AMN Reviews: Paul Dolden – The Golden Dolden Box Set; Part 6 (2022; Bandcamp)

View Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 of our coverage of this set.

Welcome to Part 6 of this beast which will cover Paul Dolden’s “Nature” period (2004-to present).  If you’ve been reading this series and have gotten this far, CONGRATS!  If you were previously unfamiliar with his music, I sincerely hope I sparked some impetus to check him out and, if you were familiar, hopefully I provided a “value add” by including more insights into his amazing sound world.  This will be the final installment.

This period has two mid-length mixed pieces for various soloists and tape (available only on The Golden Dolden Box Set) and one very large-scale (mostly) fixed medium work which is split up into 15 bite-sized segments clocking in at 52 minutes.  This large-scale work, called “Who Has the Biggest Sound?” is what’s posted above and is on the self-titled album released by Starkland (2014).  It will be the primary subject of this write-up.

My interest in nature sounds was in using it as a heuristic model for new musical behaviors. I needed new gestures that I would not think of if left to my own devices. I found these new behaviors or gestures in insect sounds we tend to ignore and find a nuisance. In this respect, insects and new music have a lot in common!

Other than a couple short sections during this sprawling work, Dolden’s “new musical behaviors” were not immediately apparent to me.  I’ve had this album since its release in 2014 and I never made a connection that Nature and/or natural sounds were the prime mover of this material.  The original album liner notes made references to his inspirations but, at least at the time of release, I was more distracted (in a good way) at this new sound that he developed.  This was nothing like Délires de plaisirs and, if anything it harkened back to the angry, brutal tsunami of sound found in his earlier releases.  The title itself, “Who Has the Biggest Sound” (bolding mine) served as a pretty obvious clue that there were no “overly saccharine choral arrangements” (quoting myself from Part 4).

But that wasn’t quite right either.  It wasn’t all that angry or brutal and, the tsunami might be just a big wave, albeit a REALLY big wave…the kind surfers crave.  It turns out that Dolden’s connection with Nature on this album had more to do with rhythms and grooves that were informed by the natural world.  In this case, the sound of Crickets (with a Dog army cameo).

There is a whole lot of satirical humor on this record.  Wow, that’s a change…up till now, one would never equate humor with Dolden’s music.  In an earlier write-up I used the phrase “kitsch…but cool” which I think describes this work very well.

The humor element is mostly delivered by the spoken word narration between some of the pieces.  The first time I heard it I thought it was a distraction but, as usual, continued engagements with it became more meaningful.  Currently, I now find this narration hysterically funny but, even more importantly…I now understand the narrator’s point.  Who Has the Biggest Sound?  It’s Nature…stupid!

So, Crickets, Dogs, Cicadas…they all inform the tempo and grooves of this huge piece.  The speeding up, the slowing down, it’s that Cricket voice in the composer’s head telling him what to do.

You may be wondering at this point what “kind” of music Jiminy Cricket is controlling through his Pinocchio puppet with the Dolden face.  Well, let’s start off by saying it really, truly does have a BIG ASS SOUND!  The virtual choir, studio augmented up to the size of…I don’t know, several hundred voices sounding very much like Carl Orff on crystal meth lands a roundhouse kick to your torso early on.  All kinds of utterly bizarre studio fuckery ensues and the result is one giant hallucinogenic crockpot of dazzling weirdness.

“Who Has the Biggest Sound” demands a careful, alert, hyper-vigilant listen.  The overall sound is pure Dolden, i.e., heavy on sonic detail with an intensely strong rhythmic presence acting as a foundation as well as driving force. 

It’s not 100% fixed medium either, Dolden’s “Intoxicated by Speed” and “under heavy influence of the velocity of cricket chirping” guitar soloing pops up occasionally.  Percussion has a huge presence which by now is a given in Dolden’s music…but this time it’s in the service of the groove as the Crickets scream “Everybody Dance Now”!  Deconstructed sound events are re-assembled into dazzling displays of Fantasia-like wonderment.  Natural sounds are stretched, molded and spat out into the gen-pop of musical insanity while the insectoid-headed, rockin combo of the Tremolo Trailblazers bring it all home around the campfire with “The Saddle Song”.  The Freeway Jam session, the final denouement ends the piece with an air of mystery as Nature herself seems to dissipate into the doppler affected night.

“Who Has the Biggest Sound” is a piece that just oozes character.  As idiosyncratic as his music gets, this work probably leads the pack in that regard.  It’s one massive skyscraper of peculiar idea’s rendered down to the most miniscule detail…all driven by the unstoppable force of Nature.

It also may be his most “data-intensive” work ever and serves as a big BOLD mic drop to end this exploration of Dolden music.  So, coming out the other end, I can liken this entire journey to what it MUST be like living inside a 4-dimensional Tesseract.  In other words, “talking about his music is like dancing about architecture”.  It needs to be experienced on a visceral level and even then, words break down and what’s left is a steaming pile of raw, smoldering synapses.  (Please sir, may I have some more raw, smoldering synapses?) 

On a personal level, writing this series taught me a few things about his music and how to listen.  First and foremost, with understanding comes appreciation.  I’ll leave the word “understanding” vague in this case because it doesn’t matter what level you understand something, what does matter is that the listener forms an initial bond or understanding with the artist…it could be something triggered by the smallest detail, but it needs to be initiated by the listener.  Once that happens, the feedback loop can start which could, and should lead to a higher level of appreciation.  In writing this series, I feel I attained a much higher level of appreciation of his work than say, a few years ago.  Was the work worth it?  For me, absolutely!

The deep listens that I’ve done of his music over the past few months have also, to some degree influenced how I take other music in.  Specifically, ideas about acoustic sounds and natural sounds vs. synthetic, man-made sounds.  I have noticed an increase in sensitivity with the way human emotions and feelings become translated into music.  This is especially true when I throw on a jazz record.

I’d like to conclude here by thanking Paul Dolden for graciously answering whatever questions I threw at him in preparation for writing some of this material.  More importantly though, for creating this body of work that has not only proven to be the gift that keeps on giving but has also exposed new avenues to approaching, listening, and enjoying music.

Finally, I’m ecstatic to report that Paul is continuing to compose new adventures in sound:

I still compose every day; it is a form of mediation for me and a way of creating meaning in my life. That people are still listening is enough for me to continue. I still find musical ideas, and combinations. Whenever I think I have reached the end, I listen to someone’s music, and it sparks off my own musical journey.  I have two works on the go now. Both studio works. Each day they bring me joy as I go further in mastering the ideas behind the music and the music itself both in terms of line/rhythm/structure and sound quality.

Best news I’ve heard in a while…Bring it on!

Mike Eisenberg
Twitter: @bigaudio999

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