AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Paul Dolden – The Golden Dolden Box Set; Part 5 (2022; Bandcamp)

View Part 1Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of our coverage of this set.

Paul Dolden’s fourth period falls under the “Nature and Historical Imagination” (2004-present) umbrella.  This period has brought some significant changes to Dolden’s music.  Most notably, his return to working with microtonality.

After the Twilight cycle I realized I needed new input into both my style and content. New technologies had been developed which made it easy for me to do microtonal music again. Studio performers could play in our regular 12ET, or their native intonation, and I would re-tune their performances using these new technologies.

That last sentence intrigues me because once again…the more I learn about his process the more meaningful the music becomes for me.  As usual, I’m going to have to caveat the hell out of this next observation because I could be dead wrong but, almost everything I hear on Histoires d’histoire (empreintes DIGITALes-2017) which is in his “Historical Imagination” period seems to be steeped in exotic, non-western tunings.

That observation, on its own, is not the point of me mentioning it though.  What’s unusual is, these non-western tunings seem to be further augmented by the tuning adjustments done after the fact in the studio.  So, we have a double whammy happening here:

  1. The exotic tunings.  Ok…not something I listen to every day, but not really something I haven’t been exposed to.  Certainly not unpleasant to listen to, quite the opposite really.
  2. The exotic tunings re-pitched.  This is where it gets downright unique.  It’s very interesting to hear these tunings to begin with but, after they are tweaked…well that entails a full perception reset.  Alert the thought police…immediately!

Dolden explains the compositions in this period:

These play freely with our historical imagination, specifically, our ability to imagine other times and cultures. At the same time, this imagining is always conditioned by our own time.

Riffing on this a little more, regarding point #2 and the re-pitching of these non-Western scales…I see this as a further gateway to imagination since he seems to be fabricating non-existent cultures and non-existent systems of music. There are some fascinating implications here as the mind continues to rove his world.  Michael Moorcock, the multiverse, the Many Worlds Theory…all of them ain’t got nuthin on Dolden!

This is a long segue into talking about his “Historical Imagination” works.  This period is well represented on the Golden Dolden Box Set with the entire Histoires d’histoire album (of which I did a full write-up here and a single piece from the album here) as well as ten other works that fall into this chapter of the story.  Not only is the music inspired by historical cultures, but he also explores some of the cultural myths of the time.

I’m deviating slightly on a chronological basis since his “Nature” period came before the “Historical Imagination” compositions. I’ll double back to cover “Nature” in Part 6 when I wrap this whole thing up.

“Dancing Plague” (2021), his most recent piece fits into this period. In Medieval Europe there was a strange phenomenon where large groups of people spontaneously broke into seemingly uncontrollable body movements resembling dance.  This occurred shortly after the Black Death in the 1300’s and, to this day historians are not sure what the cause was.  Various theories range from eating a psychoactive fungus called Ergot, to mass psychotic breaks, to demonic possession.  Dolden’s piece provides a brilliantly depraved aural portrait of these bizarre happenings.

“Dancing Plague” is based on a rhythmic foundation. The drums (and other pitched percussion) are ubiquitous, frenetic, and completely appropriate in this historical imagination of which I can only believe must have been off the charts unhinged if you were living it!  But it’s what’s happening on top of / between / within / around / underneath this latticework of rhythm that begs to be examined.

Co-starring in this play is the human voice, and it’s used in a myriad of ways. The heinous (and I use that word in the most lovingly way possible) caterwauling is front and center, and whether those Medieval townsfolk and peasants were getting down with their bad plague-infected selves or just exorcising their demons du jour, we’ll never know, but damn…some of this is beautifully disturbing.

Peeling the onion back a little further there are other voices underneath our primary actors. With these, you must dig a little to appreciate what’s going on because they are lurking just below the manic whoopin and hollerin.  These voices (If indeed that’s what they are, you never know with Dolden, do you?) are…humming.  It’s like, the City Fathers got together and decided they needed a background chorus to add that little touch of “Baron Von Sinister” to keep this Feudal party going.  It’s melodic, but certainly not in any tuning system I’ve ever heard.  It’s also…happy, but happy like Evil Clown happy.  Happy like Droogs on parade before they kick your teeth in happy.  Happy like Mr. Blond doing a number on your ear whilst dancing to Stealers Wheel happy…you get the picture.

Dolden may have moved on from his tsunami of sound but that doesn’t mean his current music lost any of its visceral mental and physical brawn.  “Dancing Plague” ably demonstrates that the intensity is undeniably, still there!

The piece “Memorizing the Sublime” (2018-2019) examines two possible ways that music can lead the listener to a higher plateau of self-awareness.  Not only can the intangibility of music excite the listener into such states, (this has been happening since time immemorial) but engaging our analytical mind with the music achieves similar results.  Dolden puts it this way:

We can also engage music with our analytical brains memorizing patterns and creating associations that conjure a sense of understanding leading to a new consciousness, which is the essence of the Sublime experience.

Well, I can relate to that having been neck-deep in Dolden music for several months now.  Learning > Listening > Learning again > Listening again is a formula that enabled me to experience his music on a different, more lucid (notice I didn’t say “higher”) level than when I started listening to him over two decades ago.  But that’s just me, everyone is different in trailblazing their own paths of discovery.   

The piece itself is more varied in terms of dynamics than “Dancing Plague”.  It ebbs and flows in a somewhat predictable manner as it begins with massed choruses and heavy viscous dollops of tuned percussion of the gong-like variety.  A good subwoofer will enhance the power of this work considerably.  I was personally drawn to the gorgeous, sustained drone of these metal objects, they gave the piece a very ritualistic, far eastern sacred temple feel.

Somewhere around the halfway mark of this 15-minute work, a full-blown percussion “orchestra” takes the stage…and we are back to the “packed to the gills” soundstage so prevalent in his music.  Zooming in, I resort to one of my favorite past times…isolating instruments.  (Please feel free to let the whole sound world wash over you as one giant wave of energy…that works too.)  Dolden performs his usual magic at the mixing board where it’s possible to hear EVERYTHING in this crazed jigsaw puzzle of spectromorphology.  I should be used to it by now, but it still blows my tiny humanoid mind to experience this.  Is this what Elon Musk is planning to do to us with his neural links?  Works for me!

There are many other pieces during his “Historical Imagination” period I could, and probably should, talk about. But time and space are limited.  (Wow, I just realized how ironic that last sentence sounded when referring to Dolden music.)  Stay tuned for Part 6, where we talk about his “Nature” pieces and end this story with some final thoughts.

Mike Eisenberg
Twitter: @bigaudio999

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