Next to John Cage, David Tudor (1926-1996) was one of the leading lights of the post-war avant-garde movement in the United States. Tudor actually premiered Cage’s most notorious piece, 4’ 33” (1952), which featured the pianist sitting stock still in front of his keyboard for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The “music” was provided by the sounds of the audience shuffling uncomfortably in their seats, and any other random noises heard in the hall.
Nearly 60 years after the fact, a performance such as 4’ 33” may seem quaint, even silly. Make no mistake though, David Tudor has had a direct, or indirect influence on every bleeding-edge artist of the past 50 years.
For example, Krautrock godfather Karlheinz Stockhausen dedicated his Klavierstück VI (1955) to Tudor. And most significantly to rock fans of today, Tudor premiered some of the early compositions of La Monte Young. Young went on to mentor John Cale, who then formed the Velvet Underground, which incorporated his theories. And as every punk fan knows, the VU have had an influence on just about every band since.
The context is important in understanding the DVD Bandoneon! (a combine). This is a documentary of David Tudor’s first full concert work as a composer. He was participating in a series titled 9 Evenings, presented in 1966 in New York. The other artists involved were John Cage, Lucinda Childs, Oyvind Fahlstrom, Alex Hay, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg, and Robert Whitman.
Tudor’s night was October 6, and the instrument he played was the bandoneon. The bandoneon is a Latin instrument, and is somewhat analogous to a small accordion.
As the DVD shows, though, Tudor’s bandoneon is an instrument unlike any other. With the help of technicians from Bell Telephone Laboratories, Tudor’s bandoneon was the driving force of a multimedia blitzkrieg. By connecting contact microphones to various switches, delays and loops, and even running some through an ancient harmonium, the sound of the instrument becomes an unbelievable wash of feedback.
I can only imagine how abrasive this sounded back in 1966, and the way the microphones are set to loop each other, the whole thing actually takes on a life of its own. The audience had a different listening experience than we get, as the speakers were in constant motion. They were hooked up to remote control carts, which were sent around the stage randomly by five of Tudor’s friends.
To add to the sensory overload, the sounds were fed into an oscilloscope, with the resulting images projected onto a huge screen at the rear of the stage.
The results are amazing. I defy anyone to watch and listen to this material even today and not be blown away. The fact that all of this is presented by short-haired, serious young men wearing suits makes it all the more disconcerting.
Bandoneon! (a combine) is an incredibly valuable historical document. My only problem with the DVD is its brevity. There are two parts to it: Tudor’s performance, and a documentary of what went into making the event happen. All of this is fantastic. The problem is that we only get 14 minutes of performance, and about 20 minutes of documentary footage. I wish there were more.
As for the visual quality of the footage, it is very good for the most part. The main body of the performance is shown in black and white, and was very well preserved. Apparently, Bell shot the event in color, for their own records, and some of it is used very briefly. Bell’s tapes were not cared for very well, and so the quality of the color footage is pretty poor. Most of the interviews in the documentary section were conducted in the 1990s, and are in fine shape.
In the end, I have to put my reservations about the brevity of the DVD aside. This performance is of such historical value that it is worth seeing regardless.