David Tudor at the performance table, Merce Cunningham Dance Company
David Tudor at the performance table, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Credit: Courtesy of New World Records

In August 1952, when John Cage premiered his landmark composition 4’33”, the guy who sat at the piano occasionally turning a page but never hitting any keys was David Tudor. An avant-garde pianist and experimental composer born in Philadelphia in 1926, Tudor is inextricably linked to Cage—he performed the premiere of just about every piano piece the older man wrote in the 50s and early 60s. He was also a key collaborator of many of Cage’s peers from the New York School of the 50s, such as Morton Feldman,

Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, all of whom helped pioneer the use of graphic notation and indeterminacy. Tudor interpreted work by other radical composers of the era as well, including Karlheinz Stockhausen, La Monte Young, Sylvano Bussotti, and Stefan Wolpe. Rigorously trained and technically brilliant, he thrived in situations where he had to make creative choices, deciding how to interpret deliberately loose instructions.

Once he got a taste of that freedom, though, he seems to have wanted more and more—within just a few years he’d all but abandoned the instrument he’d spent decades mastering. In the early 60s, after ten years or so holding positions as pianist in residence and instructor at progressive institutions such as Black Mountain College in North Carolina and the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt, Germany, Tudor started composing his own music. He rejected not only the piano but also the rigidity of conventional scores, moving instead toward a structured but chance-dependent form of electronic music where the performer (usually Tudor himself) wouldn’t be able to completely control the output of the hardware. From that point until his death in 1996 at age 70, he wrote such compositions exclusively.

Tudor’s output during this era is under­documented and thus overlooked, in large part because he privileged the unpredictable live permutations of his music, most of which he performed to accompany work by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. His scores (or more accurately diagrams) made it almost impossible to render a piece the same way twice, and at any rate Tudor wasn’t interested in doing so; for most of his compositions, no definitive version can exist. He didn’t tend to go into the studio, and almost nobody else ever played his music. A few recordings do exist, thankfully, and a new seven-CD box set called The Art of David Tudor: 1963-1992 (New World) collects 14 of them, the longest an hour and the shortest a hair under 12 minutes. Many have never been released before, at least not in their entirety (four were excerpted in 2010 for the monumental ten-CD set Music for Merce), and they provide an unprecedented and detailed look at Tudor’s groundbreaking electronic experiments.

Tudor started taking piano lessons when he was six. Five years later he began playing organ, and by the time he was 17 he was working as a church organist in Swarthmore. That was also the year he first heard pianist Irma Wolpe, Stefan Wolpe’s wife, who was performing at a local college; he soon became her student. He proved a quick study with the classical repertoire and gravitated toward more modern sounds; by the mid-40s he was giving recitals of music by the likes of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Tudor also developed a relationship with Stefan Wolpe that opened doors for him—their connection helped him land a gig premiering Pierre Boulez’s Deuxieme Sonate (1948) at New York’s Carnegie Recital Hall in 1950. Before long he was the piano interpreter of choice for the composers of the emerging New York School.

It didn’t last, of course. In a 1972 essay titled “From Piano to Electronics,” Tudor wrote, “No matter how much fun it might be to play a traditional instrument, I no longer feel the compulsion to do so.” There was no single turning point where he went from being strictly an interpreter of other people’s work to a composer and performer of his own; equally hard to pin down is his transition from music with tightly determined outcomes to unpredictable experiments that couldn’t be replicated. But there’s little question that his relationship with Cage was the key.

Cage’s late-50s and early-60s work demanded more and more input from musicians, who were often asked to determine the parameters and start conditions of a performance. The first piece in the Tudor box set is a 1963 performance of Cage’s Variations II, which specifies no particular instrumentation or sounds and no set duration (Tudor used piano and live electronics). The “score” consists of 11 transparencies (six bear a single straight line, five a dot) that the performer must arrange and interpret to determine variables such as frequency, amplitude, timbre, and duration. As Matt Rogalsky writes in his excellent liner notes for the box, “Tudor was thus responsible for every sonic detail in performance of this piece—effectively placing him in the role of co-composer.” Swaths of electronic feedback, separated by extended silences, seethe at the edges of thunderous, dissonant piano clusters and inside-the-piano scrapes. But to Tudor, a piece that ceded to him the role of cocomposer didn’t go far enough—he wanted to make music that would be, at least in part, outside the control of composer and performer alike.

The other 13 pieces in the set—with the exception of Christian Wolff’s For 1, 2, or 3 People (1964)—were either written by Tudor or, as he says of his 1966 piece Bandoneon ! (A Combine), “uncomposed.” Many were commissioned by Cunningham’s dance company, with which Tudor was closely affiliated from its foundation in 1953 until his death. In many ways Tudor was an early electronics hacker, creating electronic feedback networks by connecting chains of discrete devices (amplifiers, oscillators, and eventually homemade sound modifiers and filters) and then plugging the output of the last into the input of the first, a system now often dubbed “no-­input.” Sometimes he hijacked conventional instruments instead. For Bandoneon ! (A Combine), whose title nods to frequent Tudor collaborator Robert Rauschenberg, he hollowed out the the titular instrument—perhaps you’ve seen one in the hands of nuevo tango pioneer Astor Piazzolla—and fitted the empty squeeze­box with contact mikes that picked up the creaking and clicking of its workings and the rushing of air, which he could route to any of 12 loudspeakers. This was a sort of precursor to works where Tudor used loudspeakers to vibrate various objects, including a cymbal, a wooden tray, and a metal cash box.

Until the late 80s, when he began working with computer systems that simulated the brain’s neural networks, Tudor stuck with variations on a basic approach similar to that of Bandoneon, adding variables to keep his systems unpredictable and unmasterable. For his sound sources he relied on electronic feedback (from no-input loops), acoustic feedback (from microphones placed in front of loudspeakers), tone generators, or field recordings (“mosquitoes in a jar,” “fly on flypaper,” “wasp chewing”), but the hardware through which he fed them grew increasingly complex. Cunningham Dance Company sound engineer John Adams says that Tudor often tweaked the sound sources in his pieces when he felt he’d fallen into a rut.

After the premiere of Neural Network Plus in 1992, explains Adams, “He did make a few more source tape recordings so he never became familiar with the sounds. This was key, to not ‘memorize’ the source tapes so you would instinctively anticipate certain types of sounds. When something happened that he wasn’t expecting to hear, this was a good performance.”

The liner notes reproduce the detailed instructions Tudor wrote for a wide range of his works over the decades: how to set up the gear, how to get its indeterminate processes to happen, how and whether the performer should intervene. As Rogalsky writes, listening to this stuff on a home stereo is a poor substitute for hearing it performed as Tudor intended. Many of his compositions used “spatialization,” creating a 360-degree multi­channel environment that could make sounds seem to move in three dimensions, rather than just within the two-dimensional plane of a stereo field. As wonderful as the recordings in The Art of David Tudor sound, they’re still flattened versions. The fact that Tudor’s music is more a living practice than a document—and that Tudor himself was in many ways an irreplaceable driving intelligence for that practice—is one of the main reasons he hasn’t been accorded the respect granted to other experimental composers of the 20th century. His works can’t be easily notated, and it’s often difficult for other people to perform them. In fact, he rarely even described the exact hardware he used. The human touch was the most important element of Tudor’s compositional systems, even after he introduced indeterminacy and electronics. As he’s quoted in the liner notes, “It is important to me that the audience senses the presence of a live musician. It makes all the difference in the world.”