What does space sound like? That’s the question Martin Dosh, a self-taught electronic musician, is trying to answer in the basement of his Powderhorn home as black and white images of the moon, planets and comets — scenes from a 1960 Canadian film called “Universe” — float across the screen of his Mac laptop.
The film is one of the features of the Square Lake Film & Music Festival, an annual outdoor event in Stillwater that pairs cinema with live music. This marks the 13th year that festival founder Paul Creager will host up to 400 people on his family’s 25-acre hobby farm.
The festival was created in reaction to bigger fests that Creager says “have missed the mark on attendee and artist experience.”
“We’re trying to do an intentionally small event that is powerful for the artist and attendees alike,” he said.
That’s where Dosh comes in. This is the 10th film score composed for Square Lake, and one Creager thought the Minneapolis musician would be perfect for. Dosh’s trippy brand of electronica lends itself to galactic majesty.
Watching “Universe,” the viewer feels transported to a tour of the solar system at a telescopic level.
Made by the National Film Board of Canada and widely distributed, the Oscar-nominated educational film was cited as an inspiration for “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The sci-fi classic’s director, Stanley Kubrick, even recruited “Universe” narrator Douglas Rain to voice the character of HAL and hired the same special effects artist, Wally Gentleman, for his realistic planetary miniatures.
Creating beauty in basement
“Universe’s” original score — which Dosh describes as “bombastic” and “ominous” — has been removed; now Dosh is on a mission to compose a “more soaring, beautiful” soundtrack.
To this end, he has arranged his equipment in a semicircle on one side of his finished basement. The opposite side of the room is host to cardboard boxes, a washer and dryer and other odds and ends that tend to accumulate when you’ve lived in one place for 13 years. It smells like you’d expect a south Minneapolis basement to smell midsummer: slightly dank. Far from state-of-the-art, but it’s functional.
Dosh, slim and bearded, sits on a stool, one leg crossed over the other, a Persian rug beneath his feet.
“I’m not a wizard,” he said, surveying what may as well be an Enigma machine to the nonmusician eye. “Though when I have the drums set up here, it is like a spaceship.”
Dosh demonstrates the Memotron, a machine that re-creates the sounds of its predecessor, the Mellotron, a keyboard popular in the ’60s and ’70s. Under each key is a nine-second loop of a sound — a violin, a Wurlitzer, a male chorus.
“It’s definitely nice for soundtracks,” he said, cuing up an angelic sonic swell.
In addition to the Memotron, Dosh is surrounded by a massive mixer from the ’90s, a drum machine, an antiquated piano, speakers and a laptop with Pro Tools. DJ-style headphones await nightfall, when Dosh records while his wife, son and stepson sleep upstairs.
Chords shift in serpentine fashion from one machine to another, swapping sounds as Dosh warps them with a mind-boggling number of buttons and dials. The dreamy, twinkly, pulsing cacophony evokes a psychedelic xylophone-cum-organ dance party.
“It’s second nature at this point,” Dosh said, unimpressed with his own multi-tasked music-making. “I’ve been using the same setup for 15 years.”
Waiting for the right sound
He places his hands delicately over a ruby red Nord Lead keyboard and improvises a line that sounds almost childlike.
The sequence is programmed into a sampler, where Dosh can change the tone and tempo, making it peppier, bouncier. Using his feet, he sends the sequence to a series of 12-second loop pedals, injecting an expansive, echoing effect.
His hands now free, he adds punctuating notes with a Rhodes electronic piano. The process results in layers upon layers on what is already a complex composition, one that sounds light years more modern and dizzyingly delightful than the original doomsday score.
So far, Dosh has recorded 24 different sequences into a sampler; these will form the building blocks for the soundtrack. When he plays at Square Lake, he’ll add live drums to the mix, tethering the plethora of bee-boop noises with some booms.
“I’m experimenting to hear something that I want to hear, but I don’t know exactly what I’m going for until I hear it,” he said.
The 42-year-old has honed his ability to hear that “something” since age 16, when he went to Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Massachusetts to study composition, drums and jazz. A member of many bands over the years — including Andrew Bird, Fog and Cloak Ox — he also has been a solo act since 2001.
“It’s not something I set out to do,” he said. “It’s accidental.”
Creating the score for “Universe,” however, is very methodical. Using primarily B-flat major and F major, Dosh adds reverb and volume swells to create that spacey ambience. When he’s finished, he estimates, he’ll have spent 50 hours scoring the 28-minute film.
“The film scores are magical because you’re seeing something unfold on the stage that no one else has seen before,” Creager said. “That’s a powerful artistic experience for a group of people because it bonds them together.”
Pausing his hypnotic machinations for a moment, Dosh watches the craggy surface of the moon overtake the Mac’s screen.
“It’s incomprehensible, how big it is,” he said, contemplating the cosmos. “It makes me glad to be here.”
Erica Rivera is a Twin Cities music writer.