A second volume of the Los Angeles composer’s archival work highlights pieces that attempted to bridge academic research with emotional accessibility, with mixed results.
In the cloistered realm of academia, experimental composers often occupy a unique position. Careers can be focused on pushing musical systems, emerging technologies, or conceptual frameworks to the point where all but the most invested audience members are left behind. In 1937, John Cage expressed the daunting situation succinctly: “The composer… will be faced not only with the entire field of sound but also with the entire field of time... No rhythm will be beyond the composer’s reach.” But this perspective can lead to a deep suspicion of anything with crossover appeal, simple melodicism, or a steady beat. After all, these tools are known quantities. And if your goal is to push into the unknown (the theory goes), you want as little of that baggage holding you back as possible.
Carl Stone did not have this problem. Though he came up through academia, his circuitous route to composition was born in the early-1970s via a student job archiving Cal Arts’ LP library to cassette. By chance, he found he could listen to multiple albums at the same time, and soon discovered what today every novice with a pair of turntables (or open YouTube windows) knows: layering records is fun. Inspired by Steve Reich’s mid-1960s tape pieces and the phenomenological compositions of Alvin Lucier, he began editing, looping, and juxtaposing other people’s works. In a word, he was sampling, still a radical idea at the time. The groundbreaking approach helped him to skirt the typical issues of mandated esotericism and evolve his practice in sync with the development of samplers and home computers. Two years ago, the label Unseen Worlds compiled his formative years on Electronic Music From the Seventies and Eighties. The follow-up, Electronic Music From the Eighties and Nineties, is a retrospective of four mature pieces. Though noteworthy on technical and historical levels, Electronic Music flags emotionally, vacillating between maudlin optimism and a half-baked minimalism.
The compilation mostly acts as a best-of, revisiting three previously released works alongside the never-before-heard “Mae Yao.” All four pieces strike a balance between unabashed accessibility and complex methods. “Banteay Srey” slices and bends unknown source material into a breathy whalesong, wrapping it around a simple bass harmony. The music’s slow-motion dawn echoes the pregnant-with-meaning sampledelia of Boards of Canada, but oversells itself. Cinematic to a fault, it’s the kind of music that might nudge the listener towards a quiet epiphany on headphones but suddenly seems a little embarrassing when played for friends. At over 14 minutes, it’s also at least five too long. On the other side, “Sonali” highlights crisp, synthetic marimbas. It’s clearly influenced by the minimalist composers that preceded him by a decade, but the effect ends up much closer to Hollywood’s cheap rip-offs—“Sonali” begs to soundtrack a montage of brisk accomplishment. It’s “Music for Brainstorms.”
This is the album’s central flaw. Stone is clearly reaching for an emotional connection, but he remains oddly disengaged from the complexities of real life. Instead, the album smothers you in the kind of thin characterization of commercial middlebrow dramas. The hummingbird flutters of “Woo Lae Oak” or the jaunty ripples of “Sonali” gesture toward meaning without allowing even a hint of darkness or ambiguity. In Stone’s hands, all sounds get along. Only “Mae Yao” breaks form, processing a gamelan orchestra into a glitching seizure with more brow-furrowing rigor. Not quite a half hour in length, it feels like the A-minus work of a graduate student. Stone demonstrates technical fluency and works out his process with a not-unimpressive economy of means, but “Mae Yao” never actually blossoms into affecting music.
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. The work of Markus Popp and co. deployed many of the same techniques as Stone—the group was famous for using skipping CDs, deep sampling, and long runtimes to both soothing and oozing effect. One wonders how Oval’s work can be so entrancing while Stone’s, remarkably similar on the surface, just spins its wheels. Perhaps it’s a matter of priorities. Oval explored the computer like a lost continent, mapping its terrain with barely a thought given to the human experience back home. Stone, on the other hand, seems all too concerned with making sure his listeners feel safe and attended to, and the work suffers as a result. In the academy, an appealing artist statement and a complex process can go a long way, but for music to make a real impact you need to take a leap beyond the page. Electronic Music jumps up and down with impressive energy, pointing excitedly towards the future, but in the end stays put in a quickly receding past.
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