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David Tudor: From piano to electronics

The transition of a pianist to electronic music

David Tudor (1926-1996)

In his book Silence, first published in 1961, John Cage told a story about David Tudor. Tudor and M. C. Richards had invited several friends over to dinner. After dinner, the visitors were sitting around chatting. Cage related that, “David Tudor began doing some paper work in a corner, perhaps something to do with music, though I'm not sure. After a while there was a pause in the conversation, and someone said to David Tudor, "Why don't you join the party?" He said, "I haven't left it. This is how I keep you entertained.”

The seemingly self-absorbed David Tudor did not appear to enjoy attention outside of his performance role. Whenever he was interviewed with Cage, as the two often were, Tudor usually let Cage do the talking. Yet his influence and importance was so great that music scholar John Holzaepfel says that many of Cage’s pieces written during the 1950s and 60s were either specifically for Tudor to perform or written with him in mind.

That dinner conversation happened at a pivotal time in Tudor’s career. Already considered the foremost interpreter of contemporary piano music, he was beginning to feel creatively contained by the works for piano that he so meticulously realized for composers. Like Cage, Tudor was interested in sound for sound’s sake. And he had begun to see the limitations of the piano from this perspective. Over the course of a few years, sometimes working with Cage, David Tudor found his own voice as a composer and became a foremost creator of live electronic music using homemade devices.

In this episode, I want to share with you some of the audible evidence for this transition and a few stories to help explain how and why David Tudor gave up the piano to become an electronic musician.

In 1972, David Tudor wrote a short article called From Piano to Electronics for the magazine Music and Musicians. In this article he explained why he had left behind his piano performance work to focus his energies on live electronic music.

In his own words, Tudor described the experiences that changed his thinking about music. Significantly, his exposure to the works of Boulez and Cage in the early 1950s led to a change in his perception of what he called “musical continuity.” No longer was he seeing works that were formed around classical structure—a clear linear progression with a beginning, middle, and end. He wrote that “you don’t necessarily go on in a linear progression.” He learned to do this without “carrying over any emotional impediments,” and to accept changes in the new music “each instant, as they arise.” He added, “what this did for me was to bring about freedom, the freedom to do anything, and that’s how I learned to be free for a whole hour at a time.”

Tudor was famous for his meticulous realization of scores for piano works. But during the sixties he became much more discriminating about whose piano works he would still perform. Many works were sent to him by composers who viewed Tudor as a technician of difficult piano pieces and most of the pieces he was sent focused on structure and “finite circumstances” rather than the possibilities of non-linear openness. Having choice, having many options, became important to Tudor the performer.

Tudor began to think of himself as a composer in 1967, after the completion of Bandoneon ! (a Combine) just the year before. He was attracted to electronics and was more or less tutored in the making of circuits early on by Gordon Mumma as well as some of his associates from Bell Labs. But most agree that Gordon was the key influence. In 1972, Tudor summed it up this way: “About electronics, I feel that it’s a virtually undiscovered field, because so far it’s been the technicians who’ve had the most say about what direction it’s going in. But there are so many areas in it that remain un-cared-for. Once you get into this field you go into all of it—like if you’re a pianist you’re also interested in violins and so forth, especially if you’re really an organist like I was—and I got interested in electronic circuitry.”

In this episode we'll explore some of the recorded examples of David Tudor’s transition from piano to electronics. The five works are presented in chronological order and span the years 1958 to 1966. Three of the five works were recorded live. The first four works were composed by others with Tudor acting as interpreter and performer. These works are somewhat long, most are 14 to 23 minutes in length.

The first two pieces in this podcast will show how significantly Tudor’s immersion in electronic music was changing his musical perspective. First, we’ll hear a relatively stark piano piece by Swedish composer Bo Nilsson, an early work putting “reinforced amplification” at Tudor’s disposal. This was a kind of first step away from only piano sounds in which Tudor found himself amplifying sounds that didn’t need amplifying, strictly for effect. As author You Nakai also says, “it is certain that Tudor’s electronic music would become centrally preoccupied with the issue of indefinite duration realized by feedback. While the condition of self-sustained sound was contrary to everything Tudor had developed on the piano, it is not dissimilar from his expert experience with the pipe organ where the mechanisms of constant wind supply and the function of keys as gating controls is prevalent.” And that Tudor increasingly felt restricted by the sounds of the piano is echoed by associate John Driscoll, who “once had the audacity to ask David why he had stopped playing piano, and he responded that he had exhausted all the sonic range he could get out of piano and needed to find a new vocabulary.” So, at this early stage in Tudor’s gradual divorce from the instrument, Nilsson’s piano work offered Tudor the opportunity to begin his experimentation with amplifying and sustaining sounds.

After that, we will hear John Cage’s Cartridge Music from just two years later in 1960. The recording was essentially a studio duet by Cage in Tudor, recorded in real-time, live as if in performance. The piece was written for amplified small sounds any number of players using any sound producing means. The means for making these sounds were phonographic cartridges. Performers insert objects into the opening of a cartridge to amplify its sound. They also use small contact microphones, often attached to other objects. Using this method, they were amplifying sounds one would ordinarily not be able to hear.

Cartridge Music is important for many reasons, some of which remind us of the attributes Tudor identified some years later: the freedom to explore pure sound in a non-linear process, disbanding emotional impediments, and a developing instinct to react, moment by moment, to what was happening right in front of you. So, whereas the first step in this transition was the ability of Tudor to find new sounds associated with the piano in the Nilsson piece, Cage’s Cartridge Music represented a dramatic second step toward electronics by giving Tudor a totally new set of circumstances to explore in performance. He was willing and able to devote more effort to it, learning circuit design, bringing the soul of his artistry to focus on a field that hadn’t truly been fully explored yet: live electronic music. In a field that had been dominated by technicians, Tudor brought his curiosity about sounds for sounds sake. He didn’t really abandon the piano so much as replace it with an equal passion in the form of electronics, each informing the other.

The score for Cartridge Music consisted of 20 numbered sheets and 4 transparencies that the performers overlap upon one another to derive the individual parts. There is also an accompanying set of Cage’s notes that summarize the settings being used, such as which of several cartridges are in play at a given time, which inputs are being switched on, the amplification and tone settings for each input, and so forth. There is no specification for the objects or instruments being amplified, although the original score indicates that this was originally written for piano.

The next two works include one by Cage, Variations II and one by Christian Wolff, For 1, 2, or 3 People, both interpreted on piano with the aid of contact mikes and other devices to modify the sound. These works show how the earlier influences of Quantatiten and Cartridge Music were beginning to morph into a new aesthetic in the hands of David Tudor. Variations II by Cage, for example, sounds like what you’d get from a version of cartridge music for piano.

The final piece is Bandoneon ! (a Combine) composed by David Tudor in 1966 for Nine Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, sponsored by Experiments in Art and Technology, held in New York at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue. For these performances, musicians, artists, and dancers joined forces with engineers from Bell Labs to produce unique experiments. Tudor worked with engineer Fred Waldhauer and wired a bandoneon with live electronics so that he could literally play to the characteristics of the cavernous space inside the Armory. This was only the second work for which he called himself a composer. It demonstrated how clearly he had broken free from the linear structure of most contemporary music to discover a repertoire of sounds that were new and extraordinarily interesting.

I want to thank my friends John Driscoll and Phil Edelstein, member of Tudor’s performance group Composers Inside Electronics, as well as musicians and researchers You Nakai and Matt Rogalsky for their insights and advice around Tudor’s history for this podcast.

Contact Composers Inside Electronics, c/o John Driscoll and Phil Edelstein, longtime Tudor associates beginning in the 1970s for a history of the group and updates about their ongoing activities.

Read You Nakai’s new book about Tudor: Reminded by the Instruments: David Tudor's Music(Oxford 2020)

Full disclosure: I work for Oxford University Press by day, although not in the trade book division that has published You Nakai’s new book.

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