Tragoedia In and Out of Style: Andrew Rudin at 80

by Michael Schell

In the fledgling years of electronic music—the 1950s and 60s—European composers benefitted from the massive support offered by government-owned broadcast studios. Varèse, Stockhausen and Berio created their midcentury masterworks at radio stations equipped with multiple tape recorders and vintage oscillators and filters. American pioneers like John Cage and Pauline Oliveros had to scrape by with homemade instruments and the more modest furnishings of university studios and artist collectives. And their recordings were often drowned out in LP catalogs by their state-sponsored European counterparts.

It was in this environment that Nonesuch Records stepped up, offering the label as a platform for electroacoustic compositions by Cage, Dodge, Wuorinen and Gaburo, as well as Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon (1967), the first tape piece ever commissioned by a record company. Another work commissioned by Nonesuch was an album-length epic called Tragoedia, released in 1969 and created by Andrew Rudin, a Texan who taught for several decades at University of the Arts in Philadelphia and who today is celebrating his 80th birthday.

Switched-On Mahler

Tragoedia was made with an early Moog synthesizer of the sort popularized by Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach. It had a grittier sound then the Buchla synthesizers heard in Subotnick’s music, and its controls made it more suitable for complex, gradually-changing sonorities than the beat-driven patterns facilitated by the Buchla’s sequencer-centric design. Tragoedia‘s sound palette is purely electronic—there are no concrète (prerecorded) sound sources in the piece.

1960s and 21st century Rudin

Rudin (who pronounces his name roo-DEEN) conceived Tragoedia as an exploration of Greek tragedy. But with its traditional four-movement structure, I hear it as more of a synthesized symphony, a modern microtonal organism built from rhythm and timbre but supported by a traditional skeleton.

Viewed this way, the first movement, Kouros, stands in for a sonata-allegro. It begins with a three-chime “alarm clock” that launches a long sinuous paragraph filled with sliding sawtooth waves that culminate abruptly at 1:29 with four “bass drum” stokes. This passage is repeated with some variations, whereupon at 3:29 we hear a new idea, comparable to a sonata form’s second theme, based on short notes that sound like dripping water. At 4:16 an oscillator plays the first real melody of the piece before it too is cut off by bass drum strokes:

The foregoing ideas are now combined and recombined in the manner of a classic development section. The alarm clock gets its solo moment starting at 7:00, and at 8:10 the quoted melody returns a half-step higher. The bass drum tries repeatedly to shut it down, finally succeeding after one last loud stroke.

The second movement, Hybris (“hubris” in modern English), functions as a scherzo. In place of the opening movement’s long contrapuntal lines, Hybris is mainly a succession of brief motives spliced together in a kind of monophony. Headphones will help you hear the fancy stereo effects (e.g. at 1:25). The coda is remarkable: a rising accelerando (created by tape playback with increasing speed) that ends with a dramatic tocsin.

Peitho features fast flurries of randomly-generated tones in counterpoint with slowly shifting sustained sounds. It’s a kind of intermezzo setting up the long final movement, Até, which resembles one of those resigned adagios that often come at the end of Mahler symphonies. A high gated sound that resembles an impulse sprinkler recurs throughout Até as a refrain, usually panning from one ear to the other. The melody from Kouros returns, along with other ideas from the previous movements. The coda features an extended two-voice canon that eventually subsides, leaving the last fleeting words to the impulse sprinkler.

Though Tragoedia’s neoclassicism is not as groundbreaking as the montage structure of Varèse’s Poème électronique or the process-driven form of a minimalist landmark like Come Out, its sound world—still fresh and novel in 1969—impressed Federico Fellini enough to incorporate excerpts from it (without the composer’s permission) in the soundtrack to his Satyricon.

In and out of style

To each era belongs its instruments…and hairstyles (Rudin and a Moog synthesizer in 1972)

As the 1980s ushered in the age of CDs, major disruptions came to the recording industry. Nonesuch was brought under tighter control by its corporate masters at Warner, and the venerable electronic music titles started to drop out of its catalog. Simultaneously, modular synthesizers gave way to digital instruments, and as Gen Xers fawned over the new MIDI synths with their unprecedented portability and programmability, they gradually lost interest in the monuments and artifacts of the old ways.

But things can change over the course of a generation. The emergence of streaming and downloadable media in the 21st century made it easy to reclaim old recordings for digital distribution. And millennials grew tired of the canned timbres produced by their parents’ Korgs and Yamahas. Eager to reintroduce some irregularity into their sound world, they returned to analog technology, now much improved over its first generation, and this in turn rekindled interest in early synthesizer music. Now Tragoedia and its breathren are back, readily accessible online through Spotify, Amazon and YouTube. So grab your headphones, dim your room lights, and (re)connect with this nugget from the golden era of electronic music.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts Rachele, Geoffrey, and Seth each share a favorite selection from their Friday playlist! Tune in at the indicated times below to hear these pieces. In the meantime, you’ll hear other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre 24/7!

John Adams: Road Movies (on Nonesuch Records)

“It’s a unique experience to listen to music that is relentlessly interesting and also somewhat mundane at the same time, and we get a touch of this in John Adams’ Road Movies, a work for violin and piano. To call Adams a minimalist composer is a bit lazy in my opinion; much of his music, this piece included, is constructed with the scaffolding of minimalist textures, but has much more complexity to offer. One of the composer’s few works of chamber music, Road Movies rJohn Adams Road Moviesejects the big chordal textures of his orchestral pieces and instead focuses on creating a convivial relationship between violin and piano through music that seems to be accompanying us on a cross-country road trip. We even get a bit of scordatura and jazzy swing along the journey. It’s a piece as ordinary as a drive down a long straight stretch of asphalt, and as captivating as the landmarks we find along the way.”

– Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion around 12:10 p.m. today to hear this recording.


Andrew Skeet: “The Unforgiving Minute” from Finding Time (on Sony Classical)
Andrew Skeet Finding Time
“Sometimes musicians write music to make the heart pound, but here Andrew Skeet has delivered a thoughtful, absorbing piece heavy on the strings and layered with delicate electronica. There is a stillness and fragility in this song that, in a world of flashing neon signs, feels like discovering one quietly burning candle.”
Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion around 11 a.m. today to hear this recording.


Philip Glass: String Quartet No. 3 from Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,
Performed by the Modern Mandolin Quartet on Americana 
(On Sono Luminus)


“Glass-haters need not read any further. I am not one, however, so I find myself captivated by the Modern Mandolin Quartet’s rendition of his String Quartet No.3. This “quartet” is really four selections taken from Glass’s soundtrack to the 1985 Paul Schrader film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Not having seen that film, or even having been aware of its existence before I encountered this quartet, I was free to hear the piece with clear ears.

I generally like Glass’s music, but the twist here (the quartet being performed on mandolins instead of the traditional bowed string instruments) gives this recording a special quality. Glass’s music performed on string quartet instruments is a sound with which many people are very familiar, but the mandolin quartet does not suffer from that handicap. Instead of the stuffy, all-black-clad (but still quite enjoyable) “indoor” feel of Glass’s music for bowed strings, the timbre of the mandolins imbues a more adventurous, airy, denim-wearing, “outdoor” sound to this music.

Modern Mandolin QuartetThis change in instrumentation and its accompanying departure from a “classic Glass” sound might also allow listeners to forget this music is very much a product of the late 20th century; the “antique” sound of the mandolin might help people to hear this music without 20th century preconceptions, as they would the music of a composer from centuries ago.”
Seth Tompkins

 

Tune in to Second Inversion around 6:25 p.m. today to hear this recording.