Remembering David Tudor: A 75th Anniversary Memoir

The 9 Evenings, New York City, 1966

In the mid 1960s, Dr. J. Wilhelm (“Billy”) Klüver had formed Experiments in Art and Technology, Inc. (E.A.T.), an association of artists, engineers, and scientists. He and his colleagues were planning an ambitious program of “Theatre and Engineering” for October 1966, to take place in the 69th Regiment Armory on 25th Street in New York City. The choice of the Armory was no accident: it was the site of the Armory Show (actually, the International Exhibition of Modern Art), which opened on 17 March 1913 and included Marcel Duchamp’s sensational Nude Descending a Staircase. The 9 Evenings, as they came to be known, were supposed to be the Second Armory Show. David Tudor and John Cage were invited to present new pieces on two evenings each; the other artists were Steve Paxton, Alex Hay, Deborah Hay, Robert Rauschenberg, Yvonne Ranier, Lucinda Childs, Robert Whitman, and Oyvind Fahlstrom. Because of the technical and logistical demands of the pieces, each artist had a “performance engineer”—David Tudor’s was Fred Waldhauer, for Bandoneon !; John Cage’s was Cecil Coker, for Variations VII.

Musica Instrumentalis was the precursor of David Tudor’s 9 Evenings piece, Bandoneon ! [Bandoneon Factorial] (a combine). In 1973, seven years after the performances, David Tudor wrote, “The situation obtaining when a performer scans two media simultaneously to which I had been introduced through Lowell Cross’s ’Musica Instrumentalis’, contributed the performance method: a single performer feedback, which also obviated the need for any compositional means” (David Tudor, “Bandoneon !, Pre & Post–operative note,” 1973; quoted in Experiments in Art and Technology, 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, undated in–house publication). David Tudor invited me to provide the video imagery for Bandoneon !. My interest increased when he told me that video projectors and large projection screens would be available for his performances.

I spent the summer of 1966 in Lubbock studying for comprehensive examinations. While there, I built for David Tudor a Stirrer Jr.—a four–channel sound–in–motion panning device modeled after my larger Stirrer (see documentation in issue No. 4 of Source, music of the avant garde, 1968). In a letter dated 26 August 1966, he thanked me for the Stirrer Jr., informed me more about the upcoming 9 Evenings, and invited me to “come & stay a while.” I visited him that fall at his old farmhouse near Stony Point, New York and became engaged in some of his electronic projects, including the repair of his Eico 3–inch oscilloscope. He knew that I never claimed to be an “expert” on the subject of electronics, but he was still ready to engage in discussions and ask questions. “Tell me about phase shift.” He knew that phase (time) relationships between two channels were important considerations in stereophonic sound and the consequent relationships between stereo and x–y displays. He wanted to pursue the use of phase shift in electronic feedback circuits. I explained to him that he had already experienced himself as a feedback “component” in Musica Instrumentalis, during which his physical movement of the bandoneon between the microphones produced audible stereophonic phase–shift effects over the loudspeakers and visible kinetic phase–shift effects on the TV screens. We talked about feedback in general, which can bring audio, video, or servo systems to conditions of sustained oscillation. He also asked, “What does DC [direct current] sound like?” So I connected a flashlight battery to one of his loudspeakers, producing a “click.” He asked “How loud can that be?” I explained that ordinary audio amplifiers do not have response down to DC (0 Hz), but that lightening was a DC discharge of very high power. If lightening struck close by, that loud “crack” was indeed the sound of DC.

During that visit I learned just how inscrutable and highly secretive David Tudor was. Once when he was in his farmhouse attic, I began to venture up the stairs to report my progress on one of his projects. I had just said, “David ... ,” when he called out in a loud, agitated voice, “Don’t come up here right now! Wait!” I certainly did wait, and then after a lot of shuffling around, he said almost grudgingly, “OK, you can come up now.” What was he hiding in that attic? Theosophical tracts by Madame Blavatsky? Anthroposophical tracts by Rudolf Steiner? Items relating to the occult? An extensive pornography collection? I didn’t ask (I even forgot momentarily what I was going to talk about), and neither David Tudor nor I ever mentioned the incident again.

In September 1973, in response to a request from E.A.T. personnel for documentation about my involvement in David Tudor’s and John Cage’s 9 Evenings pieces, I wrote, in part:

The monochrome TV projectors available for the various performances of 9 Evenings [used] a small, high–intensity cathode–ray tube [...] with a Schmidt optical system to project the image developed on the screen of the tube. I had my chance to experiment with one of these projectors in the 25th Street Armory only a few hours before David’s first performance on Friday evening, 14 October. At the time, I was a graduate student [...] and I was able [...] only at the last minute to fly to New York.

The conversion of the projector for the purposes of Bandoneon ! was relatively simple, but the repercussions were not. In the normal [...] intended operating mode of the projector, the electron beam scans over the white phosphor screen at a very high rate—about 15,000 times per second—while producing an image of considerable intensity. After I made the conversion, the beam velocity was [...] 10 to 150 times slower [...] with my test signals. Even with most of the lights on in the Armory, a very bright, clear, sharply defined kinetic image could be seen tracing itself on one of the three large projection screens. I summoned David, Billy Klüver, and anyone else capable of being easily distracted [...] .

David was highly encouraged, [but] I noted that the images were becoming very slightly, but perceptively, fainter. Upon the dispersion of the small audience, I turned off the projector and looked inside. Permanently etched on the screen of its cathode–ray tube were all of the tracings of the [imagery that] we had just seen. [ ... ] My modified mode of operation had rendered the projector self–destructive. David and I now had the exclusive use of this particular projector [...] .

David Tudor wrote in his 1966 program notes, “Bandoneon ! uses no composing means; when activated it composes itself out of its own composite instrumental nature.” Later he provided an additional insight into his thinking about “single performer feedback” as part of a piece that “composes itself.” “The audio processing and programming, as well as all the software, had to contribute to the oscillating (and unknowable) tendency—including the multiplication of circuits” (David Tudor, “Bandoneon !, Pre  & Post–operative note,“ 1973, op. cit.). Bandoneon ! was a challenging, complex, and seminal work for David Tudor as composer (see Fig. 7, David Tudor with his bandoneon and electronic modules).

Fig. 7

Fig. 7, David Tudor with his bandoneon and electronic modules.

He never had the luxury of hearing, or seeing, all of his systems functioning simultaneously on either of his two “evenings.” Admittedly, my TV projections did not work dependably because of their self–destructive nature. But he did have the collaboration of engineers from Bell Labs, who designed and constructed two of the highly specialized devices used in his performances: Bob Kieronski (Vochrome) and Fred Waldhauer (Proportional Control). David Behrman, Per Biorn, Tony Gnazzo, Billy Klüver, and James Tenney were involved with the remote–controlled carts that moved loudspeakers around on the Armory floor. Bandoneon ! embodied on a grand scale the “composing” technique that David Tudor employed in many performance works that followed: a single performer (David Tudor himself) in a feedback loop, initiating processes that (hopefully) brought forth a piece that “composed itself” through a multiplicity of self–sustaining, and self–evolving, oscillations. David Tudor’s methods, and his deliberately–paced development of them during an entire evening of composing–performing, help to explain his 1974 quote at the beginning of this memoir.

David Tudor was a great piano virtuoso, and in his transition to electronic composer–performer he retained the attitudes and orientation of a virtuoso. He lived on the edge; he made audiences wait until he could pull things off at the last minute; and he took great risks during his performances of Bandoneon ! and subsequent electroacoustical works. He was a latter–day conjurer reminiscent of a Liszt or a Scriabin. Furthermore, he would not tolerate any kind of interference with, or impediments to, his work. His work was the driving force of his life—even if he had to forego the benefits of “normal” personal relationships.

We spent most of Saturday, 15 October setting up for the first performance of John Cage’s Variations VII that evening. As usual, John Cage relied a great deal upon David Tudor for equipment interconnections. John Cage planned to use “as sound sources only those sounds which are in the air at the moment of performance, picked up via [...] telephone lines, microphones,” etc. (9 Evenings program notes). One collection of sounds that was supposed to come over telephone lines was the activity in the kitchen of Luchow’s Restaurant in New York City. David Tudor had not yet connected those lines into the sound system by late afternoon, and John Cage was beginning to become a bit frantic. He came over to me and said in a pleading voice, “Lowell, David likes you. Would you please get him to connect up those phone lines to Luchow’s so we can test them?” I talked to David Tudor, who agreed to do so—a bit later. He was preoccupied with his own setup for John Cage’s piece. When the lines were finally interconnected and working properly, John Cage said to me, “David has no concept of time.” By that he meant clock time, of course, not musical time. John Cage’s piece was less ambitious than David Tudor’s, but it had its share of performance glitches on both evenings, 15 and 16 October. Two years later, in Oakland, California, he told me that he was dissatisfied with the performances of Variations VII.