Remembering David Tudor: A 75th Anniversary Memoir

Laser Performances Abroad
and a Last Trip to Iowa City, 1976–1980

I was invited to present laser concerts at the Festival Internacional Cervantino, Guanajuato, Mexico, 2–15 May; and at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City, 21–23 May 1976. Carson D. Jeffries joined me for outdoor performances in Guanajuato; David Tudor collaborated with me in a large art gallery at the University in Mexico City. We named those 17 composition–performances Free Spectral Range III. The audiences at both venues were fascinated by the laser equipment and greeted the performances with great enthusiasm. There is little to report about David Tudor’s activities at that time except that he greatly enjoyed the excellent food provided by our hosts; he also had the opportunity to try some fine tequilas, including Herradura Hornitos and Sauza Conmemorativo.

The following year, the three of us were invited to perform with VIDEO/LASER III at the World Music Days Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) in Bonn, Germany. David Tudor’s and my performances of Free Spectral Range IV: Laser Environment took place on 14, 16, and 17 May 1977 at the Kultur Forum in Bonn. Carson D. Jeffries could not attend, but he sent his special sound–and–image generating equipment that he used in Mexico as his contribution to our ISCM presentations in Bonn. The young German students and composers, perhaps schooled in the Darmstadt and Donaueschingen festival traditions, were very serious, very inquisitive, and obviously divided into camps. They did not have much to say to me, but because of his reputation and high visibility in Europe, they set their sights on David Tudor after the concerts. His secretive nature became apparent on such occasions. If asked, “What is the aesthetic basis of your compositions?” or “What is the relationship of the laser projections to the sounds?” or “What does this (or that) device do?” David Tudor would usually say with his Cheshire–cat smile and a chuckle, “Oh, don’t ask.” Some of the young Germans were disappointed with their inability to communicate with David Tudor, whom they revered as a hero figure in new music; others, less favorably disposed to him at the outset, became visibly frustrated. David Tudor would simply sip some "Medicine Man" and begin his post–concert packing.

Merce Cunningham and Dance Company performed at the University’s Hancher Auditorium on Friday and Saturday, 25 and 26 February 1977. The musicians touring with the group were David Behrman, Joe Kubera, and David Tudor, who as always stayed at our house. John Cage and Gordon Mumma did not come to Iowa City for these performances. After the Saturday evening event, I invited David Behrman and Joe Kubera to accompany David Tudor and me to our house. Joe Kubera respectfully declined, so our threesome had a quiet party (Nora, Karen, and Gregory had already gone to bed). As usual, David Tudor wanted tequila, which I kept on hand during his visits. He drank a bit more than he should have and decided to go outside for some fresh air. It was a very cold night; David Behrman and I became concerned when he did not come inside after a few minutes. I found him and took him down to his bed in the basement. After I returned from taking David Behrman to the on–campus Iowa House, where the dance group was staying, I checked on David Tudor. He was asleep on the floor, with the TV set still on, but tuned to a channel that was off the air. I was able to get him into bed, turn off the TV, and then go to bed myself. That was the last time that he visited us in Iowa City.

In 1980, three years later, David Tudor and his New York Agency, Artservices, booked for us a European tour. Concerts were arranged for Venice, Rome, and Linz. Nora had not returned to her native Hungary since 1956, when as a child she and her parents left at the height of the Hungarian Revolution. We decided that she, Karen (age 9), Gregory (age 5), and I would spend a few days with her relatives in Budapest and then join David Tudor in Venice. We had a great time in that beautiful city on the Danube.

The first stop of the laser tour was the “Lido,” the island famous for its beach near the city of Venice. We were to perform at La Biennale, the prestigious art, music, and film festival. Upon meeting David Tudor at Hôtel des Bains on the Lido, we could tell that he was tense and irritable. He became more agitated when we learned that the 1,600 pound / 725 kg shipment of laser equipment was still in Rome, awaiting a truck and driver to bring it to Venice. The equipment finally arrived less than 24 hours before our scheduled performance of Laser Concert at 5:00 p.m. on Friday, 29 August 1980. My assistant Stephen Julstrom and I had to stay up all night unpacking the delicate equipment, securing electrical and water connections for the laser, and assembling the entire system at Casinò La Perla. Despite the frantic activity during our setup period, the performance was glitch–free and very well received. (I had received funding from the University of Iowa Foundation to upgrade VIDEO/LASER III to a six–beam system the preceding spring.) Carson D. Jeffries did not accompany us on this tour, but he again sent his special equipment. I was very pleased that I could use it to good effect at La Biennale.

Fig. 17

Fig. 17, “Massenzio Musica” poster.

Our next stop was Rome, where VIDEO/LASER III had already languished for a while before being transported to Venice. We were engaged to give open–air performances of Laser Concert in the ancient Roman Forum as part of a series called “Massenzio Musica” (Massenzio = Maxentius, Roman emperor, d. 312, who built the Temple of Romulus at the end of the Forum next to our performance site. See Fig. 17, “Massenzio Musica” poster).

We were scheduled to project our kinetic laser images onto a large screen, with our sounds amplified over an impressive audio system, on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, 3 and 4 September, at 8:30 p.m. Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending upon one’s point of view), the publicity for our event had the wrong dates. The huge crowd that assembled on Wednesday, 3 September was expecting a showing of horror movies, as we discovered later. I remembered John Cage’s theory about demonstrative concertgoers in southern latitudes, especially Italian ones, as the audience went into a state of pandemonium after seeing our laser imagery and hearing our electronic sounds. David Tudor, Julstrom, the equipment, and I were atop the cabina housing the movie projectors, and soon we were assaulted with catcalls, pebbles, bottles, and cans. Finally an official of the Massenzio Musica concert series climbed up to tell us why the audience was demonstrating, and shortly thereafter we terminated our Concerto per Laser.

Then an old black–and–white horror movie began, to the enthusiastic response of the audience. It was a really bad movie, and I thought, “You really prefer this to a high–tech laser performance?"” Predictably, the scene soon came in which the villain was threatening to plunge his dagger into the young heroine’s throat. I had to have my revenge: I sent a brilliant red laser beam right to her Adam’s apple. Then all hell broke loose – the earlier level of pandemonium was nothing in comparison to this new outburst of uncontrolled, passionate emotions. The others atop our cabina pleadingly urged me to turn off the laser, completely, for the rest of the evening. I did, while David Tudor was left to contemplate the exigencies that required him to perform “for less than an hour.” The Thursday, 4 September performance did not have the wrong publicity and was very favorably received by the audience.

Our final venue on this 1980 tour was the Brucknerhaus, Großer Saal, in Linz, Austria for the Festival “Ars Electronica.” The Cross Family was well housed, our setup went smoothly, and all seemed in order for our Laser Concert on Wednesday evening, 10 September. I soon discovered, however, that David Tudor had his own “family” meeting him in Linz. I knew nothing in advance about his group, “Composers Inside Electronics,” John Driscoll, Philip Edelstein, Ralph Jones, and David Tudor himself. I certainly harbored no ill feelings against his young associates, never having met them before, but it soon became apparent to me that David Tudor was much more concerned with their welfare than with that of the Cross Family. We ended our association. After Nora, Karen, Gregory, and I said good–bye to him on Thursday morning, 11 September 1980 in the presence of his group (he remained silent), we never saw him again.