One of the very first significant pieces of electronic music I ever heard was a performance recording of David Tudor’s Rainforest. Although I can’t recall which version it was (this was in my first electronic music class during my freshman year of college), I have never forgotten how blown away I was by that chirping, squeaking, clanging, banging, blooping wall of sound that did indeed give the impression of a living, breathing, electronic jungle.
Tudor was one of the pioneers of “DIY electronics”—the plugging in of things to other things (often constructed from scratch by the plugger in-er) to the point where the beastly tangle of gizmos, cables, and wires leaves control of the instigator’s hands, creating an independently generated sonic world. He started out as a gifted pianist, who premiered important works (many of them indeterminate) by John Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, and Earle Brown, but eventually changed his focus from interpreting acoustic music to creating his own live electronic works. However, he continued to work with these artists in a collaborative role, on pieces such as the 1972 Mesostics re Merce Cunningham/Untitled. He also spent many years touring with and composing for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which proved to be an ideal vehicle for his work. The recently released boxed set of Tudor’s work, The Art of David Tudor (1963—1992) on New World Records, charts his transformation from interpreter and co-composer to composer/performer, presenting a selection of full performance recordings of many of his groundbreaking works.
One of Tudor’s specialties was working with feedback within a live performance context. This method later became known as “no input” electronic instruments, in which all sound is generated via internal electronic feedback scenarios. Because of the nature of his electronic setups—picture tabletops overflowing with electronic devices, both commercial and homemade, which would be arranged in varying configurations from performance to performance—every performance was a one-of-a-kind event. So the recordings presented on this seven-disc set are single performances of works that resulted in many, many realizations. While a number of the compositions have been presented on other albums in excerpted form, this set is special in that the works are featured in their entirety as much as possible—a bit of a feat, given that Tudor’s music tended towards long-form statements and developed slowly over lengthy time spans. According to friends and colleagues, he always had more that he wanted to say.
Volume 1 opens with Tudor as interpreter, with Cage’s Variations II, Wolff’s For 1, 2, or 3 People, and Tudor’s own Bandoneon ! (A Combine). Volume 2 documents three works that Tudor performed at the 1970 Pepsi Pavilion Expo in Osaka, Japan, charmingly titled Anima Pepsi, Pepsibird, and Pepscillator. As the big, hearty book of liner notes describes, “These are ‘remix’ works, exploring distribution of prerecorded material sent through the Pavilion’s network of 37 speakers, moving along programmable pathways.” Volume 3 is a performance by Tudor and Cage together of Mesostics re Merce Cunningham/Untitled. Volume 4 contains the works Weatherings and Phonemes, which, according to Tudor’s sound engineer in the Cunningham Company, represented a creative shift in which Tudor’s mastery of the medium started to allow for increasing control over the elements of performance. Indeed, in these recordings (which are also of higher quality than those on the earlier discs) there is a great deal of movement and frenetic sonic activity, such as sounds bouncing around the stereo field or shifting from foreground to background.
In addition to Webwork and Virtual Focus, featuring Tudor on live electronics, Volumes 5 and 6 include two different performances of Rainforest IV, performed by Tudor and the group Composers Inside Electronics. This large-scale “performed installation” began as a workshop led by Tudor for New Music New Hampshire in 1973; several young musicians showed up to partake in this event, including John Driscoll, Phil Edelstein, Linda Fisher, Ralph Jones, Martin Kalve, and Bill Viola. Together they accepted Tudor’s challenge to create a piece without the use of oscillators or pre-recorded material, instead finding objects to be used as acoustic filters. As they got enthused and found ever larger objects with which to experiment, they ended up “super-sizing” the project and creating an enormous, immersive sound environment presented in an almost sculptural format, with oil drums suspended from rafters and mobiles made of bedsprings (for example), all sporting contact microphones and emitting unbelievable chirps, squawks, and ringing tones. The performances here, from Stockholm and Berlin respectively, are recorded in a binaural format that, when experienced with headphones gives an impression of the immersive environment they created.
Tudor’s final works marked a return to his explorations with field recordings and “no input” feedback instruments. Volume 7 of this set features an hour-long 1992 performance of Neural Network Plus, performed by the composer with Takehisa Kosugi, both on live electronics. This time the tools were slightly different though—this work was one of his first forays into computer music, commissioned especially for Merce Cunningham’s first computer-assisted choreographic effort Enter.
By the end of the seven discs, it seems that it would be quite possible to identify the characteristic field recording-oriented chirp-and-bleep style of Tudor’s musical language in any listening situation, and yet each work creates its own special sound world. This is an important set of historical recordings in that Tudor was always so focused on the experience of live performance; most of all, he wanted “…that the audience senses the presence of a live musician.” With that thought in mind, I would highly recommend purchasing the physical box, as it is beautifully presented, with each disc in its own photo-laden sleeve, packaged with a substantial book of liner notes (including some sketches and diagrams of Tudor’s various setups) written by electronic musician/performer/educator Matt Rogalsky. Despite the fact that most of these works cannot be recreated, they are nevertheless of great importance to the development of electronic music and its performance history. Here’s to hoping that colleges and universities, as well as musicians involved in electronic music around the world, will add this set to their recording collections.