The Art of David Tudor

Michael Rosenstein

David Tudor                                                                                           Courtesy of New World Records

Take any segment of David Tudor’s musical career and it makes for a compelling back story. Tudor moved from musical prodigy on piano and organ to pupil of Stefan Wolpe to preeminent performer of early piano music by John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff, serving as a catalyst to their development of compositional strategies. During the mid-‘50s, he traveled to Europe frequently, becoming a key emissary of contemporary music between Europe and the US, establishing himself as a definitive performer of contemporary piano works (many written expressly for him.) Add to all that, inveterate inventor and explorer of the intersection of electronic circuitry, analog sound sources, and an architectural sense of the placement of sound in site-specific designs.

Tudor’s life was also full of fortuitous intersections, providing time to establish long-standing relationships with composers like Cage and Wolff. But increasingly, it was his participation in cross-genre collaborations as part of Merce Cunnigham’s Company that led to new avenues for creative exploration. By the mid-‘60s, Tudor benefited from the open environment for performance exploration spearheaded by Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), an organization started by Billy Klüver, an electrical engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories in conjunction with Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Whitman, and Fred Waldhauer, and founded for the sole purpose of fostering investigations into the intersections of art and technology, matching artists with engineers and scientists from Bell Labs to work on a broad range of interdisciplinary programs.

Tudor, along with collaborators like Gordon Mumma and David Behrman mined these relationships, laying the groundwork for younger musicians like those who came together to found Composers Inside Electronics, a group who worked with Tudor extensively starting in the ‘70s. These types of encounters occurred right up to the end of Tudor’s life, when he worked with engineers and designers from Intel on prototype processors simulating the brain’s neural patterns to provide a platform for Tudor to experiment with.

New World Records has released a number of key recordings by Tudor, from piano performances of work by Cage, Feldman, and Earle Brown to a duo collaboration with Mumma to the indispensable Tudor: Rainforest 2; Cage: Mureau which melds Tudor’s real-time multi-channel modulation of tapes and amplified objects with Cage’s taped and chanted recitations of texts by Henry David Thoreau which he organized via a series of I Ching chance operations. With the release of the monumental Music for Merce a few years back, they provided a tantalizing glimpse of previously unreleased recordings by Tudor including some full performances along with a handful of excerpts. The release of the 7-CD The Art of David Tudor 1963 – 1992 fills out those excerpts and provides full recordings of seminal performances spanning early intermixing of electronics and piano to some of his final recordings of analog synthesis utilizing the neural network systems.

The first disk tracks Tudor’s extension of keyboard instruments through the use of electronics. The set kicks off with a reading of Cage’s “Variations II” from 1963, utilizing microphones, contact mics attached directly to the piano and strings, and phono cartridges used to both amplify and activate the strings, all mixed live with the possibilities of multiple feedback paths. Here Tudor utilized the chance operations of Cage’s score as a framework for interacting with his expanded instrument. But the very nature of the live mix of acoustic resonance, keyboard timbres, amplification, and feedback introduced an unstable sound plane which provides an additional chance dimension to the piece. Tudor turned to baroque organ for his reading of Christian Wolff’s “For 1, 2, or 3 People,” from a 1972 performance with Cunningham’s Company, again preparing and treating the instrument by removing certain pipes, using partial stops, and further extending the sonic range through the use of various contact mics. Here, his mastery of the organ along with the dynamic nature of the electronics create rich skeins of sound fields, percussive clatter, and full-on roar.

The real breakthrough piece for Tudor, though, was “Bandoneon ! (A Combine)” (the exclamation mark being the mathematical symbol “factorial”). In October 1966, E.A.T. presented 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering where a full staff of engineers worked with nine musicians, visual artists, dancers, and performance artists to create programs which transformed the 69th Regiment Armory in New York into a fully immersive experience. Tudor had become fascinated with the bandoneon during his travels to Argentina with Cunningham and through his work with Mauricio Kagel. Tudor initially planned on using a piece Kagel had written for him for the performance, but after seeing the full range of technology the Bell Labs engineers developed, came up with a more ambitious plan.

Tudor explained his piece as follows: “Bandoneon !, (bandoneon factorial), is a combine incorporating programmed audio circuits, moving loudspeakers, TV images and lighting, instrumentally excited. The instrument, a bandoneon, will create signals which are simultaneously used as material for differentiated audio spectrums (achieved through modulation means, and special loudspeaker construction) for the production of visual images...; for the activation of programming devices controlling the audio visual environment... Bandoneon ! uses on composing means; when activated, it composes itself out of its own composite instrumental nature.” With dense walls of white noise building and careening off of every surface of the cavernous room, Tudor essentially planned on using the bandoneon as a controller for the Armory itself as an instrument. The recording of this piece, while an essential addition to Tudor’s discography, only hints at the performance.

In the catalogue for an exhibit mounted by MIT celebrating the performance, one of the engineers who assisted Tudor reminisces that the whole system went back and forth on the verge of working and falling apart. The system was driven by ten contact mics on the bandoneon distributed into four processing devices which in turn went through a forty-channel filter in to twelve speakers and four transducers attached to remote-controlled carts on the Armory floor. (To get a true sense, dig up the DVD of the performance to see Tudor surrounded by engineers in white shirts and ties shifting and patching various wires through mixers and oscillators as the carts move around the floor amidst the audience.) Michelle Kuo talks about how pushing the edges of technology, which could not be counted on to behave the same way, consistently added a real element of risk to the indeterminacy that had become a cornerstone of the processes that musicians and artists were working with at the time. This sense of technological risk was something that Tudor embraced for the rest of his career.

The culminating project by E.A.T was the creation of the Pepsi Pavilion for the Expo ‘70 in Osaka Japan and the scope and ambition of the project is baffling to think about. Zakros Interarts provides a great overview of the project on their web site ( With funding from Pepsi-Cola, Billy Klüver and a group of 75 artists, architects, and engineers from both the US and Japan collaborated on the creation of a massive geodesic dome covered by a water vapor cloud sculpture which was capable of generating a 6-foot thick 150-foot diameter area of fog that responded to the weather conditions. The environment included floating kinetic inflatable sculptures, a high-intensity Xeon light installation, a light and mirror installation in the main performance space which dynamically adjusted itself based on sound input, and projections of 3D images. Tudor, along with Gordon Mumma created a sound system as “a real-time ‘electronic music instrument’ with 32 inputs, 8 discreet audio channels, and 37 speakers arranged in a rhombic grid on the surface of the dome behind the mirror. Sound could be moved at varying speeds linearly across the dome and in circles around the dome. Sound could be shifted abruptly from any one speaker to any other, creating point sources of sound. The lighting, designed by visual artist Tony Martin, could also be preprogrammed or controlled in real-time by the artists.”

Clearly, any recordings of the resulting music only hint at the immersive experience of being at the Pavilion, but the inclusion of three pieces, “Anima Pepsi,” “Pepsibird,” and “Pepscillator,” two of which are previously unreleased, are reason enough to check out this box. The three realizations utilize various source tapes, from laboratory recordings of neural activity in animals and humans to field recordings of animals and insect sounds. These source tapes become input in to the system, which Tudor modulated using the real-time processing built in to the 8 channels. These are then chained and fed in to each other in a variety of ways to create constantly shifting, oscillating fields. At times, the densities and caroming activity threaten to overwhelm, but the sense of the mutable balance between Tudor’s control of the system and the arc introduced by the unstable elements of the system itself along with the back and forth between natural sounds and electronics provide a captivating listen. This same approach to real-time processing of taped elements projected into the unstable environment of feedback and matrix mixing is also utilized in a simultaneous performance by Cage and Tudor from 1972 called “Mesostics re Merce Cunningham/Untitled),” included in the set, which benefits immensely from the higher fidelity of the recording. Tudor’s skirling electronics sound as vital here as anything coming out of the burgeoning noise scene forty years on.

While the mixing of multi-channel inputs and the resulting feedback created by manipulating input and output is key to Tudor’s music, equally important is his attentiveness to the various output qualities of resonant materials. The remote controlled carts of “Bandoneon !” was more than a spatial contrivance as Tudor focused on the interactions of how amplified sound activates various materials via the use of a transducer. Often times, the materials activated by transducers were contact miced, only to become another line of input in to the system. This interaction of output sources and amplified materials was the foundation of a series of pieces that Tudor titled “Rainforest.” (For a detailed history of how “Rainforest” evolved, dig up an article that John Driscoll and Matt Rogalsky wrote for Leonardo Music Journal, Volume 14 dedicated to Tudor.) “Rainforest IV,” the final version of the piece, grew out of a workshop that Tudor presented at the New Music in New Hampshire Festival in 1973. Here, Tudor worked with Driscoll, Rogalsky, and a number of other young musicians who would go on to form Composers Inside Electronics (CIE).

Driscoll and Rogalsky list the foundational elements of “Rainforest IV” as the creation of a visual and sonic environment through the use of multiple suspended speakers which, in turn have vibrational pickups applied to amplify resonant frequencies. The piece is to be performed by 4-10 participants over the course of 3-6 hours. As with “Bandoneon !” and the pieces from the Pepsi Pavilion, the goal here is to create an immersive environment rather than a concert listening experience. That said, the extended ~40 minute excerpts from two performances of the piece from January 1980 by Tudor and CIE stand up well during repeated listening (particularly as the mixes of the pieces were done specifically for listening on headphones, creating a sense of spatial immersion.) Naturalistic and processed field recordings crash up against modulations and shimmering scrims of electronic textures, capturing the essence of the night sounds of frogs and crickets and refracting that through a constantly shifting lens completely bereft of line or call-response. Here Tudor’s fascination in the process of investigating the nature of sound, resonance, and system feedback is in full evidence.

Through the ‘80s, Tudor refined his setup and approach, utilizing a growing library of recordings, an array of stock guitar effects pedals, hand-built components, and, most central to his approach, matrix mixers which allowed the creation of unstable environments that could be tweaked and modulated in response to the real-time system-generated refractions. “Weatherings,” “Phonemes,” “Webwork,” and “Virtual Focus” were all excerpted on the Music for Merce set that came out a few years ago. Here, the full performances are included revealing some of Tudor’s most focused playing on the disk. Though it gets a bit busy at the end, one marvels at the rich striations of “Weatherings” which uses noise gates and parallel processing chains to build palpable loops and pulses that course and shudder, stretched to breaking points where sound drops out and then recoils back in, certainly even more dramatic when panned across the multi-channel speakers Tudor utilized in performance. For “Phonemes” a vocoder and percussion synthesizer are used as sound gates and envelope processors coupled with a variety of filters and phase shifters, incorporating stock electronic instruments in non-traditional ways in to his processing frameworks. The real standouts, though, are the semaphored cut up timbres of “Webwork,” which crackle with a striking vibrancy as textures stutter and pop across the sonic plane and “Virtual Focus” where sonar and radar devices aimed at dancers are used to trigger sound events which are processed and mixed into dizzying doplar-like washes of thrumming whooshes and crackled static.

The last disk of the set captures a performance of “Neural Network Plus,” a series Tudor was working on at the end of his life. Here, the arc of technologies that Tudor worked with swung from the extreme of contact mics, home-made oscillators, and teams of Bell Labs engineers to a system built around a specially designed microchip which electronically emulates the way that neuron cells in brains handle parallel processing. Here the feedback loops and interconnections are handled by programmable interfaces with filters and oscillators built in to the system. The resulting setup was so finicky that it was mainly used in the studio to capture source tapes which were mixed and processed during performances. While it is understandable that in his later years, Tudor would move away from the precarious setups of his full table-top array of devices he previously used in performance, to my ears, the work, while timbrally rich and full of textural detail, falls short of his stand-alone work of the previous decade. (The spatial installations like “Bandoneon ! (A Combine),” those for the Pepsi Pavilion, and “Rainforest IV” fall into an entirely different thread and don’t warrant comparison.) While the interplay of the recording of a performance with fellow Cunningham Company member Takehisa Kosugi is bristling in detail with jump-cut, gestural stabs, skirling oscillations, and crackling hums, the piece misses out on the ragged drama of his earlier work.

One may question whether a CD boxed set can ever do justice to David Tudor’s electronic music. His work was so intrinsically coupled to the spaces where it was performed and the art, architecture, and dance that occurred simultaneously. Watching the grainy video from the 9 Evenings or perusing the available documentation of the Pepsi Pavilion provide a tantalizing glimpse. And the systems of “Rainforest IV” are still providing fertile ground for exploration, as evidenced by a performance of the work as recently as this last June in Nantes, France coordinated by Julien Ottavi. But spend any time with the music contained in this set and one can hear the trajectory of Tudor’s examination of the intersections of music, process, and technology. These disks capture not only the development of an artist, but also the zeitgeist of a time where artists and engineers, with the assistance of corporate sponsorship, collaborated solely for the joy of discovery, rather than in pursuit of the monetization of the next big thing.

© 2013 Michael Rosenstein



9 Evenings Reconsidered: Art, Theater, and Engineering, 1966. MIT List Visual Art Center catalogue accompanying an exhibition in 2006. Edited by Catherine Morris. Essays by Clarisse Bardiot and Michelle Kuo. Texts by Lucy Lippard and Brian O'Doherty. Introduction by Jane Farver.

Leonardo Music Journal. Volume 14. Composers inside Electronics: Music after David Tudor.

David Tudor Bandoneon! (a combine) – E.A.T. - 9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering DVD. MC-1080, 2009.

9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering fonds – Documentation hosted by the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology.

Overview of Pepsi Pavillion including 12-minute video.

David Tudor site.

The Art of David Tudor – A resource drawing on the archival collections of the Research Library at the Getty Research Institute, relating to the work of pianist/composer David Tudor (1926–1996).

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