What is it about Carl Stone? And by that vagary I mean, how has an acclaimed pioneer of live computer music of Stone's considerable influence eluded up to now the kind of collective moment in which fans both new and old are coming out of the woodwork to praise the "live computer music pioneer?" After all, this is a composer who essentially laid the blueprint for not only a new style of performance--namely laptop-dependent sets--but also pioneered and popularized a range of exploratory techniques including sample layering and micro-sampling, that staple of contemporary dance music made use by everyone from house/techno surgeons Jan Jelenik, Akufen, and Soundhack to club mutants DJ Sliink and KABLAM. And so with Unseen Worlds, who've scored gold in the past few years via their deft Laurie Spiegel and Lubomyr Melnyk career snapshots, releasing the essential and long-overdue retrospective Electronic Music from the Seventies and Eighties, one can't help but wonder if Carl Stone will finally receive both the necessary historical revisionism needed to more accurately quantify his influence and the growth in a fan base that has for too long consisted mainly of jazzbos (and hey, you can't say those cats aren't up on their stuff.)
For a composer of his influence and stature, it's surprisingly difficult to pinpoint where exactly Carl Stone fits into the overarching historical narrative of electronic music, a narrative of which he's regularly left out. And this compilation has made the silence incurred by Stone's absence from the canon all the more deafening. Although answering the "why" part of this equation is certainly outside the scope of this review, the music contained within the eight pieces on hand provides a pretty strong argument as to the "how" (or at least it's a more readily self-evident medium through which which to at least try and understand Stone's conspicuous omission from the canon.) The compilation's liner notes provide a certain reification of many of the ideas that come to one while making her or his way through the two-and-a-half hours at hand, along with some downright illuminating tidbits. Pulitzer Prize-winning LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold recounts seeing Stone play for punks and PhDs in clubs and concert halls around Los Angeles, hinting that Stone's unorthodox compositions and performances created something of a feedback loop that seamlessly informed one another. He then blithely makes the (insane and ill-considered) assertion that pioneering hip-hop producers appropriated Stone's techniques, which, just, no. Putting that faulty historical retelling aside, for anyone fixated by Stone's prescient use of sampling and its place in electronic music history, the fact that it neatly lines up with the birth and development of early hip-hop--1977-1984 in particular--does go a considerable way in confirming Stone's spiritual alliance with the cadre of Bronx and Harlem DJ's and producers whose manipulation and sampling of records did mirror much of what Stone was doing. More so, both sets of artists came to their similar but distinct breakthroughs as a result of financial restrictions and lives dominated by listening, with Stone and his East Coast counterparts possessing unwieldy ears for samples in the most unlikely of sources. And it is here where the extremely valid comparisons to hip-hop can serve to illuminate the listener regarding Stone's outsider status.
Stone's iconic status is confirmed almost immediately within the record's opening pair of process-informed compositions, each dismantling traditional notions of time and purpose by way of the traditional music canon. "Sukothai" was composed by Stone in 1977 during his tenure at LA's KPFK-FM where he would rise to director of the station before leaving LA, and then America, behind for travels that led to him finding a partial home in Japan. The fact that Stone found work in radio after graduating CalArts' electronic music program is a telling biographical feature. And it is supplemented by Gold's assertion that the genesis for Stone's trans-global bricolages can be found during Stone's involvement in a work-study program that had him monitoring the music library at CalArts, leaving him with countless hours to dig through the tens of thousands of records owned by the institution. (Ever the tireless listener, Stone still hosts a radio show, though he's gone from the waves to the cloud, playing his own recordings alongside the likes of Matmos, David Behrman, and Negativland.) Just like disco and funk, which would provide the rhythmic backbone of hip-hop, were the sounds many of the genre's progenitors grew up with and were surrounded by as well as the tools of their craft, Stone's own omnivorous musical tastes would become an autobiographical echo reverberating across his compositions and the means be which he composed "Sukothai" were not much more advanced, using only a record table and two recorders.
Stone recounts in the compilation's liner notes how he hit upon the notion of recording a fragment of music twice, once on the left channel and once on the right, rewinding the doubled recording and then doubling, or rather quadrupling, it again. It is with this deceptively simple technique that Stone sets about doubling a stately harpsichord line from Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" 1024 times, assembling all the generations in a serial assemblage. This layering through electronically-enabled sonic manipulations calls to mind Alvin Lucier's "I Am Sitting in a Room" in which Lucier recorded him reciting a text that begins with the titular statement of place, which he would play back and re-recorded, exciting the natural resonance of the room until the original narration is unrecognizable under the metallic yet spacious tonal reverberations. Stone arguably achieves even more breathtaking results as his sample source is reduced to its primary sonic identifiers like volume and tone, which are then amplified to an even more exponential degree, achieving what can best be described as an oceanic effect in the piece's final third as the shimmering harpsichords disappear under tides of ambient noise and sustained drones until Stone slams on the brakes. From out of nowhere he brings in the original source material as played by a full orchestra, serving as an exclamatory punctuation mark upon this jaw-dropping maximalist achievement, done so through a minimalist methodology.
Composed nine years later in 1986, "Shing Kee," which like most of Stone's compositions is named for a restaurant he patronized, is the digital half of the pair that finds Stone dabbling in more traditional computer music concepts, namely deploying an algorithm by which to generate music on its own (although "Sukothai" achieved this through analog means, its framework could easily have come from the dialogue surrounding computer music at the time.) But whereas the previous piece is free of Stone's manipulation outside of his rote layering, "Shing Kee"--the only previously released composition included here, from 1992's Mom's album--shows how Stone's live sensibility, amplified by his embracing of computers, would take his compositions to new heights. This time around, we find Stone subjecting a 5-second snippet taken from a recording of Japanese pop singer Akiko Yano singing "The Linden Tree" by Schubert" to the glories enabled by digital time-stretching, wringing all of the latent weirdness from this traditionally normalizing effect in the process. The piece commences with a granular looped drone from which soon appears the sound of a woman's breath, which gets longer and longer until the piece starts to come into perspective, the apparently amorphous composition peeling back layer after layer until the source material becomes identifiable, creating a revelatory appreciation for the fact that such alien-sounding music was in fact culled from traditional source material chopped into microscopic loops. Not that the otherworldliness ever really goes way as Stone first gradually speeds up the loop to fit the original time grid before he seems to do away with temporal units altogether, stretching and compacting Yano's vocals before the song once again throws a curveball. By swiftly switching to the other half of the sample, Stone creates something of a mirror effect for the song's second half as the sample starts at a brisk pace until tripping and then stumbling over itself due to Stone keeping the fragment length constant while gradually widening the time unit, causing the piece to melt away into a temporal blackhole until a gentle piano enters the mix part for a refreshing coda.
"Dong II Jang" from 1982 is where the compilation starts to widen its scope in its pursuit of capturing the many sonic experiments and discoveries enabled by Stone's embracing of software over synthesizers. In particular, we see Stone two years into his relationship with the French company Publison's DHM 89, a multi-FX unit that also could provide a means of quasi-sampling, allowing Stone to develop his own style of micro-sampling, snatching nanoseconds worth of sound and assembling them together into a type of sonic bricolage that presaged plunderphonics by several years while sonically calling to mind the harmonic glitchscapes of 90s-era Oval. Commencing with what, at this point in the compilation, seems like another microscopic examination of the voice, an extended vocal loop quickly speeds up into a rapid stutter before the sample bifurcates, the spoken phrase "testing 1-2" phasing in and out of itself, creating intricate aural braiding. Things take a left turn once Stone begins conjuring up artificially harmonized vocal snippets that bombard the listener via manifold indiscernible patterns, with the original samples staying in the mix throughout. Eventually these disparate vocals arrange themselves in some kind of William Gibson-approved tribal chant, the apparent ethnographic sample source transformed into a sidewinding symphony of flickering, disembodied voices, which are female-sounding as Stone is clearly applying substantial vocal pitching to render gender meaningless. As the 20-minute piece enters its final third, Stone reveals his classically-derived third act, tongue firmly in cheek. The ritualistic mantras morph into a chopped-up frenzy of orchestral samples, displaying Stone's steady hand in organizing chaos as he hones on certain, dare I say it, grooves, which are quickly dismantled by the waves of loops and samples all competing for attention in the mix until the piece exhausts itself in a flurry of sampled percussion and vocal snippets. (Note: The above piece and the following two can be streamed via The Wire.)
Moving on two years from "Dong II Jang," 1984's "Shibucho" presents another sample collage while also utilizing generative looping techniques as an opening rattle slowly unspools itself to reveal the timeless Motown tone in the opening guitar line to The Temptations' "My Girl." The instant recognition that the sample brings--especially when Stone plays it in its entirety, its iconic finger snap drenched in reverb--shows Stone treating his source material with a certain reverence that is somewhat missing from the preceding piece. Rather than seemingly throwing his sample source into the digital blender, Stone teases out an endless array of sepia-toned samples, pairing and layering them on top of one another to discover sonic treasures within the source material itself. While this piece could easily have rested on the many golden-layered loops picked from the vocal-led Temptations sample, Stone is restless as ever, bringing in a pre-pubescent Michael Jackson's siren wail to allow the Jackson 5 to take center stage. The triumphant groove of "ABC" takes over, Stone cutting it to pieces and reassembling them into an ethereal, unnatural waltz with Jackson's klaxon soaring over this computerized ballroom shuffle. Closing out the song in a harmonic car crash of dissected samples, Stone's frenzied slicing and dicing presages the glitchy micro-cuts popularized in late-90s compilations like Mille Plateaux's genre-defining Clicks+Cuts series.
At once manic and meditative, the album's first half succeeds in presenting the primary tropes and techniques in Stone's arsenal, setting the stage for its undeniable centerpiece, the 28-minute "Kuk II Kwan." Gone are the mainstream source materials and algorithmic-like structures that function almost like a roadmap for the listener, a lighthouse's beacon glimpsed at through the fog and rain of delay and pitch-shifting. If anything, "Kuk" is the most traditional sounding of any of Stone's work presented up to this point in the compilation, sounding like it could have come from the GRM studios and even maybe the hands of Pierre Schaefer or Pierre Henry, but it stretches the ideas of these sampling pioneers into something resembling a frantic short film. Utilizing field recordings made by Stone around his home in LA, this Frankenstein assemblage of found sound grew considerably as Stone continued to add in further recordings he made in the cities he toured, creating the musical equivalent of "a day in the life." While a passive listen makes for a rather prosaic affair, closer listening reveals a world of measured and engrossing sound design, the obvious audio signifiers like a door closing, dogs barking, or Stone's now-signature "testing 1,2" quickly dissolved of their meaning by a torrent of effects and doctoring by the composer, who here seems almost unrecognizable from the conceptual audiophile we've been engaging with for the past 75 minutes and more like a dutiful student of Luc Ferrari's field recording opus Presque Rien. But, as demonstrated by the preceding four compositions, much of what is heard in "Kuk" is derived from techniques developed by Stone himself, particularly the layering of the barking dogs that he developed in both "Sukothai" and "Unthaitled." Unlike the other pieces on the album, "Kuk" doesn't feel guided by an algorithm or dominated by Stone's restless energy, allowing the vast tapestry of samples to commingle and complement one another while being in no apparent rush, freed to simply be and become. This serves to further muddle our perception of Stone as an anti-musical miscreant intent on displacing our conceived sense of pacing and telos, as his pieces rarely build to any logical climax. But the extended piece also confirms Stone's status as an auteur-like composer, weaving together numerous quotidian narratives akin to Robert Altman's cut-up portrayal of a day in Los Angeles in Short Cuts.
Boasting a clever sequencing structure, the curators create something of an overarching parabola that starts and ends at the beginning of Stone's career. Having reached the zenith, at least in terms of scope, ambition, and sophistication in Stone's oeuvre with "Kuk II Kwan," we now find ourselves on a backwards progression to the very beginning when Stone was still a student and had access to some of the most sophisticated gear in the world. 1974's "LIM" is a stoic affair, with Stone using the Buchla 200 series synthesizer to create a seductive, but directionless series of extended drones, working his way across tones and effects to create what is at the very least . In particular, he's clearly fascinated by poly-tonal constructions and the texture you can create through the envelope filter's ability to stretch and confuse one's traditional sense of time as it relates to notes played. "Chao Prayer" closes out the vinyl with the earliest of Stone's pieces included here, hailing from 1973. While it's unknown if Stone was at all familiar with the work of Eliane Radigue at the time, it's hard not to feel her influence, or at least identify Stone's passing interest of the spiritually-tinged drone mantras he and arch-minimalists like LaMonte Young and Radigue were coaxing out of their hardware. Unlike "LIM" this piece feels a little more clear in its objective, assured in its steady builds and changes to create a heady piece of synthesizer-aided meditation.
On the digital version is included the 28-minute "bonus track" "Unthaitled" that, while exhausting in both length and concept, shows Stone returning to the source material of "Sukothai" a year later, intent on going beyond his initial 1,024 limit, achieving dizzying and stunning results in the process. He also weaves in alternate performances of the sample source that Stone had treated with his layering effect, creating a jaw-dropping composition that is freed of its algorithmic constraints, enabling Stone to gently guide its tonal layers. One listening to either "Unthaitled" or "Sukothai" would not likely realize the jaw-dropping simplicity of either's foundational concept, especially since both achieve a degree of sentience, undulating and morphing into shimmering patterns overseen by Stone's steady hands and ears. The fact that "Unthaitled" is the version that Stone had significantly more control over--as he notes in the liner notes, the sounds that make up the last few minutes of the piece are in fact 65, 536 layers of the organ and trumpet version of the source material--is apparent in the recorded piece itself, which demonstrates a stunning degree of control and patience, creating a sonic bath that calls to mind the comforting yet haunting sample-doctoring of The Caretaker and the atmospheric vinyl collages of Philip Jeck. The compilation closing on the start of Stone's career strongly reinforces the composer's prescient sensibility.
What we learn from this incredibly rewarding album is that Stone's reverence for the act of listening and vigilance for discovering samples both already recorded and captured by him in the wild resulted in an artist eager to play and build with the very recordings most of us just listen to passively. While Stone's spiritual allegiance with hip-hop might sound laughable at first blush, as he was a white middle-class suburbanite hailing from the academy on the west, it in all actuality makes more sense than some making the comparison might realize. For not only did Stone and hip-hop pioneers like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash discover entirely new worlds via the sounds of other musicians, but their respective financial limitations led them to find their answers in that most quotidian of everyday objects: the vinyl record. Although Stone achieved many of the same breakthroughs using computing technology, he and hip-hop's founding fathers did so to reflect their respective realties, finding the extraordinary in the everyday while juxtaposing and interpolating whole cultures with one another, the aim being to create a wholly new sound from readily-available sources. So when we tend to refer to Stone as a computer music performer, it feels oddly unjust as his pieces never feel pre-determined by external algorithms, instead achieving a processual yet improvisatory sensibility that is a hallmark of his work. Stone works from the inside out, placing himself in the thick of his own personal sample arsenal and utilizing his enviable catalog of sounds to cast a net and catch new and innovative sonic stylings and signatures. And he does this while attempting to juggle a sample's inherited intention with the one he seeks to engineer, resulting in hyperactive and dynamic collage-like compositions that, much like the CalArts music library Stone spent many of his hours in, reveals endless surprises and delights upon each listen. And isn't that the highest compliment one could pay to such passionate listener and consummate performer.