In the press
Mark Mushet, Vancouver Review, July 26, 2020… a unique and unmistakable voice in Canadian contemporary music…
Simon Cummings, 5:4, July 21, 2020… Beyond the Walls of Jericho […] is among the most monumental works of electronic music you’ll ever experience.
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.
Paul Dolden: le plaisir du sonGuy Marceau, SOCAN, Paroles & Musique, no. 12:2, June 1, 2005Aux atmosphères très prenantes s’ajoutent de larges citations musicales, dans une orgie de références très ludiques.
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.
Another composer who has been polishing off, smartening up and reissuing old works recently is Canadian Paul Dolden. It always surprises me how underappreciated and even unknown Dolden’s music continues to be, particularly as it’s among the most extreme stuff I’ve ever encountered (and, for good or ill, people love to get worked up by extremes), and in many respects is both sonically unique and way ahead of its time. One of the key characteristics of a lot of Dolden’s work is the creation of what we might call a ‘supra-pseudo-orchestra’ through the assembling and layering of a vast number of individually recorded instruments. At full force, the effect would surely have caused Hector Berlioz (whose never-realised ideal orchestra included well over 400 players, including 30 pianos (!)) to squirm with delight, making the climactic tuttis of Mahler seem puny by comparison. Yet one’s always aware that what we’re hearing is not, in fact, real, partly because of the sheer impossible enormity of it, but also because of the curious effect of amassing that many sounds at once, leading to a weird kind of hypercontrapuntal trammelling in which the music’s internal machinery, so to speak, seems to grind against itself and threaten to explode apart. As a consequence Dolden’s music sounds uncanny in its not-quite-but-almost-verisimilitude, dangerous in its precarious volatility, and breathtaking in the audacity of its proportions.
Dolden’s work is primarily represented by a series of releases on the empreintes DIGITALes label, the first of which was the double album L’ivresse de la vitesse (1994). One of the standout works on that album is the fixed media piece Beyond the Walls of Jericho. From the perspective of being reissued, this piece has had an interesting history, one that’s far from unique in Dolden’s output, and which raises important questions about the nature of ‘remastering’. Completed in 1992, the work was originally released two years later on L’ivresse de la vitesse. This album was reissued in 1999 with no changes, and then reissued again in 2003 but with the two discs now split into separate albums L’ivresse de la vitesse 1 & L’ivresse de la vitesse 2, and featuring newly-remastered versions of the music. The liner notes included a text by Dolden directly addressing this, titled Why Remaster Old Works? , citing the challenges of working with early technology and “compositional concerns” as the basis for the remastering. Most recently, in the last few weeks Dolden has reissued Beyond the Walls of Jericho again in another new remaster (apparently created in 2012) as part of an ongoing series of digital releases that presumably capture Dolden’s definitive take on these pieces (some of which have never before been released).
The first thing to say about this is that the word “remaster” isn’t remotely adequate to describe what’s going on here. Usually that term indicates a digitising and cleaning-up of old materials to make them as pristine as possible and then reassembling them into a new master that, in essence (and ideally), is the same as the original but showing greatly improved clarity and balance. In Dolden’s case, the process has involved compositional changes — in some cases quite considerable ones — to the actual musical material, such that to describe it as being “the same piece” is harder to justify. The 2003 and 2020 versions are therefore not really “remasters” but revised and reworked versions that fit the same general shape, narrative and demeanour as the original — we could say that that its dramaturgy is the same — but with many of its inner details and intricacies changed, altered or replaced. In essence it’s Beyond the Walls of Jericho Redux.
The second thing to say is that there shouldn’t be any perceived issue with an artist wanting to do this. The gripe about technological issues is something many composers (including myself) have made about their earliest electronic works, and the desire to get closer to the original musical intent is surely an admirable one. Of course, it’s an attitude that can run amok, and one only has to look to Pierre Boulez or, in cinema, George Lucas, to see the problems that can arise from an artist’s irresistible urge to never let go of their works and keep tinkering away under the illusion of ‘improvement’. Even that, though, is forgivable as long as — and this is utmost important — the earlier versions are still regarded as valid, and as a consequence remain available. The process of revising in this way is not at all a case of simply tweaking something like tuning up an engine so that it continues to run well. It’s a process of re-creation, recomposing a piece such that it bears considerable similarities to — and of course many of the same materials as — an earlier piece. But that act of re-creation doesn’t undo, cannot undo, the earlier act of creation. So just as, despite Lucas’ worst intentions, there is not one definitive work that we can call Star Wars but in fact a plethora of different works that all bear that name and look and sound broadly the same but are in fact quite different, so there is not one work that we can call Beyond the Walls of Jericho but three of them, all the same and all different. And I love them all.
I don’t blame Dolden for returning to this piece several times. I said before about the audacity and enormity of Dolden’s supra-pseudo-orchestra and in Beyond the Walls of Jericho he pushes this to almost ludicrous extremes. That being said, it makes sense that the work should be as extreme as it is, being (originally, at least) the final part in Dolden’s ‘Walls’ trilogy, preceded by Below the Walls of Jericho (1989) and Dancing on the Walls of Jericho (1990). The title alludes to the mythical tale of Joshua and the Israelites, who were able to cause the city walls of Jericho to collapse by marching around them for six days and then blasting their trumpets. Dolden’s interest is primarily in the idea of sound as a catalytic and revolutionary act; hence why the ‘Walls’ trilogy (and above all Beyond the Walls of Jericho) is one of the most unrestrained paeans to the glory of sound that i’ve ever encountered. No — scratch that: not one the most, the most. One of the key aspects of what makes this piece everything that it is, is its willingness to disregard such conventions as clarity, balance, nuance and order. It’s music at the cusp of chaos, as if Dolden has assembled 500 players, given them a bare bones outline of what he wanted them to do and then just set them loose, recording the result. It does have a structure, it does display a sense of narrative and dramatic shape — but continually pushed to the very limits of what can be described as control, and certainly beyond the limits of clarity.
Yet — and this is one of the main reasons why I absolutely love Beyond the Walls of Jericho, in all three of its extant versions — it’s as exhilarating as it is not because we’re being swamped with mere sound but precisely because of its perilous teetering on and over the edge of clarity. Sometimes, not always, we’re able to perceive all manner of detail shifting and moving within its hugely stratified and superimposed textures, details which in turn become overwhelmed, subsumed, squashed or eroded away by the force, friction and weight of the whole. So I really don’t blame Dolden for returning to the piece and doing his best to present, as best he can, both the small-scale detail and large-scale mass contained (barely) within this piece. However, its effect is pretty consistent across all three versions of Beyond the Walls of Jericho, so at a risk of annoying the composer, I don’t actually believe Dolden has particularly ‘improved’ the piece with each iteration, though i’ve welcomed the opportunity to re-experience it, and to hear it anew again most recently has been marvellous.
I have to admit I miss the original 1992 opening of the piece, where vague and elusive hints of instruments slowly grow into an increasingly dense texture. That’s gone in both the 2003 and 2020 versions, which hit the ground running with frantically busy tuttis. There are some structural hiccups too in the 2020 version that, to me, somewhat diffuse the flow — most notably around four minutes in when everything briefly stops before the funky bass and drums start up, dissipating the energy amassed by that point; in 1992 and 2003 this progressed smoothly and maintained that energy. I have to concede, though, that Dolden has managed to increase the intensity significantly from its original form. There’s a sequence around nine minutes in, that in the earlier versions sounds darker and more mysterious; the 2003 version makes it seem as it we were entering a cave-like expanse. In the 2020 version (where it now occurs a minute later) Dolden has kept this perception while making it feel much less distant, upping the power of this strange sequence. The massive climaxes have also, somehow, been made more massive. Overload will always sound like overload, of course, yet the 2020 version lends these overdriven passages a distinct death metal quality, rather wonderfully coating the vast walls of noise in additional pulsating layers of sonic razor wire. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to suggest that the earlier versions of the work are in any way lacking in this respect; perhaps it’s more accurate to speak of different kinds of massive, in terms of quality rather than quantity.
Anyone discussing Paul Dolden’s music, particularly a work like this one, runs the risk of reaching too readily and too often for superlatives. Suffice it to say that Beyond the Walls of Jericho, in 1992, 2003 and 2020, is among the most monumental works of electronic music you’ll ever experience. It’s therefore very likely indeed to polarise listeners — but personally, I always find it utterly energising and exhilarating. My fantasy concert would definitely finish with a live version of this piece.
My recommendation is to seek out all three versions, as they each have something that the others lack. For the 1992 original you’ll need to turn to Discogs to track down a copy of the earliest releases of L’ivresse de la vitesse. The 2003 version is still readily available from empreintes DIGITALes on L’ivresse de la vitesse 2. Sadly, neither of these earlier versions is available digitally, a situation that one can only hope will change. And the new 2020 version can be had — for just a single Canadian dollar — from Paul Dolden’s Bandcamp site.
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.
Une équation se dessine d’emblée lorsqu’on écoute L’ivresse de la vitesse (1992), une des œuvres de Paul Dolden qui a fait l’unanimité des milieux musicaux contemporains ici et en Europe, et qu’on écoute le volubile compositeur parler de son art. À bientôt 50 ans, avec une propension à l’excès, l’accélération et l’accumulation des plans sonores, Paul Dolden parle aussi vite que la musique qu’il compose, mais ralentit un peu lorsqu’il clame ne pas être un vrai électroacousticien. Comment le situer?
Paul Dolden, né à Vancouver mais vivant à Montréal, a tout du compositeur atypique mais passionné de musique. Très easy going, cheveux longs, relent du freak qu’il était dans les années 70, attitude un peu désinvolte et joyeusement pince-sans-rire, il est surtout très allumé et non élitiste. «Même si on compose la musique à l’aide de machines électroniques et numériques, il faut toujours rester dans le plaisir organique, de la même manière qu’on écoute simplement Led Zeppelin ou Brahms par exemple, explique Paul Dolden. Je ne suis pas un électroacousticien au sens de Robert Normandeau, par exemple, notre travail est très différent. J’aime notamment intégrer à ma musique des instruments acoustiques et des emprunts au rock ou au jazz, des styles que j’ai toujours eu beaucoup de plaisir à écouter. Ma musique parle plus au corps et au cœur qu’à la tête.»
Dolden fait mentir l’adage Less is more. Il excelle dans la surimpression de styles musicaux disparates, «pas pour en faire de bêtes pastiches, précise-t-il, mais bien pour exploiter les grandes beautés de ces musiques dans une orchestration imposante que la machine me permet de réaliser et qu’aucun orchestre ne pourrait jouer. Dans mes œuvres, je peux superposer jusqu’à 400 couches musicales pour créer mes sonorités…» À l’écoute, en effet, sa musique parle à tous nos sens: puissante, obsédante et parfois décadente, toujours hautement chargée et recherchée. Il combine ce souci de l’ordre dans le désordre, l’idée de vitesse dans le contrôle, en exploitant les textures, ryrthmes et sonorités sur l’échelle élastique du temps au profit d’une plasticité des plus incarnées. On pense parfois à Varèse ou Zappa, mais toujours dans un «traitement électronique sensible».
Rockeur dans l’âme, Paul Dolden apprend à 16 ans la guitare électrique, puis le violon et la basse en solo. Il s’est même récemment mis au violoncelle! Las de faire de la scène (rock, jazz) dans des spectacles et avec des groupes à géométrie variable de Vancouver, il se lance dans l’expérimentation électronique au joyeux temps de la technologie analogique. «La nécessité est la mère de toutes les inventions. En cherchant de nouvelles façons de faire ma musique, j’ai découvert toute la quincaillerie électronique des années 70. C’est fou ce qu’on peut faire avec ça! Mais, tout comme maintenant, la machine était un moyen, pas une fin en soi.» Ses bidouillages créatifs font mouche au Canada: dès 1981, Paul Dolden remporte des premiers prix coup sur coup. «Avec ces prix, on me disait entre les lignes que la musique que je composais était ce qui se faisait de mieux au Canada! Alors j’ai continué, pensez-donc!»
Et des prix, il y en aura plus d’une vingtaine d’autres. Presque chaque année, une de ses œuvres reçoit une récompense par ses pairs de l’industrie musicale contemporaine et électroacoustique canadienne. La bonne nouvelle se répand ensuite hors de nos frontières et dès 1984, ses œuvres sont primées en Italie, France, États-Unis, République Tchèque, Suède, Angleterre… Un pied de nez à certains autres compositeurs canadiens, puisqu’il n’a pas le profil académique universitaire requis, mais bien seulement un baccalauréat en histoire générale…
Revisiter ses œuvres
Pour qui voudrait entendre le fruit de sa créativité, l’essentiel de ses enregistrernents figure chez empreintes DIGITALes. Son avant-dernier, Seuil de silences (2003), remportait en janvier dernier le Prix Opus du disque de l’année dans la catégorie Musique actuelle, électroacoustique. L’album réunit des œuvres de 1987 à 1996 où, à la trame numérique, s’ajoute le jeu de trois solistes, Julie-Anne Derome (violon), François Houle (clarinette) et Leslie Wyber (piano). «Il faut savoir qu’avec la venue du numérique, j’ai décidé de remixer toutes mes œuvres… Compte tenu que pour réussir à produire une pièce de 15 minutes, il me faut souvent plus de 50 heures de travail, j’en ai eu au total pour un pou plus de deux ans!» Paul Dolden dit avoir fait ce travail pour rendre justice aux œuvres elles-mêmes, qui devenaient ainsi plus précises, plus efficaces et plus sonores.
Rétrospective en Suède
Après plus de 20 ans de carrière, et quelque 40 œuvres plus tard, la reconnaissance ne s’est pas démentie. À la fin avril, Paul Dolden était l’artiste invité au Borderlines Festival en Suède où l’on présentait une rétrospective de ses œuvres (12 pièces, dont deux créations, en neuf jours). Et l’affiche était prestigieuse: aux côtés de ses œuvres, 12 signées Gyorgy Ligeti, un des importants compositeurs du 20e siècle, Ligeti et Dolden partagent certaines approches et techniques d’écriture, notamment dans la complexité polyrythmique. Dolden était en quelque sorte le porte-parole canadien d’une facette de notre paysage musical contemporain électroacoustique, ce qui visiblement l’enchante. Un projet en chantier? «Toujours! Je travaille présentement sur une installation sonore à grande échelle qui se tiendra l’an prochain pendant un mois à la Galerie Diapason de Manhattan (New York).»
Avril a vu la parution de son dernier disque, Délires de plaisirs, regroupant des œuvres remixées dont Entropic Twilights (1997-2002) pour bande en trois mouvements, The Gravity of Silence. Resonance #5 (1996) pour flûte et bande, et The Heart Tears itself Apart with the Power of its own Muscle. Resonance #3 (1995) pour 10 cordes et bande. Aux atmosphères très prenantes s’ajoutent de larges citations musicales, dans une orgie de références très ludiques. La musique force l’écoute et ne laisse pas indifférent. On peut en écouter des extraits sur le site d’empreintes DIGITALes au www.empreintesdigitales.com.