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Dockstader was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States. He studied painting and film while at the University of Minnesota, before moving to Hollywood in 1955, to become an apprentice film editor. He moved into work as a sound engineer in 1958, and apprenticed at Gotham Recording Studios, where he first started composing. Around this same time he also worked for Terrytoons alongside Gene Deitch. From 1961 to 1962, when Deitch directed thirteen new Tom and Jerry shorts, Dockstader was responsible for creating the unusual, heavily-reverberated sound effects heard throughout them; he also wrote the shorts Mouse into Space and Landing Stripling.
Dockstader's first record, Eight Electronic Pieces, was released in 1960, and was later used as the soundtrack to Federico Fellini's Fellini Satyricon (1969). He continued to create music throughout the first half of that decade, working principally with tape manipulation effects. In 1966 Owl Records released four albums of his work from this period including what many consider to be Dockstader's masterpiece, Quatermass. He achieved modest recognition and radio play alongside the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgard Varèse, and John Cage.
In 1961 he applied to use the facilities at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and was denied access by Vladimir Ussachevsky. Ussachevsky’s official reason was the “overstrained” scheduling of the studios, although many suspect that Dockstader’s lack of academic training was a factor in the decision. After leaving Gotham Recording Studios in the late 1960s he formed the audio-visual service Westport Communications Group along with business partner, and former Gotham executive, Fred Hertz. The company focused on corporate clients and produced award-winning educational films for the American Heritage series.
Dockstader was also a prolific writer, with several articles published by Electronic Music Review and The Musical Quarterly.
In the early 1990s, Starkland re-released most of the content of Dockstader’s out-of-print Owl records, along with previously unreleased material. The two CDs brought new, significant acclaim to the composer. The Washington Post called Dockstader "a highly imaginative pioneer," and The Wire concluded, "The obsessive care with which Starkland have compiled these extraordinary recordings should ensure that Dockstader will be remembered as the innovative, visionary figure he undoubtedly was." Reinvigorated, Dockstader returned to music at the start of the 21st century, adopting computer composition in favor of tapes. New CDs appeared from Sub Rosa and ReR Megacorp.
Work on a documentary about his life, Unlocking Dockstader, was begun in 2011, however lack of funding has stalled the project.
- Eight Electronic pieces (1961) (Folkways Records, 1968)
- Apocalypse (1961) (Starkland, 1993)
- Luna Park (1961) (Starkland, 1993)
- Drone (1962) (Starkland, 1993)
- Water Music (1963) (Starkland, 1992)
- Quatermass (1964) (Starkland, 1992)
- Two Moons of Quatermass (1964) (Starkland, 1992)
- Four Telemetry Tapes (1965) (Starkland, 1993)
- Omniphony (1966) (ReR Megacorp, 2002)
- Electronic Vol. 1 (Boosey & Hawkes Library, 1979) (Mordant Music 2012)
- Electronic Vol. 2 (Boosey & Hawkes Library, 1981) (Mordant Music 2013)
- Aerial #1 (2003) (Sub Rosa, 2005)
- Pond (with David Lee Myers (Arcane Device)) (ReR Megacorp, 2004)
- Bijou (with David Lee Myers) (2005) (ReR Megacorp, 2005)
- Aerial #2 (2003) (Sub Rosa, 2005)
- Aerial #3 (2003) (Sub Rosa, 2006)
- Doc Rock. "January to June 2015". The Dead Rock Stars Club. Retrieved 2015-03-03.
- via Dockstader's personal archives
- "Musique Concrète Composer Tod Dockstader Has Died | News". Pitchfork. 2015-02-27. Retrieved 2015-03-03.