Born: January 20, 1926; Philadelphia, PA
Died: August 13, 1996; Tomkins Cove, NY
Some performers just seem born to tackle avant-garde music. It's not that they are any the less capable of digging into the classics, but that, by some alignment of nerve cells or gray matter, or perhaps karma, these performers have a gift -- a raw intuitive knack -- for finding and communicating the basic and most essential qualities that each fresh, new piece of music has to offer. A straightforward, unaffected, and perhaps more importantlyRead more unintimidated (and unintimidating) approach that even the grandest concert-platform virtuoso mightn't be able to manage. For the better part of 50 years of the last century, pianist David Tudor was a towering figure amongst these sometimes under-appreciated modern music specialists. In his hands, some of the twentieth century's most outrageous music seemed -- well -- almost normal.
Tudor was born in Philadelphia in January 1926 and died in Tomkins Cove, NY, in August 1996, about seven months past his 70th birthday. As a child, he received the benefit of training at the hands of some very highly regarded musicians: composer Stefan Wolpe, pianist Irma Wolpe, and organist William Hawke. He began professional life as a church organist in Philadelphia (St. Mark's Cathedral, from the late '30s to the middle of World War II from the age of 12 to about 17) and at Swarthmore College; but soon, prompted by a growing familiarity with Messiaen's modernist organ music and after exploring the works of the ever-expanding Messiaen circle, he set off on the modernist path. In 1950, he gave the American premiere of Pierre Boulez's fiendish Piano Sonata No. 2 (considered one of the most fearsome 30 minutes any performer of any instrument will ever encounter), playing from memory, and the Tudor legend was secure.
Tudor is best-known for his close association with John Cage. The famous "non-piece" 4'33" was first performed by him -- his ability to draw out these four-and-a-half-minutes of complete silence was almost proverbial -- no one else seemed able to make 4'33" quite so fascinating -- and most of Cage's prepared piano music was developed with Tudor's help. Morton Feldman, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Mauricio Kagel also often sought the benefit of Tudor's performances for their music.
Tudor's piano technique was perfectly suited to the complex and sometimes bizarre physical manipulations demanded by music of his time. Or, rather, put it this way: He had no technique (which is really the highest form of technique). Tudor thought nothing of poking or prying at the keys, dabbing at them with gloves on, or knocking them around with foreign objects. Recordings reveal, however, just how fast and accurate his hands could be when called upon to move in a traditional way: solid, efficient, and powerful use of the fingers.
In the mid-'50s, Tudor began to teach at the Darmstadt Summer Courses, at S.U.N.Y. Buffalo, at Mills College in Florida, and at the University of California at Davis. And from the 1960s on, he composed a good deal of music himself, often employing electronic devices and other extra-musical apparatuses (for example, an aluminum kite for the 1988 work Volatils with Sonic Reflections) in his work. Read less