The Art of the Impossible

by D'Arcy Philip Gray

David Tudor was unquestionably one of the premier world figures in the performance of new music in the latter half of this century. He was guided by his instinct for exploration and experimentation, but shied away from identifying a specific goal for his work. Like a cat, he explored for the sake of exploration, hoping to find what he never dreamed existed. Tudor explored throughout his life, and when he felt that a certain area had been completely mapped he moved on to another. He covered a lot of territory in this way, making the question "What did David Tudor do?" a difficult one to answer.

David Tudor is perhaps best known even today as a pioneer in the performance of new music for the piano. His mastery and subsequent graduation from the traditional repertoire of the classical pianist, in favour of the music of Boulez and Stockhausen, can be seen as the beginning of a journey. With long-time collaborator John Cage, Tudor expanded the palette of sounds available to the pianist by adding materials to the strings. The journey continued and, after a time, they ran out of passive materials and began to prepare the instrument with microphones and other electronic devices.

David Tudor and John Cage began to experiment with pure electronic works during the 1950s. They followed the 1940s work of Pierre Shaeffer with pieces like Cage's Williams Mix (1952) but moved away from tape music to live electronics. Cage's Fontana Mix (1958) and Cartridge Music (1960) stand today as monuments to this early work. These pieces make use of the spirit of free exploration that was evident in their earlier collaborations, but they also introduce technology as the medium. Tudor's adaptation of Cage's Music for Carillon (originally 1952) for a two-octave Shulmerich electronic keyboard is also a good example of his early initiative in the area of live electronics. In fact, the early work in live electronics by these two men is the basis of all live electronic performance today, the establishment of a legacy.

Tudor continued in this direction for the rest of his life, developing this style of performance with his own compositions. His approach to electronic music was unique, in that he rejected mainstream technological development, particularly that of the digital domain, in favour of one that can only be described as his own. This mostly analogue technology was much more suited to Tudor's style of performance and to the indeterminate nature of his music. Tudor used his own intuition and technical expertise in collaboration with engineers from many different fields. In the early stages it was with engineers from the Bell Laboratories, resulting in events such as "9 Evenings of Theatre and Engineering" in New York in 1966. His most recent music-technology collaboration was with the Intel Corporation in the early '90s, resulting in the Neural Network Synthesizer.


For the early part of his career, David Tudor's work was dedicated solely to the realization of composition by other people. It was only in the mid-'60s that he began to realize his own compositional ideas. His first composition was for a Robert Rauschenberg dance concert at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1964. Rauschenberg, Tudor, Cage, and the Cunningham Dance Company were there for a series of concerts called "Five New York Nights," celebrating the new trends in the New York performance scene of the day. The piece made use of "existing technology" in the most literal sense: Tudor placed contact microphones on some 250 fluorescent light tubes on the ceiling of the museum, amplifying their sound. As the lights were controlled by approximately seventy-five switches, Tudor could have planned his switching to the extreme without any hope of controlling the resulting sound: the numbers were against him and the result was the built-in degree of indeterminacy that he was looking for. To get an idea of the magnitude of this piece, consider that Tudor enlisted the help of about half a dozen museum staff-members, but it still took them nearly three days to put the microphones in place.

One would think that an amplified fluorescent light tube would sound like the hum of the unit's power supply, a sound that permeates the acoustic space of any institution. Amplified, this sound would not necessarily gain any interesting characteristics. By all accounts, however, it was the flickering and flashing of the lights as they were turned on and off that produced the sound for the piece. Since the resistance of a mercury arc, such as that inside a fluorescent light, decreases as current increases, the current would destroy the lamp if not controlled. A ballast is used to limit the current and to increase the voltage after start-up. During the start-up procedure, the light often pops and flickers, but once the ballast has taken over, so does the buzz of the power supply. Tudor tried to limit the amount of "buzz" and focus on the "popping and flickering" with careful switching.

Tudor performed from a separate room, where the lights and switches were. A sound system carried the signal from his contact microphones to speakers in the main part of the hall. He remained focused on his switches and his private light show, completely oblivious to the activity in the main hall, where Rauschenberg, wearing a T-shirt and slacks, was lowered from the ceiling into a barrel of water, as the light grew from black to bright. He remained underwater for some time and then came up gasping for air. During this time the barrel of water, which was on a small cart with wheels, was pulled around the room. The other participant in the piece was a large Brahma cow that was led around the room wearing booties to prevent the floor being scratched.

Tudor gave his light piece the title Fluorescent Sound. This highly practical title, which referred to nothing other than the piece itself, was typical of Tudor's manner of naming his works. The romance of this first compositional effort was lost on all those present, because it was, after all, Rauschenberg's show. Tudor, as was his habit in those days, neglected to tell anyone that it was his first fully realized composition. Fluorescent Sound was performed only once, during that festival in Stockholm, and Tudor never formally acknowledged its existence until quite late in life. It seems that, at the time, he did not consider himself to be a composer, but simply a musician. (Incidentally, Rauschenberg's piece was called Elgin Tie.)


During this period, Tudor began to learn the bandoneon, a "squeeze-box" of Argentinean origin with a very complex keyboard layout (unlike the piano keyboard layout of the accordion). Mauricio Kagel introduced Tudor to the instrument, and they worked together on Kagel's Pandora's Box. Tudor went on to experiment further, working with Gordon Mumma (Mesa for Bandoneon and Cybersonic Console) and Pauline Oliveros (Duo for Accordion, Bandoneon and Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato–See Saw Version).

During this time Tudor also created a work of his own, called Bandoneon! (where "!" is taken to be the mathematical symbol for "factorial" rather than an exclamation mark). It was premièred in 1966, for solo bandoneon with electronic extensions. Tudor placed pick-ups on both sides of the instrument, giving him more power, which he always liked, and also permitting him to play one side against the other. He employed a ring-modulator type of device, using one side of the bandoneon as the "carrier wave" and the other as the "signal."

There is a photo of Tudor sitting in a chair, looking very serious, both hands fully occupied with a bandoneon, surrounded by a large number of electronic components. None of his components were "automated," and because he rarely left any of them idle for any length of time, Tudor had to work them with his feet or reach madly for them with one of his hands. Bandoneon! was part of the now infamous "9 Evenings of Theatre and Engineering" in New York, and was performed simultaneously with projected images by Lowell Cross.


David Tudor very quickly learned a great deal about the contemporary state of audio technology. One of the prime characteristics of his approach to performance was his treatment of the loudspeaker. To Tudor, each speaker was an instrument with its own unique personality. He used the fundamental strengths and weaknesses of each unit as a unique composition and performance tool. Before too long he began to seek out alternative speaker designs, soon stumbling upon the audio transducer. This unit, in short, was technologically similar to the guts (driver) of a normal speaker, but was designed for the Navy to be bolted to an underwater object in order to drive it as a loudspeaker. This type of transducer has enough power to project sound to listeners above the water. Tudor began to bolt transducers to various objects. This increased his palette of potential acoustic idiosyncrasies. In other words, in terms of frequency response, the difference between one commercial loudspeaker and another is quite subtle, in comparison to those between an empty oil drum and a cheap plastic treasure pot.

The ultimate outcome of Tudor's use of the transducer was Rainforest, originally a piece for fairly portable objects and only two to four performers, composed for the Cunningham dance after which it was named. The work eventually developed into a much larger entity, Rainforest IV, which involved upwards of eight performers and was created primarily for museum installation. The largest version of the piece provides an incredibly rich visual and auditory experience. Attending a performance of the work, one can walk up to and even inside some of the loudspeaker objects. The result is a sort of concerto where, as the listener/observer moves about the room, the individual objects come to the foreground for a Tudor-esque solo, while the other objects recede into accompaniment. The performers select source material that enhances the frequency-response of their objects. Tudor himself always had nearby a highly directional microphone connected to a set of headphones. He would hand it to select members of the audience, giving them a secret performance, in which the most minute details of an object's response could be magnified and enjoyed in a private headphone environment.

After the audio transducer, Tudor explored speaker design even further. In his own words: "Little real work has been done using spatial positioning as a compositional technique. The science of acoustics has not often been applied to isolating sound phenomena to specific positions in space. There can be a world of musical compositions utilizing the distribution of localized sonic events in space rather than time: sound designs in physical dimensions and musical architectures, both static and dynamic. The exploration of these musical worlds is dependent on the development of tools and techniques for localizing vibration in air." (Tudor research proposal, circa 1970) This idea led Tudor to experiment with highly directional rotating loudspeakers. These devices would allow the performers to interact with each other in a more complex manner and would enable them to work directly with the acoustic space, pointing their sounds directly at parts of the space or at other sounds. Tudor's group, Composers Inside Electronics, experimented a great deal with these designs.

Tudor's "Pepsi pieces" were also a result of his keen interest in spatial positioning. These were a group of pieces composed for the Pepsi Pavilion at the 1970 Expo in Osaka. Tudor had a large dome constructed within the pavilion to hold thirty-seven loudspeakers that would enable him to place his sounds in virtually any part of the pavilion. Custom components were designed to switch signals, automatically and manually, in various ways to the different speakers. The Pepsi pieces were all composed specifically for this speaker set-up and many were never performed in that way again.

In his last fully realized composition, Soundings: Ocean Diary, Tudor employed two four-channel speaker clusters that were hung above the audience as if they were chandeliers. These clusters were motorized so that the speaker could be tilted nearly ninety degrees on a vertical axis. Originally, Tudor had hoped that the clusters would also rotate on a horizontal axis, but this proved to be too much for the design team.


Tudor's experiments with audio technology also guided him in the direction of custom tone-generators and signal-processors. Still searching for the unknown, he became almost fanatical about developing his own components. Typically he would change the resistance or capacitance values in a commercial design or, as he would say, "put an extra leg in it." When his musical demands exceeded his technical ability, he would ask someone else to build and design for him. This attitude remained with him for the rest of his life in his working closely with engineers such as Gordon Mumma, Billy Klüver, and John Driscoll to develop components.

In 1989-90, Tudor was approached by Forrest Warthman and a group of engineers from Intel (most notably Mark Holler). The result was the Neural Network Synthesizer (familiarly know as the Neural), a customized collection of neural network microchips that can process many signals in parallel, not unlike the human brain. These chips were combined with a complex series of RC-circuits that shaped the feedback paths. Essentially, the Neural is an analogue synthesizer that uses a high-tech microchip as its core.

Tudor used this incredibly complex component along with a large number of his other signal processors to create Neural Synthesis (solo) and Neural Network Plus (duo) in 1992. The latter version of the piece was for Cunningham's dance Enter, and was performed extensively between 1992 and 1995 by Tudor and Takehisa Kosugi and, after Tudor became ill, by John D.S. Adams and Kosugi. This version of the Neural also used Tudor's principles of speaker placement, with sixteen discreet channels surrounding the audience. During the last five years of his life, Tudor was most closely identified with the Neural pieces. Plans were in place to develop a new version of the synthesizer, with a different interface and an even more complex interior, when Tudor passed away in August 1996. Mark Holler is still working on the new box, following Tudor's guidelines for many of its parameters.

Throughout his technological experiments, David Tudor never for a moment stopped being a musician. His ideas were complete, unique, and powerful, resulting in works that extended directly from his musical consciousness. This is perhaps the best possible testament to his genius. His search never ended; during the last few years of his life, his face would still gleam during moments when something unexpected emanated from his performance table through the theatre's loudspeakers.

Any great explorer leaves behind a legacy. The Tudor legacy, although in its infancy, can be glimpsed in the work of artists such as Pauline Oliveros and Bill Viola who worked with him in the early stages of their careers. It is yet unclear just what influence Tudor's work will exert, and it remains to be seen whether his spirit of exploration will continue in a new generations of artists. As Tudor might have said, "We'll see if they can rise to the occasion."

[Author's Note: Thanks to Peter Zaparinuk, Katherine Simons, Avis Gray, and John D. S. Adams for all their corrections and to Pauline Oliveros for the bandoneon information.]


This page was last updated on January 28, 1999. For more information contact: John D.S. Adams (
or D'Arcy Philip Gray ( Server space generously provided by Electronic Music Foundation.