In the spring of 1964 in beautiful San Francisco, Pauline Oliveros decided it was time for her new music organization, the San Francisco Tape Music Center, to put on a festival. She had recently met David Tudor and asked him to choose three programs of music to be performed twice each for a total of six concerts. The festival—curated by Tudor, performed by Tudor, in celebration of Tudor—became (obviously, inevitably) known as the Tudorfest.
In a characteristic move, Tudor chose pieces by his friends and collaborators: John Cage, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Alvin Lucier, George Brecht, and Oliveros herself. It was a hodgepodge of styles, a perfect representation of the sheer range of 1960s experimental music. Ichiyangi’s Music for Piano #4, Electronic Version cuddled up to Cage’s Music for Amplified Toy Piano. Lucier’s Action Music for Piano, Book I provided a nice contrast to Brecht’s Card-Piece for Voice. And if you were particularly in the mood for every variety of Cage, you could hear Atlas Eclipticalis, Winter Music, Concert for Piano and Orchestra, Cartridge Music, and Music Walk all on the same program.
But the piece that everyone seems to talk about—even now, fifty-plus years later—is Pauline Oliveros’s Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato. Here’s the set-up: there’s a giant seesaw on the stage. It goes up and down, as seesaws do, but it also moves side to side and roundabout. Seated on one side, strapped in with a seatbelt, is Pauline Oliveros and her giant accordion. On the other side is David Tudor and his more moderately sized bandoneon. Hanging directly over the center is a cage containing a brown-black mynah bird named Ahmed. There was no hard and fast score to follow, though Tudor and Oliveros had worked through improvisation techniques and styles in rehearsal. Instead, the audience experienced a literal whirl of music and motion, a blur of performers and instruments up high and then down low, a constantly shifting understanding of how sight and sound worked in space and over time.
Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato was only ever performed on those two concerts at Tudorfest, and Tudorfest was only ever put on that one year. (Personally, I want to know what happened to the seesaw. Did it become a sculpture in somebody’s garden? Was it dismantled and repurposed into other Tape Music Center musical props? Is it still languishing in a basement somewhere, waiting for a reprise of the Duo?) This was a much smaller operation than something like the New York Avant Garde Festival—which isn’t to say it didn’t attract the same sorts of interested audiences or the attentions of the press. There were critics at the event, and they did write about the performances they attended for their respective papers. These largely positive Tudorfest reviews were a part of the reason that the San Francisco Tape Music Center became known as a mover and shaker on the experimental music scene; in some ways, this was the festival that started it all.
Tudorfest was more than what you could read in the reviews, though. It was more than its success. It was a scramble, a stretch, a compromise—the usual behind-the-scenes madness. (You all know what I’m talking about.) If the festival was put on well (and it was), the critics almost certainly couldn’t have known what took place beyond the clean façade of onstage performance. But that’s what composer Pauline Oliveros remembers—that’s part of what makes this festival so interesting.
I’ve spent a long time trying to track down what people have already said about Tudorfest. Most of the good stuff—a kind of best-of collection of interviews, retrospective essays, and scholarship—can be found in David Bernstein’s book on the larger group and its doings, The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde (go read it—it’s good), and in the program notes by David Bernstein and John Holzaepfel included with the recently released three-disc set on New World Records, Music from the Tudorfest: San Francisco Tape Music Center 1964 (go listen to it—it’s good). Oliveros is all over these sources; her words are on the record and they give us a different perspective than the reviews.
At the beginning of this article, I wrote that Oliveros had recently met Tudor when she asked him to curate the festival. That’s true, but I didn’t tell you that Oliveros wrote about how she met Tudor at the house of Olive Cowell (aunt of Henry Cowell). I didn’t tell you that Oliveros remembers John Cage, Toshi Ichiyanagi, and Toru Takemitsu all attending the final performances. I didn’t tell you that she invited dancer-choreographer Elizabeth Harris to stage her Duo, or that she asked Tony Martin to provide the lighting, or that Morton Subotnick, Stuart Dempster, and Ramon Sender (among others) all agreed to be part of the performing ensemble. Oliveros remembers these people because they were friends and colleagues, and because this was the support system that she had in place to produce a festival. This was really the only support system she had in place; she had to rely on this art world of musicians and composers—because mainstream grant foundations weren’t always clamoring to expand or develop experimental music.
To put it plainly: the Tudorfest was a stretch on the resources of the San Francisco Tape Music Center generally speaking, and that meant it was a stretch on the resources of its individual producers and organizers. “In those days,” Oliveros told one interviewer, “I taught a string of students: accordion and French horn. I copied music. I played in a variety of situations…. I have no idea how I did it in a way. And yes, I did do it. You know, you look back on it, and it wasn’t easy. I had maybe $250 dollars a month to get by on.”
And yet, she did produce Tudorfest. She scraped by on $250. She called on all of her friends to help out. She got support from like-minded organizations including KPFA, the public radio station that shared building space with the Center and often allowed Oliveros and her colleagues to record improvisations using their equipment. Maybe the end result was everything Oliveros dreamed of; maybe she had grander plans she had to cut back due to space and time and money constraints. In the end, though, it was a success in the same way that her Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato was a success.
But even that piece, as Oliveros writes in a retrospective essay, was a series of compromises. The first time Oliveros and Tudor rehearsed the piece she was writing for Tudorfest, the composer-accordionist met the pianist-bandoneonist with a score in hand:
David and I rehearsed at my home in Hunter’s Point, which I shared with Laurel Johnson and her mynah bird, Ahmed,” Oliveros remembered. “As David and I rehearsed the music, Ahmed got very excited. I tried covering Ahmed’s cage to quiet him. Nothing worked. Ahmed insisted on joining our rehearsal. I realized that the bird was picking up on the sounds we were making. So I thought, ‘Why not include the bird?’ The duo became a trio: Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato (1964).
Trio format established, Oliveros asked Elizabeth Harris to find a way to stage the piece…and Harris came up with the infamous aforementioned seesaw. By this point, it would have been hard for anybody to deny that the music was theater, and the theater was music. Oliveros wanted choreography, ways of manipulating the seesaw as a counterpoint to the sounds of the free reed instruments. First, there was the problem of playing an instrument and moving around at the same time: “I had to employ a safety belt to negotiate the swivel chair because of the imbalance of the motion of my accordion bellows,” Oliveros noted. Second, there was the problem of reading a score while playing an instrument and moving around at the same time: “I swallowed hard and abandoned the written score that I had composed and decided on improvisational instructions.” (The draft score still exists, by the way; it lives in the Pauline Oliveros archive at the University of California, San Diego.) A compromise, a collaboration: the line was always very thin—which worked out just fine, given that the experimentalists did their best to walk a thin line.
We can think of these behind-the-scenes challenges as part of the essential nature of Tudorfest, as part of what made the San Francisco Tape Music Center stronger, as part of what influenced the composers both at the time and maybe in their later years—these were the materials they had available, this was their experience, this was what they learned. As for me, I like to imagine that moment when Ahmed the mynah bird first squawked in rehearsal. I can imagine being frustrated, feeling like nothing was going as planned. Then: a moment of appreciation that sometimes the world just works this way, a dim thought, space to let it grow, and finally: What if…? What if the mynah bird became part of the piece? What if we brought him onstage? What will the people say? It’s only fitting to give Pauline Oliveros the last word: “I remember this period as a lot of fun.”
1. David Bernstein (ed), The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde. University of California Press, 2008, p105.
2. Ibid, p.86.
3. Ibid, p.87.
4. Ibid, p.86.
5. John Holzaepfel, Program Notes for Music from the Tudorfest: San Francisco Tape Music Center 1964, New World Records, 2014, p22.