For the past 40 years, Carl Stone has been atomizing recordings of ubiquitous and obscure music alike, transforming his source material into kaleidoscopic fantasies. His electronic compositions, stuttering and illusory, repurpose minute sonic elements from a wide variety of different genres, splicing, looping, and contorting them beyond recognition. They are referential but speak entirely with their own vocabulary, liberating Stone’s sounds from the dual constraints of expectation and commodification. Steve Reich’s “Come Out” and Terry Riley’s “You’re No Good” are antecedents, but Stone’s music is less appropriative and more celebratory. When he started experimenting in the 1970s, he was primarily splicing magnetic tape; in the ’80s, he became an early adopter of digital sampling and delay, using early Macintosh computers to manipulate recordings via MIDI. He now uses a laptop and the audio programming language Max/MSP to mince sounds and paste them back together again in shapes that only tangentially reference their original form. Regardless of the technology used, his process of weirding the dominant ways we experience different styles of music remains consistent.
After two compilations of pieces from between 1973 and 1993, Stone’s early work has recently reached a wider audience beyond the Los Angeles avant-garde scene that nurtured it. The techniques he pioneered have become increasingly relevant in the music of artists like Angel Marcloid (aka Fire-Toolz and Nonlocal Forecast) and labels like Orange Milk, where disparate stylistic elements are collaged at breakneck speeds, pushing back against the streaming era’s algorithmically derived systems of genre formation. Stolen Car, Stone’s third full-length in two years (a notable acceleration for him), sits easily alongside albums by this new wave of omnivorous experimentalists. While many of his early compositions unfolded over entire album sides, these pieces are closer to pop music in structure and length, and seem mastered to do battle in the loudness war. These are more likely sly references to contemporary pop than a capitulation to accessibility; Stolen Car is a dizzying array of stylistic signifiers virtuosically tied into complex knots.
At times it feels like Stone’s music is a secret decoder ring unlocking the infinite possibilities hidden within other recordings. “Figli” and “Ganci” were constructed using the same sample, but listening to each is a radically different experience. “Ganci” is slow and deliberate, an elongated vocal line stretched over an oozing mosaic of shadowy voices and electronic tones. It feels mournful, the repeated wordless phrase a mantra of indecipherable discontent. From there, “Figli” charges forth, frenzied and euphoric. A voice that once seemed pitiful flutters about in miniature snippets at the speed of hummingbird wings, pinging between the left and right channels in euphoric bursts. For over three minutes, its chopped melodies float weightless before a long awaited drop of steady four-on-the-floor kick transforms it into what could be (only semi-ironically) referred to as a “banger.” The track works just as well as a club-ready pop song as it does a thoroughly baffling avant-garde composition.
That deft manipulation and recreation of pop music’s emotional impact out of apparent chaos is a substantial part of what makes much of the music on Stolen Car the most fully realized of Stone’s career. On many of his early experiments the focus was on process, and he often let the loops he created unfold according to systems that weren’t necessarily reflective of the sample’s original form. Tracks like “Bojuk,” however, have distinct sections that recur, almost like a song, and the magic is in the melody itself rather than the glitchy cuts that have become his hallmark. In a recent interview with Tone Glow, Stone discussed having until recently “tuned out popular culture” after discovering avant-garde music and other forms from around the world. But even as he revels in the prismatic decimation of his source material, he seems more appreciative of song craft and rhythmic consistency than ever. It’s telling that the album’s least engaging piece, “Saaris,” is also its longest: Lacking the gleeful builds or dynamic structures that define the rest of the record, it consists of a simple muted chord progression looped for over 10 minutes.
One of Stone’s major accomplishments with Stolen Car, as in the best of his earlier work, is his ability to highlight unique sonic elements of music from around the world—pop from Asia and the U.S., European classical, folk traditions from pretty much everywhere—while simultaneously unifying them under one aesthetic framework. Listening to his music, it can be nearly impossible to determine where he may have sourced any given sound; the joy comes from abandoning any quest for provenance and listening instead with unbiased ears. Stolen Car celebrates the universality of music while acknowledging the singular attributes that make styles and traditions appealing, bringing us closer to a unified understanding of the power of listening. Better still, it does it not as an academic exercise, but with excitement and reverence.
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