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