i feel like i’m emerging from a bomb shelter.
For the last two days i’ve been immersed in the Golden Dolden Box Set, a huge self-released compilation by Canadian composer Paul Dolden. Usually, the task of retrospective falls to curators and writers, but in the case of this box set, Dolden has himself set out to collate the majority of his output in what he regards as definitive versions. Clocking in at just under 10 hours of music, the set features 34 works dating from 1984 to 2021.
i was originally drawn to Dolden’s work around 10 years ago, not because i had actually heard it, but because of what i had read about it. There were references to electronic scores being created from layering and superimposing hundreds of individual parts to create what i’ve previously referred to as a ‘supra-pseudo-orchestra’, far beyond anything that could ordinarily be achieved practically, in terms of both quantity and complexity. That led to me exploring the then four CDs of Dolden’s work released by Empreintes Digitales (L’ivresse de la vitesse 1 & 2, Seuil de silences and Délires de plaisirs), and the rest is history. Since then my relationship with his work has extended beyond listening and writing to presenting it in concerts; some years ago, with my ensemble Interrobang, we performed three of Dolden’s ‘Resonance’ works, In a Bed Where the Moon Was Sweating, The Vertigo of Ritualized Frenzy (the world première of its bassoon version) and the first UK performance of The Heart Tears itself Apart With the Power of its own Muscle (a work unfortunately omitted from this box).
But for all my familiarity with Dolden’s work, i’ve always been acutely conscious of the extent to which it’s an acquired taste. This has only been reinforced by my journey through the Golden Dolden Box Set which, while it demonstrates to the fullest Dolden’s fearless commitment to, and passion for, unbridled exuberance and extreme, even excessive, quantities of overload, it does not, in general, exhibit a vast amount of subtlety. This has always struck me as being one of the central paradoxes of his output: that it tends to operate in such a rudimentary, blunt, even simplistic, way – yet all of it has clearly taken a great deal of time, effort and attention to detail in order to realise. The difficulties of his creative process can also be seen in the fact that the majority of his music has been subject to later revision and remastering.
It seems to me, very broadly speaking, that Dolden’s work can be regarded as passing through three general periods, the first of which we could call the ‘Elemental Phase’, featuring his earliest output from 1984 to 2003. These are the works that laid out the key characteristics and predilections of Dolden’s compositional voice and established his reputation. Even before listening to a note of music, one gets a sense of what to expect from titles like Sonarchy (the title of Dolden’s first two self-released albums on cassette in 1985/6, suggesting a ‘sonic monarchy’), The Threshold of Deafening Silence (1990) and L’Ivresse De La Vitesse (“intoxication by speed”, the first Empreinte Digitales release in 1994). It all indicates a decidedly intense experience. Incidentally, i think it’s a shame Dolden didn’t include his early work The Melting Voice Through Mazes Running (1984), partly because it’s an interesting piece in its own right, and is somewhat different from much of what would follow – though perhaps that very fact explains its omission – but also because the conclusion of Dolden’s note about the piece typifies what i’m calling the ‘Elemental Phase’:
The overall development of the composition is based on the escalation of intensity, and is reflected in the pacing of the music; for example, the increasing density of material — the latter part of the work uses on average 330 notes per second — and the change in sound from harmonic to inharmonic.Paul Dolden
Despite this daunting description, the climax of the piece is by anyone’s standards (especially Dolden’s) restrained, utilising density primarily as a textural and timbral device. Throughout the rest of the ‘Elemental Phase’, though, Dolden’s attitude to density is much more rooted in notions of shock and awe. This is especially well exemplified by the three ‘Jericho’ works, Below the Walls of Jericho (1989), Dancing on the Walls of Jericho (1990) and Beyond the Walls of Jericho (1992, a work i discussed at length a couple of years ago). Here, in what remains one of the most narratively direct uses of extremes in all of his music, vast quantities of sound are used to allude to (not directly depict) the mythical Battle of Jericho, in which Joshua’s army destroyed the walls of the city through an enormous blast of trumpets. As i’ve noted previously, what makes this music so deliriously exciting is its teetering at a liminal point between the ability to perceive detail and everything being completely swamped. It’s not just the mythical walls of Jericho that Dolden is below, beyond and dancing on, but also very literal walls of sound.
There are aspects of these ‘Elemental’ work that have always been frustrating. Dolden’s fondness for alternative tuning systems, so telling in some of his music, seems obtuse, even redundant, when subjected to vast quantities of accumulation such that any tuning system at all becomes immaterial. It’s one of the drawbacks of Caught in an Octagon of Unaccustomed Light (1988), for example, where even when the music is drawn back to a more moderate sequence of distant, organ-like repetitions at different tempi, even here the ostensibly unusual tunings really just sound like conventionally-tempered clusters. Furthermore, Dolden’s use of contrast as one of his primary modes of expression, while always impressive, can become tiring, all the more so when the ramped-up sequences – crowned by simply astonishingly powerful blasts of power – are prolonged for what can feel like ludicrous lengths of time, in the process squandering some of that power. Nonetheless, few composers would be prepared to assemble sound into such gargantuan conglomerations as these, and there is something wonderfully intoxicating about experiencing music not merely surrounding or overwhelming you, but seemingly threatening to obliterate you completely in wave after wave of pure pressure. Quite apart from anything else, its sheer audacity is compelling.
What typifies the ‘Elemental Phase’ more than anything else, though, is its focus on texture, and even though it’s the earliest example of this in the set, Dolden’s 1985 piece Veils. Studies in Textural Transformations is nonetheless the very best example of this. It’s not just elemental, but also elementary, utilising a raw palette of textural swatches – with varying quantities of pitch and noise – to explore how they can morph into one another. The ‘Introduction’ is a beautiful blur of metallic and vocal sounds, while ‘Section A’ progresses from a deep, razor-edged drone into bright radiance and a network of quasi-ceramic chimes. ‘Section B’ ends the work seemingly in a more abstract way, moving from a dense wall of noise to intense shimmering; yet its abstraction is challenged by the way it seems strangely more tangible, almost as if there were something ‘intelligent’ about the sounds themselves, exhibiting signs of internal sentience. This impression is something that permeates many of the works in this ‘Elemental Phase’, arising from the strange friction between the music’s enormous tendency toward wildness while always being kept in check due to the rhythms and pulses applied to it, resulting in something that feels like the curious product of mechanical, even robotic actions.
The second phase suggested by the Golden Dolden Box Set i’m going to call the ‘Stylistic Phase’, corresponding to the period 2005-2010. The five pieces falling within this are typified by their engagement with and assimilation of various types of musical style, encompassing rock, jazz, country and others. They also take a more nuanced approach to density, resorting less to unstoppable walls of blank noise while still pushing the music close to breaking point. My favourite of these, which at under seven minutes also happens to be the shortest self-contained work in the entire set, is Rave (2005), an upbeat, leftfield rock track overflowing with happiness and fun. It’s the first work of Dolden’s to show obvious similarities to the music of Frank Zappa, especially later on in a wild, not to say borderline bonkers, tutti melody that’s just about audible through the chaotic melee.
This phase is primarily represented by three sibling works created in 2008-9, Who Has the Biggest Sound?, Who Has the Biggest Noise? and Who Has the Strangest Melodies?. What began in Rave is here developed considerably further, Dolden again focusing on density achieved by the superposition of individual lines, but here the conjunction of this with unconventional harmonies creates the startling incongruous effect of bewildering complex and difficult music being performed by a huge orchestra of amateurs. Dolden acknowledges this in the movement titles of Who Has the Biggest Sound?, which refer to ‘The Village Orchestra’, and the entirety of this 50-minute cycle (previously released on CD by Starkland in 2014) is a Zappa-esque farrago (replete with spoken interludes) of the most absurd stylistic contortions. Also more nuanced in this music is Dolden’s approach to contrast, finally allowing into his music more genuine delicacy and intimacy. Hitherto, particularly in the ‘Elemental Phase’, when Dolden reduces everything it’s simply in order to start a new process of mass accumulation, whereas here there’s a more concerted effort to explore gentler material on its own terms, rather than being merely a calm before a storm. But let’s not kid ourselves: with titles such as ‘Who Can Play the Fastest?’ and ‘Who Can Talk Faster: Crickets or Man?’, Dolden’s creative irrepressibility means that pretty much every movement, regardless of how it sets out, inevitably finds its way to tumult, concluding in uproarious tuttis where the instruments and voices of this endlessly hapless but endearing imaginary band, orchestra and choir let rip as if their lives depended on it.
The Un-Tempered Orchestra (2010) pushes these pseudo-performers to even more outrageous extremes, practically setting them up to fail in an 18-minute sequence featuring some of the most scrappily articulated boundless energy you’re ever likely to hear. In some of Dolden’s earlier work, i’ve often wistfully imagined how marvellous it would be actually to assemble a suitably Brobdingnagian orchestra and hear it brought to life for real. But in the case of these later pieces, their mode of expression depends on their being artificially created in the studio. None of which stands in the way of the illusion that they are, in fact, real, and i find them irresistibly wonderful in the endless collisions between its raw, unquenchable ambition and the queasily tilting tunings and cohesion. It’s all a beautiful, glorious mess.
The third of my very loosely defined phases features Dolden’s most recent work, composed since 2011. In referring to it as the ‘Exotica Phase’, i’m referring in part to the way these pieces seek to tap into more remote stylistic regions, such as Africa and the Middle East, but also to their allusions to imaginary rituals and historical traditions. They also extend further the bizarre but marvellous impression of amateur musicians dauntlessly performing highly challenging material that goes beyond their capabilities. One of these works, Music of Another Present Era (2016), i’ve written about previously, when it was released by Empreintes Digitales in 2017.
It’s only fair to note that some of the music from this most recent period of Dolden’s output seems either superficial or confused. Be-Bop Baghdad (2013) has an arbitrary, aimless sense of direction, continually stopping and starting and too often allowing the music to noodle for far too long. Muses’ Song (2015) is similarly weak, somewhat pretty and with some interesting swarm-like melodic writing, but again structurally muddled. Mantra Groove (2016) sets up a dialogue of sorts between gamelan sounds and drums, but Dolden allows the drums to dominate so relentlessly that the results feel frustratingly bland.
But these weak spots are mitigated by some of the most interesting work of his career. Sketches of Shamanic Ecstasy (2017) reveals the extent to which individual parts in Dolden’s music, always subject to a sonorist-like subservience to a larger, united intent, are like cogs, wheels and pistons in a fabulously over-the-top machine: all working in sympathy with each other, all concerned with moving together towards the same, often conflicted and capricious directions and goals. As with Rave, its 7-minute brevity is a virtue, succinctly progressing from soft, breathy wails to weird ululations alongside a grimy, growly accompaniment, like a messed-up organ. Memorizing the Sublime (2018-19) and Dancing Plague (2021) are similarly engrossing and unexpectedly uplifting. Both works channel different forms of exuberant elation, the former placing voices within warm resonance before making everything wild, the latter bringing to mind Marko Ciciliani’s Pop Wall Alphabet in the plethora of discrete materials simultaneous flashing past our ears.
Most outstanding of all in this ‘Exotica Phase’, though, and one of the most outstanding works in the entire set, is 2013’s Metallic Midnight in Morocco for contrabass saxophone and tape. Unlike most of Dolden’s output, it explores a dark, velvety soundworld that is allowed to grow while it roams but is constantly pulled back, only to grow again. Deep and brooding, the abyssal tones of the sax in this context become hypnotising, all the more so when the accompaniment, far from wanting to do the expected and push ever harder, becomes intangible to the point of becoming gaseous. This allows the soloist’s rich melodic vein to speak with stunning clarity, of a kind not heard since Dolden’s earlier work for instruments and tape (such as The Vertigo of Ritualized Frenzy. Resonance #4 (1997), lending it an emotional potential unique in Dolden’s music. Even when the piece releases more untapped energy, it’s measured and playful with no instinct to push to extremes, instead channelling everything into a final tutti of glorious contrapuntal insanity.
To say it’s been an experience to spend 10 hours with Paul Dolden’s music is to put it ridiculously mildly. While the law of diminishing returns somewhat lessens the impact of the ‘Elemental Phase’, i’m not convinced that the approach i took when listening to the set – back to back over two days – is the ideal one. The Golden Dolden Box Set is surely something that needs to be approached occasionally, with caution (perhaps it needs a health warning). But i’ve welcomed the opportunity to be able to dive so deeply, and for so long, into a single composer’s work and in the process to appreciate and understand it so much better. i’ve always felt it’s strange and rather unfair that Dolden’s music wasn’t better known; this box set has only made me feel that much more strongly.
The Golden Dolden Box Set is available either in the form of a USB stick or as a digital download. The set also includes extensive documentation about the music, PDF scores for many of the pieces, and a host of additional essays, talks and educational materials. Full details can be found on Paul Dolden’s Bandcamp site.