David Tudor, Bandoneon!, 1966. Performance view, 69th Regiment Armory, New York, 1966. Photo: Robert R. McElroy.

No maudlin Behind the Music—but tinged with drama of a different kind—a new series of films is chronicling the seminal multimedia series “9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering,” which took place in October 1966 at New York’s 69th Regiment Armory. Led by Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver of Bell Laboratories, a group of artists and engineers banded together to collaborate on ten experimental performance pieces. They brainstormed, argued, and pulled all-nighters, producing an event that détourned existing technologies and aesthetic conventions. Critic Brian O’Doherty called it “the major scandal, triumph, vision or nightmare of the season.”

For the film program accompanying its exhibition “Looking at Music,” the Museum of Modern Art is screening films of two of the performances: the documentary Variations VII by John Cage (2008) and performance footage of David Tudor’s Bandoneon! (A full documentary of the latter is forthcoming.) As the films’ riveting combination of archival footage and recent interviews makes clear, the participants in “9 Evenings” hoped that art and industrial technology would radically inflect each other. They aimed to introduce unexpected possibilities, repurposing materials and processes in order to disturb teleological narratives of modernist progress in both disciplines.

Cage and Tudor had both become increasingly interested in the use of electronic sound technologies in performance, and the films convey the intricate aural and visual effects at play in their pieces. Variations VII translated Cage’s indeterminate, unscored, anticompositional procedures into a shifting array of real-time sound transmissions, with over fifty live feeds that included telephone lines to Terry Riley’s turtle tank (Riley himself is interviewed for the documentary) and the New York Times press room, frequency generators, a coffee grinder, and a juice extractor. The movement of performers and even ambulatory audience members triggered photocells hooked up to contact microphones. High-pitched, squealing feedback and standing audio waves are augmented by the participants’ looming shadows, which flicker spectacularly throughout the film footage. Bandoneon! highlighted Tudor’s similarly voracious appetite for sound and light. The composer worked with engineers to retrofit the accordionlike instrument with programmed audio circuits and connect it to moving loudspeakers, modified television projectors, and spotlights on the balcony. Tudor had said he wanted to generate “‘white noise’ from scratch,” and we watch him begin with a simple set of low drones on the bandoneon, eventually launching a cascade of noise and optical effects into the cavernous space and “playing” its acoustic complexity.

The retrospective films could never aim at a “complete” representation of the ephemeral performances; indeed, they pointedly refuse to do so. Yet this approach is entirely appropriate, because it emphasizes the innovative and makeshift production process in “9 Evenings”—not as mere backdrop, but as integral to the meaning of each work. The experiment, in fact, may not be over.

Michelle Kuo

“9 Evenings: Theater and Music” screens on August 18 at 6 PM and August 20 at 8 PM as part of the film program accompanying the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Looking at Music.” The exhibition is on view until January 5, 2009. For more details and information about the other films included in the program, click here.