Meeting Moog: The Early Electronic Music of Andrew Rudin, February 21, 2014
at The Rotunda, presented by Bowerbird
By Asimina Chremos
Listening to and watching Andrew Rudin’s 1966 composition Il Giuoco (a piece of electronic music with accompanying film animation) was an experience of unexpected freshness. Although the work is close to fifty years old, it retains the crisp imprint of an artist foraying into fresh territory.
While studying Western orchestral music composition at the University of Pennsylvania, Rudin found himself experimenting with a brand new tool, the Moog synthesizer. Instead of composing on a piano, imagining a range of instrumentation, writing scores on paper, and then staging a performance with musicians, Robert Moog’s geeky new invention enabled Rudin and other composers to experiment with voltages, electronic signals, knobs, and wires to output a palette of new sounds, arrange them in time, record them on tape, and voila!—a new composition is born complete. No musicians needed. Just sound composition directly from the composer, through the machine, to our ears.
Synthesized and electronic music is commonplace now, but the beauty of Bowerbird’s presentation of Rudin’s early compositions for the Moog is that it took us back to the moment when this was a new kind of magic. Of course prerecorded music, radios, LPs, tapes, etc had been around for a long time, and musique concrete had been lurking around the avant-garde since the 20’s, but the idea that a recording could be the music itself—not just the documentation of that music—was still under development.
The sounds in Il Giocco often occur as individual events that begin and end in silence, like singular objects. Sometimes the sounds overlap. Sounds, harsh and clear, some startling, are individuals. One understands that when faced with a new instrument, it is enough just to play one note, listen, wonder, and then try another. A higher level of elaboration and complexity has simply not yet arisen. There is a childlike, Zen-mind/beginners-mind quality about the whole thing.
This kind of sinless naiveté is further reflected in the accompanying film. Rudin had no training in film or animation whatsoever, yet he bravely ventured into a new (to him) medium and created a colorful visual accompaniment for his soundplay. Rough-hewn, sometimes transparent, simple rectangles and circles of various sizes and shades move on the filmscreen, creating counterpoint and additional rhythm to the composition. It works beautifully.
Rudin made remarks before and after the presentation, as well as participating in a post-show Q & A. As a dance artist, I was delighted to learn that dance has been a close companion to electronic music, at least to the Moog, since the beginning. It was through the multidisciplinary artist and choreographer Alwin Nikolai that Rudin learned of the Moog’s existence. Nikolai was an early adopter, purchasing a prototype from Moog after its first presentation at an audio engineering convention. Also notable is that a dancer from Nikolai’s company makes appearances in the film component of Il Giocco; a human form in white tights and leotard interacting with the colorful geometric ghosts that overlap his image.
Which leads to a point of wonder and interest that as a dancer I am wont to note: heretofore, most music was performed by live human beings who would take the stage and make obvious by their gestures that sound was about to emerge from their instruments. Rudin said he created the film because he was concerned that the audience would not otherwise know when the piece was about to begin, and that there was nothing to see making the sound.
I would like to suggest that Rudin’s courageous leap into a foreign discipline, that of film, was motivated by a deeper, more haunting 20th-century anxiety that continues to eat at many of us: as technology develops, the space between our physical bodies and our powers of creation and destruction becomes less sensually real. We lose bodily intimacy with the fruit of our doing, we become alienated from our own actions. When Rudin was composing with the Moog, human society was a mere 20 years into living with the stunning fact that a small movement of a single person’s hand could cause the deaths of millions of people.
Rudin’s composition, however, does not address this anxiety straightforwardly. He may have been on the East Coast now for years, but his Texas-style bonhomie comes through loud and clear. He’s a delightful raconteur, discussing his student days at Penn and the daunting experience of studying with visiting professor Karlheinz Stockhausen. He mentioned that these days, his aspiration is to be like Brahms, a composer known more for a combination of romance and perfectionism than iconoclasm. In Il Giocco as well, Rudin reveals a character more playful than philosophical.
In the open-hearted spirit of the 1960’s, he seems to have joyfully sidestepped the questions of human autonomy and good and evil that could be brought forth by meditation on the new medium of electronic art. When considering the public presentation of Il Giocco, Rudin made the choice to find a facsimile of embodiment to go with his strange new sounds. To keep the audience’s potential confusion and discomfort at bay, he needed something that could be seen, something that appeared to move in space and was related to his music. He needed to temper the alienation of technologically-mediated music, sound coming from no-body, and frame it in the realm of creativity and play.
The idea of theatrically staging the button-push that would start the music did not either occur or appeal to Rudin. Maybe the idea of a man or woman taking the stage to perform the flipping of a switch was almost too funny, too sad, too strange. And what would the audience look at? A tape moving from one reel to another? This perhaps felt too alienating, ridiculous. Yet this kind of incongruity between action and result is a very real part of our technologically-saturated world. Given the novelty of the Moog and Rudin’s joyful temperament, Rudin made very logical and creative choices about how to present his work in performance, and the result was delightful. However, I could not but wonder about the dark nature of the necessity that was the mother of his bright and colorful invention.
Asimina Chremos currently lives in Philadelphia and works with improvisational processes to create freeform works of dance and crochet. She is a former dance editor and writer for Time Out Chicago magazine.