9 Evenings Poster
“In 1966 10 New York artists worked with 30 engineers and scientists from the world renowned Bell Telephone Laboratories to create groundbreaking performances that incorporated new technology. Video projection, wireless sound transmission, and Doppler sonar – technologies that are commonplace today – had never been seen in the art of the 60’s.” – Billy Klüver

I first became aware of the 9 Evenings: Theatre & Enginnering series while searching for information on John Cage’s Variations pieces. Variations VII, which includes the use of telephone lines to bring in sounds from far away places, was only performed as part of this event and was never released.  So I was quite pleased to discover that a documentary on this performance was to be released on DVD via Microcinema. Even better was that it included audio of the complete performance as a bonus feature. I bought this DVD as soon as it was available, but in the interim I did some research into the event. It turned out to be a fascinating collaboration between technologists, artists and modern composers.

“9 Evenings was organized by Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver, then a research scientist at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. It was held at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City from October 13-23, 1966. As Billy Klüver has written: “9 Evenings was unique in the incredible richness and imagination of the performances. The Armory space allowed the artists to work on an unprecedented scale, and their involvement with technology and collaborations with the engineers added a dimension of unfamiliarity and challenge. They responded with major works.” – Billy Kluver

Each of these DVDs begins with an short intro sequence put together by Robert Rauschenberg, with quick cut video and some pretty noisy music which sets the tone pretty well. Then there is an edited version of the performance, followed by a short documentary where they talk about the specific piece. Then a set of closing credits.  All in all the performance part is usually pretty short and at least in the case of Variations VII which was something like 80 minutes long, heavily edited. Personally I’d like to have video of the whole performance there, it is quite entertaining to watch with all the activity and such plus there was usually an interesting visual component even if it was just lighting and low light camera work.  As I mentioned above they did include the complete audio of one of the performances here which is really great and something that I hope they continue for the entire series.

“For his 9 Evenings piece, Variations VII, John wanted to use as sound sources “only those sounds which are in the air at the moment of performance”.  He wanted sounds from all over the city and if possible all over the world. He also wanted to pick up the sounds from outer space.” – Billy Klüver

Variations VIIAlong with ten telephone lines open to various places the piece included an electronics setup controlled by David Tudor, optical triggers that the performers, and in the second performance the audience, could trigger, contact mic’ed up household appliances, plus more contact mics on the platform itself along with “20 radio bands, 2 television bands, and 2 Geiger counters”.  There is also a giant siren that goes off at the beginning and various times throughout the piece. It is a pretty raucous affair as you can imagine, but the palette of sounds is incredible rich and there is tons to listen for.  Personally I thoroughly enjoyed the piece and as I said wish there was more video of it. I think that a real thorough documentation of this event would include the complete video of both performances as well as what is on this DVD. I suppose though that the reality of funding makes that impossible at this time, but it’d be nice if someday all the video is made available.  [Edit: As per Ken Weissman‘s comments, apparently the entirety of each set was not filmed and these present the bulk of what they have. See the comments for more details]

I’ve listened to the audio only portion of this DVD on several occasions and I think that it is a strong piece in the electronic works of Cage and Tudor. Those who appreciate Cartridge Music, Variations II-VRainforest and other pieces from this period will definitely find a lot to like here. It is chaotic, noisy and dense but filled with incredible sounds, chance overlays of great complexity and a deep structure that comes through for all of that.  It is a performance that bears repeated listens and that will reveal more each time.

Open ScoreThe first of the DVDs put out in this series, though the second one that I watched, was Robert Rauschenberg’s Open Score.  This ran through the same format as Variations VII with the intro put together by Rauschenberg, excerpts from the piece, followed by a short documentary.  As I mentioned above I became interested in this event due to the Cage piece, but since that time I’ve become quite taken with Rauschenberg’s art and the events that he staged. I had read Calvin Tomkins The Bride and the Bachelors earlier this year and had become quite intrigued with Rauschnbergs work. With his death in May this year I was inspired to pick up this DVD (and also Calvin Tomkins Rauschenberg biography, Off the Wall).

The piece begins with a man and a woman playing tennis with amplified tennis rackets.  The raised floor they were on also seemed to react to sound. The game wasn’t too intense, they were focusing on long lobbies for the sound aspects. The lights dimmed throughout the tennis game (apparently controlled by the audio of the game) and as it went dark they left the stage. The next segment of the piece was completely different. It involved 500 people who  crowded the floor and did a series of predefined actions that they would change based on flashlight signals from the balcony. This was in near total darkness but it was picked up via infrared cameras and projected onto screens above the floor that only the audience could see. In the second performance Rauschenberg added a third act:

“He had the crowd leave silently in the dark. Then a single spotlight picked up the shape of a girl in a cloth sack – Simone Forti – singing a Tuscan folk song she remembered from her childhood. Rauschenberg picked her up, carried her to another place on the Armory floor and put her down. He repeated this several times as she continued
to sing.” – Billy  Klüver

The effect of these huge crowd doing these very ordinary movements (waving, shaking hands, hugging and so forth) projected in ghostly infrared was pretty impressive. It was hard to tell how edited the piece was, the video section was maybe 15-20 minutes long and you got the impression that it went on for more like 40 minutes. Again it’d have been nice to have seen the whole thing and as this one was not quite so sound oriented it doesn’t include an audio only version of it.  An interesting piece especially in how Rauschenberg used such devices as micro transmitters and infrared cameras which were pretty advanced tech in the day.

While imperfect documents this is an entirely interesting and important series, one that I hope goes on to the full ten releases they have planned. Rauschenberg was one of the motivators behind this series and with his death he obviously will be unavailable in this role. One hopes that as a tribute they complete what has to have been one of his final projects.The artists included the 9 Evenings and who are expeced to appear on the rest of this series are  Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, David Tudor, Yvonne Rainer, DeborahHay, Robert Whitman, Steve Paxton, Alex Hay, Lucinda Childs and Öyvind Fahlström. I’m curious about the whole series, but am especially interested in David Tudor’s Bandoneon! which is one of his major compositions that as far as I’m aware is not available in any form. Hopefully that DVD will again include the complete audio (if not the complete performance). You can expect more reports in this series as further releases are made.

The films were produced by Billy  Klüver and Julie Martin of E.A.T. and directed by Barbro Schultz Lundestam and are distributed exclusively through Microcinema.

9 Evenings of Theatre & Engineering
Experiments in Art and Technology
E.A.T. Publications
John Cage Database
John Cage’s WikiPedia page
Robert Rauschenberg’s WikiPedia page
Billy Kluver’s WikiPedia page