Wednesday 8 October 2008

Tod Dockstader of Westport Connecticut

A real-time analogue conversation with Matt Woebot last week brought my attention back once again to the interview with tape music pioneer Tod Dockstader I conducted at his home for The Wire in the spring of 2005. After its initial publication, an electronic version was posted, with the magazine’s permission, on the Unofficial Dokstader Website, which is where Matt had first encountered it. The site also offers a fantastic introduction to this remarkable musical innovator from his earliest tape experiments to recent large-scale projects such as the vast ‘Aerial’ series of compositions based around shortwave ‘dead airtime’.

The interview was one of the longest I have ever conducted, running to over six hours of material as we sat together on Tod’s back porch and talked through two entire afternoons while he alternately sipped a cold beer or lit up another cigarette. It was rare to meet someone as sensitive to technological shifts – from making wire recordings in high school to editing the sound effects on 'Gerald McBoing Boing' cartoons for UPA, he seemed to appreciate that historically the medium was the moment. He told me that when Bob Moog first showed him a working modular she said he felt like the village blacksmith seeing a Model T sputter down the village street for the first time. The days of manipulating sound on magnetic tape would, he felt, soon be over – well, there may be more than a few who might dispute that, but their interests are now being pursued under a very different regime.

Dockstader also, it turns out, had a great historical feel for place as well. He described life in the Los Angeles hills in the 1950s, racing sports cars round their hairpin bends in packs that included James Dean or watching a Warner Brothers crew outside one of the storm drains in the LA River, filming the final battle between the US Army and the giant ants in the movie ‘Them!’. He also told me about the miserable time he spent in Montreal rigging out one of the pavilions with an audiovisual piece for Expo 67. In sharp contrast to the cheery internationalism of the Montreal expo, the gloomy hostility of the local inhabitants made for an intensely miserable experience. In another of the Cold War’s neat reversals, the global perspective had replaced the local – but you’d still find yourself being stared at while you drank alone in any of the neighbourhood bars.

During the 1960s Dockstader had moved his home out to Westport Connecticut to what was, at the time, one of the main commuting destinations for the advertising execs working on Madison Avenue. With trains running regularly out of Grand Central Station and with New Canaan (whose decline and fall were chronicled in Rick Moody’s ‘The Ice Storm’ ) one of the next stops up the line, the journey from New York out to Westport CT has taken on almost mythical status. From three-martini lunches to the wood-panelled station wagon waiting at the other end, this was the lifeline to the New Atlantis of the 1960s. How happy it makes me to think of Tod sitting on his back porch looking out on it all.

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