Despite having been fairly prolific since starting his practice as an electronic musician in the seventies, for those who first encountered the music of Carl Stone prior to the vinyl anthologizing campaign being run by the fantastic Unseen Worlds label and the shows he performed since its release in the fall of 2016, his music had an almost mythical/mystical quality to it. Sure, there were CD releases coming in and out of print, but for someone who discovered the music of Stone via a YouTube upload of "Shing Kee"--probably the most common entry point to his work alongside the enchanting “Banteay Srey," both included on the Mom's CD--his music represented something of an unknown entity within the history of electronic music. Stone has pushed the boundaries of the practice while retaining an intuitiveness and raw emotionality to his work not typically attributed to the academic music alongside which his compositions have long been filed.
As I explored in my extended essay taking in the first volume of Stone's works, that collection that ranged from the solo synthesizer piece "Lim" recorded while still a student at CalArts in 1973 to the processual beauty of 1986's "Shing Kee," Stone's career has paralleled the last forty years of electronic music history in every sense except the most important one: His general occlusion from the history book. Part of what makes this absence so noteworthy is considering how so much emphasis in western history is placed on primacy, being the first to pioneer a certain technique. For while Stone can reasonably claim 'firsties' on a number of now-commonplace techniques he's developed over the year, not to mention that he's basically pioneered the live, improvised computer music concert, that's something inherently difficult to attribute in electronic music history (though plenty try).
In my previous essay, I took umbrage with Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold's assertion in the liner notes that Stone's early experiments with sampling and sound processing were "appropriated by hip-hop artists." I used Gold's assertion to point to a frustrating dynamic for the electronic music historian concerned with finding and holding up those electronic artists who supposedly pioneered a certain technique: so many of the crucial breakthroughs in electronic music have occurred simultaneously and often geographically isolated. Like those hip-hop pioneers who looked to the records they grew up with to create music that directly reflected their present moment, Stone has long showed he has little use for notions of 'good taste' and would sample well-known music like that of The Temptations or Schubert's "The Linden Tree" and process it in such a way as to make it sound otherworldly while retaining that unmistakable sense of "I know this...or do I?" Both Stone and those early hip-hop artists represent a lived avant-garde practice as they were both creating art very much ahead of its time and largely existed outside of any institutional credibility (though Stone received a number of grants). And while hip hop was embraced by the mainstream, Stone's nomadism on the musical fringes--Gold recounts seeing him in concert halls, punk venues, galleries, and nightclubs--kept his innovations from reaching and inspiring a wider audience, failing to fit neatly into any of the categories available to him. His music could be considered too pop to be academic and too academic to be pop by two different listeners, creating something of a personal brand nightmare. And no album of his, in my opinion, better sums up this fissure of 'taste' than 2007's Al-Noor whose tracks have been sprinkled through this intro.
Arguably, it's taken the wide acceptance of artists like Arthur Russell who moved so fluidly across genres and scenes while retaining an unmistakable personal artistic touch for someone like Carl Stone to receive the appreciation and attention he seems to be finally receiving, however belatedly. Belatedness is a tricky concept in the world of experimental electronic music as having the money and access to the equipment often cancels out certain countries from the narrative. For instance, while Pierre Schaeffer may have pioneered the practice and theory of musique concréte in 1944, the Egyptian composer Halim El Dabh could be considered to have actually created the first such tape music piece. But rather than measuring Dabh's discoveries by Schaeffer's philosophies or Schaeffer's work by Dabh's theories around "the inner sound" opened up by his manipulation, both should be appreciated within their own contexts rather than drawing the type of false equivalences we see regularly see in click bait headlines: "Learn About the Egyptian Pierre Schaeffer Here!"
Lately, I've been utterly engrossed by a book that presents a Hegelian reading of the avant-garde, a philosopher and a topic that I've had little interest in or use for in the past. In his study of the history of the avant-garde in relation to the crisis presented by contemporary capitalism, the author John Roberts defines the core program of the avant-garde: "that art stands in advance of what prevails as bourgeois 'culture,' bourgeois 'meaning' and bourgeois 'value.' In other words, across a broad range of activities, the avant-garde again defines itself as in advance of capitalism itself." Important to our discussion today is his concept of artistic 'belatedness' and how we even define such a descriptor, noting how for much of the twentieth century, artists seeking to position their work as avant-garde were dependent on their particular national-cultural context. Citing as an example American artists in the 1960s "who produced an extraordinarily long sequence of neo-avant-garde achievement (minimalism, fluxus, conceptual art)" who had little formal knowledge of the historic avant-garde, he paints a pluralistic history of the avant-garde. As Cold War politics and imperialism restricted 'peripheral' avant-garde movements from participating in any "international dialogue," he conclusively demonstrates how "there was no truly shared transnational space of the avant-garde within the newly modernizing post-colonial nations; what localized contributions were made never left the periphery, given that its concerns were received and framed in New York, London, and Paris as imitative of the moves made at the centre."
By constructing an oppositional dynamic between first world centers of art and the third world peripheries, he notes how an anti-imperialist front emerged that "seeks to defend a non-Western modernity as an expansion of the avant-garde's critical horizons." One particularly fascinating example of this impulse to reject belatedness as it is defined by "false measures of the centre" is found in 1970s Egyptian art and literature where scholars in Cairo looked to instances of Arabis avant-gardism from the 1930s and 1940s in order to "define an avant-garde that is neither imitative of the imperialistic centre...nor regressively indebted to Islamic traditionalism." What this illustrates is how in twentieth-century art, it became an increasingly impossible project to recuperate an established or fixes avant-garde history as such a legacy "has to be rethought and rebuilt time and time again across national and cultural contexts."
Applying this idea to music, think about records like Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat made by Charanjit Singh in 1982, which the western press dubbed "the first acid house record." Now, what this is doing is measuring what was very much a pioneering piece of music on the periphery by western standards (despite being made on a Roland TB-303, these are ragas composed following the strictures of a very different musical tradition). I mean, listen to this piece from Singh's record in 1982 next to Phuture's "Acid Tracks," which instantiated acid house as we still know it for about as obvious of an object lesson in understanding the concept of belatedness as it relates to an avant-garde practice that I can think of. Where Singh learned how to work the TB-303 "properly" as the instructions intended, syncing it with his TR-808 and Roland Jupiter-8 keyboard whereas the famous acidic squelch discovered by the Phuture trio was achieved by mis-using the machine, or at least not following the instructions that intended it to be used as a stand-in for a live bass player.
Of course, a British journalist actually interviewed Singh and played him Phuture's classic, which he characterizes as simple and laughs at the idea that his music would be seen as a precedent for what emerged from Chicago. Noting how his ragas contain much more variation than the single bass line Phuture managed to make jaw-droppingly complling for thirteen minutes, well, that's because they're ragas. While I'm not sure if his are Carnatic or Hindustani, ragas follow rigid compositional guidelines while allowing for a certain degree of improvisation and Ten Ragas is Indian music, just made on Western equipment that took on a whole other significance elsewhere. The piece concludes with the observation "The album was in many ways just another in a long line of recordings for Singh. But in others it is truly unique. Talking to Singh nearly 30 years on, there is a sense that he is only just starting to realise this." Again, why else would he have realized this earlier?
What this example illustrates is the way that the "center" (re: western mainstream media) defines an unrelated musical document that did seek to employ Western instrumentation (something Carnatic and Hindustani artists have done for centuries) and rhythms but was ultimately defined by its own indigenous, peripheral musical traditions. It curtails a more engaged reading of Singh's musical background because it's constantly defining his compositions in terms of a totally different musical tradition, one that most likely could have only happened in Chicago. Such sensationalistic and uninformed approaches to musical history ultimately disparage both parties as it creates a false sense of equivalence between two drastically different musical traditions and contexts. Even more frustrating to me, however, is how often derivative music isn't criticized for being as such, like basically everything OPN has done (that I've heard, at least).
Returning to Stone, where the first compilation documented his move from modular synthesizers like the Buchla 200 to working with tape layering and processing to his beloved Publison DH89 that was initially marketed as a high-end digital delay and which Stone used in real-time performances, this collection sees both his compositional purview and means to accomplish it widen. Remarking in the liner notes how this comp "documents three different tendencies in my works in the eighties and nineties," he points to the magnetic tape piece "Woo Lae Oak" that was composed for broadcast FM radio, notes that "Mae Yao" was a concert performance work created and perform on the Publison, and observes that "Banteay Srey" and "Sonali" were made using "MIDI, an Apple Macintosh SE30 computer which controlled a Prophet 2002 sampler and a Yamaha TX816 8-voice synthesizer." So, again we see the move from analog to digital except this time his means of creation were largely digital with the big switch-up coming in 1986 following the burglarizing of his Publison (twice), which led him to move to MIDI.
“Banteay Srey” that opens the album was originally recorded using the Spherical Sound process for a high-definition movie produced by SONY PCL, entitled Recurring Cosmos. The version included here was re-recorded in 1993 for the Mom’s CD on New Albion. Commissioned as the soundtrack to a corporate video, it’s a track that alongside another Mom’s cut, “Shing Kee,” often serves as many people’s introduction to the music of Stone. Opening with what sounds like a velvet-draped missile of granular sound that reveals itself to be a voice, processed in such a way here to both sound distinctly inhuman and more human than the listener can handle. Stone’s microscopic sampling transforms the nuances of the human voice into something far smoother, almost like he’s sanded any visible grains out and coated the whole thing in an organ-sourced varnish. The way the circular chords and note clusters that Stone plucks out at first sounds almost analog, morphing into a much more synthetic and silken sound, the vocals having receded momentarily, re-joining the mix as the chords start to crescendo and the light that’s been pushing to be released fills the room in a blindingly sublime and transcendent bath of universalist understanding.
And while it’s taken serious effort to avoid just picking about Daniel Martin-McCormick’s dumb-as-rocks review for Pitchfork, I have to say, this is almost certainly a song you will never feel embarrassed playing for friends unless you have terrible friends. Rather than needing to be five minutes shorter (at least) in Martin-McCormick’s estimation, it’s one of those pieces that could double its current length of fourteen minutes and most people with the ear likely wouldn’t notice. Also, a piece of advice to music editors: if a writer ever critiques an experimental piece's length, they are probably out of their league (just ask Anthony Fantano).
Where “Shing Kee” was constructed around algorithmic parameters in that a five-second sample was looped and made slightly longer with each pass, aurally recreating the revealing beauty of a slow outwards camera pan moving back from a close-up, “Banteay” retains a sense of liveliness and real-time editing that provides the listener with countless tributaries by which to join the piece’s ice-melting flow.
Recalling the MIDI minimal-maximal aesthetic of 80s composers like Daniel Lentz’s “Is It Love“ while anticipating the type of keyboard patch progressions/odysseys as heard on Nobukazu Takemura’s “Kepler” taken from his 1999 album Scope, “Sonali” sees Stone’s music taking on an ambition not yet heard in the context of this compilation series. Where pieces like “Kuk Iil Kwan“ are sprawling and unstructured sample collages or “Sukothai“ is the sound of infinite sonic layering so as to achieve an almost levitational quality, the sixteen-minute composition will likely sound familiar whose ever encountered a late seventies or eighties electronic music library record soundtracking Reagan’s capitalism-as-religion mindset. It’s ruminative music that really does evoke the breakneeck speed and endless associative logic of human cognition and is just as restless.
There has always been a certain prioritizing of narration in the western musical canon, from the auteur folk of Bob Dylan to Illmatic as well as in the compositions of such enlightened minimalists as Terrry Riley, Steve Reich, and especially Philip Glass. And where certain radio pieces of Stone’s can resemble the sonic equivalent of a free-form play or poem, one never gets that sense of telos in his work other than a certain process or algorithm running its course. And that’s what makes “Sonali “ such a joy for me as the ear races to keep up with its darting melodic motifs and rapid-fire arpeggiations, never quite getting on top of this rhizome-in-a-jar of a composition. There’s also a steady sense of progression as the piece moves through its seventeen minutes, those distinctly 80s keyboard synths—it almost sounds like one can hear a tactile click with the signaling of each note—the piece’s’ introduction introduces interpolations of the principal melodic motif over submerged sampled laughter, the machinic rhythms of the keyboards trying desperately to emulate such a human sound. The sounds of the Yamaha-provided keys morph over the piece's duration, but the most exciting section is arguably the final five minutes when Stone starts bringing in a mutilated orchestral sample, written by Mozart no less, having his own piece mimic the digitally-distorted rhythms while the keys pivot from quixotic bells to an artificial string instrument that works beneath the growing chaos to fashion a nesting bed for when the varying strata finally line up (or don't, it's all relative, bb). In Stone's soundscapes, everything exists on the same plane; there is no structural hierarchy, no employment of compositional conventions. There is only immanence and absolute possibility, making every passing minute a potential left turn or 180 as Stone's music sounds like his samples are informing as much about the piece's flow as the composer is, creating a singular and symbiotic relationship between sound and its sculptor.
On the two twenty-three minute pieces that comprise Electronic Music from the Eighties and Nineties, one feels truly submerged within Stones immersive soundscapes. Where his collage pieces on the first comp had a more toplogical feeling to them, like we were watching the artist assemble all the elements from above and navigate through, on the edited version of 1983's "Woo Lae Oak." But across the four pieces included on this compilation, with many of the first comp's more austere pieces being recorded within the same decade, Unseen Worlds seems to be taking a tact that seeks to not boil such a complex figure and his unclassifiable music down to a single dimension. Indeed, listening to both compositions, one can easily envision a triple LP edit to feature his more accessible and conventional work. The thing is, as I regularly find with Stone, people seem to have wildly different conceptions about which aspects of his work are impenetrable and which are inviting, not to mention often being left unsure how to even characterize the work, so easily can it veer into academic obfuscation or poptaastic euphoria.
Palindromic in structure, Stone created "Woo Lae Oak" using "minimal samples of strings and wind which layer, deconstruct, and reformulated" and edited here to fit onto one side of an LP. Although Unseen Worlds released the full fifty-plus minute version in 2008, I'm still quite content digesting it in this compacted state. A droning string wail authored by a single tremolo sting creates a sonic bed or veil for the listener through which probing glassine tones gently buttress up against (these having been created by a glass bottle blown like a flute and processed into a constellation of earnest notes. Originally intended for FM radio broadcast, I often struggle to understand or imagine what it would be like to experience one of Stone's pieces whilst randomly flipping through the dial (while driving as that's the only time I'll listen to the radio these days).
Originally composed in 1984 as a piece composed for the LA-based organization Some Serious Business with the premiere featuring an introduction with bagpipes played by LAPD members, the version of "Mae Yao" that closes out the compilation comprises "the main body of the piece" and was performed on the Synclavier and Publison. Later used as the soundtrack for the movie KAPPA that features a cameo by George Takei, the skipping, uneven loops that move about the mix call to mind digital strings that have been elongated, sliced and diced, and stitched back together again. The way the intersecting tracks glide past one another in one breath, colliding the next, recalls that traffic puzzle game, or a circuit board roadway. By the time the vocal chorus comes in during the piece's final minutes, it's an exalting moment without presenting any sense of conclusion or resolution at the end of an hour-long descent into Stone's more placidly pop inclinations.
OK, sorry, but I gotta return to Martin-McCormick's review one last time because it just contains like every music reviewer rhetorical device en vogue today that drives me up the wall. As he writes in relation to "Mae Yeo": "Absorbing those jarring pops and jumps, the gentle ebbing of sound around the stereo field, and the glassy, digital artifice reimagined as a source of wide-open pathos, it is impossible not to think of another artist active in the 1990s: Oval." Now, maybe it was the distance between the bed in which I write and my speakers, or maybe it's the fact that I was aware that "Mae Yeo" was composed in the 80s, making any comparison more than a bit unfounded, but I certainly didn't think of Markus Popp & Co. on my first or fifth listen. Call me crazy, but I try to assess a work of art on its own merits and only make critical comparisons to act existing in a shared timeframe. One way it's not unfounded is that yes, the unmetered samples colliding into one another do call to mind skips or bumps in the road, but in a way that's far less abstract or conventional. One passage in which a series of toy bell noises are erratically and constantly triggered evokes bumper cars driving around a pinball playing field. And that feels like perhaps the aptest analogy to end this review with as a sense of "fun" has pervaded Stone's work almost from the start, be it plunging baroque harpsichords into a liquid metal bath or the fluidly rigid arps the run in straight Army training camp formations until the whole platoon is felled by exhaustion and another phalanx of sepia-toned futurity assembles and takes flight.
In a truly enjoyable email interview with Unseen World's chief Tommy McCutchon last year, the most surprising aspect of our chat was how much I had forgotten what it's like to listen to a CD as a musical format. Considering that CDs and then digital albums were my primary mode of musical consumption for the first thirty years of my life, the amount of music and ideas one can fit onto a seventy-eight minute disc opens up horizons that a twenty-five or thirty-minute LP side limits. And yes, while three-quarters of this album has been released via CD, the way this album succeeds as an ideal two-LP compilation is somewhat astounding to me. Sure, with only four tracks, if you're not down with the Stone then you'll likely want to steer clear of this record. But if you've been intrigued in the past and perhaps left a little guarded after the first compilation, I can't recommend Electronic Music from the Eighties and Nineties enough. Stone's extremely early adaptation of digital arrangement techniques and live electronic performance has always given his pieces a living, breathing quality; an improvisatory essence that might not register as such given the measured pace at which each piece progresses. Duration is not the same as endurance and there's nothing to endure for the open-minded listener outside of the infinite expanse opened up by listening and closing one's eyes. So don't get worried about matters of academic and pop music, high and low culture; just let a bitch be, something Carl excels at better than most.