You are here

This rainforest trills, burbles and booms

David Tudor's sound installation Rainforest V (variation 1), inside the Studio of the newly reopened MoMA in New York. Mundane objects, hanging in the room, collectively become a kind of urban jungle, suspended like Calder mobiles with the anti-utilitarian aesthetic of Duchamp readymades.

New York 

SINCE the Museum of Modern Art reopened this month, it has devoted its fourth-floor Studio space to a strangely wonderful, interactive installation: David Tudor's Rainforest V (variation 1).

Throughout the room hang about 20 mundane objects, including a metal barrel, a wooden box, a lampshade, a reflective disc, a glass jar, a vintage computer's hard drive and more.

Collectively they become a kind of urban jungle, suspended like Calder mobiles with the anti-utilitarian aesthetic of Duchamp readymades.

Then, as you wander around them, you realise: This jungle emits noises, and they alter according to your proximity. You may also notice that every object is fitted with a sound transducer, giving each its own resonance.

The box, the can, the jar - they're all acoustic sources, as if they were seashells. A window in the gallery overlooks 55th Street, but the constantly changing polyphony of Rainforest transports you quite elsewhere.

Tudor's first music for Cunningham's repertory

David Tudor (1926-96) was a musical pioneer in many ways: as an admired virtuoso of modernist piano music; as a composer of electronic music; as a creator of sound installations.

Among his colleagues were John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham - who, in 1968, commissioned Tudor to compose a score for his dance company.

This was Tudor's first music written for Cunningham's repertory. But he knew the Cunningham tradition: The choreographer would tell a composer the duration and title of a piece he had in mind.

Often, the score would be written independent of the choreography - the music usually had a different title - but in this case, Cunningham's title inspired Tudor, who at once responded, "Oh, then I'll put lots of raindrops into it."

In the end, the differences were only a matter of capitalisation: Cunningham's dance was RainForest, and Tudor's score Rainforest.

For the next three decades, Cunningham commissioned scores from Tudor, always eliciting imaginative sound dramas. But this first one proved a seedbed for Tudor's imagination. The scenic design of RainForest, after all, featured Andy Warhol's Silver Clouds, whose theatrical interactions with the dancers inspired Tudor: From the 1970s onward, he developed the material of his score for various spatial setups.

One of those iterations, Rainforest IV (1973), was devised with musicians who later became known as Composers Inside Electronics. Three of them - John Driscoll, Phil Edelstein and Matt Rogalsky - then realised Rainforest V, an installation version that can play by itself.

And so the installation at MoMA is available to see - and hear - at all hours. Throughout the fall, though, the museum is also presenting performances by Composers Inside Electronics of Forest Speech, another Tudor score belonging to the Rainforest family.

For this, the Studio is outfitted with benches and cushions, and its blinds are lowered to darken the space. The roster of musicians will change with each performance (there are six more through Dec 15); on Sunday, they were Edelstein, Marina Rosenfeld, Stefan Tcherepnin, Spencer Topel and Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste.

The performers were visible at one end of the room, but their sounds came out of the installation's galaxy of suspended hardware.

Aural collage of Tudor's musique concrète

Here again was the spectrum of isolated chirrups, growls, trills, squeaks, purrs, avian alarm calls.

It was hard not to hear the sounds of frogs, cicadas, isolated birds, giant cats and even elephants. (Cunningham said he took the title of his dance from the Pacific Northwest, "from the rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula"; he had also been thinking of central Africa, inspired by anthropologist Colin Turnbull's book The Forest People. Perhaps he was also thinking of the Rainforest sculptures by his friend Louise Nevelson?)

The aural collage of Tudor's musique concrète - squeaks, burbles, rumbles, booms - also evokes more fictional realms, as if a Star Wars droid had wandered into the arboreal conclave of Ents in The Lord of the Rings.

These sounds may seem a sonic illusion, but listen closely and you'll know they are just electronics using the frequencies of everyday objects.

Tudor's music is multi-dimensional: fantasy and fact, technology and escapism, poetry and game. NYTIMES

BT is now on Telegram!

For daily updates on weekdays and specially selected content for the weekend. Subscribe to