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Beyond Postcards from the Concert Hall: A Written Exchange with Paul Dolden

Jeremy Owen Turner, Musicworks, no. 96, September 1, 2006

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.

He draws hostility from classical music audiences, but the international awards keep accumulating.

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