Nobody — but nobody — makes music that sounds like Paul Dolden. His work typically exhibits unchecked exuberance, both his instrumental and electronic (and electroacoustic) music not merely firing on all cylinders, but with their inner workings ludicrously pimped and their processors absurdly overclocked, sounds and timbres piled on top of each other in extremis. His latest disc, Histoire d’histoire, on the Canadian acousmatic label empreintes DIGITALes, is therefore interesting as in many respects it shows considerable restraint. Much of the disc is devoted to Dolden’s five-movement work Music of Another Present Era, completed last year, in which he sets out to create a kind of deliberately inauthentic ethnographic artefact. Dolden uses our lack of knowledge about the music of ancient cultures to construct a free-wheeling flight of fancy, employing a “metaphoric use of myths” as inspiration rather than seeking to fabricate a pointless (and impossible) ersatz ‘reconstruction’. This imagined historical survey perhaps accounts in part for the demonstrable delicacy shown in this piece. Yet even from the opening moments, it’s unequivocally Dolden: microtonally unique instruments — implying the lack of a coherent, codified tuning scheme — wheeze into life as though summoning up their energy only with considerable effort, presenting a unified but ‘doddery’ demeanour. This is how first movement Marsyas’ Melodies begins (evoking the Phrygian Satyr who was supposedly the first to create music for the flute), eventually restarting in order to find some clarity, whereupon Dolden’s characteristic dense polyphony swells up, leading to Zappa-esque florid percussion and strangely agile stodge. Flutes are featured even more in third movement Entr’acte, in which a solid chorus of them is created, so compacted that they constantly clash and jostle and scrape against each other to the point where they can hardly move.
The ‘doddery’ demeanour i previously spoke of, the result of both density and microtonal confusion, continually rears its head, resembling the effect of amateur musicians struggling with both their instruments and their ideas (think of the Portsmouth Sinfonia, sight-reading), resulting in by turns amusing and charming acts of weird articulation that sound more than a little the worse for wear. As such — particularly in The Cosmic Circle Dance, one of the most exhilarating movements — there’s a joyous sense of music that needs several attempts from different directions or angles, crossed with a Harry Partch -like weird and wonderfulness that causes things to unexpectedly break off into a solo, or a twanging group of Jew’s harps. We speak of performers ‘playing’ their instruments, and a quality of play (in all its meanings) permeates every aspect of this disc, as it does with Dolden’s work in general. Yet while uproariously unhinged it may be, there’s an earnestness that keeps the music real, makes it more than just an extravagant piece of melodramatically theatrical nonsense. In a manner not dissimilar to Jennifer Walshe’s equally fictitious Aisteach project, one is caught up in the zeal and gusto that’s entirely genuine and leaves one wishing that these really were, in fact, the sounds from a long-forgotten age.