Notes and Editorial Reviews
Bandoneon! (A Combine). Anima Pepsi. Pespibird. Pespsillator. Mesostics re Merce Cunnngham/Untitled
Wanderings. Phonemes. Rainforest
Webwork. Virtual Focus. Neural Network Plus
For 1, 2,or 3 People
class="ARIAL12"> David Tudor (live electronics, pn, baroque org);
John Cage (voice);
Takehisa Kosugi (live electronics)
NEW WORLD 80737-2 (7 CDs: 7: 20:04)
Almost 20 years after his death, more of us are finally getting a fix on what makes David Tudor (1926–1996) important, and why so many highly placed persons in the realm of experimental music thought the world of him. This is a remarkable collection of his work, really a set of signposts over a wide and twisting career arc, that for me at least helps clarify his originality and contribution.
Tudor of course came to prominence as the virtuoso keyboard advocate of music by the most radical and experimental composers of the mid-20th-century. We associate him most with Cage and his school, but he was equally at home with the music of the European avant-garde, such as Boulez and Stockhausen (which incidentally is proof that despite his openness to aleatorism and indeterminacy—he
—he could always accurately play the notes of the thorniest pieces). But by the late 1960s he essentially gave up his performance practice to devote himself to live electronic music, in collaboration with Cage, and in particular making works for Merce Cunningham’s dance troupe. (In fact, this release is an extension of the earlier New World
Music for Merce
set I reviewed in 36:4.) Its substantial Tudor component opened my ears to his vision. Five works on this release appeared on the earlier one, but there only as excerpts; as such the new release is fully justified).
Of course to some this may have seemed a waste, a jettisoning of great talent to what might seem a self-indulgent, even crackpot, quest. But Tudor obviously was fiercely independent and convinced of the necessity of the route he undertook. And in the process I think he may have invented a practice (both technical and aesthetic) with technology that becomes ever more important and influential.
There are a couple of examples of Tudor as a creative performer/collaborator with Cage and Christian Wolff at the beginning of the set, and they show him coaxing a daunting range of sounds from (electronically prepared) piano and organ. But with
of 1966 he begins to make his own statement, and as a result, one can see what was missing for him from his previous work with “other people’s music.” It was
The music of Cage, et al., tended to reverence silence and the moment. Events were isolated, shorn of context, forced to exist in and of themselves. This was supremely radical and stimulating, but it also sacrificed one of the most profound aspects of music, i.e.,
From the very beginning, Tudor reasserted the primacy, indeed the necessity, thereof. One listens to his music, no matter how strange and radical, far more as
music as we know it
, than one does to much of what immediately preceded it in American experimentalism.
This is not to suggest that the music isn’t really weird and demanding. Warning to all entering—some of this is, at least on the surface, really demanding, tough listening. Pieces go on usually for close to an hour, seem to have little change, and are made from what is technically “noise” (i.e. without pitch and certainly without harmony). And yet … there is truly something going on here, and I’ll try to explain.
Tudor almost invented out of whole cloth a practice of live interactive electronic music, something that now is prevalent worldwide and across a vast stylistic platform (I say “almost” because there were others with the same focus, especially Gordon Mumma and David Behrman). His genius was twofold. First, he created intricate, personal networks of simple electronic devices that, once linked, could be set into sonic motion and generate materials that were constantly mutating and ever-surprising. His job was a little like that of a cowboy on a bucking bronco, trying just to keep it on track (and himself in the saddle). The constant surprise, the lack of foreknowledge of the exact upcoming event, is pure Cage. But the richness of result was Tudor. Matt Rogalsky in his comprehensive notes (themselves a scholarly resource for future musicologists) suggests that instead of looking
nature to create musical models (like Cage), Tudor created systems that
nature. And yes, one feels that there is a genuine “sonic ecology” at work here, even though ironically it’s all-electronic.
The other act of genius was his sonic imagination. In many cases, Tudor’s systems often relied on internal feedback; i.e. the noise
generated inside the network itself
became the source for transformation. And if there was acoustic input, either live or prerecorded, it was so altered as to create a completely new product, especially when sent through amplifying ordinary objects whose inherent natural frequencies transformed the source-sounds. Rarely are Tudor’s sounds beautiful in the polished manner that we praise electro-acoustic timbres. They are often plain-spoken, obviously artifacts of the technology, which they make no effort to hide. Pops, rumbles, and squeaks are the norm. But they always have
. To take just one example, in the 1987
I felt I was listening to the increasingly dense clicking of an insect kingdom I’d never before imagined.
(1990) for quite a while sounds like wind over a microphone without its protective screen, yet slowly it morphs into richer textures, and one is drawn deeper into its microscopic changes and subtleties. And the last work on the set, the 1992
Neural Network Plus
, shows his growth continued right to the end; the range of sounds in terms of timbre and texture seems endless.
The upshot is that with time, much of this work establishes the principles of its own tradition: of form, orchestration, counterpoint, and rhythm. Tudor’s musicality comes through loud and clear. One hears cycles and slow evolution, as well as climaxes, even though almost all the pieces end as though a switch was just being flipped (which was probably the case). There can be high drama too, as when at the height of its intensity, in
(1978), the music suddenly begins to stop and start over, again and again, a heart-stopping gesture, and one that seems only possible in the electro-acoustic domain.
Tudor’s most renowned piece is
IV, which he developed as an installation with the aforementioned amplification via assorted objects (the box cover shows an oil drum and a host other mysterious objects suspended in a gallery at SUNY/Purchase from a 1981 presentation). His collaborators here were a group of younger composers and artists (including Bill Viola, now one of the most renowned of video artists); their name was Composers Inside Electronics, and that is the CIE in the headnote. I admit that, ironically, this work excites me the least, in large part because it was really intended to be experienced in the flesh, both visually and spatially. New World suggests listening with headphones here to get some sense of the original experience, and I think that goes for all the works on the program. But inevitably, considering the multi-speaker set-ups that Rogalsky repeatedly describes, we are inevitably missing a big piece of the show listening with whatever audio system we possess.
Again, this is
easy listening, especially for those unfamiliar with the medium and its tradition. I certainly wouldn’t want all music to move in this direction and forsake other options. But for
interested in any form of creative musical technology, this is a must. Tudor’s work was so “site-specific” that it’s debatable whether it can ever be recreated, and so this sort of documentation may be all we’ll have of it for the future. But the
and techniques behind it are truly “resonant,” and their reverberations just continue to grow with present and upcoming generations.
As you might imagine, this is on this year’s Want List.
FANFARE: Robert Carl
Works on This Recording
Webwork by David Tudor
David Tudor (Electronics)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1988; USA
Untitled by David Tudor
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1972; New York, USA
RainForest IV by David Tudor
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1973; USA
Phonemes by David Tudor
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1981; New York, USA
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