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Imagine for a moment that you could freeze frame a piece of music, like an image in a movie, then zoom in with a microscope, closer and closer, with ever more detail revealed at each increment, in a similar fashion to the Powers of Ten films by Charles and Ray Eames, where we expand into the edges of the universe and then reduce inward until a single carbon atom remains. Using whatever resources were available at the time Carl Stone has continually enabled such a re-examination of the familiar, offering listeners an opportunity to reflect upon the minute detail within sound.

However, such descriptions can easily deflect from the sheer emotional impact of such works. My first encounter with Stone’s work was revelatory. Hearing Banteay Srey in 1992 for the first time was entrancing, a blurry world of sonic exploration, as soothing undulations settled beneath a warm ambience, all constrained within an elegant structure and frame. Taking a sample of a child’s song, then stretching it and re-contextualizing it with a music bed is something that apparently came to the composer in a dream and it certainly maintains that feeling of reverie and vision.

In the days when the floppy disc ruled triumphant, Stone composed Sonali for the Prophet 2002 sampler and Yamaha TX816, the latter famously used by Michael Jackson and Chick Corea. Resampling one of his very own works into a minimalist style keyboard-led work it offers up a kind of moldable elastic atmosphere, but just as you get comfortable the supple melody is interrupted by finely diced samples of opera. Any intimations of new age music potentially suggested by the opening are now shattered into a sputter of stuttering harmonic grains.

Working with rather more restrictive means when he composed his works at this time, Stone had to be ever more inventive. We often hear of tape pieces in electronic music, works that have evolved over time through careful crafting and editing but Stone was always keen to maintain a live character to his productions. In Mae Yao, Stone was able to create loops of sound, playing against one another until about midway through when it evolves into resonant washes of sound, as drifting organic melodic patterns move across the soundscape, recalling the textural work of Roland Kayn’s Cybernetic series from the 1970s. As often in his works, it’s the reveal at the end of the piece that surprises the listener, where the original source emerges like the curtain pulled back in the Wizard of Oz.

The palindromic shape of Woo Lae Oak brings a genuine symmetrical satisfaction to the listener, as the eerie sampled wind instruments balance against the strings, circling around one another, like boxers in the ring. It makes me think of Robert Fripp’s ‘Frippertronics’ guitar process that he applied to his recordings, especially with Brian Eno in the early 1970s, and would later tour as a small mobile unit, based around two reel-to-reel Revox decks and live guitar. This in turn was informed by the kind of systems music first used by Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros in the 1960s. So, in a sense, it’s all part of one big loop, in both time and creativity. Curiously Woo Lae Oak is a tape piece originally envisioned as a composition for radio and one can only imagine how listeners would have responded to hearing this work at the time formulating its seemingly static shape over the crackling airwaves.

Stone’s voice is truly that of a pioneer, joining the dots between computer music and composition as an avant-garde explorer and playful provocateur. Contextualising his work today one can hear decades’ previous foretellings of William Basinski’s hypnotic The Disintegration Loops, the pastoral abstraction of Boards of Canada, the glitchy experiments of Oval and the melancholic industrial soundscapes of Abul Mogard. To listen to his work today is to listen to the spaces in between sound, projecting a future from the past, creating something unforgettable from the fragments of time.

- Robin Rimbaud

The four pieces by Carl Stone on this recording span a remarkable period in the history of music technology. In 1981, when Stone composed Woo Lae Oak, digital samplers had only just become available, MIDI did not exist, and desktop computing was still something for hobbyists. By 1990, when he composed Banteay Srey, rack-mounted samplers, sequencers and other processing units had become widely available; MIDI was ubiquitous; and laptop computers powerful enough to control all of this were on the horizon.

Stone – one of art music’s early adopters – was composing on the forefront of all these changes. So while Woo Lae Oak was still composed entirely with tape loops, Mae Yao (1984) uses a Synclavier and a rack-mounted digital delay box (the rare and expensive Publison DHM89, able to transform sampled sounds in real time), and Sonali (1988) was written for the Prophet 2002 sampler and Yamaha TX816, controlled (via MIDI) from one of the relatively affordable Macintosh computers that were now on the market. Banteay Srey was composed a few years later, just before he could shift in the mid 1990s to the still more compact digital workstation enabled by the programming language Max (and later Max/MSP).

Yet what is remarkable about this story of fast-moving technical innovation (aside from the fact that it was made independently of the major institutions for electronic music) is how little affect it had on Stone’s aesthetic – a fact he cheerfully admits. The main impact, he says, was to make his music-making more efficient (no more cutting little loops of tape or searching endlessly for the right sample). He clearly hit on something early on as a composer. And while technology has since caught up to facilitate that idea, it wasn’t inherent to it.

The fundamentals of Stone’s music are these. First, sampling, as a way of capturing sounds so that they can be electronically processed, but also as a way of introducing semantic content that can be played with through recognizability, juxtaposition and surprise. Next, repetition, as those samples are made into loops (often very short, but not always so – as in the case of the more relaxed Banteay Srey, for example). Finally, change, as a result of processes applied to those loops.

Alvin Lucier (I Am Sitting In a Room, 1968) and Steve Reich (Come Out, 1966) are clear, and frequently cited, antecedents, and Stone knew their work when composing his own early tape pieces. His approach differs, however. Reich, as is clear from how he developed the discoveries of Come Out (and It’s Gonna Rain, 1965) into instrumental music was interested in gradual change aligned to the traditional matrix of pitch and rhythm. For Lucier, the gradual process of Room magnified a situation that was already present – the resonant frequencies of an architectural space – and the way in which they were activated by sound.

Stone’s interest in gradual change, however, originated in timbre and meaning. Considered in the abstract, samples are just particular configurations of musical information. And that information – details of timbre, duration, pitch and so on – can all be processed and altered electronically. On top of this, however, they also have an identity.  For other sample musicians contemporary with Stone, it was important that their sources be recognizable: Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad used samples to construct a canon of Black music; John Oswald on his Plunderphonics album uses them to deconstruct and estrange familiar tunes and performers.

That recognizability is not always important for Stone (indeed he sometimes goes to some lengths to disguise his sources). However, we can hear that his sounds come from somewhere, and that there is a “correct” or “complete” version of them in theory; and so we can hear when they are being changed. This tension between identity and difference is a very contemporary concern, in the real world as in music. What drives Stone’s music is the flow that he draws out of those differences: the way an Indonesian gamelan morphs into a chorus built from one female vocalist over the course of Mae Yao’s twenty-three minutes, the surprise emergence of a Mozart chorus out of the synths and skip-glitches of Sonali, or the slow, ambient evolution of Banteay Srey.

Woo Lae Oak, the earliest recording here and issued in a single side edit for the first time, is an exception. Its samples – a tremolo string and a bottle being blown across the top like a flute -  are simple in the extreme. Yet Stone still finds their inherent emotional properties – the tingling anticipation of the string and the calm nobility calm of the wind – and takes them into unexpected expressive territory. The combination of strings and wind is also one shared by Western and East Asian musics: even in this relatively early, and abstract work, the Stone hallmarks are clear.

- Tim Rutherford-Johnson

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