Todd Rundgren Takes Requests

It's not often -- for which, in this case, several dependent household pets are thankful -- that a critic is called upon to recommend a concert event that both embodies and suggests possibilities of technology and format that, should they prove successful directions for the future of music, could render the critic's function obsolete.

But hey, the future's a long ways away, and I'll be back washing dishes at Dolce long before anything personally catastrophic comes to pass, so I'll recommend it anyway.

The show in question is that presented by TR-i (that stands for "Todd Rundgren interactive"), and from the looks of the advance material, it explores most every aspect -- from innovative to cliched -- of contemporary progressive pop performance theory.

Yeah, well, here's the deal as best I can glean from the writeup, courtesy of Rundgren's flacks at Forward Records. Mr. Rundgren himself is much too busy to grant interviews to reporters with readerships of less than a quarter million.

Rundgren, who is being hyperbolically billed as "The World's First Interactive Artist," will set up house in Rockefeller's West with a three-tiered, in-the-round stage set. Rundgren will do most of his performing on the computer-cluttered center podium, armed with guitars and keyboards. The third tier, elevated 13 feet on six steel arms, houses a 360-degree lighting rig, PA, 24-monitor video wall, digital message boards and something Rundgren calls "audience interactive devices." From the center podium, Rundgren will control everything in the house with the help of three self-designed computer systems. Rundgren controls the sound mix. Rundgren controls the lights. Rundgren accesses data banks to generate video images and delivers programmed words to the audience via electronic message board, those digitized signs with scrolling text that seem to have found an unlikely second life at rock concerts after a long and lackluster career in high-school cafeterias.

In some cultures, they call this kind of control fascist.
Unless, of course, the fascists hand out free goodies, which Rundgren will do by activating the ominously monikered "audience interactive devices" -- telescoping robotic arms that deliver objects to select audience members. Said objects, states the press release, "could include everything from video cameras to drum sticks, candy bars to condoms to large inflatable dolls" and will "afford the audience opportunities to interact with TR-i's performance."

Think we get to keep the video cameras?
To understand what Rundgren is trying to get at with all this high-tech gadgetry, you have to go no further than his most recent recorded output, No World Order, available in two CD formats: non-interactive (Forward Records) and interactive (Philips). The non-interactive is a standard disk, just like any other in terms of its technology. The interactive, on the other hand, is the first of its kind that I'm aware of. On it, Rundgren has programmed hundreds of measures of digital musical building blocks that may be arranged -- Tinker Toy style --- by a listener with the benefit of the correct $400 Philips hardware. The way it was explained to me, a listener (let's call him or her the consumer) may program the machine to search for musical bits within certain parameters of the customer's choosing. Say you want something about l90 BPM (beats per minute), upbeat, with a saxophone for your next frantic dinner party. You push the right buttons, define your parameters, and the machine identifies a pool of the appropriate passages and strings them together end-to-end in a seamless and infinite non-repetitive loop for your guests' listening pleasure. Custom-tailored music for the interactive '90s.

It's a technology that's sure to provide endless fun for tech heads and game freaks, and that's well and fine, but it shoots traditional ideas of artistic intent in the mouth. With the concert, Rundgren attempts to explore the same ideas in a live format that's only slightly less flexible. Aside from the occasional live instrument in Rundgren's hands, the concert is essentially karaoke, with Rundgren singing and playing solos over pre-recorded material. Rundgren will have a set list, but the music, special effects, lighting and video mix are all subject to be customized to audience response and manipulation. If you don't like what you hear, you can, in theory, change it to suit your taste.

All of which brings to mind the latest prediction making the rounds in the music retail business -- in a nutshell, that at some point in the future, customers will be able to walk into their mall outlet, sample music from digitized libraries, custom-order compact disks and have their selections downloaded to a recordable disk, complete with artwork, while they wait.

In the retail world, the customer is always right (within certain prescribed parameters, of course), and so more choice is probably all for the better. In the concert hall, it's a bit harder to predict. Interaction with the audience is a noble goal, suggesting a presumed equality between performer and observer, producer and consumer, and hinting at a diminishment of the tired cult of the Rock God. What's worrisome is the potential loss of the artist's distinctive voice. After all, we listen to these people to hear what sort of music they make, what sort of words they say.

And the audience... aren't they those people who always yell for "Freebird" every time there's a lull between songs?

I can't tell you what's gonna happen, but I'll lay money it doesn't have anything to do with whatever happened last time you saw a show. And if it catches on, critics -- who have a hard-enough time trying to absorb and interpret the musical emissions of a defined artistic unit -- might well be rendered null and void and unemployed in the face of impermanent group improv. You probably know a couple dozen betting sorts who'd fork over the cash just to speed that process along.

Todd Rundgren, a.k.a. TR-i, performs at 9 p.m. Friday, December 17 at Rockefeller's West, 6400 Richmond. Tickets cost $17.50 general admission, 18-and-up. Call 629-3700 for more information.


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