David Tudor and Larry Austin: A Conversation
April 3, 1989, Denton, Texas
as narrative material in the "David Tudor Episode" for Larry Austin's composition
"Transmission Two: The Great Excursion" (1990)
copyright 1990 Larry Austin
LA-- I'm Larry Austin, and this is David Tudor. Hi, David.
DT-- Hi, Larry.
LA-- This is April 3, 1989, and we're in Denton, Texas, at my home, fortunately a stopover that David arranged between Phoenix and New York, a stopover in Dallas. Our paths have crossed a few times, once for quite a long time in Davis, California, [University of California] back in '67 [when you were artist-in-residence for three months. That was really a very important time for me personally as a composer to meet you and...and then to collaborate with you along with others that were there: Stan Lunetta, John Mizelle, John Dinwiddie...I think and uh...
DT-- Uh, huh...
LA-- You represented an important new direction for us at Davis. And that is: building instruments, building electronic instruments...
LA-- ...and playing them and also performing open form works. The period you were at Davis, you were so interested in loudspeakers and transducers and integrated circuits, and "Rainforest" came from that.
DT-- Uh, huh. In a way, you could say that I'm still building instruments, but actually my focus always starts from some kind of perceptive relationship to electronics, so that, for instance, "Rainforest," which caused me to build instruments...it came about because of a sudden idea which occured to me one day: that one didn't have to think of the generation of electronic music from signal source to the reproducing output, but one, instead, might just as well start from the other end and go back and arrive at a signal source. And so, immediately, I got this...this dream-vision of an orchestra of loudspeakers, each speaker being as unique as any musical instrument. And so then, I thought, you know, "How am I going to do this? How am I going to do this?" And so, I kept my eyes out for some means which would enable me to start working on this, in order to realize it within ten years, twenty years, whatever it would take. So I came upon these small transducers, which enabled me to experiment. Well, in the course of working with them, I met some of the people who were responsible for bringing them about in the first place, and they...
LA-- Oh, really.
DT-- We all had a bond in common. (laughter) Well, anything that's as far-fetched a concept as transforming a wall into a loudspeaker...
LA-- ...already, those folks were...
DT-- ...they already had it. (laughter)
LA-- Yeah, right. (laughter)
DT-- So, they were working on units capable of outputing 100 Watts into the water, which is, for water, that's a lot. I managed to get my hands on one of those.
LA-- You were able to work with that to evolve the concept.
DT-- Yeah, and it goes on. And those are real physical instruments. In my electronics, I work with an instrumental principle. You're completely right in saying that. They become my friends. They have personalities, that only I see, because of my use of them. It's an act of discovery. I try to find out what's there and not to make it do what I want but to, you know, release what's there.
LA-- That aspect of your work links with your sound-image: the continuity of pieces has everything to do with the way the electronics are designed and what it is that you are exploring.
DT-- I've always felt that there's a point where a piece seems to be alive, that is, living. And that's the point where I know the composition is finished, even though I might have designed the procedures so that it could change, you know. But there's a point where the composition is alive, and it doesn't need any more... culture. Nowadays, I'm changing my mind about that. (laughing)
LA-- Oh, let me hear about it!
LA-- ...that it can be...to something more dynamic and always changing?
DT-- I'm beginning to think of continuing this manner of working, but having much more rapid transformation. And so, lately I'm seeing that it would be nice to turn one's thoughts inside-out, which is possible for me, because I don't compose in a straight line. I always compose around the periphery, you know.
LA-- You circle it a lot.
DT-- I circle it all the time.
LA-- Are you talking about the surface of the music that would have this more rapid feature, with filigree and that sort of thing? Or is a more...a part of the deeper structure of the piece?
DT-- It would have to do with phenomena like ...metamorphosis, where one shape...if you turn it inside-out, it changes into a completely other one.
DT-- Music offers you the possibility that...well, language offers it to you. There's the possibility that consonants can become vowels, and vowels can become consonants. Now, not actually, but by dealing with the boundaries, dealing with the edges, you can approach transformations. So...why not work on the transformation of rhythm into melody?
LA-- You mentioned this concept of composing, where you could "turn your mind inside out". Is that the project that you're consumed with right now?
DT-- My radar piece has taught me new possibilities and that's...I'm going to continue with that. And as far as the ideas transforming "inside-out", you see, I started with this idea that the...that sound could be obtained from sculptural material or actually from anything through reflections. But the thing that is turning my idea about how to form the piece "inside-out", because, you see, I was starting from materials, and now I'm already working with waves which don't exist. Do you understand that?
LA-- Yes, they're not material?
DT-- They're not material.
DT-- In comparison to the principles in "Rainforest," it's bodyless. (laughter) No...and I found that, if you can make waveform patterns interfere with one another, well you...I obtain results which astonish me...I've been trying to get, you know, space to sing by itself, and this is the first time I have succeeded. So, I'm quite excited.
LA-- So that the acoustical characteristics of a space will create the difference...
DT-- ...will make a melody, yeah?
LA-- Ah, great! You know, Alvin Lucier has...his approach, as I understand it, is that he searches for natural...natural phenomena as well and what their acoustical characteristics are in terms of patterning and timbre. You begin with a concept, for instance, of making space sing, which is a much more fanciful notion than discovering a natural phenomenon and its characteristics and then making music from that.
DT-- For me, the concept of observation is primary...I need to observe something in a way that I don't put any prejudice. I want to see what it tells me. My experience with Alvin is that he approaches things more like a romantic, so that he's an appreciator of these phenomena, and he appreciates their specific beauty. Then, when he goes to compose the work, he wants to display those characteristics, which seem beautiful to him. Whereas, in my case, I want to show it as something in nature. You know, I don't want to display it, I want it to display itself, you see.
LA-- I see.
DT-- And that's a difficult thing to follow down the line, but I...but that for me... I mean I always know that, when I see Alvin's pieces. Recently, I saw a marvellous piece that he did in Cologne. It's done by somebody listening to his own brainwaves. It's more complicated than the early piece, but he...
LA-- ..."Music for Solo Performer"?...except that we had some (laughter) complications...we've got to tell that story!
DT-- Yes, we had our own kind! (laughter)
LA-- Did you ever tell Alvin about that? (more laughter)
DT-- I don't know whether I did.
LA-- Oh well, we'll have to tell the anecdote.
DT-- Oh, it's become part of legend. And it put me in mind of, you know, an idea that I had had earlier, that loudspeakers should be made to be destroyed and that you...
DT-- Disposable. And you should be able to...why not have a...
LA-- ...well, absolutely (laughing)...you've carried out that idea, I think, a couple of times, at least! (laughing)
DT-- Yes, (laughing) with you as my collaborator! (much laughter)
LA-- What I recall of that was that we were getting ready for one of the concerts we did in Davis in '67, and it was the so-called brainwave piece, the "Music for Solo Performer" by Alvin Lucier that you wanted to do...to excite all these percussion instruments with the loudspeakers. You needed a differential amplifier, as I recall, and I called around the campus, and the School of Veterinary Medicine had one that they used on chickens or something. I don't know what kind of experiment it was.
LA-- And so, we needed a speaker, and so I took one of my own home speakers and my MacIntosh stereo amplifier...
DT-- Brand new...(chuckling)
LA-- Yep...brand new, brand new. Oh, you remember all the details of this, don't you (laughing).
DT-- It was very graphic. (laughing)
LA-- So, we were in this lab with all these lab-coated technicians around and everything.
DT-- We were caught up in something beyond our control, because (laughter) it was so interesting that we couldn't stop, when we had it...it was...everything was working very well.
LA-- Yes, indeed.
DT-- But, the thing was...
LA-- ...we had the ecstasy of the experiment there...going!
DT-- The thing was that Alvin, when he went to the scientist to help him with this, he had used the same procedure that-- electrodes are placed on the head at certain points and from that you get alpha waves. Right?
DT-- Now, when we...at Davis, this man knew how to do it, but he knew how to do it to chickens.
LA-- That's right. (laughing)
DT-- Now, his understanding of it was different from Alvin's in that you place electrodes on the forehead. So we tried it out. And it was fine, but... in Alvin's original version, you controlled the sound by closing your eyes. If you opened your eyes, then the sound would stop.
LA-- That's right.
DT-- Now, with the electrodes on the head, we suddenly found out that, with the eyes open, it would work. If you closed the eyes, it would turn it off. Right?
LA-- Just the opposite, yes.
DT-- So, I thought of it in my mind, you know, and I'm such a trained performer. (much laughter) I thought, now there's gotta' be a reason why this is so different.
LA-- Oh, that's right, you would begin to explore why.
DT-- How could we be faithful to the intention, if...
LA-- Absolutely. (still more laughter)
DT-- Closing your eyes, instead of opening them. (laughing) So, I asked the lab technician, if he would try it with the electrodes on the back of the head.
DT-- OK, and we did that. All of a sudden, we were in a whole different ballpark. We had signals of much greater amplitude, and, as a consequence, we didn't stop in time...I mean...we saw the puff...
LA-- ...right, we had DC going to the loudspeaker (laughing)...
DT-- ...oh, exactly...
LA-- ...and we..."Oh, my god, the speaker's on fire!" It was smoking from your brainwaves. (laughing)
DT-- But I thought it was very educational...
LA-- ...yes, it was.
DT-- I have since learned that the waveforms are different, you know. There are even other places on the head where you can put them, and you can obtain other waveforms.
LA-- Right, right.
DT-- But, of course, the lab technicians didn't know what the intention of the whole procedure was.
LA-- But it was a successful performance, as I recall.
DT-- Oh, very, oh yes.
LA-- It was a terrific performance.
LA-- In spite of that little mishap along the way.
DT-- (laughing) We overcame that, didn't we?
LA-- Yes, thanks so much David.
DT-- Oh, it's been a great pleasure.
with and by Larry Austin
Space to sing by itself!
This dream-vision of an orchestra of loudspeakers...
Those are real, physical instruments.
They became my...my friends.
It's an act of discovery.
You know, release what's there.
The composition is alive, and it doesn't need any more...culture.
I don't compose in a straight line.
I always compose around the periphery.
(You circle it a lot.)
I circle it...all the time.
The boundaries, dealing with the edges...transformations.
This dream-vision of an orchestra of loudspeakers...
Space to sing by itself!
copyright Borik Press 1996
This poem was created from the conversation with David Tudor and which became material for a computer music piece, "SoundPoemSet", four movements entitled "PaulineOliveros", "JerryHunt", "DavidTudor", "MortonSubotnick."
"SoundPoemSet" is available on CD on Centaur Records, CRC 2193, Vol. 16 of the CDCM Computer Music Series.