Writing about Dockstader in the June 2005 issue of The Wire, Ken Hollings remarked: “Tuning through an old radio dial put you in touch with the space between stations, a mysterious zone of harmonies and distortions that existed and functioned according to a strange and distinct logic.” There is a parallel between this description and the position of this tape manipulating maverick, whose daily job in the audiovisual field brought him, among other things, to develop sound effects for cartoons such as Mr. Magoo; in fact, despite his evident talent, the academic establishment of the 60s prevented Dockstader from pursuing a career in composition, because he lacked the formal credentials needed to access the hi-tech studios where he could practice his advanced, if self-taught craft. Like many other composers who somehow slipped through the cracks of music history, he had to wait a long time before his genius was recognized. Aerial is his finest work – and puts him among the all-time greats.
Dockstader’s fascination with radio is rooted in early childhood, when, confined to his room due to a skin disease, he used to tune in to generate his own perspective on a world that he couldn’t really see. Throughout his life, radio has remained a constant presence, yet it was only when he began the arduous task of transferring all his analog shortwave recordings to digital and selecting the best material from hundreds of hours of tape that Aerial began to take shape. Using the first computer he’d ever owned (bought as recently as 2001!), he shaped the material into a veritable masterpiece.
The three discs, released separately, contain a total of 59 tracks, totalling 225 minutes. The sequencing – the pieces follow on from each other without a break, as suggested by Dockstader’s friend and frequent collaborator David Lee Myers – seems to have been planned to open new vistas onto the unconscious, stimulating new, unexpected reactions that sometimes verge on rage. Aerial 1 is full of emotional suspensions, tracing the boundary lines of that pregnant, unquiet stasis one finds in other thoroughly undescribable jewels such as Roland Kayn’s Tektra, as mutated chorales and celestial resonances ease hearts and stomachs through a slow descent into eternal muteness, dim light and harmonic eclipse. Aerial 2 is the most variegated, a cross of impenetrable poise and “stable anarchy” which stretches sounds to the very limit, as if Dockstader wanted to foment heavenly rebellion in his listeners by his acrid stabs of dissonance, only rarely sweetened by brief returns to calm. Here, more than on the other discs, one can hear what the composer referred to in the Wire piece as “a demented carousel or a pipe organ gone badly wrong”. Aerial 3, especially its final section, returns to the initial path with new dimensions – irregular repetitions, pulse waves and modulated spirals of incongruent shapes – which work miraculously together, establishing a new series of unanswered questions which allow this music to fast forward and carve its true significance in our soul before the mind has even started to adapt to its new codes.