David Tudor, Fluorescent Sound

This work was commissioned by Robert Rauschenburg for his Dance Concert as part of 5 New York Nights on September 13, 1964 at the Moderna Museet in stockholm. "Fluorescent Sound" was given its first and only performance on that evening, with David Tudor at the controls of the amplified light system sharing the space with visual and performance art (including a large Brahma Cow!) by Rauschenburg. Rauschenberg's piece was entitled "Elgin Tie" although it may have also been called "Jag vill garna betala" (I want gladly to pay)...there is some confusion about this but we're trying to sort it out!

Nina Sundell, in her exhibition "Rauschenberg Performance" quotes Rauschenberg as descibing "Elgin Tie" as "A duet with a Swedish cow". She goes on to describe the event:

...he moved in the darkness to the roof of the museum, and then was revealed as he lowered himself slowly from a skylight down a rope strung with a heterogeneous collection of objects and clothing which he manipulated as he progressed downwards into a barrel of water placed on a flat-bed truck in the middle of the performance space. A large cow was then led in. Originally it was intended to be harnessed to the truck, providing an image inspired by Elgin Marbles, but as this had not worked in rehearsal, the truck was pushed out by stage hands as the cow was led off.

The sound for "Elgin Tie" ws one of the first musical compositions by David Tudor, who transformed the museum's fluorescent lighting system into a "bell" sounding orchestra and performed on the switch panel.

The original score called for over 200 fluorescent lights controlled by about 75 switches. Tudor performed the switch box, turning on banks of lights until the popping and pinging stopped then turning them off again. With the huge number of switches at his disposal this turned out to be a full-time ocupation. A time-score was created which indicated when these switches were to be turned on and off.

Here is David's description of the whole thing...

It was done at the Festival for Modern Dance and Robert Rauschenberg who was doing a dance collaboration with Steve Paxton asked if I would do the music. I said yes and I walked around the museum and thought 'what am I going to do?' I noticed that there were - it must have been- a thousand fluorescent light bulbs. One day I was in the room when someone was turning on the fluorescent lights and they didn't know which to turn on and all of a sudden there was the most beautiful music.

I thought, ok, I put some contact microphones up there from the bulbs to see if the sound can be made really audible. In these days the museum had only two large rooms. The room where the sound was beautiful was actually the foyer but the room I has to work in was the larger gallery and when I tried it there, it worked OK but less beautifully than in the other room. I think there were more light bulbs on the same switch in the large room which seemed to make a difference. So then I had to get up on a large ladder and place the contact microphones which actually took nearly three days. Fortunately I had help to do it because there were, I believe, 75 switches with three light bulbs on each switch. It was a big job. It worked very beautifully. The only problem was that Bob Rauschenberg was to come in from the side entrance of the museum riding a Brahma cow, which he did and they asked me to stop the music. (laughter) That was my first composition.
An Interview with David Tudor by Teddy Hultberg in Dusseldorf, May 17-18, 1988

Steve Paxton briefly recalls the event:

I was involved in the same program but not actually in the collaboration between Rauschenberg and Tudor.

...it was the flickering, the flashing of the lights that produced the sound. David was in a different room, where the light switches were, performing. Rauschenberg was lowered from the ceiling (wearing a shirt and underwear) into a barrel of water, held his breath as long as possible, and then came up gasping for air.

Then there was the cow...

The goal of this project is to revive the piece in two distinct versions, one for live performance and the other for museum installation. Fluorescent Sound was David Tudor's first publicly-presented composition and as such holds a place of great importance in his career. The project is being realized by John D.S. Adams and D'Arcy Philip Gray.

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This page was last updated on August 29, 1997. For more information contact: John D.S.Adams @ scrump@earthlink.net or D'Arcy Philip Gray @ starchy@cam.org. Server space generously provided by Electronic Music Foundation.