Tudor’s White Noise
David Tudor’s Bandoneon! (a combine) (1)
not only opened up new territory in sound art — the idea of sound, or of the tone, pushed to its limit (white noise) and then transformed into light — but it was the first time that Tudor would call himself a “composer.” Up to that point, he had been known rather as a virtuoso performer. In a brief and obscure note for Bandoneon!
, Tudor gives some clues for understanding the piece and (for the first time) for differentiating his aesthetic and compositional style from that of his long-time collaborator, John Cage:
"Pre- and post-operative note — Bandoneon!
sound/image is attending toward total oscillation — approaching white noise, it is differentiation discoverable therein ... it’s theatre, performer activating interacting media, investigate..." (2)
Speaking with Billy Klüver and Barbro Schultz Lundestam years after 9 Evenings
, Tudor elaborates:
"So if you imagine a scale where pure tone is at one end and white noise is at the other end, and [...] if I pressed more than three tones [on the bandoneon] simultaneously I had white noise, and I could add to it to change its color or I could diminish it by releasing some of the buttons." (3)
Whereas Cage’s Variations VII
is essentially a mix — sounds appear both simultaneously and sequentially to create the form, if not the content, of an aural narrative — Tudor's Bandoneon!
, on the other hand, presents a wall of sound, an approximation of white noise that strips the sound of the kinds of signification which Cage’s live mixes, with their emphasis on found and ordinary sound, often involve. At the same time, the bandoneon’s “sound” also loses some of its significance as “sound”: during the 9 Evenings
performance, the instrument produced sound (filtered and transformed through the TEEM system and made to reverberate by the Armory’s acoustics) while simultaneously triggering the projection of images on a large screen behind the “stage”.
While Tudor’s rationale for using the bandoneon and composing for it is clear (it allowed him to produce and manipulate white noise) his curiosity about white noise is a matter of speculation. To go back to the enigmatic “pre-and post operative” note above, if the sound/image of the instrument approaches total oscillation, and if its differentiation is “discoverable therein,” then perhaps Tudor is presenting a sonic paradox: the discernment of tone or difference within noise, the atomization of noise such that it ceases to be defined negatively and becomes musical and performative material.
Tudor began his public career as a composer, therefore, by both sharing and venturing outside the electronic environment and sonic aesthetic that Cage had developed.
While Tudor’s shift from performer to composer first occurred with Fluorescent Sound
, composed for a presentation of a Robert Rauschenberg painting at the Moderna Museet (Stockholm, Sweden) in 1964, it was only during 9 Evenings
that Tudor actually referred to himself as a composer. “I was hesitant about it,” he says now, “and the first time I called myself a composer was in 1966 at the 9 Evenings for (sic) Theatre and Engineering
.” Although Tudor said at the time that “one day I woke up and realized I wasn’t going to play the piano any more,” it is clear that he found electronic sound far more interesting. “Electronics is a world of new sound imaginations and just as much a taskmaster as the piano.” (4)
David Tudor, Bandoneon! (a combine)
In the 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering
program, Tudor describes the piece as “a combine incorporating programmed audio circuits, moving loudspeakers, TV images and lighting, instrumentally excited.” (5)
The bandoneon, a relative of the accordion, produced sounds that were also signals, triggering “differentiated audio spectrums (achieved through modulation means and special loudspeaker construction), for the production of visual images [and] the activation of programming devices controlling the audiovisual environment.” (6)
Referring to the visual images devised by Lowell Cross, the technology controlling the audiovisual environment devised by Bob Kieronski, and Fred Waldhauer’s Proportional Control system, Tudor follows this rather technical description by saying, “Bandoneon!
uses no composing means; when activated it composes itself out of its own composite instrumental nature.” His handwritten notes also contain the following: “instrumental loudspeakers (sounding physical materials), actuated by material of Mauricio Kagel — Alle Rechte vorbe halten
— in a self-multiplying audiovisual application (towards ‘rebirth of white noise’ (sic) [...]” (7)
This obscure description was obviously written before the event, and indicates Tudor’s interest in two compositional practices that would become hallmarks of computer music and self-generating or emergent artworks in later decades. First, he wanted to use sound as both a material in itself and as a device — somewhat like “MIDI” — to trigger other media and produce a multimedia event. Second, he was interested in the complex media ecology that feedback among these media would create. In notes written some years later (1973), Tudor elaborated: “the audio processing and programming, as well as all the software, had to contribute to the oscillating (and unknowable) tendency — including the multiplication of circuits.” (8)
This “unknowable tendency” is suggestive of the central concept of “emergence” in self-generating artworks and in artificial life discourse: it points to the creation of unexpected, unprogrammable events generated through the operation of a system itself.
“My first plan for the 9 Evenings
was to have been (sic) a realization of my friend Mauricio Kagel’s 'Möbius-strip composition',” Alle Rechte vorbe halten
, using only white noise as a source, dated, triggered, etc. in a complex fashion by some instrument. This idea abandoned itself through the process of my projecting my thoughts into the about-to-become available technology, and its potential for the creation of ‘white noise’ from scratch.
The situation obtained when a performer scans two media simultaneously to which I had been introduced through Lowell Cross’s 'Musica Instrumentalis', contributed [to] the performance method: single performer feedback, which also obviated the need for any compositional means. It’s theater: performer activating interacting media will instigate an unscannable environment. ” (9)
Like Cage, Tudor felt that electronics were an inherently democratizing force, allowing “the common man [to] become a musician — every man his own musician. It has to happen [...] and electronics is one way it is going to happen.” (10)
However, Tudor’s interest in feedback mechanisms and self-generating compositions differs fundamentally from Cage’s performance of live sonic elements in 9 Evenings
. Apart from the reverberation created by the Armory itself, Tudor’s sound originates in a tone (produced by the bandoneon) that is simultaneously a signal. And Cage’s aural narrative — in the form of a mix — contains the outside world, whereas Tudor’s wall of sound has a certain insularity, a formalism that is both aleatory and technically circumscribed.