Thursday, September 12, 2013

Stone's Style

I heard a beautiful set by Carl Stone Tuesday evening.  Stone provided an essential element in my musical education (and, presumably that of other musically precocious youths in SoCal) during his stint as music director at KPFK, the Pacifica radio station in L.A..  Among the programs most important to me, he was responsible for the first American broadcast of the music of Jo Kondo, the then mint-new recording of Einstein on the Beach, as well as works by Cage, Reich, and Lou Harrison.  I remember literally climbing a tree in order to get KPFK's signal up in the mountains at Idyllwild (where I was a summer music camp counselor) so I could hear the live broadcasts from New Music America in San Francisco.  Later, I got to know Carl a bit while he was himself co-director (with Joan LaBarbara) of New Music America in Los Angeles, a truly remarkable festival.

(KPFK had a remarkable series of music directors with Stone and his two predecessors, David Cloud and William Malloch; Malloch, in particular, was a virtuoso in explaining the art of musical interpretation, with his documentaries, in particular on Mahler, Nikisch, and Stravinsky, still essential listening.  Tragically, "serious" music programming has essentially been eliminated from the KPFK offerings.)

But, above and beyond his radio work and other organizational engagements and entanglements, it's been Carl's work as a composer that has kept my attention, and done so, now for more than three decades, vicariously following his moves from LA to San Francisco, and, for the last decade or so, to Japan. Though I've followed his music via recordings, I hadn't heard Stone play live since the '80s and I was struck first this last evening by the continuity with his earlier work.  Sure, the technology has changed — in the mid-80s, it required some big analog boxes, now it's mostly done with just a laptop — but the basic procedures he uses are very much a constant: sample, delay, loop with accumulated changes, modulate one source by another.  He's just gotten better at them: more focused, more resourceful, more tonally clear, altogether more virtuosic.  In particular, Stone's sound design has acquired a unique depth.  His was always a clean sound, but it has become much sharper, tactictly using silence as a rhythmically articulative element (and thus avoiding the trap of unbroken continuity heard in too much live electronic music), and his use of stereo placement is disciplined and uncanny, also using space as a powerfully articulative element in his prevailing contrapuntal textures.

Stone's music is based on samples of existing music and, here too, the continuity is great. His sources were and are always superb, whether using art music or music coming from popular as well as unashamedly kitschig repertoire.  From twenty-some years ago, I remember his samples of baroque music and Motown classics; now the library still includes a Bach chorale but features a lot more Asian music, vocal in particular, both courtly and profane in origins.

Sampling was once exotic, but is now obiquitous; Stone uses some formal strategies to keep his material exotic and avoid falling into studio cliches.  One formal plan, used by Stone with source popular songs in particular, is to parallel the development of the song by developing (through looping and accumulated modifications) samples taken at real-time intervals from the song.  He then uses the metric unit of the sample as a little frame or even a theatre in which interesting things happen before skipping on to the next.  The tonal activity over the course of these frames aquires a step-time quality much more rapid but functionally very much akin to that found in Reich's Music for Eighteen Musicians.  Another strategy involves the reconciliation of, well, not opposites, but very much differences, here in a piece allowing a sensual Vietnamese female vocal to modulate (via something like a vocoder, I presume), thus taking on the tonality of, some well-known stretch of Bach, the whole punctuated with unpredictable but oh-so-right pauses. The effect, both tragic and erotic, was completely unexpected.   Finally, Stone's sense of his library of sources as a potential economy for a piece is marked most strongly by his restraint.  In the most substantial work of the set, he had one clearly predominating sound source in the foreground, but there were just tiny hints of material he had held back, for example, a couple of tabla strokes that came and went with little development, the kind of world-building detail that give a piece increased depth and complexity.

If Stone had come from a certain musical-intellectual milleux, I am certain that his choices and mixtures of sources could and would have come framed and packaged in the terms of certain fashionable critical and cultural discourse.  But I don't have the impression that he is working that way at all.   Also although his working methods come from an experimental tradition (his teachers included Subotnick and Tenney), and that, by performing in real time, he does make discoveries, I don't believe that his work is really experimental in the sense that eliciting unforeseen outcomes is a primary goal.  I think — and I may well be wrong about this, so please correct me — that his approach is instead very much that of a musical classicist, using a body of tools and techniques which he has mastered in order make more of the music he values and has thus created his own repertoire.  I hear something of the practice of the 18th century's so-called Galant Style or in the catalog of extraordinary music produced by the aforementioned Jo Kondo in his approach — a stock of techniques and materials has been pre-established, much of it used communally, but the continuity among them, in the form of musical pieces is very much the work of an individual musical intution, yes, a style.


johnsonsrambler said...

Funny, I'm just listening to some Stone to reacquaint myself with his music. (And I've not heard a lot of the pre-Mom's stuff.) So this was a really nice write-up to come across to accompany my listening. Thanks!

Archivist/Cultural Liaison said...

a wonderful composer and wonderful asset to whatever community he finds himself in.