DAVID TUDOR: PULSERS/UNTITLED
Review from the Winter-1985 issue of the Computer Music Journal (MIT Press)
by Joseph Paul Taylor.
David Tudor gives an unvarnished piece of his mind on his latest recording. Tudor puts a lot of people off needlessly by insisting on heavy-metal volume levels at his concerts. Fortunately, with records we don't have this problem so we can enjoy Tudor in all his demented glory without worrying about endangering our hearing.
Side A of this disk is taken up with Pulsers, a kind of improvised duet by Tudor for himself and violinist Takehisa Kosugi. By monitoring and tweaking a system of analog electronics in real time, Tudor produces a very particular kindd of pulsed sound that gives the piece its character and its title. These sounds are vigourously rhythmic in the not-quite-metered, not-quite-unmetered way that only a network of free-running, intermodulating oscillators can be.
The sounds surge along in an oddly excited way. They are complex, even noisy, and although they seldom have even a hint of a specific pitch, their registers are always very clearly defined. This registral articulation is reinforced rhythmically: each band of sound has its own rhythmic personality that stands apart from, but clearly derives from the whole. Some sounds crackle like sparks, others wheeze and scratch, and still others wow and flutter like a shaken saw, but it's obvious that they're all the spawn of one big Frankenstein-monster patch that seems designed by Tudor to be only partly controllable.
To be precise, he doesn't control details at all. He controls the tempo (he adjusts it a couple of times at the beginning until he finds the right groove), and he controls the entrances and exits of various registral/rhythmic components, and he selectively makes these components sparse and syncopated or freight-train dominant at will. I think he even puts in a few accents now and then, and he can make the whole mass start and stop together, but what he doesn't do is play the local rhythms themselves. That's what his machine is for.
Kosugi's part is a violin line with heavy electronic doctoring, most prominently, a resonant filter sweeping automatically back and forth like a lazy wah-wah, and some very serious space echo. Kosugi's part is rather discreet in the mix, and if I understand the notes correctly, the sounds he plays (mostly simple pentatonic licks with wide glissandi) are fixed on tape, making actual performances of Pulsers into solos for Tudor, really. The problem with Kosugi's setup is that the primary rhythms one hears out of him are actually produced by the filter and the echo: the invariant mechanical ones.
So Tudor controls the large-scale motion in his part, leaving the very prominent local rhythms to his system. Kosugi controls his phrase-length rhythms, obviously, but even they are somewhat over shadowed by the insistent regularity of his pedal-box effects, and in any case, whether he's on tape or not, there's not a whole lot of musical listening going on. So in the event, Tudor's scattershot electronic conga line simply doesn't go all that well with Kosugi's plaintive washes of sound.
In Untitled on the second side of the album, Tudor plays a patch that's absolutely free of oscillators and control voltages. Of course, we're hearing oscillations, but they come out of boxes that were never meant to sound this way, and I'm sure it's easy for a lot of people to see why. Tudor's Untitled proves the remarkable fact that in 1985 it's still possible for sounds in and of themselves to shock and grate on the nerves in a deeply disturbing way.
I used to mess around with ultra-rude sounds like this in my younger days, and I'm sure that this kaleidoscopic pastiche of ripping, tearing, monkey-shrieking, fingernail-on-the-blackboard din would have knocked my socks off when I was about twenty-one years old. Even now I really have to take my hat off to Tudor: he's perservered in these rocky fields into his fifties, and he's really brought this particular urge to its expressive pinnacle.
You know how people say "Oh yes, when such-and-such was premiered, people thought it was the ugliest thing they had ever heard, and now, of course we all see how beautiful it really is." Well, I'm absolutely positive you'll be able to play this record at a party in the year 2585, and everyone present will cringe in stunned dismay, except for a few hardy souls like ourselves who will throw back their heads and laugh at the sheer Zen lunacy of Tudor's sensibility.
Reviewed by Joseph Paul Taylor
New York, New York