Stockhausen takes the High Road, Tudor takes the Low Road.

Friday 30 May 2008

Greg.org has been raving about satelloons for the past six months or so. As part of his search for these retro-futuristic structures – giant inflatables, geodesic domes – he has recently discovered the Pepsi Pavilion at the 1970 Osaka World Fair:
An origami rendition of a geodesic dome; obscured in a giant mist cloud produced by an all-encompassing capillary net; surrounded by Robert Breer’s motorized, minimalist pod sculptures; entered through an audio-responsive, 4-color laser show–yes, using actual, frickin’ lasers– and culminating in a 90-foot mirrored mylar dome, which hosted concerts, happenings, and some 2 million slightly disoriented Japanese visitors…

The dome was fitted with an elaborate sound system, incorporating 37 speakers distributed around the space, controlled by an elaborate mixing system designed by Billy Kluver for E.A.T. – Experiments in Art and Technology. One of the composers who worked with E.A.T. was David Tudor, who composed several electronic pieces specially for the dome’s capabilities.
The Tudor composition that has particularly captured my imagination is Microphone, an elegant exploitation of electronic phenomena developed while working in the Pavilion:
One of them dealt with shotgun microphones which are highly directional, using them in conjunction with the modifying equipment in the sound system without any sound input. That is, nothing went into the microphones except the natural feedback…. by simply pointing the microphones in space and then having the sound moving between the loudspeakers at certain speeds, the feedback would occur only for an instance. There were marvelous sounds made that reminded me of being on a lonely beach, listening to birds flying around in the air.

Sadly, the Pepsi Pavilion did not last long. The soft drink company had sponsored the project on the assumption that they would be associated with hip, psychedelic rock concerts, not avant-garde art. When costs went way over budget, Pepsi pulled the plug and attempts to save the Pavilion failed. That, and the structure was already beginning to sag and leak. The Pavilion was demolished, and the chance to hear Microphone, or any of the other pieces created for the space, was lost.
What I find particularly admirable about Microphone is that Tudor decided to see if it was possible to recreate the piece in a studio, using only a pair of conventional speakers.
Mills College gave me the opportunity to work with multi-track recording and they had two echo chambers that were very far away from the studio. So I thought, ‘OK, lets see if I can reproduce Microphone without the original space,’ so I used both echo chambers and the same modifying equipment and lo and behold it worked.


Tudor worked in a way that depended upon the natural principles of electronics and acoustics, not upon the particular qualities of a given piece of equipment. He used a similar method to recompose another Pavilion piece (Pepscillator) into a piece that didn’t rely upon a unique PA system (Pulsers).
It’s interesting to compare Tudor’s approach to that of Stockhausen, who also happened to be performing in another dome at the Osaka fair. Many of Stockhausen’s works cannot be realised without elaborate staging and equipment: Helicopter String Quartet is the most notorious example (not to mention the seven-day opera of which it forms a small part). Stockhausen demands these extreme commitments of time and expense to realise a unique vision. It is up to others to find new ways to make their own interpretations of his ideas – such as the concert-hall reimagining of the String Quartet in Michigan earlier this year.
Tudor, on the other hand, did his own reimaginings, giving his attention as much to the how and why as to the sounds themselves, allowing his music to be heard with equal force, regardless of the circumstances of its production.