IN MY EARS #12: Carl Stone, Sample Master
CarlStone - “Sukhothai (1977)”
I’ll end the year with one of my favorites from 2016: Electronic Music from the Seventies and Eighties by Carl Stone. As the name suggests, Electronic Music is an archival release of seven early works by Stone, a composer who began his formal study at the California Institute of the Arts with avant-garde pioneer Morton Subotnick in the early 1970s. Since Stone’s work is primarily written for and experienced in a live setting, it’s been hard to collect his compositions, which combine emerging technology with constant improvisation and thus have evolved dramatically (and escaped easy categorization) throughout his career.
Stone has come through China several times before: first in 2008, when he was invited to perform at the Shanghai eArts Festival by Taiwanese sound art academic Yao Dajuin. I saw him play on his most recent pass through — at Dada in Beijing last year — and really enjoyed how he transformed a room usually primed for sustained dancing into a zone of deep and immersive listening.
But these recordings are Carl’s earliest explorations, his earliest experiments with new modes of sound production and deconstruction. He’s best known for his work with sampling, a format that long ago entered the mainstream through the intermediary format of hip-hop beat production. The second recording on this 3LP box set, “Shing Kee” from 1986, is a short vocal sample taken from what sounds like an opera recording, which begins as a loop of less than a second and slowly — over more than 15 minutes — expands to about the length of a sample typically used in a hip-hop track. “Shibucho” from 1984 collages micro-samples from the popular Motown hit “My Girl” into a gently unfolding Minimalist score that wouldn’t sound out of place alongside contemporary works by Steve Reich or Terry Riley. It sounds both more comfortably familiar and more disturbingly alien due to the nature of its source material.
Stone’s awkward position between “pop” and pure avant-garde is evident everywhere on this collection of recordings. My personal favorite is the opener, “Sukhothai” from 1977, which Stone made not long after graduating from CalArts. In it he samples a harpsichord performance of a piece by English composer Henry Purcell, which begins as a series of Baroque trills, and ends, after a process of digital delaying and layering that was groundbreaking for its time, as a cacophonous mess of broad harmonics. To me, it sounds like “music” amplified to its loudest and logically most extreme state, like how a short snippet of a song that sticks in your head “sounds” after bouncing around the vacuum tube of memory for far too long.
I suppose I like “Sukhothai” in particular because it is an old piece of music (Purcell was composing in the 17th century) subjected to technologies that were radically new for 1977. The compositions on Electronic Music were made for Macintosh computer, Publison digital signal processor, Buchla synthesizer, and turntable — all tools that were either brand new or not considered “instruments” at the time. I’m astonished at how new this music sounds in 2016, when synths, DSPs, Apple computers and turntables are all ubiquitous facets of popular culture.
There is a special magic to music that can travel through time this way. The Wire’s Julian Cowley says of Stone’s method: “While Grandmaster Flash and Africa Bambaataa were flamboyantly promoting sample based hiphop, and John Oswald was openly flaunting the art of plunderphonics, Carl Stone developed his own idiosyncratic take on sonic bricoloage.” For me, Stone’s use of the sample as a new sound source in itself is something special, an ideal middle ground between the commerciality of contemporary hip-hop and the monotonous regularity of other sample-based avant-garde tributaries, like musique concrete.
Even if it’s not your thing, I recommend that you put “Sukhothai” in your ears and let it play to the end. It sounds different every time.
Carl Stone - “Electronic Music from the Seventies and Eighties” (streaming): https://unseenworlds.bandcamp.com/album/electronic-music-from-the-seventies-and-eighties
Carl Stone - “Electronic Music from the Seventies and Eighties” (Douban Music): https://music.douban.com/subject/26865332/
About the author
Josh Feola is a writer and musician based in Beijing. He’s organized music, art, and film events in the city since 2010, via his label pangbianr and as booking manager of live music venues D-22 and XP. His ongoing event series include the Sally Can’t Dance experimental music festival and the Beijing Electronic Music Encounter (BEME). He has written about music and art for publications including The Wire, LEAP, Sixth Tone, and Tiny Mix Tapes. He also co-authors the Gulou View opinion column for the New York Observer. As a musician, he formerly played drums in Beijing band Chui Wan, recording on and touring behind their debut album, White Night. He currently plays drums in SUBS and Vagus Nerve, and also records and performs under the name Charm.