by Sam Weinberg

In our first segment, we witnessed the evolution of David Tudor from a prodigiously talented organist into accomplished pianist under the rigorous yet familial tutelage of Stefan and Irma Wolpe. Tudor’s premiere performances of Stefan Wolpe’s “Battle Piece” and Boulez’s “Second Sonata” were watershed events which evidenced that the young Tudor’s pianistic prowess was effectively boundless.

This second part of our series–in conjunction with Tudor’s 96th birthday–charts the immensely consequential, yet relatively short, period of time during which Tudor, as interpreter extraordinaire, was to quote Frank Hilberg, “the eye of the hurricane” of avant garde composition, both in America and Europe. Tudor effectively ceased performing the music of other composers when his own work with live electronics began – that work (which is widely represented on several New World Records releases including the whole of the mammoth
The Art of David Tudor box set) will comprise our final two installments of this series.

* * *

“The one thing John [Cage] and I have in common is an interest in sound for its own sake. What I mean is that we're interested in leaving a sound to itself, and we're not interested in manipulating a sound, in imposing a concept on sound. Cage used to preach that sounds should be themselves. He no longer does, but I’m willing to preach it, because I’ve experienced it” – David Tudor

* * *

Part Two: Interpreter of the Avant Garde

Less than a year after the respective premieres of the Wolpe and Boulez pieces, John Cage enlisted Tudor to realize the first of his “indeterminate” pieces – “Music of Changes” (1951), a piece dedicated to the pianist. The ancient Chinese text the I-Ching – which was gifted to Cage by his precocious pupil Christian Wolff and from which “Music for Changes” takes its name – allowed Cage to incorporate chance into the compositional process and for it to be formalized into a rigorously ordered whole. Written piecemeal in several “books,” Cage’s “Music of Changes” was first played in part by Tudor in 1951, with subsequent performances throughout the following years.

Despite the nature of indeterminate composition, which ceded some aspects of polyphonic density–and decisions of pitch and rhythm–to chance, the completed score’s specificity eschewed any randomness or improvisatory flourish. Due to these considerations, Tudor’s approach to indeterminacy was decidedly non-improvisatory. Smigel (2007) notes that: “Tudor did not resort to improvisation. Even when the composer specifically intended the performer to improvise, Tudor continued to chart out a specific performance strategy beforehand.” 1 2 In an interview with scholar John Holzaepfel, Tudor looks back on his preparations for performing similarly indeterminate Christian Wolff pieces by saying that he saw, “an advantage to writing out some of his scores…And the more choices he offered, the more it was necessary to write it out. In earlier works, he didn't give that possibility. But when you offer a plethora, when you have twenty-four different pitches you can choose from and it doesn't make any difference to him what they are--the point is, it makes a difference to you. It's a possibility that he didn't think of, that it would make a difference to the performer.” 3 

Tudor was the perfect fit for the task and were it not for the pianist’s seemingly bottomless appetite for –and his ability to quickly digest–these novel and nascent forms of notation, Cage’s move towards indeterminacy might have never taken the form that it did. Cage noted that Tudor “invited the whole thing of indeterminacy…what you had to do was to make a situation that would interest him. That was the role he played.” 4 Cage’s continued investment in keeping his collaborator creatively satiated led directly to seminal pieces like 4’33” (1952), Williams Mix (1953), Indeterminacy (1959), and Cartridge Music (1960). 5

Earle Brown echoed Cage’s sentiments by saying: “I think we all felt that about David--that we were boring him. 'What can we do next that he can't do?' I think we all felt he had a low threshold of boredom; he just breezed through these pieces, then seemed to ask, 'What next? Give me something really to do.” 6 Brown’s dynamic “December 1952” displays one avenue taken to satisfy this “low threshold of boredom,” while also allowing for a haunting side of Tudor’s virtuosity to shine through – his startling and at times violent rendition of the piece is a haunting entry into his catalog as an interpreter. 7

Morton Feldman, another Stefan Wolpe disciple and creative compatriot of Cage and Tudor, was mining similar indeterminate territory with his Intersection No. 3 (1953). 8 Feldman’s desire to create a music which was “more direct, more immediate, more physical” led him to compose with graph paper, allowing the composer to directly map sound physically in time, prizing density and texture over specific sets of pitches and harmonies – something which Tudor had an instant affinity and aptitude for. 9 Although there were indeterminacies of pitch, which were roughly prescribed by the range hinted at within the graph, Feldman also demanded a kind of plan or calculation, saying: "If we introduce random elements, we introduce them quite calculatingly” and his scores – which Holzaepfel usefully refers to as “implicative” – point the direction for those calculations. 10

Transatlantic Endeavors 

So when I met John Cage, we sort of had an agreement, that it would be interesting to bring the music of Americans to Europe and to bring the European music back, because he had met Boulez, and he thought European music was interesting, or could be interesting. That was the start of our transatlantic endeavor. I would go and play the American music; I’d come back and bring the stuff from Europe. ... I did it with interest. Anything that was interesting I did passionately.” 11

After his premiere of the Boulez Second Sonata, Tudor’s brilliance was likely the stuff of legend in Europe. But it wasn’t until 1954, when Cage and Tudor took a trip to Cologne, that the Europeans were able to be swept up into the maelstrom themselves. By all accounts this first trip was immediately infamous, with an alleged sixty articles (many sarcastic) written about the bizarre and novel performance put on by the Americans. 12 But the most fruitful collaboration to come from this trip was with fledgling composer Karlheinz Stockhausen who found in Tudor a virtuoso unlike any he had encountered before, one who was able to handle the demands of his “Klavierstück” series (especially VI) – with its demands of up to six distinct tempi – with aplomb.13 Taken by the influence of his American counterparts, Stockhausen included aspects of indeterminism into the work, but with evident European influence of Bartók, Webern and Boulez. Tudor likewise found a kinship with Stockhausen and was instantly taken with the depths of the German’s work. Klavierstück VI swiftly became something of a signature for Tudor (to whom it was dedicated), who kept the piece in his repertoire from 1954 through 1965.

Tudor exerted further influence on Europe when he led a course at the 1956 International Summer Courses for New Music at Darmstad. Holzaepfel elaborates:

For the next half decade, Tudor saw himself as an emissary between the American and European avant-garde. The European composers responded in the same way as the Americans had done, taking advantage of Tudor’s extraordinary gifts and unique musical personality. In the introduction to his Five Pieces for David Tudor of 1959, Sylvano Bussotti noted that hi s title was not a dedication but an indication of the instrument for which he had written the music; Roman Haubenstock-Ramati claimed that Tudor “could play the raisins in a slice of fruitcake.” These were European echoes of New York, where Tudor had long been regarded less as a performer than an instrument, an exploratory instrument for musical experimentation. 14

Dispensing With the Piano, Towards Live Electronics 

Despite this universal acclaim and sustained interest in – and maybe even fetishization of – his musicianship, Tudor’s restlessness began to lead him increasingly away from the piano bench. In 1960, despite performances of many new pieces by Cage, Stockhausen, Cornelius Cardew, La Monte Young et al, Tudor wrote to his companion M.C. Richards saying, “I'm not terribly pleased with any of my activities of recent months or of those I see in the very near future.” And went on to say that he felt increasingly “like an actor playing the same role.” 15

The world of live electronics began to increasingly captivate Tudor. Tudor may have first worked with electronic music as far back as the early 1950s with Cage’s “Project for Music for Magnetic Tape,” but by the early 1960s – with Cage’s Variations II and Cartridge Music – Tudor had begun to exploit the limitless possibilities of contact microphones and amplified piano creating open-ended structures for extraordinarily complex systems of feedback and amplification. 16

Tudor’s interpretations became increasingly idiosyncratic, with his role seeming to shift more towards the authorial, or to at least provoke such speculation.In essence, Tudor completely reinterpreted Cage’s Variations II, keeping only a letter of the law present while reframing the spirit of it to suit his own interests. 17 As we will explore in the following segment, Tudor’s own early compositional works (notably Bandoneon!) bear these marks heavily and with retrospection it’s easy to piece together this evolution.

* * *

Smigel, Eric, Perspectives of New Music , Summer, 2007, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Summer, 2007), pp. 171-202

The fact that the preeminent performer of these otherwise indeterminate works utilized extensive preparation & planning before performances of these pieces presents a thorn in the side of the argument presented by George Lewis (1996) in his influential “Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives.” But, generously, could perhaps be equated to the requisite preparation that goes into mastering an idiom like Be-Bop. This deserves further treatment which is outside of the scope of this paper.

Holzaepfel, John, “Reminiscences of a Twentieth-Century Pianist: An Interview with David Tudor”: The Musical Quarterly , Autumn, 1994, Vol. 78, No. 3 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 626- 636

4 Holzaepfel, John, Liner notes for Music of David Tudor and Gordon Mumma (New World, 80651) https://nwr-site-liner-notes.s3.amazonaws.com/80651.pdf

5 Covell ibid

6 Holzaepfel, “Reminiscences” ibid (quoted)

7 Tudor’s performance of this can be heard on New World Records’ Earle Brown Selected Works 1952-1965 (80650)

Tudor’s performance of this piece can be found on New World Records’ John Cage: Music for Keyboards 1935-1948/Morton Feldman: The Early Years (80664)

9 Smigel ibid

10 Holzaepfel, “Reminiscences” ibid

11 Holzaepfel, “Reminiscences” ibid

12 Holzaepfel, Liner Notes for Music of David Tudor & Gordon Mumma, New World Records 80651

13 The Art of David Tudor, Gerry Institute, sourced from: https://www.getty.edu/research/tools/guides_bibliographies/david_tudor/av/klavierstucke.html

14 Holzaepfel ibid

15 Quoted in Holzaepfel ibid

16 A recording of Tudor performing Varitations II from the February 1963 ONCE Festival fittingly begins the New World Records collection The Art of David Tudor (80737). We likewise hear a jarring and unique interpretation of Christian Wolff’s For 1, 2, or 3 People – the only other Tudor-as-interpreter piece within the collection, but one in which his stamp is indelibly imprinted.

17 An in depth analysis of this shift from an analysis of Variations II is elaborated in detail by Prichett (2000), https://www.rosewhitemusic.com/cage/texts/Var2.html


← Older Post Newer Post →