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  • The Buttons on Pandora's Box:David Tudor and the Bandoneon
  • Jonathan Goldman (bio)

In the summer of 1966 the pianist David Tudor (1926-96) was preparing for the first concert in which he would appear as both instrumentalist and composer. The concert took place on October 15-16, 1966, at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York as part of the "9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering" undertaken by Billy Klüver, an engineer working at Bell Telephone Laboratories. The events involved collaborations between artists (including many notable personalities associated with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, such as John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg) and engineers from Bell Telephone Company, in order to encourage artists to make use of Bell Telephone's battery of experimental electronic audiovisual devices. Tudor's project was a collaboration with the composer and video artist Lowell Cross, the sound artist and engineer Anthony Gnazzo, and a Bell Telephone Laboratories engineer named Fred Waldhauer. At the center of the project was the instrument Tudor had been playing for just over five years and that would continue to be a major focus of his interest throughout the 1960s: the bandoneon, the large concertina invented in mid-nineteenth-century Germany that, after migrating to the Rio de la Plata region of South America, became profoundly embedded in the Argentinean and Uruguayan tango tradition. Tudor had been introduced to the instrument through the composer [End Page 30] Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008), who had dedicated his 1960 composition Pandorasbox, bandoneonpiece to Tudor. Six years later, and despite more than a few technical difficulties, as was not uncommon over the course of nine evenings, the "happening"-style work, entitled Bandoneon! (a combine), was performed.1

The "combine" in the title was a conscious appropriation of the term coined by Robert Rauschenberg for his assemblages of heterogeneous objects, and Tudor's piece was certainly an assemblage in the manner of what would today be called multimedia. The work's genesis harks back to a concert given in Toronto on May 13, 1966, at which Tudor used his bandoneon to perform Lowell Cross's Musica universalis, a work for an unspecified instrument that featured projections of visual images created from the x-y scan lines of a television set. In Tudor's Armory production, performed five months later, the symmetrical aspect of the bandoneon—which essentially consists of two distinct instruments that share a single air supply—suggested a visual isomorphism with the two-dimensional space described by television scan lines designed by Cross. Tudor's magnum opus bandoneorum included other inspired gadgetry, including remote-controlled robot-like carts bearing speakers that wandered about onstage, and a vochrome—a set of harmonium reeds fitted with contact microphones that was used to filter the bandoneon's signal, thereby triggering various other sonic and visual events.2 The use of this vochrome, whose reeds are excited by other reeds, is a typical example of the ways in which Tudor and other experimental composers projected the interior space of the bandoneon onto its environment. Moreover, the remarkable outburst of compositional activity in the U.S. avant-garde that resulted from Tudor's initial association with Mauricio Kagel and his subsequent engagement with the bandoneon reveals the extraordinary sensibilities of a virtuosic musician who was in the process of changing his primary mode of making music. The period in which Tudor engaged with the bandoneon coincided with his transition from being mainly a performer (albeit a co-composer of indeterminate works) to mainly a composer (albeit of performance-based live-electronic works). The stereophonic character of the bandoneon contributed to Tudor's later approach to electronic music, as well as to that of certain musical projects by other U.S. composers such as Gordon Mumma (b. 1935) and Pauline Oliveros (b. 1932). The two independent signals of the bandoneon and its long, continuous sound, with irregular envelopes and prominent combination tones, may well have inspired not only Tudor, but also these other composers, to approach electronic music as processes in which sounds mutually modulate each other. From Bandoneon! (a combine) onward, Tudor's compositional modus operandi paradoxically "obviated the need for any compositional means."3 Consequently, Tudor's engagement...


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