There aren’t many things stranger than hearing a recording of a dead relative’s voice. And if that recording is interspersed with peals of loony laughter weaving in between gurgles and twitters of electronic music, as absurdly preoccupied and innocent sounding as a small child… and if the voice veers between dry professorial and outright goofy, you have a strange listening experience indeed.
My Great Uncle Ed Canby presented a show on WNYC for nearly 25 years. He was also one of the core group who helped to launch the Elektra/Nonesuch label. He was dedicated to classical music, but he was also a sound fanatic, early tape music advocate, and folk-music anthropologist.
A lot of people made valuable contributions to music in the same era as Ed Canby, and they have been forgotten. The broadcast that I happened to run across is relevant to the tape music being made today though, and I found it fascinating, even without the freaky crispness of my lost uncle’s voice – hence the sharing.
So much of what fascinates Ed Canby about the way in which Tod Dockstader makes music has come to define the arch-producer and sound-geek of today. Canby sees it as a novelty that Dockstader considers himself an engineer rather than a composer. He lovingly describes the functional beauty of the boxes in which Dockstader presents his tapes. There was a particular irony in this for me in this, as Ed Canby’s house was the messiest house I’d ever seen. He would scotch tape ancient or valuable items to walls and tables. It was always comforting to know that if a thief broke in, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between junk and loot.
Another great thing about this clip is Canby’s commentary on the swells of Luna Park’s movements. For me, it really does tread the right line between learnedness and music’s more emotional and colloquial associations. It’s interesting to hear Canby responding to Dockstader’s piece as someone who remembers the old amusement park in Brooklyn — Luna Park — associating this with the music, and the strange bubbly feeling of a ‘loony’ or spontaneous emotion that it conveys. Before moving onto his theoretical deconstruction of why the music works, he makes sure to emphasize that he just plain likes it, because it gives him a thrill – like riding a rollercoaster.
Dockstader’s notes on the piece match the tone of the broadcast. He doesn’t describe his ambitions as technical and stylistic; he just says he wanted Luna Park to be “silly and sad and simple.” It’s a coincidence that the piece was named for the moon – who was actually a Miss Luna from Des Moines — a sister of the park’s founder.
I wonder what Ed Canby would make of the tape resurgence today. I had never heard of Tod Dockstader but I agreed with Ed Canby’s assessment about Luna Park. If you read Dockstader’s composer’s notes he credits the original sounds he uses on Luna Park – “laughter;” “little bells” – as if they were instruments or players on the piece. The approach doesn’t sound like the often looped or electronically finished recordings heard today — more like an arrangement for parts modeled on a traditional classical set-up. Yet the actual recordings sound completely new as if they were made yesterday. It doesn’t get more ‘Delorean’ than being awakened to music that’s forty years old but sounds new — via a relative from beyond the grave. And it says a lot that electronic music of today has rediscovered its ‘roots’ in tape music and musique concrète – music that was, unlike the song-orientated folk, the natural successor to instrumental classical music.