CARL STONE’S MUSIC IS THE FOOD OF, well, music. It feeds on found objects – a Schubert fragment, a Tokyo street noise – and raises them to a higher level. In his hands, and through his serendipitous, madcap brain, the process of recycling becomes true art.
Alone at his iBook laptop, a scarcely larger 8-track mixer at his side, Stone can press a single key and unleash the combined might of a dozen symphony orchestras, a thousand-voice chorus or the scratch of a toothpick across a napkin – whatever his all-questing sampling software has deemed worthy of his processing. A few more keys, and these sampled sound sources collide to form a musical score with beginning, climactic middle and logical end. His music is terrifyingly new, but he’s been at it for a long time, probably half of his current 49 years.
At the Schindler House in West Hollywood, designed and lived in by the illustrious architect Rudolf Schindler and now the home of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Stone performed some of his recent music a couple of weeks ago, and produced some of his accustomed enchantment. The crowd that turned up that Saturday night strained the capacity of Schindler’s small courtyard. The setting was not ideal, perhaps; a small plane overhead did battle with the opening drone of Stone’s Nak Won. Yet the history of the place justified the event. John Cage lived there for a time, and he would certainly have approved Stone’s presence there.
At intermission the talk was all about gadgetry: so much sound out of so little. I would have liked more talk about the music itself, which was powerful, astonishing and gorgeous. People still haven’t made their peace with the Machine; there’s less to watch, perhaps, in the spectacle of one slight, bookish, intent figure hunched over two small pieces of electronic gear than in a stageful of orchestral musicians sawing away at their sharps and flats and associated hieroglyphics. Still, there was the sense that night of music being created, the awareness that that evening’s performance would be different from performances of music of the same name on other nights – in the same way that Esa-Pekka Salonen’s performance of a Mahler symphony, or Plácido Domingo’s of a Verdi aria, won’t be the same on any two nights. That’s why people go to live musical events in preference to collecting records – or should.
I go back a long way in this matter of sounds electronically produced and turned into artistic designs. In 1961 I was at the famous concert at Columbia University where the first products of the Mark II synthesizer, built by RCA and bankrolled by Columbia and Princeton, were set before an audience. The synthesizer itself took up a fair-sized room in a warehouse near the Hudson River, and employed something like 750 vacuum tubes. It swallowed a composer’s visions in the form of stacks of punched cards, and produced its sounds a few seconds at a time. The music – the work of Milton Babbitt, Mario Davidovsky, Vladimir Ussachevsky and others in this first electronic generation – was created on that enormous machine, captured on tape and brought to Columbia’s McMillin Theater, where it was played through loudspeakers. In one or two pieces there were also live participants – a violinist, a singer. But the fear, many times expressed by that pioneering audience in response to those pioneering composers, was simply this: Will the music of the future require that an audience sit in an auditorium and stare at a bunch of loudspeakers? (The RCA Mark II, by the way, was vandalized during a break-in in 1976. There was no reason to restore it; it was already obsolete.)
Eventually there would be comforting answers to the question of depersonalization. Morton Subotnick, whom I had known as a freelance clarinetist in San Francisco in the 1950s, made his entry into electronic music with large-scale, “symphonic” pieces – Silver Apples of the Moon, The Wild Bull – created on one of Donald Buchla’s synthesizers and recorded on best-selling Nonesuch LPs. A kind of musical cryogenics was at work here; when you owned the disc, you owned the composition itself, with no printed score or live virtuoso in the middle. By the late 1960s, at CalArts, Stanford’s CCRMA and France’s IRCAM, composers were developing means of creating interaction between music immobile on a reel of tape and technology to include the live musician as participant. At CalArts, Subotnick and his colleagues linked synthesizer, tape and computer software in what they called “ghost” electronics; by whatever name, it served to bridge the gap between the cold, impersonal loudspeakers and the sense that music was actually being created on the stage – as a pianist might create a sonata, an opera company an opera.
CARL STONE WAS ONE OF SUBOTNICK’S first students at CalArts. Later he served as music director at KPFK, in the days when that station stood for something in the matter of experimentation and exploration at the outer edges of thought and creativity. He has always had his hands on knobs and dials, bells and whistles; beyond that, his works have always had the same motivating force that we listen for in great music of any time and style. We listen, after all, for the pleasure wonderful ideas afford our nerve endings, but we listen as well for the pleasure of being able to move with the music’s momentum, to sense where it is going and – above all – to sense when that journey has completed its trajectory and brought us home. I heard that in Stone’s music at Schindler that night: in the first work, Nak Won, which moved for about 20 minutes along a shapely and logical parabola; in the last work, Darul Kabap, which unfolded like a jazz jam that, again, ended exactly where it should. (For reasons he’s entitled to, Stone tends to name his works after favorite Asian restaurants or menu items.)
One of my favorites among Stone’s works is Shing Kee, one of “Four Pieces” on the New Albion label; its material is a tiny phrase from a Schubert song, which he has sampled and reconstructed from the quiet throb of the piano at the start to the full blossoming of the phrase some 15 minutes later. What I hear in this music is two composers at work some 175 years apart: Schubert in constructing his eloquent phrase, Stone in delving deeply into the source of its eloquence. And what’s most amazing is the way those two guys get along.