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Carl Stone still setting standards for sonic excursions

Carl Stone

L.A. experimental music pioneer Carl Stone, set to perform Saturday as part of the Getty's Pacific Standard Time celebration.

There will not be 1,024 harpsichords on stage at the Getty Museum’s Harold M. Williams Auditorium on Saturday during the performance of “Sukothai,” a piece written for 1,024 harpsichords. There will be just one harpsichord, played by noted concert pianist Gloria Cheng. There will also be a table, at which a man will be seated in front of a MacBook Pro.

That will be Carl Stone, the composer of the piece. And via the laptop he will be making it sound like the rest of the 1,023 harpsichords are, in fact, there.  

It’s a piece Stone put together originally in the mid-‘70s while a student at CalArts, signaling him as an innovator in what for lack of a better term has been called electronic music.

It’s that sense of experimental adventure that is celebrated in the choice of Stone for one of the handful of Getty concerts tied to the vast Pacific Standard Time exploration of the 1945-1980 era in which the Los Angeles art world’s wide open aesthetic spaces turned the city from a perceived backwater to a pace-setting environment. In a set billed as “Sonic Excursions from Al-Noor to Zang” -- the references to Stone pieces, which he generally names for Asian restaurants -- he will link the early, relatively lo-tech experiments of the ‘70s with works he’s composed in the last few years, including one with vocalist/pipa player Min Xiao-Fen and a premiere of a piece based on a work by Baroque composer Louis Couperin, also featuring Cheng on harpsichord.

“CalArts was very much a laboratory of experimental environments, with exposure to a lot of experimental tendencies,” he recalls, having gone there right out of high school in Woodland Hills. “For me, everything was very fresh and new. L.A. didn’t seem like there was a lot going on musically in terms of experimentalism and the avant-garde. There was stuff, but hard to find. It was more in the visual arts and performance are and the women’s movement coming on. Those were the things that were the great beacons.”

Of course, then he didn’t have a tiny computer to layer a passage he’d taken from a recording of a Henry Purcell piece. Instead he used two tape recorders and spliced loops of the short excerpt, playing and recording them back on to themselves until the full number was achieved. This will be the first live realization of the piece he’s attempted, the results likely to be as bold and entrancing as the original version was in its time.

Stone credits several things for the sensibilities he held back then. His parents turned him on to a wide range of music very young.

“They gave me a little 45 rpm record player when I was two and the first record I had was a Japanese children’s song called ‘The Black Cat,’” he says. “So I loved what we called folk music back in those days, music from North Africa, Spanish music, music from Turkey, folk singers like Germaine Montero.”

It intensified in the CalArts setting.

“I listened to a lot of world music, they had an active world music program,” he says, adding that his job working in the music library was really an ear-opener. “They had these recordings from all over the world and I was responsible for dubbing them on to tape. That was my job.”

That led directly to his experiments layering different sounds into new pieces. At first he had access to the school’s then-state-of-the-art equipment -- multi-track studios, advances synthesizers and such. When he graduated, he had to go with whatever he could get hold of, usually just a couple of tape decks and some microphones and mixers. The limitations became the guide and spark for creative approaches. And in such settings as the Theater Vanguard on Melrose -- “owned by a woman named Judith Stark who wanted to create a citadel for the avant-garde” -- he and others were nurtured and encouraged. He in turn helped cultivate the scene in the early ‘80s as music director and on-air host at KPFK, a beacon itself for conventions-breaking artists of the time.

Today he goes back and forth between L.A. and Japan -- where he teaches sound design at Chukyo University -- and keeps seeking sounds for his own sound designs. It could be pop music (he’s used samples from various rock and pop songs to great effect) or more world and classical music. As such, for Stone it’s never really been about the technology as much as the ideas of sound.

That the approach is still fresh, or maybe timeless, was clear a few months back, when a few dozen people gathered at the Wulf, a cozy, no-frills loft in the industrial strip of downtown L.A. Sandwiched between Little Tokyo and the railroad tracks. While they stood or sat cross-legged on plush pillows, Stone sat at a table operating a few devices from which emanated via sound-surround speakers, music in a style he’s referred to as “acid folk.” In a lengthy piece titled “Shin Chon,” what sounded like Baroque strings, though elongated through sound manipulation, was after a few minutes joined by layers of voices from hard-to-identify origins, though seemingly Asian.

Some on hand sat, eyes closed, in meditative revels. Others stood, fixated on the sedentary performer, simultaneously trying to work out what the elements in the collage were and marveling at how expertly and artistically they were being blended. Maybe it doesn’t matter what the sounds were or where they were from. They were, for all the technology involved in bringing them to us, unquestionably human -- brought to us, in fact, not by technology but by the creative human at the desk in the middle of this little room.

Those with eyes closed may well have been transporting themselves back 35 years ago. A bunch of them were in fact at Stone’s performances in similar settings, with similar aesthetics, back then. The only overt signs of time having passed were that he was using a Macbook rather than tape decks and turntables -- and the graying and/or thinning hair around the room.

And that’s just fine with Stone.

“Those sensibilities have carried forward into the present day. Some artists have, like Picasso as an example, reinvent themselves every era and radically change. But what I’ve done is more evolved through the period of time. The concerns I have now definitely track in a consistent road from the concerns I had when I first started out.”

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