Presenting  David  Tudor

A  Conversation  with  Bruce  Duffie

The art of musical composition is usually a very lonely and isolated one.  Creating ideas which must be conveyed to others via squiggles on a page is generally done from inside the mind.  Some composers’ names are linked to other names, generally writers of texts, or dance choreographers.  The conversation you are about to read is with a person who mastered the usual and proceeded to the unusual.

David Tudor started as a pianist and composer, and gradually re-invented himself to the point where his energy was devoted to electronically generated and manipulated sounds.  His name is inextricably linked with both John Cage and Merce Cunningham.  [See my Interview with John Cage.]  More details can be seen in the brief biography which appears at the end of this text.  For now, let me just say what a special pleasure it was to spend an hour with this man.

We met in Chicago at the Blackstone Hotel, one of the grand old landmarks on Michigan Avenue.  The large, elegant rooms with appointments from a bygone era contrasted with the conversation about music of the most experimental kind.  As we settled in for our chat, that’s where we pick up the conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  The Blackstone was an elegant hotel at one time. Mary Garden stayed here in the twenties when she was singing with the old Chicago Grand Opera Company.

David Tudor:  I think there must be a presence here.

BD:  You’ve been in Chicago before...

DT:  Yes, I’ve often been here with Merce Cunningham Dance Company. They’ve used several of my works, and I’ve been a performance artist for them.

BD:  Do you find it more gratifying to play your own music rather than other people’s music?

DT:  I have no stock answer to that. [laughter]

BD:  I’m not looking for stock answers!

DT:  It depends on the situation, really. So it’s very different.

BD:  You approach every performance as an individual event?

DT:  Yes certainly.

BD:  Then let me turn the question around.  Do you find yourself, perhaps, putting more creativity into your own music?

DT:  Oh, in a way yes.  I suppose you’d have to say that in any case, but I do it even when I’m performing with Merce Cunningham when he’s doing my own work. If I see a nice alteration to make or a change that could bring about some variation, then I do that in my own pieces without question.

BD:  You do a lot of writing and a lot of performing. Do other people perform your works as well?

DT:  There are a couple of pieces that have been performed by other performers.

BD:  But basically your work is done by you and given performance by you?

DT:  Well, it depends on the nature of the piece.  If I start out to make a group piece, then anyone can play it. And then there are pieces that I’ve taught to the performers. But there’s a large group of pieces which I’ve never taught to anyone and consequently I’m the only one who can do it. [laughs]

BD:  Are there things that you have specifically tried to keep for yourself, or is it just that they are too difficult and not written down?

DT:  It’s a combination of all those things, plus the fact that there are secrets in the sense that as a work that develops and continues to develop, you never quite know when to say that it’s finished.  Sometimes, when I work on an electronic principle that’s still revealing itself to me, I don’t like to give it out.  For example, let me tell you what happened with the group piece of an environmental nature that was called Rainforest.  In its last manifestation I had already decided I was through with that piece.  I was going to give it away.  Then, in a situation in Chocorua, New Hampshire, that was the equivalent of a camp for new music in the summertime, I gave a seminar and demonstration of this piece, and we performed it.  Then, to my surprise, later on in the fall, the people who had done it called me up and said, "When are we going to do it again?" [laughs] So I decided to go along with it, and I formed a group that went around the world performing this piece.

BD:  Have you written more for that group?

DT:  Yes I have. I have. Not another large environmental piece, but concert pieces that we’ve done.

BD:  I just wondered if it was at all like Peter Maxwell Davies writing for The Fires of London.  [See my Interview with Peter Maxwell Davies.]

DT:  No. [laughs]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  I do want to come back to your use of electronics, but are they completely pervasive in your work, or do you also use what we call standard or traditional instruments?

DT:  I don’t use any standard instruments.

BD:  Not at all?

DT:  Not at all.  I sometimes use percussion-like instruments, but very rarely a traditional instrument.  I once did a work with a double bass, but I certainly didn’t treat it as a traditional instrument [laughs].

BD:  Do you feel there’s still a place for traditional instruments in the world?

DT:  Oh, definitely.  I’m working with sound, and I find that the sounds of the traditional instruments don’t really attract me to write for them.  There are a lot of reasons. It’s a rather complicated question. It depends on what kind of electronics you’re using. For instance, it could turn out that a plucked string instrument could be a very useful sound trigger for electronic devices. However, if I can’t really believe that I want and need the sound of this instrument, then I’m not going to use it. I prefer to make an instrument fresh.

BD:  Create a brand new kind of sound.

DT:  Right, yes.

BD:  Are you always creating new sounds, or do you re-use the sounds that you yourself have created?

DT:  Yes. I do re-use them because they never sound the same. They never sound the same. For instance, a lot of sound material that I use I collected, or caused to be collected, in 1969-70.  I was programming a pavilion at Expo ’70, so I set people to work collecting sounds from biomedical laboratories, both human and animal. A lot of correspondence went on, and from that I got a library of material which I then processed electronically, but only in a primitive way.  I didn’t really transform it; I sort of trimmed it to a useful material for me.  And I find that I’m still using that, because that’s only an input.  It depends on what kind of device is meeting it at the other end.  It could sound completely different. So consequently, those tapes that I use, I no longer recognize them.  They never sound au naturel. Never. [laughs]

BD:  Do you ever feel hampered by the lack of technology? Do you ever wish that you could produce something that you know can’t be produced either now or in the next few years, and you’re waiting for another breakthrough?

DT:  Yes, but I don’t feel hampered by that because I’m used to it. I’m used to it. It’s sort of a life condition.

BD:  A built-in limitation, then?

DT:  Oh, you could say that, but I don’t feel that.  The world goes on and the things gradually come to light. Though it’s now considered ancient, there’s a lot of things in the electronic field which came from the nineteenth century, especially in England. And a lot of that is extremely interesting, and virtually unresearched because the electronic field has bypassed the acoustical field except where they thought it necessary or useful for their calculations.

BD:  Are you going back and re-researching some of this?

DT:  Some of it, yes.

BD:  Are you conscious of what other electronic composers are doing these days?

DT:  Oh certainly, yes.

BD:  Are they, are you working along similar or different lines, and is that purposeful or happenstance?

DT:  Some aspects are similar, others are somewhat different because I try to get inside the electronic sound in a way that other people may not.  They come from different points of view.  A person who’s accustomed to dealing with electronic phenomena and has a modicum of understanding of electronic engineering will attack the whole subject in a way that can be very interesting to me, but I attack the problem differently because I like to find out what electronic equipment can do which is not really programmed into it.  Coming down from the top, you buy the components which you think are going to do what you want.  I have sometimes worked that way, but in the end I find that the things that interest me musically actually come about through several different ways, and many is the time when I have set about to make a new piece, and all my grand plans to construct this instrument or that instrument, or to obtain something to do what I have in mind, don’t come about, and there’s a last minute panic in which one makes a conscious artistic decision to do it somehow. You use what’s at hand and you produce the musical result that you want. And once you do that, there you are. The work is done, it shows you the next step in doing it, so the plans that you had at first, you begin to reconsider, and you think well, I don’t need this, and I don’t need that. What I need is more of the same. [laughs]

BD:  Then how much of this is expedience and how much of this is artistic decision?

DT:  It’s intertwined. It’s intertwined. You decide to do, what’s expedient in a given situation. Then you’re faced with the result, and you think over the result, and you see that the musical parameters that you wanted to establish are already there. And that’s what you did, by making a decision like that. So you can make it into diamonds instead of tinsel if you want, but it’s much better to go on.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Tell me more about the electronic circuitry and sound devices you have created.

DT:  After I got started into electronics and decided to do my own work, the thing that I concentrated on was feedback involving phase shifting.  In those days there was no real easy path towards working with that, so I had to do it myself and I researched many different kinds of circuits. Some that were very attractive were too complex for me, so I took the ones which were simple enough so that I knew that I could realize them.  They would teach me what else it needed, or what kinds of perfections to strive for. Today it’s somewhat easier, but I’m not interested in it the same way, because now you have instruments which will do phase shift for you and there won’t be problems with changes in amplitude in different frequency regions, which is sort of automatic with phase shift. There are ways to overcome it, and the problem comes up in different electronic fields besides music. It’s been worked on, so you’re really looking at a different situation. But for me, not really. The reason it doesn’t attract me is, what attracted me about the phase shift was the difference a degree could make. Nowadays, phase shift is being used so that the minimum you could think of would be 360 degrees, in other words, arriving back at zero. In audio devices, as used by popular music, they go to 720 degrees and double that even. The result is that there’s no resolution in the control.

BD:  You mean, rather than going back on itself, it goes on?

DT:  It goes too fast as far as a control goes.  You see, in order to get control over phase shift, which is only going to 45 or to 60 degrees—which I was very fond of, the 60 degree point—in order to get control of that you need to restrict the whole thing to a situation where you have great resolution. You may not understand the term, but it’s like you have a dial, you have a volume control on your radio, and if you’ve arrived at full volume when you’ve come to half the point on your control, you don’t have very good resolution.  It should go the whole length of the control, and, of course, controls only go so many degrees.  So in order to get very precise resolution, you either have to make a situation which is absolutely precise, and you go for limiting it to 60 degrees and nothing else, but for my work it was very useful to have it variable, so I would tend to go for something greater than that, 90 degrees or even 180 degrees, so that I would have some play. So that principle carried me on for years, and many works, one of which came from the other.

BD:  Is any of this notated or published, or is this all in your head and in your tape resources, and various libraries that you can then recombine as you want to?

DT:  It all exists in my own notes. The only instance where people have talked about it publicly... I once gave some notes and materials to Raymond Wilding-White, who wrote a book about electronic music, and he published some of it, but the detail isn’t really there.

BD:  Then we’re back to you being the only one able to perform all this.

DT:  [laughs] Yes. There’s some people who have worked a little bit similarly, but I think only incidentally.  They found it out, and they did it, but it didn’t lead anywhere, which is not the case with me.  It kept leading me on.

BD:  Well, it’s your germ, it’s your spirit. We’re talking now just about sounds, but in your performances you also use lights and visual effects too. Where is the balance in all of this?  Is it a musical performance, is it a visual performance? What do you strive for in this kind of thing?

DT:  Well, let’s see... We’d have to talk about the areas that I’ve actually worked in. For instance, Rainforest is a piece where the visual element is designed. You take a space and design the way the objects are going to be presented in the space, and the way that the sound is going to permeate the space.  So those are design questions.  Another field that I worked in is using photocell triggers so that there’s an interaction between people passing through light, interrupting light beams and triggering the sounds that I’ve decided to use as a palette.

BD:  Oh, this is backwards from what I was thinking.  I assumed the sound would trigger the light, but the light is triggering the sound.

DT:  I’ve also worked with projection TV, laser light show, and similar things where the visual image is actually created by the sound, and that’s a very interesting field, still in its infancy. I’m not working in it currently, but I did a lot of pieces with an old friend of mine, Lowell Cross, who’s now in Iowa. He made the laser system which he designed for himself.  He augmented it and was commissioned to install it in the Adler Planetarium here in Chicago.  I haven’t seen that so I don’t know how it’s being used, but basically I think it’s still a six-color laser projection which is capable of a display you could obtain on an oscilloscope, where you process your sound so it produces two axes. On an oscilloscope there’s no problem with that, and even with a TV it’s easy to do. But for laser, it’s currently being done with mirrors, so, per color, there are two mirrors, because there are two axes, and the mirrors are at a 90 degree relationship to one another. We’re waiting for that technology to change.  You can bet on it, but we’ve been waiting.

BD:  What is the next step that’s coming, the third dimension?

DT:  The problem is that mirrors are mechanical and they don’t have the resolution you would need. For instance, to produce an image like they do on TV, which means the whole idea of creating something like a TV raster which has to be done digitally, you need speed which is maybe two or three orders of magnitude beyond what the mirrors could do.  So the mirrors, at present, can’t vibrate any faster than that.  The maximum you could get would be five thousand hertz, and you need to go to thirty or forty thousand hertz to accomplish it.  So that’s it, there you are, there are the figures.

BD:  I’m sure it’ll come soon

DT:  Oh I think so, but it needs to be worked on completely differently. They’re trying to do it. The Japanese have already tried various means of doing this because they’re really interested in other light sources besides cathode ray tubes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  What do you expect from an audience that comes to one of your performances?

DT:  Well if they come to an environmental show like Rainforest, I expect them to enjoy themselves and feel free. If I do a concert performance I hope they are able to listen, ’cause that’s what I do when I perform, I listen to the music. That’s how the performance is made.  I listen to it and change it as it goes along. If I weren’t listening it wouldn’t change.

BD:  Even if you had programmed the changes into the computer?

DT:  That’s why I don’t use a computer.  I have, but so far I’ve only used it for sound source material so that you hardly know that it had been done on a computer.

BD:  Now you say you listen to the music and make changes so that you are a participatory member in this. How much involvement and participation do you expect out of the audience?

DT:  [laughs] I don’t expect anything.  I just hope.

BD:  What do you hope for, then, from the audience?

DT:  Well, I hope that they realize that it’s a human being that’s doing the music.  That’s why I think that it’s important to do performances this way, and I can guarantee you that even if I did have a computer involvement, in the sense that it is programming the performance, that I would interfere with it.  It is important to me that the audience senses the presence of a live musician.  It makes all the difference in the world.

BD:  Even though the sounds that you are manipulating are artificial?

DT:  [laughs] Well, even if you can see that they are being manipulated. But they are being manipulated, in a real sense, in my performances, because you can hear it.  It’s not something that is hidden at all. I don’t know if I’m being clear about that. It’s hard to make clear because you are performing in time and you see that there is a man there that is making it appear in different positions, and he’s making a radical change or he’s making a gradual change all the time.

BD:  Do you expect the audience to be able to perceive this and understand it?

DT:  Yeah, in my experience there is no doubt, there’s no doubt. It may not be some people’s thing...

BD:  People that come to your performances are coming specifically because they want to hear your music, so that is a small, select, interested group. Do you ever wish that you could perform this music for people that knew nothing about it or were uninitiated to it?

DT:  Oh sure.  Of course. [laughs]  I remember in ‘72, Cage and I went to Europe, and all the people who were against us wanted to have new electric things.  So John decided that it would be nice to have pieces in which we collaborated in the sense that we did simultaneous performance. Which meant I would compose a piece and he would compose a piece and then they would be performed simultaneously. So we did two such works and they were performed in very large place.  In London it was performed in Albert Hall, and in Basel there was a fantastic place.  I believe it had been an old theatre and there had been a fire and the interior was completely gutted.  As the Swiss normally do, they got to work immediately on rebuilding.  But during that time the space was open.  It had been cleared except for the points of construction, and they wanted performers to come.  So that place was nearly as big as Albert Hall and certainly even higher.

BD:  Just the open space?

DT:  A huge open space. Another one we did in a large armory in Pamplona which had no windows and hadn’t been used in centuries.  There were bars on the windows but no glass, so it was almost like performing outdoors.  It was also very large, and in all those cases the audience was completely unfamiliar.

BD:  You didn’t do it while they were running the bulls there, did you?

DT:  [laughs] That happened the day we left.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  The music you are involved in, should it be considered art or should it be considered entertainment?

DT:  Well I think it’s art, and if it’s entertaining that’s a great achievement. It’s hard to set out to make a piece that’s entertaining. It’s not so easy to do. Maybe that’s because I don’t work from texts, so I don’t have that impetus that can come from a text, like John Cage obviously has.  But then there is a great difference whether it’s a text which is entertaining or a text that’s not supposed to be entertaining. But it’s the old story; it’s so difficult to make something funny in music, and the harder you work at it, the more tasteless it becomes.

BD:  Are any of your pieces inadvertently funny?

DT:  Oh, occasionally yes, yes, but it’s inadvertent. [laughter]

BD:  Do you ever get completely adverse reactions to your music, or are those people the ones who stay away from your concerts?

DT:  There have been situations where people have not reacted well, mostly, I think, in Europe, but that has not happened in a concert performed by me. It sometimes may happen with a dance when I make music for a dance because a dance audience is different, and they have more of an expectation that it should be more like dance.  When they discover the music is obstructive, then they may not like it.

BD:  Did you write the music to be obstructive?

DT:  I don’t set out for it to be that way, but if you are not able to appreciate the situation, then naturally it’s going to annoy you. However, there have been cases where people did exactly the opposite when they found out the music was more interesting than the dance.  They closed their eyes.  But for people having the opposite problem, it’s very difficult.  You can’t so easily close your ears.

BD:  Who do you write for? Yourself, the public, a certain public, posterity?

DT:  I don’t think of it as myself.  I write for my art; it’s what I do. There are a lot of musical ideas which are working in my mind, and I try them out here and there, wherever I get the chance. But there’s always a certain point where the work that you do to realize these musical ideas, all of a sudden it has a life of its own, and that’s the point where I decide that it’s my musical composition. When it’s living for itself then I feel, "Okay, I can sign my name to that."  Before that, it’s something that anybody could have done, so I feel, "Why should I call it mine?  Everybody hears that.  They can do it."  But when the process is really living, I can set to work and not really worry about it, not feel compelled to tinker with it because it’s not perfect. I sometimes have to act compulsively in a performance if something is going wrong, but those are the gremlins in technology.

BD:  It’s never a human failing?

DT:  [laughs]  We hope not.

BD:  Do you feel that you are a part of a musical lineage?

DT:  I wonder, I wonder. I’m sure that I am but I haven’t defined it.  I haven’t thought about it really enough. There are obvious ones I don’t really belong to. I don’t belong to Beethoven’s stream,  I don’t belong to the Rameau stream, I don’t belong to the Gounod stream, I think not even the Fauré stream. [laughs]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Have you done any teaching of composition?

DT:  Not so much, actually. I have some private students, but I haven’t taught composition in a university.  It hasn’t attracted me, really, and years ago I made it a rule that any university that wanted me to come, I wouldn’t stay for any more than three months because I needed my freedom, you know, to travel, and for most universities, three months is the point where you have to get involved with the university, really, and be concerned about the faculty and the department so forth. It’s not that I would object to those things, but I would object to losing my freedom.  So for that reason, I haven’t really offered myself to the schools.

BD:  My question really is, "Can musical composition be taught or is it something which must be learned and grow from within?"

DT:  I think your second answer is probably the right one, but the first one plays a part.  I think nowadays that for people who are really serious to be interested in composition, the best thing you can do for them is to talk to them. If you can, get a potential student to talk to you on a one to one basis so that you’re not a teacher in the sense that you’re giving out a curriculum that has to be followed. The relationship has to grow between someone who’s teaching and someone who wants to learn.  There are cases where the best thing you can do is to send a student to someone else in order to learn something particular. But that’s what guidance is all about. And nowadays we can’t behave like gurus. It’s very foolish for us to do that, no matter how much the Orientals would like us to. But it doesn’t work, really.

BD:  How do you decide which students to accept? Do you have them submit material to you, or talk with you, or both?

DT:  Oh sure, they have to come to meet me, and then I decide if there’s something in common that we could accomplish.

BD:  What do you look for in a student?

DT:  [laughs] I don’t know.  I look for a spark that doesn’t wish to do things in an academic background. There are a lot of things that you look for in a student. Basically you just look for how you could help them. If there’s no way you could help them, you try to be a good friend and give advice whenever you’re asked to do that.

BD:  Is there any competition amongst the various composers?

DT:  Not as much as with painters. I think that the musical field is very variant.  There are people who are working in fields other than electronic music who have problems, but it’s mostly because of jealousy of someone’s success or something like that. In electronics it can happen that you could come upon a piece, or an idea for a work which can be very close to an idea someone else had, and then there might be a feeling of robbery present.  But you can’t work in that kind of field for very long without realizing that the ideas are in the air and they don’t belong to anybody.  Everybody has got to know that. For instance, now one of the worst fields to be in is probably video.  It’s actually a very complex technology, but it’s very difficult to get an idea that nobody else really has.

BD:  So do you discourage people and try to get them to stay away from video?

DT:  Oh no. Not at all. Why?  The same thing is true of music. I remember Nam June Paik remarking on how difficult it was to find a new sound that you could present. He said it was much easier in film to make a new image. It’s much easier than to find a new sound. He asked, "How do you do that?"

BD:  You’ve solved that problem by making new sounds. Do most of your pieces result from commission or are they things you just have to write and you hope they will be performed?

DT:  Most of them result from commission, but the commission is, sometimes, just a performance. People ask you to perform and you decide, "Well, I’m not going to do the things that are on hand, so I’ll do something new."  I’m in that situation now because the piece that I’m doing here in Chicago, this will be only the second time that I’ve done it, and I’m trying to alter it to make the certain features I’ve already built into it extremely prominent.  I really want them to be prominent and the first time that it came off I liked it a lot when I got used to performing it, because I did it twice the first time. But I had in mind something that’s slightly different for it, and so I’m going to make it happen this time.  But I’ve got a performance in New York in a couple of weeks and I’ve already decided that I have to do a new one for New York rather than take this one, which has not been played anywhere, ‘cause this one is too complex and I need something which is very simple for the situation I’m going to be in, in New York. I won’t have the setup time like I have here. So it means a new piece. Do you call that a commission?  [both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Are there some recordings of your music?

DT:  Yes.  Rainforest has been recorded. That’s available from Block/Vergo. Actually it was issued simultaneously in Europe and in America. Then there’s a disc that Lovely Music put out that has some older works of mine from ‘72 and ’78.   And then there’s a disc from Cramps in Milano.  Probably the only way you’d find that is in a library. It never went into a second pressing, and so people grabbed up all the copies that there were. I myself only have one copy of it.

BD:  Are you pleased with the recordings?

DT:  Oh yes, yeah.

BD:  Do you feel they do justice to your music?

DT:  Oh well, you know, there always seems to be one to be better. I think, in particular, the Cramps disc really, in some senses, was better than the original. [laughs]

BD:  And you’ve made some recordings of other people’s music?

DT:  Oh, lots and lots.

BD:  As keyboardist?

DT:  Even some electronic pieces.  I don’t remember which ones, but there are some.

BD:  Are you pleased with those, also?

DT:  Yes. I remember Cage’s Variations 2, which I made completely for an electric piano, which turned out to be a particular conception. It started out to be for an amplified piano, but then at one point I decided that the amplified piano is a completely different instrument than just a piano, so it’s really an electronic piece, that’s what it is.

BD:  Is Cage really the leader of this movement you’re in?

DT:  I wouldn’t say he’s the leader. I’d say he’s one of the first inspirations in it. It’s going places that even he doesn’t.  It’s outside of his leadership now. That’s why I would question your motive.

BD:  Are there other composers working in this field whose sounds you admire?

DT:  Well, I like Ron Kuivila very much, a younger guy, and I like John Driscoll very much, almost as a protégé of mine. And there’s a Californian composer, I think he’s quite unbelievable, Phil Loarie. He’s one of the very few people whose managed to make a piece of digital electronics which is really entertaining. I remember us speaking about that before. He made a piece called Digital Lunch and I get consumed with laughter every time, it’s so unbelievable.

BD:  Now is that something a general audience would enjoy, or only people who are working in it who really understand it?

DT:  I thing that manifestations like that are really extreme and you can’t miss it. I’m not so sure all the works of these composers are going to reflect the extraordinary qualities that some of them, in their works, do. But there’s beautiful work being done. There’s another guy, Stan Lunetta.  I haven’t heard anything he’s done lately but he’s another, sorta really an oddball. Anybody like that I really tend to pay attention to. They’re really sorta outside the mainstream. I live in upstate New York and it turned out that the son of one of my neighbors called me one day, and we lived about 15 miles away, and he was the son of Eddie Sauter who was a composer who I had known and played his works. In the late forties, early fifties Eddie Sauter was very well known as a jazz arranger. He was doing a serial composition and I happened to play one of his works. Well, his son now has formed an electronic… I don’t know how you would call it… it’s not jazz or rock, but it’s really sort of jazz electronic improvisation, is what it is. And it’s called Borbetomagus.  The guys who were doing it came to see me, and lo and behold there were my feedback principles being employed by these young guys.  They found it for themselves and they were having a ball.  It really had an extraordinary quality that you could tell from listening. And it is completely different from other pop groups that are on the scene. The electronic groups are completely different. They’re rougher, they have sharper edges and are more vivid. They’re not shiny and glossy like most of the electronic rock groups.

BD:  Are most of the rock groups just commercial music?

DT:  Oh yeah, a lot of them. That’s their life.

BD:  What’s your feeling for commercial music?

DT:  Let them have it. [laughter]

BD:  Do you follow any of the traditional kinds of music?  Would you go to a Chicago Symphony concert or things like that?

DT:  I doubt it. It’s full of memories.  You have to realize music is kept alive by people living it, and the classical musical scene is so exaggerated if you realize how often you can hear the same thing done over and over again. I loved all the music I learned to play, and I still do. I used to play the organ, but I find that I listen to it very, very seriously.  I’m a very critical listener and if I have the slightest complaint I won’t want to immerse myself in that music.

BD:  It’s as though you are expecting perfection each time.

DT:  Oh, yes, absolutely. [laughs] Oooh yes. But there are different kinds, and I enjoy different styles very much, but I’d rather do to something that is more familiar.  I remember my introduction to the tango, which is now the rage in New York City because of the Broadway show, [Tango Argentino].  But Kagel introduced me to the tango in 1960, and he wrote a piece for me to play on the bandoneón. [See my Interview with Mauricio Kagel.]  So in order to explain to me what the bandoneón was, he played lots of tangos, and I became a real devotee of tango. I think it’s really extraordinary kind of music making. So, I’d rather go to something like that than just something ordinary.

BD:  I wanted to be sure and ask about the piece Bandoneon ! [Bandoneon Factorial]  Tell me about this work.

DT:  Well that was the second piece I wrote as an electronic composer, and that’s a very complicated circumstance. What happened was a group of artists were solicited by Billy Klüver, who was working for Bell Laboratories, who loved the New York art scene very much.  So he wanted to make technology available to them, and through the cooperation of many engineers from Bell Laboratories, he created this festival called 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering.  They were given in New York City in one of the armories. There were two works on each evening, and in order to do all the technology, we had to work on audio systems and the programming of the audio systems.  I had a large part, not in the actual design, but in the basic design parameters.  So we decided how to go for clean audio, whether to make it portable.  A lot of that was really pragmatic questions, but they affected the whole scene. Basically we arrived at a system of great flexibility amongst the artists.  I forgot how many we were, maybe six artists, maybe more.  There were nine evenings, but each work was repeated.  I was working with the electronic end of it, so I noticed how the whole system had been created because each artist wanted certain things to happen, but they required different components.  Then, in order to make the whole thing sonically work, we had to have a generalized sound system. But programs had to be made so that it was adjustable to all the works that had to be presented. I noticed that nobody was really using a lot of the features of the system, so I set out to put everything into this. So I made Bandoneon !  One of engineers gave me a rather antiquated but very beautiful device that would act as a microphone. You could call it a complex microphone. It was actually a set of harmonium reeds and setting that up as a microphone meant putting the sound through loudspeakers, through these harmonium reeds so that the specific frequencies would excite specific reeds. So there I had one trigger device which could trigger lots of things. So I set out to program the whole shebang and so I ended up with three kinds of triggering devices. One through light, one through audio triggers that was proportional to the sound played by the instrument, which was the bandoneón, and then switching, which was accomplished through this harmonium device. And then in addition to that, we had a projection TV which was also being derived from the signals being played by the bandoneón.  All I had to do was play this instrument and all things were set in motion.

BD:  And it worked?

DT:  Yeah, yeah.  The first time it didn’t work, and that was one of the biggest fuckups of the century.  But nobody knew about it until after it happened. My piece was on the second night. The first night there were two pieces performed and certain things were not working in the audio programming and nobody knew why, so we did it by hand. The second night my piece was involved where the whole thing was involved, which meant it was a test of the whole system, and it was obvious that there was something really radically wrong.  It turned out to be a very simple mistake. It was the fact that many circuit boards had to be made to put into the programmer, and there was one engineer who was in charge of doing that.  But there were so many to be made that people who had come there to observe or to help as they could, set to work soldering these circuit boards, and nobody told them the back of a circuit board is the reverse image of the front.  So the whole wiring was done backwards, and that was only discovered because my piece was on the second day. [laughter] The second time the piece was done, it worked perfectly.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  How does one prepare for  4'33"?

DT:  Hahaha.  Well, let’s see. I can only tell you the story there. The second performance of 4'33" was done at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City. There was an opening piece on the program, then 4'33", and then there was John Cage’s Music of Changes. Now John’s mother had come to that performance, so before 4'33" she turned to her neighbor, another woman, and said, "Oh, David likes this piece so much because he thinks it’s like a prayer."  After the Music of Changes, this woman turned to John Cage’s mother and said, "Oh, what a magnificent prayer, and so long." [laughter]

BD:  Now you’ve performed this all over the world. What kinds of reactions does this piece elicit?

DT:  I haven’t performed it that much. I think I only performed it in the early days maybe ten times, and then they asked me to revive it a few years ago in New York and I did that. The reactions are very various. Most people like it, some people think it’s a joke, some people are utterly incensed.  They think a trick is being played on them.

BD:  What do you tell the businessman who says it’s just a joke? Someone just sitting at a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

BD:  Well, I’d ask him how much he wants to pay for it. [laughter]. As a matter of fact I was approached not too long ago by a person from Japan who wanted to make a video tape of that piece, or a film of it.  I thought to myself it’s no easy task to do that, and it means we’d have to come up with a production idea for it. So then they asked me how much money I wanted and I didn’t ask for very much. But it turned out to be too much.  They hadn’t foreseen that they’d have to pay a person to perform a piece which was silent; they hadn’t foreseen that. A lot of people don’t understand the genesis of that piece because besides the idea there should be no sound, there was the possibility, through John Cage’s method of composition, that there could be no sound. That composition was made with the same kind of structure that Music of Changes had. There was a rhythmic structure which could be represented on the paper as time.  The original score of that piece was done on music paper, and it has all the features of Music of Changes or the Pastorales.  There are bars and there are tempo marks and there’s a double bar at the end of each of the three movements.

BD:  It’s just that there are no notes.

DT:  There are no notes in it, so it was perfectly obvious that in order to perform that piece, you simply had to read the score. You were observing the sounds that were not there. I can remember John saying that he was determined to do it, or that he thought that it was a necessary method of composition.  One of the ideas in Music of Changes was that there was no difference between sound and silence so, in his uses of the 64 tosses of the coin, 32 of them would produce no sound. So then it was obviously possible and, I think in his mind as a composer, necessary that the piece should come about in which there was no sound.

BD:  Are you, in some way, glad it’s only four minutes and thirty-three seconds rather than twenty-two minutes and seventeen seconds?

DT:  That’s a question I’ve never been asked. That’s all part of this history that has recently come to light.  I was the first one to notice it because I was asked to perform that piece at Symphony Space, and I went hunting for the original score which I discovered had disappeared. But my memory of it was quite clear. I knew that John Cage had decided to dedicate that piece to a good friend of his, an artist, Irwin Kremen. So in order to do that he made a new score. Gradually my memory began to work and I realized John had asked me for the original score because he needed the notation, as to the rhythmic structure, in order to make a new score. So that’s how the original disappeared. However, this new score was differently notated.  It had no bars in it, but just empty pages. So I looked at it and the timings for the three movements I thought were slightly off. So I looked around through my old papers and I saw a notation of what the original times were.  I realized that the second redoing of the rhythmic structure had resulted in different timings from the first. The idea in my doing this at Symphony Space was because I was the first person to perform it, so I decided I should do it as it was originally done.  I had to make a new score with the original timings, and then since that time, just about a year ago, John called me up and asked about it. He had no memory that I had called him to explain it to him.  So I hope that’s now cleared up. There’s been lots of room for error.

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David Tudor was born in Philadelphia, PA, in 1926. He studied with H. William Hawke (organ, theory), Irma Wolpe Rademacher (piano) and Stefan Wolpe (composition and analysis).  His first professional activity was as an organist, and he subsequently became known as one of the leading avant-garde pianists of our time. Tudor gave highly acclaimed first or early performances of works by contemporary composers Earle Brown, Sylvano Bussotti, Morton Feldman, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Christian Wolff, Stefan Wolpe, and La Monte Young, among others.

Tudor began working with John Cage in the early fifties, as a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and with Cage’s Project of Music for Electronic Tape. Tudor gradually ended his active career as a pianist, turning exclusively to the composition of live electronic music.

As a composer, Tudor chose specific electronic components and their interconnections to define both composition and performance drawing upon resources that were both flexible and complex. Tudor was one of four Core Artists who collaborated on the design of the Pepsi Pavilion for Expo ’70, Osaka, Japan, a project of Experiments in Art and Technology, Inc. Many of Tudor’s compositions have involved collaborative visual forces: light systems, laser projections, dance, theater, television, film. Tudor’s last project, Toneburst: Maps and Fragments, was a collaboration with visual artist Sophia Ogielska. Tudor’s several collaborations with visual artist Jacqueline Monnier included the development of a kite environment installed at the Whitney Museum (Philip Morris, NYC) in 1986, at the exhibition "Klangraume" in Dusseldorf in 1988, and at the Jack Tilton Gallery in New York City in 1990. Other collaborators have included Lowell Cross, Molly Davies, Viola Farber, Anthony Martin, and Robert Rauschenberg.

Tudor had been affiliated with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) since its inception in the summer of 1953. In 1992, after Cage’s death, Tudor took over as Music Director of MCDC. Merce Cunningham commissioned numerous works from Tudor, including Rainforest I (1968); Toneburst (1974); Weatherings (1978); Phonemes (1981); Sextet for Seven (1982); Fragments (1984); Webwork (1987), Five Stone Wind (1988), Virtual Focus (1990); Neural Network Plus (1992); and most recently Soundings: Ocean Diary (1994) for what was John Cage’s last conception, Ocean.

David Tudor passed away on August 13, 1996 at his home in Tomkins Cove, NY.

[Biography from the EMF website]


© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This interview was held at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago on April 7, 1986.  Portions, along with musical recordings, were used on WNIB in 1996.  An audio copy of the unedited original has been placed in the Oral History American Music Archive at Yale University.  Permission was granted to Matt Rogalsky to use this material in his PhD thesis with the Music Department of the City University London (UK) entitled, IDEA AND COMMUNITY: THE GROWTH OF DAVID TUDORS RAINFOREST, 1965-2006.  Rogalsky, with assistance from Loren Becker, made the transcription in 2006, and my edition was posted on this website in January, 2007.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.