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Reviews of Recent Recordings

Various Artists
Music from the Tudorfest: San Francisco Tape Music Center 1964
New World Records 80762-2

The last few years have offered a great opportunity to reassess David Tudor as seminal interpreter of 20th century piano music, as composer, as creative organizer, and as designer of real-time electronic music processes and systems. The boxed set Music for Merce (New World Records) featuring Tudor as performer of pieces by composers including Christian Wolff, John Cage, Earle Brown, and Morton Feldman as well as his own pieces for live electronics. Then came a reissue of his performance of Cage’s ground-breaking “Music of Changes” on hatArt. But the real treasure trove was New World’s The Art Of David Tudor 1963–1992, a seven-CD set which offered an opportunity to dive deeply into Tudor’s work. The newest offering, also from New World, is a three-CD set of previously unissued recordings from The Tudorfest, a series of concerts organized by Pauline Oliveros at the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1964. With David Tudor as both featured guest and curator of programs, the festival included pieces by John Cage, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Alvin Lucier, George Brecht, and Oliveros.

The recordings are remarkable, providing definitive readings by musicians deeply committed to the works, to the composers, and to the prospect of New Music. But it also serves to encapsulate a critical time of transition for all involved. From the late ‘50s through the early ‘60s, Tudor was seen as the preeminent performer and proponent of piano music by American composers like Cage, Christian Wolff, and Morton Feldman, as well as European composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Sylvano Bussotti. Touring regularly in Europe and the US, he premiered countless works, many written expressly for him. But by 1964, Tudor was growing weary of his role as interpreter and was looking for opportunities to expand his approach to music. He had met Oliveros in 1963 on a trip to San Francisco and the two had bonded over their passion for accordion/bandoneon. When she came up with the idea of the festival, he fully embraced the opportunity. In early ‘64, he was on a US tour with Stockhausen, offering US premieres of “Kontakte” as well as solo piano pieces. (In a review of the January 7, 1964 performance in The New York Times, critic Raymond Ericson stated that “The evening was spent largely listening to music, which was fine except for those who knew the music from previous public performances or from recordings and had no wish to hear it again.”) Tudor spent time on the road selecting the program for the festival, sending scores to Oliveros to distribute to the other players, and assembling electronics for his performances.

Likewise, the San Francisco Tape Music Center was approaching a time of transition. The center was formed in 1961 by Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick, and Pauline Oliveros in order to provide an electronic music studio and performance space for a circle of musicians including Terry Riley, Steve Reich, William Maginnis, Donald Buchala, and Tony Martin. The idea was to provide an independent facility which was community-centered in contrast to the university-based computer music centers at places like Columbia and Princeton. The artists that gravitated to the Center combined a passion for performance which melded sonic exploration, dance, experiments with light projections, film, and Dadaist-inspired theater. The ethos of community was at the core of it all, promoting an open environment for rehearsals, performances, studio access, and DIY development. By 1964, the Center had established itself at the nexus of the burgeoning performance art and music community of San Francisco, and the concerts in the years before the festival and the festival itself brought the Center and the members more visibility.

Performed over six nights, the festival consisted of three programs each presented twice. Two of the programs featured music for piano or piano augmented by electronics along with pieces with more performative aspects. Included was Oliveros’ “Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato,” where Tudor and Oliveros performed on a revolving seesaw as a mynah bird interjected excited punctuations. George Brecht’s “Card Piece” and Alvin Lucier’s “Action Music for Piano, Book I” had a meta-theatricality, grappling more with the interaction between pianist and instrument than with sound itself, while Ichiyanagi’s “Sapporo,” instructs performers to respond to sounds made by each other with gestures and movements. The third program was dedicated to the music of John Cage, with an ensemble consisting of members of the Center performing “Atlas Eclipticalis with Winter Music, Electronic Version,” “Concert for Piano and Orchestra,” “Cartridge Music,” and “Music Walk.” While the pieces that rely heavily on theatrical elements are not included, the three CDs present a gripping document of the festival.

Cage’s piano music is prominently featured with readings of “34’46.776” for two pianists” and “Variations II” for piano and electronics. “34’46.776” for two pianists” was the last in the series of pieces that Cage composed for prepared piano, but here, he left the means of preparation up to the performers, only requiring that they change within a performance. While the parts played on the keyboard are notated, the means of preparation and the attack use graphic instruction. The performance by Tudor and pianist Dwight Peltzer ricochets between the ringing resonance of notes, sliding whistles, and the percussive rattles, plinks, and damped shudders of the prepared strings. The spatial separation of the two performers is deftly captured in the recording, highlighting the way in which the trajectories of the two move in parallel, at times intersecting while at other times contrasting in both density and velocity of attack. The sensitivity of Tudor and Peltzer to the dynamics and pools of silence that frame the piece provide a bracing vitality throughout.

Tudor performed realizations of “Variations II” multiple times, even after he had all but abandoned performing piano music, and his approach to the mix of piano and amplification was a precursor to the complex systems he would go on to develop with electronics. Using microphones above and below the sound box, contact mikes directly on the strings or on stiff springs used to activate the strings, and phonograph cartridges used to activate or pick up the vibrations of the instrument, all mixed in real-time, he created multiple paths of exciting the piano which would serve to further build on themselves. Cage’s purely graphical score provided Tudor with a framework for the mutable setup, and he astutely balances chance and intent throughout the performance as feedback, abraded electronics and string resonances shift and interconnect, again using silence as a key structural element of the performance.

Two versions of Toshi Ichiyanagi’s “Music for Piano No. 4” also provide an opportunity to hear Tudor’s approach to the piano as an acoustic instrument and as an electronic sound controller. During the festival, the piece was performed as a duo with Oliveros as well as in a solo electronic version. The instructions for the piece read: “Use sustaining sounds and silence(s) only. No attack should be made. The piano may be played with any number of players and on any number of pianos.” Here, the direct instructions dictate an approach to the instrument that is fully embraced in both readings. The duo performance is full of squeaks, groans, creaks, and shudders as various materials are rubbed across the case of the piano, avoiding the strings. Here, the strings and sounding board of the instrument act as subtle amplification and the resulting reading is propelled with shaded, striated gestures. The electronic solo performance utilizes contact mikes and a four-channel mixer, amplification serves to magnify the gestures but Tudor maintains a light hand as he induces the details to accrue with striking control of shifting timbral shadings.

The set is well worth picking up for the third disc alone, with stellar performances of ensemble pieces by Cage. It is easy to forget that in ‘60s, few musicians or audiences were willing to embrace Cage’s music. At a performance of “Atlas Eclipticalis with Winter Music” by New York Philharmonic just two months before the performance at the Tudorfest, musicians, audiences, and critics resolutely panned the piece. The members of the Philharmonic barely took the music seriously and many in the audience booed or walked out. In his February 7, 1964 review in the New York Times, critic Harold Schonberg came to an uneasy reckoning, describing the performance as “the memory of the squawks, pointillisms, chaos, delicacies, mysteries, calculations and miscalculations of indetermi­nate music. Some of it may be written for no other reason than pour épater le bourgeois; some of it shows delicate evo­cations of sound; some of it is phony; some of it exciting. In itself, it is a passing fad, but it does illustrate the breakup of values in music the way so many other mani­festations mirror the equiva­lent breakup in contemporary life and thought.”

The music got a far different response in San Francisco with a full ensemble consisting of musicians like Stuart Dempster, Oliveros, Dwight Peltzer, Morton Subotnick, and Ian Underwood, with Ramon Sender conducting. Tudor provided resolute guidance in preparing for the performance, ensuring that the musicians didn’t take Cage’s freedom as license to head off in any direction they chose. The resulting recording of the piece is imbued with a considered effort in traversing the indeterminacies of the details of the score while maintaining an attentive, collective pacing. The “squawks, pointillisms, chaos, and delicacies” develop their own internal balance as acoustic instruments and electronics counter against each other with a sense of measured resolve. The 16-piece ensemble revels as they ply a multiplicity of textures and interactions of attack and resonant sustain over the course of the 30-minute performance.

“Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” is wilder and denser. The site describes the score as follows: “The notation of each part uses a system wherein space is relative to time. The amount of time is determined by the musician and then altered during performance, by the conductor, whose role is to act as a chronometer on the podium whose arms simulate the movement of the hands of a clock. Notes are of 3 sizes, and may refer to duration or amplitude or both, interpreted by the performer ... The part for pianist, is an aggregate of 84 different kinds of notation, written on 63 pages, and composed using 84 different compositional techniques. The pianist may play the material in whole or in part, choosing any notations, elements, or parts, and playing them in any order.” The various voices in the ensemble operate in a more discrete manner and one can hear the way that Tudor deftly anchors the piece without ever subverting the overarching sense of ensemble parity.

The performance of “Cartridge Music” and “Music Walk” provide an effective pairing for the program. While “Cartridge Music” is a piece of Cage’s that many perform, it is great to hear this early recording with performers using treated phonographic cartridges rather than the common practice these days of using contact mikes. The resulting sound spectrum is fuller and warmer and, under Tudor’s direction, the group delivers a compact, 11-minute performance. Tudor described the process in the liner notes to the set. “That gets to be quite complex visually as well as aurally because when you have six people, and they’re all following indeterminate material, they sometimes all come together at one point in space, and you [still]have to produce some sound, and they get in each other’s way. And that’s quite interesting to watch, and see who wins.” While one misses the visual component, the recording captures the process and the results come together with a potent energy that still sounds fresh. “Music Walk” which closed out the Cage program featured Tudor at the piano and members of the ensemble walking around the hall with radios or producing “auxiliary sounds by singing or any other means.” One can hear the audience laughing and clapping and it is easy to see how this appealed to the Fluxus, performance art sensibility of the members of the Tape Center. While the recording without the visuals doesn’t hold up quite as well, it is a worthwhile addition to the overall document.

While Tudor’s magnum opus for bandoneon was certainly “Bandoneon! (A Combine)” a piece assembled for the series 9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering in New York in 1966, his bandoneon/accordion performance with Pauline Oliveros from the Tudorfest is a noteworthy piece. Titled “Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato,” the staged performance included a huge rotating see-saw with a cage for a mynah bird at the fulcrum as well as a lighting system designed to cast changeable shadows as the musicians revolved around the stage. (It is well worth searching out the DVD of Tudor’s performance of “Bandoneon! (A Combine),” containing footage from this Tudorfest piece.) Oliveros had written a score for the piece but it was quickly abandoned as the two had to focus on staying upright and on the see-saw as they spun around the stage. The sound of the two instruments was cast around the hall by their rotations with squawked and whistled interjections by the mynah bird at random moments throughout. In the liner notes, Oliveros comments that instead, “long-held tone clusters were contrasted with jagged, disjunct pitch and rhythm[ic] relationships. During each section of movement we concentrated on an overall feeling – either pitch, rhythm, texture, or quality. The original notated score remained as an influence or reference point.” Even without the visuals, the recording holds up well, as the bellows-driven, reedy reverberations and sputtering key clicks intersect, building quavering tonalities and constantly morphing textures.

The success of the festival and the seasons that followed, ironically, brought an end to the San Francisco Tape Music Center. During the summer of 1966, the center moved to Mills College in Oakland, becoming the Mills Tape Music Center (and later the Mills Center for Contemporary Music.) While Oliveros and a few of the other members moved to Mills, Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick declined to do so. The academic setting brought stability but resulted in a changed of focus from the community-based freewheeling, multi-disciplinary experiments. Some members of the Center moved on to the variety of counter-cultural activities sprouting up around San Francisco in the ‘60s. They brought a deep-seated knowledge they had developed to events like The Trips Festival organized by Sender and Stuart Brand and featuring music by rock bands like Grateful Dead, electronic installations, Don Buchala’s sound-light console, lighting projections, and participation by Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, and others. Others left the Bay Area to explore their music in other locations. Likewise, by ‘66, Tudor had changed his focus, moving away from the piano to immerse himself in the world of real-time electronic music.

This box serves as a welcome snapshot of a particularly fertile intersection of artists, and community, resulting in an extraordinary musical event. The back-story of the festival and participants is certainly engrossing. But what comes out from a listen to this set is a renewed recognition of how timeless the music they created was and how vital it still sounds over fifty years later.
–Michael Rosenstein

Cuneiform Records

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