain of salt. Romanticism in music also occurs at the same time as the great man, the hero, and the rugged individualist emerge in the popular imagination. Romanticism is a Western movement, focused on Western man. By contrast, we are all part of a living culture that is now global and that transcends time and place, because recordings allow us access to all types of music from different eras. Most of my musical concerns of microtonality and polyrhythms spring from non-Western music that is thousands of years old. I dream of a music that is a musical blend of my entire collection of CDs, from the counterpoint and textural concerns of the modernist composer to the melodic and groove concerns of popular and World music. I find lots of music to explore in the area between romantic, self-indulgent expression and the emotional flatness of modernism, which emphasizes the materials of a work over the individual.
Résumé français: Le compositeur de musique électroacoustique Paul Dolden est bien connu pour ses compositions multipistes aux proportions épiques dépassant de loin les normes établies en matière de technique de performance et de goût. Bien que Dolden se consacre entièrement à ces compositions intenses et complexes depuis vingt-cinq ans, la confusion demeure quant à la façon de catégoriser son travail. Cette confusion ne l’aura toutefois pas empêché de remporter plus d’une vingtaine de distinctions internationales qui l’auront aidé à convaincre bien des gens que ses compositions extroverties occupent une place légitime dans la sphère de la musique nouvelle.
Always a composer who has understood the meaning of density in a work, Paul Dolden returns once again with Délires de plaisirs ([featuring the work] Entropic Twilights).
If you’re wondering if Dolden has softened his edge for the complex multi-dimensional rhythm tracks and computer-generated layers, the answer is a plain, resounding no. The album sees him in full control of his virtual orchestra. Of course, it’s an orchestra on paper only, as his computer is fed the various instrumental parts, which are then neatly (or less neatly – depending on the composer’s mood, I guess) organized into individual tracks. If you thought his other works were dense, wait until you hear the title piece – which comes complete with noisy guitars, altered percussion, some flutes and this thick, thick layer of distortion. All in all, Dolden had to go back and absorb new production techniques in order to come up with the precise sound that he was looking for. We’re talking about relentlessly dense multi-tracking here and the result is absolutely a work of wonder. Just to be able to hear this piece without an opinion is next to impossible. Some may call this a work of a madman. It’s obviously not a work for everyone as the novelty and uniqueness of it may scare the fans of the more conventional. But if you’re looking for something new and challenging, Délires de plaisirs is yet another work of genius from this much misunderstood Canadian composer.