Obituary: David Tudor

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The Independent Online
It will be hard for anyone who is used to watching the Merce Cunningham Dance Company to imagine it without the musician David Tudor. Though he had a career before and apart from the formation of the Cunningham company, he was not only, in 1953, one of the founding fathers of this, one of the most absorbingly radical artistic endeavours of the century, he was one of its leading practitioners right up to 1994. Ill-health obliged him to retire late in that year.

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1926, he began his career as an organist. Before long, however, he became a pianist, and became known as one of America's foremost performers of the contemporary repertory. He gave the first performances of works by Karlheinz Stockhausen, who dedicated a piece to him, and many others; and he gave the American premieres of Pierre Boulez's second piano sonata in 1950. In particular, he developed a close association with John Cage, who said that all his works before 1970 were written either directly for Tudor or with him in mind.

During the 10 years that followed the Second World War, there was no more important crucible for radical artistic experiment in the United States than the summer schools at Black Mountain College, in North Carolina. Josef Albers, Buckminster Fuller, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and Remy Charlip were among the artists that went there during those years (though not all of them went every year). It was there that the aesthetics and procedures of Cunningham/ Cage dance theatre were formed in the early 1950s, in which live dance and live music co-exist without one making any specific response to the other; and Tudor was present.

In his 1961 book Silence, Cage tells this story:

One day down at Black Mountain College, David Tudor was eating his lunch. A student came over to his table and began asking him questions.

David Tudor went on eating his

lunch. The student went on asking him questions. Finally David Tudor looked at him and said, "If you don't know, why do you ask?"

In 1952, while working there as an instructor, Tudor took part in a famous theatre piece by John Cage, untitled and unstructured, with such other performers as Cunningham, Rauschenberg, and the poets Mary Caroline Richards and Charles Olson; and, in 1953, while Cunningham was still sometimes responding to the structure of a piece of music, Tudor served as his accompanist during the creation of Untitled Solo that year, made to a piece of piano music by Christian Wolff so complex that Tudor once remarked: "Well, this is clearly impossible, but we're going right ahead and do it anyway."

In the same year, he made a selection of the 19th-century salon music he loved to be the accompaniment for Dime a Dance, an extraordinary Cunningham work in which the order of the evening's dance material was determined by the drawing of cards from a pack by members of the audience.

In the 1960s, when taped music started to become a regular accompaniment to other live dance, Tudor and Cage insisted on keeping music "live". Increasingly they used electronic music, and musical material they used might include taped material, but the live role of the musician was crucial. The music for a Cunningham performance might change more from one performance to the next than the dancing. And, in the late 1960s, Tudor ended his career as a pianist, and, using electronic keyboards that he himself kept developing, became a regular composer for Cunningham.

He started on a high with the music for RainForest, a work memorable for the loose silver helium pillows that Andy Warhol placed around the dancers; and he was the composer for many of Cunningham's most important and striking dance creations. The rapidly percussive electronic fire of his music for the 1975 Sounddance, and the loud churning aural mechanics with which he accompanied the 1978 Exchange contributed memorably to the experience of those works. He worked with other artists too; such as the painter Rauschenberg, the choreographer Viola Farber, the film-maker Molly Davies.

In the deep grindings he produced for Cunningham's 1982 Quartet, he was an abstract expressionist of sound, setting a painful, even tragic, aura about an extraordinary dance drama that Cunningham himself left highly ambivalent in tone.

When Cage died in 1992, Tudor remained one of the embodiments of his artistic philosophy. In 1994, Tudor contributed the electronic component - Soundings: Ocean Diary - to the music (which also included 112 orchestral players) for Ocean, the last project Cage and Cunningham had begun to conceive. Ocean had its premiere in Brussels, the highlight of that city's first Kunsten Festival des Arts. This July, it had its American premiere in New York, at the Lincoln Center Festival.

Like Cage, Tudor never lost his nerve. The premiere performances of Cunningham's Enter took place at the Paris Opera, two months after Cage's death, and the often loud score that Tudor composed included sounds like whole collectives of duck, geese and other birds, a sometimes absurd contrast to the beautifully human goings-on on-stage. As Cunningham and his dancers alternated with the musicians in taking their bows, the Opera audience pointedly cheered the former and booed the latter. Equally pointedly, Cun- ningham gestured in congratulation to Tudor and the other musicians. And Tudor's music grew more markedly uncomfortable and absurdist at each performance.

David Tudor, pianist and composer: born Philadelphia 20 January 1926; died 13 August 1996.