GIANT OSCILLATIONS

By John D.S. Adams

Mystery and magic are close to the essence of the music and the nature of David Tudor. His unique methods of composing, performing and designing electronic circuitry have remained elusive to many. Tudor himself speaks cryptically about his own electronic set-ups (tables full of audio components and their associated tangled cabling). It is the choice of specific components and their interconnection that define both the composition and performance of each of his pieces. For most of his career, Tudor didn't find it necessary to communicate how his compositions were to be performed - after all, it was Tudor and only Tudor who performed the more complex electronic works. His work Rainforest is the only piece Tudor composed for musicians other than himself. Although his music is private and personal to him, his performances embody a spirit and virtuosity that extends beyond the mystery directly to the listener.

It wasn't until October, 1994 that he first asked for his music to be performed without his active participation. Until that point, Tudor's music depended entirely on the direct involvement of his own musical character. Consciously releasing the notion of exclusive personal involvement, he accepted how his music might change with others performing it. His hope perhaps was that the performer would respect what he called "the view from inside"...

The realm of electronics, entered into in the spirit of discovery, can give the musician a new world. Electronic components and circuitry, observed as individuals and unique rather than as servo-mechanisms, more and more reveal their personalities, directly related to the particular musician involved with them. The deeper this process of observation, the more the components seem to require and suggest their own musical ideas, arriving at that point of discovery, always incredible, where music is revealed from "inside", rather than from "outside". David Tudor, program note, 1976

David Tudor has always been an experimentalist. Through an intense process of discovery, combined with unparalleled imagination, he has been able to concoct music that he can truly call his own. Several compositions from the early 60's contributed significant ingredients which would culminate in Toneburst..

One of his objectives in the 60's and 70's was to generate sound without using any input source material. Freeing himself from a more conventional composer-instrument relationship, Tudor's compositional approach allowed his electronics to 'do the talking'. At the time, the composition and performance of "new electronic music" commonly used devices such as tone generators and/or tape players to provide input sources for an electronic set-up. Although this approach did have an important place in Tudor's music at the time (as in his compositions Anima Pepsi and Pepsibird), it was his desire for the unpredictable and unique that inspired his in-depth study of the principals of amplification and feedback. By returning part of the output of a circuit back to its input, essentially creating an electronic loop, Tudor could generate new sound entirely through electronic means. This principle is known as feedback oscillation.

Tudor instinctively sauntered into a noteworthy taste of complex feedback oscillation when working as a core artist at the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo '70 in Osaka. Collaborator Gordon Mumma designed an eight channel sound-modifier console for the Pavilion. It wasn't long until Tudor had completely reconfigured the console discovering that by connecting all eight modifiers in series and then feeding the signal back on itself, oscillatory rhythms would appear. The greatest appeal of these oscillatory rhythms for Tudor was their extraordinary degree of variability and unpredictability. Unfortunately, this piece (appropriately titled Pepscillator) was highly dependent on the technology exclusively present in the Pepsi Pavilion and became virtually unperformable elsewhere.

John Cage approached Tudor in 1972 with a proposal for several concerts in which they would perform simultaneous works. Cage had already created his piece, Mesostics re. Merce Cunningham; a quickly read text performable only if shouted. Working with what he had on hand, Tudor began work on Untitled by putting together a fairly simple electronic set-up. He designed two integrated chains of audio components, piling up the varied gain stages and finally connecting each of the chains back onto itself with the goal of creating one giant, self contained, stereo feedback oscillator. There were two key methodological ingredients in Untitled, one was the use of what Tudor coined as 'phase shift oscillation', the other was variable side-band modulation (a type of analog multiplication using two input signals). Phase shift oscillation is a variation of feedback oscillation where the audio signal is that is fed back to the input is altered by between zero and 360 degrees of phase. As his work progressed Tudor discovered that the oscillation he was achieving wasn't only about feeding back resonant (but otherwise non oscillating) circuits, it was also the specific configuration of these circuits and how they were allowed to share with each other, their instabilities. As Mumma recently observed, '...David developed a virtuosity in the chaotic fields between 'resonance' and 'oscillation'." It was at this point in his experimentation that Tudor made an important observation. He recognized that the standard arrangement of "inputs" and "outputs" on some of the components could be used more as universal "ports". He found that if he connected certain circuits together backwards (using the output as an input and vise-versa), unpredictably exciting results would often occur.

As Untitled developed, the amount of circuity required to realize Tudor's discoveries grew at an alarming rate. What started out as simple concept turned into a complex electronic maze. With upwards to eighty components demanding TudorÕs attention (each component having its own set of knobs and switches), the possibility of performing the set-up in one operation became impossible. When asked by John Fullemann in 1984 why it was he couldnÕt handle the situation that arose in Untitled, Tudor responded, "...it was not that it was too complicated, it was simply too difficult." There was physically too much for him to handle in a live performance situation. He coninued by saying, "I mean, after all, feedback is feedback. And even though I'm good at isolating the output, in the end there is always the possibility that it will take off." Despite his inclination towards allowing the electronics to "speak", even Tudor knew that feedback was to be handled with care. When allowed to "take off", all of the disirable features of the feedback that Tudor was after would disappear: the variation and unpredicabilty was lost.

Tudor's only choice was to record the output of this system several times, each time as a "live" performance. He could then use these recordings as source material, selecting from them indeterminately in performance and modifying them with yet another chain of processing electronics. This third chain of components resembles very closely what was used in the original source generation, but it had the capability of separating the output into several different parts, each with its own character, which then could be distributed through four loudspeakers in the performance space. The resultant component count: a meager forty!

When commissioned by Merce Cunningham in 1975 for a new piece (to be performed with his dance, Sounddance), Tudor knew this was his opportunity to finally realize his original conception: to achieve phase-shift oscillation in performance without the use of outside recorded input. In order to reduce the component count so that the piece could indeed be performed in one operation, Tudor decided to use only one of the chains used in Untitled , but added output processing so that the same material was processed in different ways. This allowed Tudor to take one input source and modify it so that the output was different, although its source is the same material. Tudor appropriately titled the piece Toneburst..

Despite his expertise in handling extremely complex electronic interconnections, Tudor still found himself grappling with Toneburst...

Eventually you discover certain critical points in a circuit, and its those that you pay attention to when things are misbehaving. The last resort is always to cut it off completely and start over - that's perfectly acceptable. As a matter of fact, that's part of the whole operation. I found that very rarely did I feel that there was an unacceptable situation, even though I don't like it when feedback takes off. But after all, having so many points with which to create variation... I guess what I'm trying to say is that since it's suppose to be an unpredictable oscillation, that's the condition in my mind. So when it stays in a so-to-speak static state, then that's when I have to grapple. If I get it balanced, it's constantly producing a variety of itself. That's the image that I have... that it should be producing this variety. -David Tudor in interview with John Fullemann (Aug. 31, 1984)

The loudspeaker is just as important in Tudor's performances as are the electronic instruments he physically manipulates. The loudspeaker's interaction with the surrounding acoustic space remains critical to the presentation of Tudor's music. He treats the speaker more as a musical instrument than simply as a transducer. Toneburst was no exception to this approach. Tudor would identify, then exploit each speaker's own particular character in rehearsal and performance.

In one notable instance, a performance with Merce Cunningham in Buffalo, Tudor pushed the loudspeaker to its limit. The beautiful but neglected 1930's theater where they were performing was vintage. The theater's prominent marquee, a 10 foot Pontiac-Indian head, remained boldly intact. The primary sound system in the theater consisted of two pairs of 6 foot 1930's Western Electric (WE) base-reflex loudspeakers. The new theater committee had just purchased two 700 watt Yamaha amplifiers and JBL speakers. The accompanying speakers had not yet arrived so the house crew decided the old WE speakers would have to do. During the sound checks before the show, one of the speakers acted up. The cone in the speaker would periodically stick, bringing the sound to a grinding halt. A memeber of the local crew, familiar with the problem, would swiftly leap up and smash the cone with his fist, bringing life back to the speaker. During performance, Toneburst revved up and the sound system sang the sounds of Tudor with majestic authority. After a few minutes, however, the finicky speaker dropped out. Tudor and his engineer, John Fullemann were discussing whether or not someone should go up and kick start the speaker when, before they could act, smoke and then flames shot from the speaker! Tudor grinned from ear to ear and cranked up his levels a little bit more. The audience backed up a few rows and some made for the exits. Someone grabbed a fire hose and moved toward the speaker. A trail of hose-colored dust followed him. Eventually the fire was extinguished. Merce and his dancers continued throughout all the commotion and at the curtain, the applause was deafening. Tudor always enjoyed when his music "sliced" and "sizzled" but that night he outdid himself.

Toneburst turned out to be a very important piece for Tudor: He described it in 1994 as being a direct translation of his mind into music. Toneburst represents the culmination of a decade of experimentation and is considered to be the definitive Tudor composition. It wraps up in one complex package the mysterious ideas and elusive philosophies behind the conception, realization and performance of his music. Toneburst is David Tudor.

© John D.S. Adams

Special thanks to: Erin Donovan, Gordon Mumma, John Fullemenn


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This page was last updated on January 28, 1999. 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.