Remembering David Tudor: A 75th Anniversary Memoir

Iowa City, 1971–1975

After interviews in February 1971 at The University of Iowa with Professor William Hibbard (1939–1989) and other officials, I was offered a dual position: head of my own VIDEO/LASER project, sponsored by the Center for New Performing Arts (CNPA, administered by Hibbard), and director of the Recording Studios in new facilities for the School of Music still under construction. During the 1971–1972 academic year, I had no teaching duties, so that I could devote one–half of my “full” time to the development of each of these two operations. My academic assignments to teach recording and art/technology in the School of Music began in the fall semester of 1972, and they continue to the present, twenty–nine years later.

On 21 September 1971, I sent to E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. my biographical article on David Tudor, which I had written at his request. This was to be his entry in the forthcoming Dictionary of Contemporary Music, John Vinton, editor. One can find on p. 769 of the Dictionary the following: “Tudor possesses one of the world’s largest collections of custom modular electronic devices, many of his own manufacture. His choices of specific electronic components, transducers, and their interconnections define both composition and performance in his works. His sound materials unfold through large gestures in time and space, and [...] his compositions are associated with visual forces: light systems, dance, television, theatre, film, or laser projections” (© 1974, 1972, 1971, by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.). David Tudor liked my entry, and apparently others have too, especially the quote above. These words, either verbatim or slightly modified, may be found in conspicuous places without attribution to the original author: Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians (David Tudor entry) and three web pages:

I did not collaborate again with David Tudor until February 1973, by which time Carson D. Jeffries and I had completed VIDEO/LASER III (owned by the University and funded by the CNPA’s grant from the Rockefeller Foundation). Carson D. Jeffries came from Berkeley for the public premi¸re of VIDEO/LASER III, a performance of my Electro–Acustica A for orchestra, soloists, electronics, and laser projections. We presented the work, conducted by William Hibbard, in the University’s new Hancher Auditorium on 29 November 1972. VIDEO/LASER III was a vast improvement over VIDEO/LASER II, the Expo ’70 system. Beam–scanning technology had become more advanced in the interim, and the University had purchased for my project a new Coherent Radiation Laboratories Model 52G argon–krypton laser with higher power and a greater choice of vivid colors than the Expo laser.

The composer Edward Miller at Oberlin College heard about these developments and invited Hibbard, his UI Center for New Music (CNM) ensemble, the laser system, and me to perform there on Friday, 16 February 1973. My own piece for the evening was Electro–Acustica B for instruments, electronics, and laser projections. I was able to persuade Ed Miller to invite David Tudor to collaborate with me in laser activities for the first time since Expo ’70. David Tudor and I offered a “post–concert event,” Free Spectral Range, the first in a series of four performance works with that title.

Fig. 16

Fig. 16, electronic control setup for VIDEO/LASER III inside the UI Museum of Art.

William Hibbard, the composer Peter Tod Lewis (1932–1982), our other colleagues and students affiliated with the CNPA and CNM, and I had a great time with David Tudor at Oberlin College. Hibbard agreed to a CNPA–sponsored laser event at The University of Iowa to take place in the spring. This was Free Spectral Range II, presented on three evenings, Tuesday through Thursday, 12–14 June 1973 on the open–air terrace in front of the Museum of Art. We hung a large screen on the side of an adjacent building and projected from inside the Museum, through a ceiling–high plate–glass window (see Fig. 16, electronic control setup for VIDEO/LASER III inside the UI Museum of Art).

Four large loudspeaker systems surrounded the attendees, and our scanning laser beams went over their heads to the screen on the other side of the terrace. Carson D. Jeffries came from Berkeley, joining David Tudor and me – and an enthusiastic group of faculty, staff, and student collaborators. There was a full moon, and I sent laser beams in its direction and to the dome of the University’s “Old Capitol” across the Iowa River. Carson D. Jeffries observed that I might have been successful in reflecting “a few photons” of laser radiation back to Earth from the corner reflectors left behind on the moon’s surface by the astronauts.

During his June 1973 visit David Tudor stayed in the basement of our “new” 1956–era house in Iowa City. He had brought with him about five of his heavy footlocker–style cases containing his electronic gadgetry and cables, plus another bag or two for his clothing, toiletries, potables, and special mixtures from exotic regions around the world. When he first stayed with me in my Toronto bachelor pad, I noticed him making and imbibing his so–called “medicinal” preparations. These were elixirs that he concocted from rum, which he carefully filtered through secret, and mysterious, herbaceous ingredients into one or more well used, darkly stained plastic flasks. I started calling the contents of those flasks “Medicine Man,” and the name stuck. David Tudor was still preparing and consuming “Medicine Man” in Iowa City in 1973 – and for the rest of the time that I knew him. He sipped those preparations during the day and at night, but he drank tequila neat, on the rocks, or in margaritas before dinner, and requested wine with dinner. He did not like beer, gin, or any of the whiskies.

When the time came for David Tudor to leave, I was dreading the prospect of helping him to carry his heavy footlocker–style cases and other baggage up the basement stairs so that I could take him and his belongings to the Cedar Rapids Airport, a half–hour drive from Iowa City. However, he announced that he was departing not from Cedar Rapids, but from the Des Moines Airport, 120 miles / 200 km to the west. David Tudor was not by disposition an early riser, and when Nora and I heard his travel plans, he was running precipitously late to catch a flight out of Des Moines. We hastily loaded the car and took Karen with us. We arrived in time for his flight, fortunately, and I began the chore of unloading his cases as David Tudor engaged a skycap. The man was taken aback by what he saw, and he was even more taken aback when he began to lift the first case onto his cart. We left David Tudor with that bewildered man and took a leisurely drive back to Iowa City. I did not work professionally with David Tudor again for almost three years, but he did come to visit us.

On 20 February 1974, David Tudor wrote to us from The Retreat, Shahibag, Ahmedabad, India, where he had been visiting his old friend and the matriarch of her family, Smt. Manorama Sarabhai. He wrote, “[...] on a visit to Madras I fell & fractured my left wrist, which has me in a cast [...] hope to see you soon [...] . Did you sweep the comet’s [Kohoutek’s] tail with your laser?” He came to Iowa City the following mid–October for a visit; there were no professional engagements at that time. Upon his arrival, he said, “I’m going to do something that may surprise you. I’m going to smoke.” We didn’t like the idea, especially with Karen just approaching her fourth birthday, but he lit up anyhow and smoked about two packs a day during his five–day visit. He confessed that he started smoking again after a long abstinence “out of boredom” after he fractured his wrist. Insofar as I know, he smoked to the end of his life; he also continued to drink “Medicine Man” and tequila. I was beginning to worry about his lifestyle and the effects that it may be having on his health.

He brought us gifts from India as well as some strange items for his own use. One was a hemp–seed oil soap that contained not only the oil from the seeds, but whole hemp seeds themselves. Nora called it "bird–seed soap." We found seeds in our basement bathroom for some time after he left. He also brought with him a type of hair dressing sold in India that had solidified during his flight from New York to Iowa City. To melt it back to a usable consistency, he placed it on top of the shade of one of the lamps in our basement – and left the lamp turned on for a long period of time. The odiferous qualities of that hair dressing soon permeated the entire house, mingling with the smells of stale cigarette smoke. We made the visit as pleasant for him as possible, but we did air the place out after he left.

On one evening during his stay, David Tudor wanted to see the laser system in operation again. When we finished he asked about pipe organs in our new complex of buildings, so I took him to Clapp Recital Hall, with its new 3–manual, 74–rank Casavant tracker–action organ. The hall was empty, and David Tudor decided to play. On this, the only occasion that I heard him play an organ, I could hear the high level of his virtuosity despite his healing wrist and lack of practice in recent years. He performed the fast section of a Purcell organ Voluntary.

There were two very memorable events for us in 1975, during which time we had little contact with David Tudor. Gregory James Cross was born on 25 March 1975! Six months later, on 24 September 1975, I presented my multi–color laser realization of the “Luce” part in Scriabin’s Prometheus, The Poem of Fire in the University’s Hancher Auditorium before two audiences totaling 4,200. James Dixon conducted the University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra and Kantorei; James Avery was the piano soloist. The 1970s Iowa audiences, more than ready for such an event (which included the burning of Russian incense and a cloud infused with No. 4711 Eau de Cologne that came down from the ceiling), were ecstatic.