Tod Dockstader Dies: Pre-Keyboards Electronic Music Legend

If you love circuit bending or Stockhausen, you will be sad to hear that Tod Dockstader died peacefully on February 27 at age 82. An untrained electronic musician and composer, the legacy that Tod Dockstader left behind was in a unique sub-genre of musique concrete called acousmatic sound -- but he called it "organized sound."

A Wired article published in 2012 had a brief biography of Tod Dockstader that said he was so famous because he was creating a type of electronic music before synthesizers were invented in the 1960s -- and few others were doing the same.

About the experience, Wired wrote, "before the advent of synthesizers in the early 1960s, [Tod Dockstader, etc.,] worked with whatever hardware they could find: reel-to-reel tape machines, sine wave generators and a wild array of homemade circuits and military surplus gear. In the process, they created a universe of electronic music that still sounds unique and prescient today. The wire recorder Dockstader used to create electronic music was a piece of used military equipment."

On Twitter, fans sent their condolences to the family of Tod Dockstader as well as posted their favorite compositions by Dockstader. Tod Dockstader began his music career working as a sound technician for Gotham Records in the late 1950s and recorded most of his music in the 1960s. Tod Dockstader did have some commercial success after being included in the soundtrack for Federico Fellini's 1969 movie Satyricon. Along with music publishing, he was also a cartoonist, filmmaker, writer, sound engineer, painter and educator.

Tod Dockstader's career died down starting in the 1970s. Suddenly, in 2005, he put out recordings with Sub Rosa Records called "Aerial #1," but soon succumbed to the effects of age-related Alzheimer's dementia. Despite this, Tod Dockstader was far from forgotten, and in 2011 a documentary about his life was in development.

In January, filmmakers reissued a statement on Twitter saying that they were still short of their financial goal on Kickstarter for completing the film, Unlocking Dockstader. The records show that they needed $45,000 to complete the Tod Dockstader documentary, but only raised about $4,500. The video short that Unlocking Dockstader released to promote the Kickstarter has some of the last film footage of Tod Dockstader -- and yes he was still playing keyboards.

The person who started the Tod Dockstader documentary, Justin Brierley, writes that he is not a film producer but, "My strengths on this project have been my research skills and my passion for Tod's work. However, enthusiasm doesn't hire film crews or editors. Enthusiasm doesn't buy plane tickets to go interview Tod's colleagues and acquaintances."

Are you interested in continuing the Tod Dockstader legacy? Brierley concludes that Unlocking Dockstader needs, "a producer, someone to raise the funds, hire the crews. etc..." Brierley also gives Tod Dockstader fans some promise and says, "I'm working with two record labels to release Tod's vast archive of music, and I'm continuing my research into his equally vast archive of written materials."

One thing that is great is that the Unlocking Dockstader documentary Twitter account has a lot of recent pictures of him -- but who was Tod Dockstader in the height of his career? In an interview recorded in 1963 for WRVR FM in New York City, Tod Dockstader called his genre "organized sound."

When asked by the interviewer, "Why do you compose this as opposed to other kinds of music?" Tod Dockstader said, "In my case, its a little less pure than a person who simply wants to say be a composer and studied music, like electronic music, and turned their interests to that. In my case, I started out engineering, mixing, editing -- first. By the time I'd learned that, the first electronic music I had listened to was music concrete. I figured out how they did it and I knew I could imitate that. I just started going into it that way and by now its gotten more complicated than that. But I don't call what I do electronic music, I call it organized sound because I don't just use oscillators."

The interviewer continued with Tod Dockstader and asked, "How do you organize a piece of music into its form?" Dockstader replied, "I suppose because I had no schooling in traditional music... I do a type of music that started back to hundreds of years ago when people played the first music... I focus on building with music a kind of tension and release."

In case you are not brushed up on your electronic music history, musique concrete is a genre of experimental, electronic music that Tod Dockstader was known for. It is, in particular, not bound to the normal harmony and melody arrangements that you hear in rock-n-roll or pop music.

For movie lovers, you are already familiar with another term associated with Tod Dockstader's music called "acousmatic sound." Acousmatic sound is defined as the "sound one hears without seeing an originating cause -- an invisible sound source. Radio, phonograph and telephone, all which transmit sounds without showing their emitter are acousmatic media."

To clarify, FilmSound continues defining acousmatic sound by saying, "Offscreen sound in film is sound that is acousmatic -- relative to what is shown in the shot. In a film an acousmatic situation can develop along two different scenarios: either a sound is visualised first, and subsequently acousmatized, or it is a acousmatic to start with, and is visualized only afterward."

Two examples are given by FilmSound. The first states that a sound and picture can be associated together in a film. Then, if you hear the sound in the future, the same image appears in your head -- even if the image is not presented. The other example of acousmatic sound is found in thrillers or dramas where the cause of a sound heard during the film is kept a secret for a short time before revealing the source of the sound with an image.

Are you still having trouble understanding what defines Tod Dockstader's music? To get a better idea of the background of Tod Dockstader's acousmatic music sub-genre, check out the New Music Box podcast by Tom Lopez, Associate Professor of Computer Music and Digital Arts at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music.

Finding reviews of Tod Dockstader's music are sparse, but there is one on the unofficial Tod Dockstader website, that includes the following statement.

"Listening to Tod Dockstader is like listening to an event as it unfolds for the first time.... With Tod Dockstader we are invited to listen to sound as it emerges in its materiality: a present becoming the future by way of the past. A reclaimed history. Most of all, as listeners, Tod Dockstader makes sure that we are eminently qualified in that the basis of his experimentation is the basis of our own experimentation as listeners: we too work 'directly with the sound' in our ears. Listening is time regained."
To hear more music by Tod Dockstader, visit to listen to his 1960 to 1965 archive.[All images via the referenced links.]