AMN Reviews: Paul Dolden – The Golden Dolden Box Set; Part 2 (2022; Bandcamp)

In part 1 of this series, I mentioned that Paul Dolden splits his career into four distinct periods.  The Golden Dolden Box set is laid out in reverse chronological order so it’s easy to see his evolution in terms of changing “artistic concerns” on the composer’s part.  Additionally, his included essay “Artistic Practice:  Changes in Musical Content” clearly maps out this timeline.   If you want to start at the beginning, (his Modernist period), you will begin at the end and work your way backward.

His Modernist Works (1984-1992) is defined by his use of sonic textures as opposed to traditional melodies and harmonies.  I personally wasn’t introduced to his music till he was well into his third period (The Twilight Cycle), but it was these Modernist Works that completely red-pilled me down the rabbit hole and these were the ones I heard first. 

The early works are noted for their intense and extreme “wall of sound” characteristics coupled with his amazing ability to record said “wall” in a manner that allows for… actually, demands repeat listens.  This is because his idiosyncratic studio techniques were so developed, even back then that the listener was presented with virtually unlimited hearing prospects.  Let me try and explain using one of his earliest compositions as an example.

While process shouldn’t matter when listening to music, in the case of Dolden’s work it does play an important role in understanding, and thus appreciating his music.  The piece “Veils” is a great illustration of overlaying sound textures resulting in a multi-faceted listening experience.  Recently, I experienced a bit of an epiphany when Dolden mentioned that all sounds, stretching his entire career are generated from acoustic instruments, played by carbon-based, organic lifeforms i.e., people.  (Like Queen sez on the back of their early albums, “NO SYNTHISIZERS”.)  The last part of that sentence is important because he makes the distinction that human-produced sounds are like snowflakes.  Depending on environmental and physical circumstances, no two notes will have the same spectral detail.  In other words, living sound as opposed to sounds produced via electronic synthesis which, in theory and practice can be, and often are homogenized, and I might add, commoditized.  Bots on a conveyer belt.

This fact alone changed my whole perspective when listening to his music.  On “Veils”, what I originally thought were electronically synthesized drones and blasts, were an army of strings, brass, voice, piano, marimba, glass, etc. all meticulously close mic’d and recorded in a very dry acoustic space.  Because of the layering of sounds (up to 240 tracks piled on top of each other), the sounds coming out of your preferred listening device are intentionally “veiled” as to what is producing them.  Additionally, the non-trad tunings and the close mic’d recordings succeed in furthering this “camouflage” effect.

If this wasn’t enough…the real magic begins to happen when the listener is able to hear, literally isolate the various minutia…tiny details that would normally be missed in a live performance (a fascinating exercise, and not as hard for the listener as it sounds). Additionally, if the listener so chooses, the piece can also be experienced as one massive, monolithic edifice of sound. A truly new beast, created from the myriad of Legos that comprise it. We are talking The Borg incarnate here! This gives the work a generative quality that allows for a vast multitude of unique re-visits. The snowflake analogy does indeed hit home, the listener can see the veil as a whole or, see the tiny strands of sonic fabric that make it up. Choose your poison, either way it succeeds on every intentional level, and is a precursor to even higher, more gargantuan alien-built structures that are to come, especially with the “Walls cycle”.

I’ll conclude this part with some short comments about another piece during this period, “In the Natural Doorway I Crouch”.  Per the program notes, the work is inspired by the interaction between plucked metal strings and wind instruments.  These sounds, like “Veils” described above are also veiled on this composition.  The listener is most likely NOT hearing what they think they are hearing but, unlike my digression into “process” as above, the final musical result is nothing short of stunning.

Also, like “Veils”, this is pure Cinéma pour l’oreille (Cinema for the Ear), but while “Veils” is aggressive and brutal in places, “In the Natural Doorway I Crouch” has a low-key creep factor vibe.  Through highly creative sound organization and mixing, the work creates a “just under the surface” but persistently menacing queerness, an occultism that doesn’t quite reveal itself but, indeed…makes itself known.  The body chills and sense of vague paranoia the last time I heard this is sorta like…a dead giveaway.  (But you know I loved it!)

I’ve only barely touched the surface on this period in Dolden’s career and I would highly encourage anyone whose interest I may have piqued to check out the entire box.  This part was rather lengthy, and I apologize for that but, many of the concepts touched on have been carried on, refined, and modified through his entire catalog so I wanted to mention them early.  I’ll most likely be referring to them as the series continues.  Stay tuned for Part 3, his “Post-Modernist Works”.

Mike Eisenberg
Twitter: @bigaudio999