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