Remembering David Tudor: A 75th Anniversary Memoir

Encounters in Texas, 1963–1964

I first heard, and saw, David Tudor in action on Monday, 11 November 1963 at a 4:00 p.m. concert in the Recital Hall of the University of Texas, Austin, but I did not meet him at that time. We can place that event in historical and geographical perspective by remembering that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas eleven days later. John Cage and David Tudor performed Toshi Ichiyanagi’s Music for Piano No. 4, George Brecht’s Incidental Music, and John Cage’s Variations II and III. I did meet John Cage after the concert, and I asked him to autograph my copy of Silence. He obliged by inscribing it

(after 400 miles) gratitude
John Cage

and handed it back to me with a big smile on his face. I was in my last year as a music major at Texas Technological College in Lubbock (now Texas Tech University) and had driven the 400 miles to Austin to attend the concert. I had installed my own modest electronic music studio on the Texas Tech campus in 1961, and by 1963 I had become quite interested in the activities of the musical avant–garde.

The Austin concert made a lasting impression on me—I had never experienced anything like it. There were unusual sounds (and unusual ways of producing them); there was an air of great seriousness on the part of the two men in their dark suits and ties; there were outbursts, titters, laughter, self–conscious observations of others, and hasty departures by various members of the audience; and finally, there was John Cage’s ingratiating, ingenuous manner of disarming hostile questioners at the end of the concert, with his infectious sense of humor and his readiness to respond directly to any inquiry without obfuscation. Throughout the question–and–answer period David Tudor was quiet, smiling to himself occasionally as he packed up the contact microphones and other paraphernalia while listening to John Cage’s remarks. I thought to myself that if one really wanted to know what was going on during that concert, one should talk to David Tudor.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1, Texas Tech concert program.

Merce Cunningham and Dance Company, with John Cage and David Tudor collaborating, performed on the University of Texas campus the next day, 12 November. I was unable to remain in Austin any longer and left for Lubbock immediately after meeting John Cage. During the nighttime drive back to the plains of West Texas, I decided that concertgoers in the Texas Tech and Lubbock musical community needed to be shaken up by a Cage–Tudor concert. I described the event to my friend and art–history mentor at Texas Tech, Professor Elizabeth S. Sasser. Dr. Sasser received a diploma from the Columbus [Ohio] Art School and a B.F.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in the history of art and architecture from Ohio State University. She taught in the College of Architecture at Texas Tech from 1949 to 1990 (she is now Professor Emerita) and is the author of three books and numerous articles. Betsy Sasser remains to this day one of the most intellectually curious, open–minded, and artistically adventuresome members of the academic profession that I have ever met, and she was absolutely convinced that we did need to have a Cage–Tudor concert on the Texas Tech campus. She was able to prevail upon Professor Gene Hemmle, head of the music department, to obtain the funding. Gene Hemmle, who died in Lubbock on 10 August 1992 (two days before John Cage’s death in New York on 12 August 1992), was almost as intellectually curious, open–minded, and artistically adventuresome as Betsy Sasser, but he did become a bit angry with me about the Texas Tech appearance of John Cage and David Tudor and my involvement in it. That event began in the Coronado Room of the Student Union Building at 8:15 p.m. on Monday, 4 May 1964 and consisted of Ichiyanagi’s Music for Piano No. 4 (Electronic Version) and John Cage’s Variations II and III—no George Brecht this time (see Fig. 1, Texas Tech concert program).

Fig. 2

Fig. 2, John Cage at the Sassers’ lake house.

And so it came to pass that I met David Tudor on Sunday afternoon, 3 May 1964, when I picked him up at the Lubbock Airport. John Cage had already arrived, and the Sassers and I spent a pleasant Sunday morning with him at Tom and Betsy’s lake house at Buffalo Springs Lake near Lubbock (see Fig. 2, John Cage at the Sassers’ lake house).

Fig. 3

Fig. 3, Cage’s incomplete notes for the Lubbock performance.

The Lubbock “reception” of the performances of the Ichiyanagi and Cage pieces was even more uproarious than that in Austin. For Variations II and III, John Cage had contact microphones attached to practically everything that he planned to use, including an old mechanical typewriter upon which he typed, and with which he made great use of the right–margin bell and the return lever. He taped a contact microphone to his throat and drank water, staring at the audience in the most deadpan manner imaginable as the highly amplified sounds of his water–swallowing cascaded over the loudspeakers. Knowing what was coming from having witnessed the Austin performance, I could scarcely contain myself (I was supposed to have been “assisting” by operating the sound system) as he progressed to the next “Variations.” He clipped a contact microphone to his cigarette holder and smoked. I understood the underlying reason for the cigarette holder, because John Cage had already told the Sassers and me that his doctor had told him “to get as far away from cigarettes as he could.” In any event, the amplified sounds of his smoking via the cigarette holder were but mere wisps of audio–frequency information in comparison to the water–swallowing. Next, he attached a contact microphone to his eyeglasses, put them on, and read (see Fig. 3, Cage’s incomplete notes for the Lubbock performance).

I wondered then, as in Austin, if this was the activity of a man who, like Flaubert, held the bourgeoisie in great disdain—or if it could have been the result of his study of Zen Buddhism with Dr. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki—or both—or neither. Whatever it was, it was too much for most of the members of the Lubbock audience. They howled, they hooted, they hollered, and they pitched pennies, and if some pennies landed on the table among his performance materials, John Cage carefully moved them aside with a benign, ascetic expression on his face. The trumpet teacher, who was obviously outraged, marched out, went to his studio in the music building nearby, returned with his instrument, and performed an impassioned, raucous rendition of the tune “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.”

After the performance, John Cage told me that the reaction to his and David Tudor’s performances in Texas gave credence to his theory that audiences in southern latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere were much more demonstrative at his concerts than audiences in northern latitudes. For example, Italian audiences were always highly demonstrative, while those in Norway or Sweden would sit through entire concerts of his music with almost no reaction whatsoever.

But this is supposed to be a memoir about David Tudor. What did David Tudor do; what did he have to say while in Lubbock? He performed dutifully, took an interest in my electronic studio, smiled his Cheshire–cat smile during John Cage’s question–and–answer period, and was an appreciative guest at the Sassers’ house after the concert. He was exceedingly polite and a bit reticent at the party, until I asked him if he might be interested in a bit of local musical “folklore.” He answered in the affirmative, so I played part of a recording that I had made on 19 March 1962, “Clyde E. Rhodes in Graduation Recital.” Clyde E. Rhodes, Sr. (1893?–1963?), “the father of eleven children and grandfather of eighteen,” was a retired cotton farmer who lived near Abernathy, Texas, and who “in January 1954, at the age of 60 [...] entered Texas Tech to study piano and organ,” according to the liner notes for Austin Custom Records LLM–33–63124. Mr. Rhodes, a devout member of the Church of the Nazarene, returned to the study of music after four decades of farming and died within a year after performing his fateful “Graduation Recital” in March 1962. I played for David Tudor, John Cage, and the Sassers’ other guests side 2 of the record, which contained the concluding items from Mr. Rhodes’ recital: his speech, “The Inspiration of Music” (delivered from memory) and his own version of “Part 2 – Friska” from Liszt’s Rhapsodie Hongroise, No. 2. These two performances reduced David Tudor to unrestrained paroxysms of laughter. He wanted a copy of the record, and of course I provided him with one. Later, I asked him what he did with it. He said in his offhand way, “Oh, I use it for modulation” (i.e., electronic modulation of other sounds during concerts). Eventually he gave it back to me. He said, “Here, you keep it. You recorded it; you should have it.” But years later, after Nora and I were married, he would still ask me to play it. He laughed as much as ever, especially at our parties in his honor, when he could gauge the reaction of other guests who had never heard the recording before. Clyde E. Rhodes’ speech contained such profundities as “Music holds the family together. It warms the heart; it kindles an enduring love for home and the inmates.” His “musicianship” was simply indescribable. John Cage, only mildly amused, said of the recording, “It’s very warm.”

Gene Hemmle soon forgave me for my connection to John Cage, David Tudor, and their Texas Tech concert. He helped me to obtain a fellowship so that I could attend graduate school at the University of Toronto and work in the well–equipped Electronic Music Studio there. I moved to Toronto, with all of my electronic gear, in the late summer of 1964.