Friday, 29 April 2011

William Burroughs Married To Tod Dockstader’s Eight Electronic Pieces

On the day of the royal wedding let us celebrate another marriage, in this case the one between ‘real’ (concrete) sounds on tape, and an oscillator. Also in 1961, William Burroughs’ 'Soft Machine' appears – and I hereby declare that to be married to 'Eight Electronic Pieces', in this article at least.
   Cut up tapes, cut up words – why not? Whilst Bill mixes old prose (the ‘real’ of literary tradition) with nuggets from The Word Hoard, Dockstader combines pure electrical sound with the ‘old’ reality of recordings on tape. Burroughs would also experiment with tape recordings in the 60s, manipulating his own voice along with music, and snippets from the radio.
   Back and forth, splicing and dicing word and sound – two bold ventures to match the space race of the time. Dockstader’s pieces could even provide a soundtrack to Bill’s book, if you wish.
   Scissors and a typewriter, tape and the machine – Dockstader adds echo to electronic sound to give it depth, to round off the edges, and Burroughs adds fractured poetry, echoes of the past leaking through, of TS Eliot and Tristan Tzara, or in Dockstader’s case, Schaeffer and Stockhausen. The soft machine, the sounds of the machine softened.
   Dockstader runs two or three tapes simultaneously and, from the chaos of chance combinations and accidental themes, imposes structure in search of completion. Burroughs, on the other hand, revels in chaotic anti-composition, the destruction of conventional narrative. Similar methods employed for different ends. Both recycling, remaking ‘reality’ in ways which camouflage concrete sources, you might say.
   At the very beginning of track 8 on this album we hear the sound of a saucepan being hit, but that in itself is not enough for Dockstader; he manipulates that sound. Burroughs admitted later to having lost track of everything he manipulated, but we know that Kafka, Grahame Greene, Conrad and pulp sci-fi etc were all used. His total canon is a more powerful entity than any individual work. The details matter less than the whole mythology. In these pieces by Dockstader, however, we can marvel at the minutiae over which he laboured in an effort to make ‘sense’ of the material.
   What would become known as Burroughs’ Nova Trilogy did not predict a future form of prose, but these electronic pieces do suggest the shape of sounds to come, sounds which, even today, cannot improve upon, or advance, what Dockstader did 50 years ago.

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