Local electronic music pioneer Andrew Rudin revisits his groundbreaking early work tonight at The Rotunda

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Andrew Rudin | Photo courtesy of the artist
Andrew Rudin | Photo courtesy of the artist
In 1967, Nonesuch Records released Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon, which was immediately recognized as a landmark work of the nascent electronic music movement. Unexpectedly, it also became a hit.

The album was created using a synthesizer built by pioneering instrument maker Donald Buchla, so Nonesuch turned to his leading peer, Robert Moog, in search of a follow-up. Moog referred the label to a young Philadelphia composer named Andrew Rudin, who had been instrumental in bringing Moog to the University of Pennsylvania. Rudin used the commission to create Tragoedia, a four-movement piece inspired by the four fundamental emotional processes of Greek tragedy.

The 1969 album met with critical acclaim (High Fidelity Magazine’s Alfred Frankenstein proclaimed, “In Andrew Rudin’s hands the electronic idiom finally comes of age”) but soon was lost in relative obscurity as the art form rapidly and bountifully evolved. Tonight at the Rotunda, Bowerbird will present “Meeting Moog,” a concert portrait of Rudin’s early electronic music featuring Tragoedia with a live video accompaniment by Rudin’s former student Peter Price. The program will also include two earlier works, Il Giuoco (1966) and Paideia (1967), both of which are accompanied by films created by the composer.

When Rudin arrived at the University of Pennsylvania to study with composer George Rochberg, he had no intention of working with synthesizers. “I didn’t even know that they existed,” recalls Rudin, now 74. “In those days, when one heard the word synthesizer it meant only one thing: the RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer, which was a giant contraption that ran on hundreds or thousands of vacuum tubes and within an hour’s work you’d have to find what tube had burnt out and replace it. It also operated on punch paper tape like a player piano, which would get snarled and the three hours that you spent making four seconds’ worth of music would be trashed.”

A few years earlier, however, a childhood friend of Rudin’s had become a member of the ground-breaking Alwin Nikolais Dance Company, which purchased one of Moog’s earliest synths. After Nikolais demonstrated the instrument to Rudin, the composer persuaded Moog to build one of his first large-scale studios in the basement of the Annenberg School of Communications.

“Bob Moog was a typical science nerd type,” Rudin says with a laugh. “He came down to Penn with a synthesizer in a cardboard box underneath a Greyhound Bus. But the wonderful thing about working with him was that he was kind of a frustrated musician himself, so you didn’t have to be some sort of engineering genius. He wanted to make things easily available to the musician. I feel really lucky that I was in the right place at the right time and happened to meet him at the beginning of it all.”

Born in Newgulf, Texas, a small town south of Houston, Rudin (pronounced “roo-DEEN”) began composing small classical pieces and music for theater productions while in high school. He then studied at the University of Texas at Austin before heading east in the summer of 1960. At Penn he studied under a number of renowned teachers, including, briefly, Karlheinz Stockhausen and George Crumb. The pieces he created on Moog’s newly-installed synthesizer became his first mature works. “I was fascinated with it because it was the latest, most avant-garde thing to do at the time,” he says. “I was absolutely convinced that once they had the equipment, I would work with it and make something. When you’re 26 you think you can do anything.”

That includes writing music for an almost wholly unprecedented new instrument that makes bizarre electronic noises. “The first thing is that writing doesn’t apply,” Rudin says. “What was fascinating to me was that I could work directly in the sound. It was much more like sculpting than it was like writing. I would simply find a sound by fiddling around with the instrument and coming across a sound that appealed to me. It was like someone gave you a trumpet and you thought, ‘I’ll try to play something legato, and I’ll try to play something high, and I’ll try to play something fast and jittery with it.’ Then I would edit the tapes, like working in film where you shoot a lot of footage and see what you can cut together out of it.”

The Philadelphia Composers Forum premiered Rudin’s first major synthesized composition, Il Giuoco, on a program with pieces by Crumb and Vincent Persichetti. “That first concert absolutely marks the dividing line between my student days and my life as a professional,” Rudin says. “It was a piece that totally represented what I would do and not something obviously influenced by anybody else.”

But realizing that he was sharing the evening with two works played live by musicians with conventional acoustic instruments, he realized it would be something of a stretch to ask the audience to then stare at an empty stage while his synthesized music unreeled via magnetic tape. Already an amateur filmmaker, he decided to create visuals to accompany the music, crafting an abstract film featuring multiple exposures of abstract shapes and a silhouetted dancer. He took the same approach a year later with Paideia, with a film inspired by the myths of Icarus and Daedalus.

Il Giuoco premiered to a rave review by Daniel Webster in the Philadelphia Inquirer, citing “sounds which approach that of a corps of trombones, assertive dragon growls and bronzy middle range colors and an interpolated soprano voice.” Il Giuoco was chosen to represent the U.S. at the Paris Biennale, and both pieces went on to play at several festivals and film societies – and even at a juvenile detention center where, Rudin laughs, “they all got mad at me because they insisted that I couldn’t have made this film unless I was tripping on acid.” They then stayed mostly dormant until 2001, when Il Giuoco was included on a program celebrating Rudin’s retirement from the University of the Arts.

Rudin’s electronic work lasted only a few more years, including several collaborations with Alwin Nikolais. He continued to compose music, ballet, and opera while teaching at Juilliard, the Philadelphia Musical Academy, and its successor, UArts. After nearly five decades he returned to recording via his work with local ensemble Orchestra 2001. Tonight’s Bowerbird program is a long-overdue revival of his vital early work.

MEETING MOOG: The Early Electronic Music of Andrew Rudin takes place tonight at The Rotunda, 4014 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. The all ages show is free and begins at 8 p.m., more information can be found here.

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