Carl Stone "Electronic Music from the Eighties and Nineties", Notes by Carl Stone, Robin Rimbaud, Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Carl Stone "Electronic Music from the Eighties and Nineties", Notes by Carl Stone, Robin Rimbaud, Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Composer's Notes

This album documents three different tendencies in my works in the eighties and nineties. "Woo Lae Oak" is a piece for the medium of the magnetic tape, created for diffusion on FM radio. "Mae Yao" is a concert performance work, played on a Publison DH89 stereo digital delay/harmonizer and Synclavier before I adopted the use of computers in live performance. "Banteay Srey" and "Sonali" are made using MIDI, an Apple Macintosh SE30 computer which controlled a Prophet 2002 sampler and a Yamaha TX816 8-voice synthesizer.

In the first half of the 1980’s I was developing a style of live performance that predated my use of computers onstage in real time. Most of my pieces revolved a specific piece of gear, the Publison DH89, marketed as a high powered stereo digital delay, which I had discovered while cruising the aisles of the Audio Engineering Society’s trade convention in Los Angeles late 1981. The pieces "Kuk Il Kwan", "Dong Il Jang" and "Shibucho" all relied on this device exclusively for real time performance, using techniques of looping, pitch shifting and delay. The audio quality of the box was high for its day and I had not seen any other devices with the same capabilities, in any price range. The cost of this unit not cheap, about the same as an economy-sized automobile at the time. Far outside the means of a freelance composer working in public radio by day, but sensing great possibilities and desperate to own, I found a small foundation that was willing to give a grant for its purchase. There were so few in the marketplace that some years later, when I visited the Publison local office in Los Angeles, I saw a large banner displayed on one wall, proudly listing all the owners. And so I somehow found my name next to Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel, Michael Jackson and some others. Alas I did not have the presence of mind, nor the camera, in order to take a photo.

In 1986, the studio in my small house in the Hollywood Hills was burglarized - twice - and my prized Publison (as well as its replacement) were amongst the booty. Staring at the second insurance check and realizing that by now MIDI had arrived, personal computers had become affordable, and companies like Apple, Sequential Circuits and Yamaha were producing equipment with interesting possibilities which, while not quite the same as the Publison to be sure, were tantalizing in their own right. I decided to change direction again.


Composed as the soundtrack for the high-definition video Recurring Cosmos, produced by SONY PCL, Tokyo and directed by Fumihide Anami. The original recording for the soundtrack was made by Ken Caillat and Michael Hutchinson using the Spherical Sound process. A new version was recorded and released in 1993 as part of the CD “Mom's,” on the New Albion label. Here a sample of a Burundi child’s song is stretched and re-contextualized with an original musical bed.

SONALI (1988)

Composed for the Prophet 2002 sampler ad Yamaha TX816. Released in 1989 as part of the CD Carl Stone: Four Pieces on the EAM Disks label. The fundament of the piece is the cannibalistic sampling of another work of mine featured on the same release, entitled Wall Me Do, paired up with finely diced samples of Mozart opera.

WOO LAE OAK (1983)

Originally released on Joan La Barbara's Wizard Records in 1983 and re-released on CD in complete form by Unseen Worlds in 2008. Woo Lae Oak is a tape piece based around minimal samples of strings and wind which layer, deconstruct and reform. Its essential structure is palindromic. It was originally envisioned as a composition for the medium of radio and was commissioned and distributed as an adjunct to the 1981 Contemporary Music Festival in Los Angeles, directed by Renee Levine. The version on this release has been adjusted to fit the side of an LP.

MAE YAO (1984)

Composed in 1984 for the The Art of Spectacle festival produced by the Los Angeles based organization Some Serious Business. The premiere was in the ballroom of a building originally designed in the Gothic Revival architecture style for the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (B.P.O.E),. After a period as a luxury hotel, the building became the host of seminal LA nightclubs like Power Tools and others. The main body of the piece, offered here, is performed on a Synclavier and Publison. This recording was also used as the soundtrack for KAPPA, a film by Bruce and Norman Yonemoto, which starred Mike Kelly and Mary Woronov, with a cameo appearance by George Takei. In the premiere performance of Mae Yao, the introduction featured Synclavier as well as parts for multiple bagpipes played by members of the Los Angeles Police Department as well as pipe organ performed by Tom Recchion. That introduction, alas, was not recorded.

– Carl Stone

Fragments of Time

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. Contextualizing 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 Oakwas 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 (1987) 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 Roommagnified 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