By Luis M. Rguez
Though his name may still be unknown to many, Morton Subotnick has his spot in the electronic music books secured. Born in 1933 in Los Angeles, Subotnick started his career the classic way, working as a clarinettist and composer of traditional western music. But things changed in the early sixties. In 1962, Subotnick and his friend Ramon Sender (son of Spanish novelist and essayist Ramón J. Sender) founded the San Francisco Tape Music Centre, a non-profit cultural association dedicated to organising concerts and education, regarding what in those days was being realised in the international field of tape music. There, the Californian coincided with people like Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, Tony Martin and Joseph Byrd. Around that same time, Subotnick and Sender worked closely with engineer Donald Buchla on the design and construction of what many historians consider the first ever synthesiser. From then on, Subotnick focused on creation via electronic means. In ten years, he made ten electronic pieces, among which was the very influential “Silver Apples if the Moon” (Nonesuch, 1967), a piece very unusual for the time (surprising in its level of control over certain parameters, its richness and the use of elements characterised by pulse that were very defined and treated rhythmically, something that was very rare in those days), a classic today and the first ever work of electronic music created specifically to be released as an album.
Over the past 30 years, Subotnick has been writing music for voice, symphonic orchestra, chamber ensembles, multimedia productions (including an opera, “Jacob's Room”), dance and theatre. He has been experimenting in the field of multimedia integration and the interaction with computerised systems applied to music. He has also done important educational work - co-founding and heading up a Composition program he is an Associate Dean of - lecturing and developing tools to nurture the musical creativity of children.
Next month, Subotnick will travel to Krakow, Poland, with his Buchla synthesiser to perform at the Unsound festival. His concert will be based on the material of “Silver Apples Of The Moon” and “A Sky Of Cloudless Sulfur”; standing next to him will be German video artist Lillevan, who some of you might know as a member of Rechenzentrum. Enough reason to get in touch with our man. Morton Subotnick kindly answered our question from his studio in New York.
We understand you're working in the studio right now. We suppose you spend a lot of time there. What does Morton Subotnick's studio look like today? What kind of tools do you use?
Yeah, I am in the studio. In Manhattan, in New York. We have a one bedroom apartment in a building in Greenwich Village and we were able to get the studio apartment next to ours, so we opened up the whole thing. So my studio is attached to our apartment, which makes it very nice. I have here a computer, of course, and a bunch of MIDI equipment, a mixer, a Buchla 200e, which is a digital-analogue version of the all 200 system. Then a bunch of MIDI devices, like tiny little keyboards, sliders and various other things. I use a quadraphonic sound system. I am sitting in the centre of my studio with four speakers surrounding me and a subwoofer. And looking out on the sky of Manhattan.
What are you working on right now? Are you composing new material, preparing for your upcoming performances?
Well, I am working in a lot of different things at the same time. The pieces I do at the performances I have been doing over the last year - and probably next year - are pieces from the “Silver Apples of the Moon” and “A Sky of Cloudless Sulfur”, which are my first recording and my last recording I did with analogue equipment back in the sixties and seventies. They form a kind of backdrop. I'm also producing new versions of some of the old stuff, using some of the old stuff as samples, and changing them, but essentially what I'm doing is creating a new performance pallet for myself. It's not really an instrument, but is like an instrument. It is a way of accessing the material and a way of activating certain things or events and changing them as they go and making decisions in real time. In the computer I use Ableton Live. I generate some things from there, send them to the Buchla, the Buchla goes back to Ableton and they speak to each other and the result comes out in quadraphonic. It is a complex set up that I am developing. So what I am working on daily for the last year - this year and probably into next year - is perfecting ways, or developing further ways, of using interface material; changing things in performance and creating new material as I go. I am also writing a book at this point. A couple of books actually.
And what are those books about?
One is about my work with electronics, but there is also a book about re-thinking music for educating people in musical creativity from three years up.
Both tasks can be very absorbing. Is it easy for you to maintain the balance when dividing your time between these activities?
I get up about five in the morning and work for about three hours on the book. That is the first thing I do. Then I divide the rest of the day between the work I was just talking about with the Buchla and composition. I am writing a piece which should be premiere in San Francisco in March. It will be for Joan La Barbara - my wife - string quartet, keyboard and electronics. It is a thirty minutes work. And then I am writing a piano piece that premieres around the same time. So the day is divided into these three parts. I also do a lot of public lecturing, which goes back to the books that I am writing, but I have to spend time on that as well. It is a long day. I work from about five or six in the morning till about seven or eight at night, with a break to go the gym and keep my brain alive and my body [ laughs]. That's what I do.
You mentioned “Silver Apples Of The Moon” and “A Sky of Cloudless Sulfur” as the first and last recordings you did with analogue equipment.
I did over a period of ten years about, lets see, “Silver Apples of the Moon”, “The Wild Bull”, “Touch”, “Sidewinder”, “Four Butterflies”, “Until Spring” and “A Sky of Cloudless Sulfur”. So I did seven vinyl records with analogue equipment. Sidewinder”
What influence have the developments in musical technology - following these two works, made on big modular machines - had on your way of making music and composing?
Well, that is a complicated question. Especially for me because, you know, as a child I grew up playing and writing music, so I was writing music long before computers and all that stuff. It was not traditional music so much, but done using traditional means. By the time, in the mid-fifties, that new equipment started to come into being that you could do other things with, I was already in my early twenties. I actually participated, as you probably know, with Donald Buchla in the creation of one of those machines. I commissioned him, as a matter of fact. I put it down on a paper and got an engineer - and the one I got turned out to be Donald Buchla. I didn't have any money to do a commission that way, but we collaborated on designing and building the Buchla Box - he did all the electronics, I didn't have those skills. We worked together on the design and the ideas of what it was going to be and how it was going to go. Why we were doing certain things and not other things... We worked together very closely in what, according to some people, was the first analogue synthesizer. We didn't call it a synthesizer back them. When it came into being, we finished in 1963 or 1964, I already had in mind what I was gonna do with it. He was building things so that I could do what I wanted to do. By the time [the commission of] “Silver Apples” came about, I had started working with the sequencer - which everybody thinks was the first sequencer ever used. My idea for the sequencer was to do a particular thing - and I did that in “Silver Apples of The Moon”.
And that idea was?
It wasn't just repeating things. It was being able to make long passages over a period of time that I could keep changing by twisting knobs and other things. So as it began to develop, very early on, it began to have an influence on me too. To start with, I had an influence on it. When I began to work with it, I got influenced by what I was doing and how it worked, how some things worked better than others. Over the years that has been the process. Actually, as I describe my work today, when I was in my twenties I prepared my life’s work ( laughs). What I am doing now is what I decided I was going to do now when I was twenty years old, you know. I didn't know I was going to be close to eighty by the time I got to this point. It'll be over fifty years of work, but I am still going at it. So going back to your question, it altered how I thought but I didn't get older in that way. It changed with the time.
In what way?
If I were starting, if I was twenty years old now, I wouldn't have had to create a new piece of equipment to be able to make electronic music – there are plenty of things to do that now. Back then you would pick something and you would be influenced by it, to some extent more than I was influenced by the equipment that I was using. I kept saying at the time, 'I really need a module which does this'. So they will make one. And then I will work with it. And then it will change me, certainly, but it is a different thing. The question you are asking is very complex to answer. In some ways it would be like saying 'how did your feeling of music change when you learned to play the piano - and as you got better at the piano did that have an influence on how you play?’ You wouldn't ask that question, even though that would be a good question to ask, because it does have an effect on you. But if there never was a piano and suddenly you as a musician had a piano, then the question is a different question. Today the question means something different than it meant to me over the years I have been working.
You have been away from synthesisers for over a decade, focusing on other things and composing different kinds of pieces. What made you pick up the thread of those first electronic works again?
This maybe answers the question before better, because it is the first time that this had happened to me. Now - using the computer with a program like Ableton and the synthesizer, which has digital possibilities but is similar to the first instruments I played - the possibilities that are presented to me are extended to a point that I never had before. And that is why I went back. I don't do this on a regular basis. Over the years I have gone in all directions, but now I am back to where I was in the sixties and seventies in the sense that I'm working everyday with this, developing new ways to approach it, and it has had an impact on me. Because I can now do things I couldn't do then that I wanted to do. And as I do them my thinking changes as I go. So these performances that I am doing are continual - both in real time at the concert and as I work every day on them in the studio. I come up with different things. Constantly. There are subtle changes on how I approach my material and how I think about finding ways of changing them in a performance and so forth. Cause I am learning to do new things through the interface of these two medias.
Before, you used the piano to try to explain the influence musical technology has had on you, but as I understand it, your initial idea, before you made your first electronic invention, wasn't to make a “musical instrument”. You have said that what you wanted was a machine to make “new music” that wouldn't necessarily have to be considered music in the classical meaning of the word.
Right, that is true. Right from the very beginning. If I wanted to continue to write music I would have continued to write music in a more traditional way, I was already doing that. In that time I was playing part time with the San Francisco Symphony as a clarinettist, touring as a soloist, playing everything from Brahms to the newest music. So if I wanted to play music on an instrument I was already doing it. I didn't need another instrument. What I imagined was that it would be a time when - because of the technology that was just coming – nothing stayed still. It was just going to happen. When there was new technology that was very cheap, that everybody could afford. People would be able, without a traditional background in music, to make music. Music that probably would not be the music that I would have made, but it would be a new music. I got so excited by that idea that I pretty much gave up everything and just started trying to figure out by myself what that would be. That's what I worked on all the time, because it is hard. It is hard to imagine something that hasn’t been before. But I didn't want a musical instrument. So the very first thing, or one of the earliest decisions that Don and myself made together, was not to have a keyboard. He has over the years produced things that do use scales and things like that. I didn't want a black and white keyboard. I didn't want anything like that. I wanted a clean slate, so to speak. I wanted something that was very neutral, that I could mould into something with sound. I didn't know what it was at the time. I am still searching [ laughs], but it is getting closer and closer I think. It's getting closer in the sense that I have sort of found an area that I work with that I really like - and that is not something that could be translated into traditional music. It is an area I love to work within.
As you said, the early Buchla synthesisers had no keyboard. Instead, they used capacitance-sensitive or resistance-sensitive touch-plates, organized in various sorts of arrays. Curiously enough, over time, musical technology seems to have inclined towards a more traditional model, greatly based on the emulation of classic instruments. Today, the majority of musical software, at least the popular ones, still work in connection with control surfaces based on faders and knobs (like the traditional mixing desks) and keyboards. Do you feel that these new technologies have left out certain, let's say, “more sensitive” control abilities, that some of those early machines had?
Yeah. I don't think most of the people were thing like I was thinking. They were thinking of making music the way they knew music sounded, with notes and scales and so on. And they were going to make a new version of that, using the new equipment. I think that if you divide anything into a C major scale, no matter what you do, it is gonna sound a little bit like a C major scale. But think about the Australian Aborigines. They hollowed out a trunk and made the didgeridoo - and their music was related to that instrument. If you were an Eskimo, an Inuit, you would be singing into someone's mouth. That is a different thing again. But if you use a black and white keyboard, in one form or another you are going to be continuing the tradition of Western music. I didn't want to do that. Over the years I have realized that it isn't an easy thing to come to. What I am seeing now, as a result of computers, is that people are beginning to look out and say 'hey, maybe we don't want to be bound to a black and white keyboard'. Not a lot, but more people than before. I think it is an idea that hasn't completely come into its own yet. For the majority of people it is hard for them to imagine making music without some kind of keyboard or something like that. And they right in that - if you think of music as an extension of the past, it is very hard to imagine not using something like a keyboard or any other kind of traditional instrument. But if you are willing to say 'I don't know what it should sound like. What would I do if I could just be free to do anything I wanted to do, forgetting about the past, creating my own concept of what music should be?' you will certainly not do it with an instrument that already measures everything out into a scale. I do think that if you wanna be totally free you have to get rid of some of the paralysis that we have developed.
You're experienced in those two worlds. Apart from your electronic work, you also write pieces for orchestras and chamber music, where you use traditional musical notation and instruments. Is it hard for you to switch between those two environments?
It is pretty different - but I have been at it for so long. And that is why I get up so early in the morning and work so many hours. Generally I try to break my day up into these very different activities. Writing a book is very different too. In the early morning I write words, these books. Then I go to the gym and I listen to an audio-book in my ears, something about quantum mechanics, or a mystery novel, or something that completely breaks everything away. And that is an hour and a half to two hours of breaking my body, doing something else, and then I come back and I work on the pieces for instruments. Then I have lunch, I take a nap, or I take a long walk - again with a different thing in my ears - and then I put in another three or four hours with the synthesizer and the computer. I usually leave that to the end, because it is the easiest and the most fun for me. I get so much back from it. For almost twenty years I wrote very little instrumental music, no books. All I did was electronics and electronics and electronics, day and night. So I am more used to it, it is the easiest thing for me to do. I leave that to the end of the day and it only takes me a few minutes with the synthesizer to forget everything about everything else in the world [ laughs]. So in answer to your question, it is hard, it is very hard, but I have learned how to do it. I become three different people.
One aspect shared by early analogue synths was the instability of certain components, most obviously demonstrated by pitch drift in the oscillators, something that gave the work with those machines something stochastic. The new digital technologies are in a way designed to have a more exact control (or at least less random) over the variables. Now that you're working with computers and digital machines, do you miss that unpredictability of the modular analogue equipment, the possibility of surprise?
Personally I wouldn't use the word “surprise”. It's a bit too strong for that experience. But there is a surprise in the sense of... it is like talking to a person. You can never know exactly what are they going to say or what they exactly mean by it. With the analogue equipment I know what kind of answer I'm gonna to get with my actions. What it really sounds like, the exact way it sounds is different each time you do it. So it is not a surprise in a large sense, but it is constantly evolving - whereas the digital approach never gives you that. It is always exactly the same. The computer can't do that, unless you program it to do that. So yeah, there is surprise in that sense; I love that and I will always live with that. I don't use the computer to make precise judgments about sound. What I use the computer for, with Ableton and so forth, is developing ways to interface the analogue sounds. One of the problems with the analogue world is that it is fixed, it is hardwired, so you can't turn your oscillator into something else. You can do it, getting to the wires and patching them, but at least not easily, is not a fluent thing. Whereas with a computer you can change things quickly. The aim is to modify that to be less of a big surprise and more this evolving human kind of quality. I add humanness to the computer through the Buchla - and add the precision of being able to generate certain events, like rhythms, combining both things together. It is a wonderful combination, because you get the very best of what a digital instrument can do. Whenever you want something to be predictable you can get the computer to do that. When you wanna to be unpredictable you can get the Buchla to add to that. So you get the best of both worlds. I'm not using the digital aspect to create new sounds. I have a pallet of sounds from the analogue world that I have lived with for a long time and I really like.
Let's talk about “Silver Apples Of The Moon”, without a doubt your most famous work. In recent times you have been reinterpreting the album live; in October you will do so in Krakow at the Unsound festival. I'd like to know how you feel about that piece today.
That is a good question. Actually the material I am performing does sound like “Silver Apples of the Moon” when you listen to it, but I have added a lot to it and I have altered a lot. There is some of the original stuff still in there. I keep the original feeling of the piece and what you get from it really feels like the “Silver Apples of the Moon” from 1967. You really do relive that, even though there are all kind of new things happening and they are different in every performance because I am constantly working on it. The listeners - if they know “Silver Apples of the Moon” and compare it - will know that there is a lot of new stuff, but they will still absolutely recognize the experience of it and even many of the materials. With me what happens is different. When I made “Silver Apples of the Moon” it was just like I am doing now, working twelve or thirteen hours a day, six to seven days a week, for thirteen months - and the only reason I knew I was done, was that the record had to be done that day [ laughs], so I brought it to the label. I don't work with “Silver Apples” every day, because I am also doing “A Sky of Cloudless Sulfur” and a lot of new materials that I am working with. But when I am working with “Silver Apples” parts I actually relive a lot of different moments of that thirteen months. The whole sensibility is back. I don't think of myself as being that old; maybe one of the reasons is that I am sort of time traveling all the time. I feel I am back in 1966, in my studio in Bleecker Street. Actually I pass it every day; I am only about five blocks from it now. It is an amazing thing what music can do. I don't know for everybody, but for me... You are back; a lot of my experiences are back. Sitting in my studio, I don't see it but I feel what it felt like. It is not like going back to an old thing, it is being back there again. Revisited, that's what it is. It is me time traveling back into the body of me in my thirties. When I am working with electronic equipment it is so direct, the experience is so real. The sound is there, the feeling, the touching of the cables; it is so much there that I am actually living the actual person forty years younger. I feel like that person. I never feel like that person writing pieces on paper. It is a very different experience.
Over time, “Silver Apples of the Moon” has become a real cult item, a classic in electronic music. But even when it was released, in 1967, the record was received very well; it became a bestseller in the “classical music” category. How high were your expectations at the time about its possible repercussions ?
How high? My instrumental music was being published back then, and my publisher gave me a little bit of money every month. That was part of the way they did things, they don't do this anymore. I got a little bit of money every month from them that was an advance on royalties - and the money didn't come in. You know, there was not a lot of royalties from writing instrumental music, performances and so on, but it was a little bit and their money helped me. So when I did the “Silver Apples” I didn't think anyone would buy it. I mean, I didn't know, I didn't care - that wasn't really why I was doing it. My expectations were that it could sell maybe three or four hundred records, if I was lucky. So I turned over all my royalties to my publisher [ laughs] because they were putting money out every month, so I said, “Look. It's not gonna make anything, but whatever it is you take it”. Then it became this hit so I met with the publisher, they were very nice, and the said, “no, we can't do it. We should split it with you”. And we split the royalties [ laughs]. My expectations were so low that I didn’t even think it was worthy of getting the royalties from. It was successful but it didn't sell, you know, like a rock and roll record. But it still sells hundreds of copies every year, even up to a thousand.
Last year, the album was included in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress of the United States, a list that contains recordings that are considered especially relevant on a cultural, historical or aesthetic level. How did you feel about that?
I was really touched. It is one of those things...it is not like a big award or anything; you don't get money for it. It is a group of people, I don't know exactly who they are, but a group of people who look at all the recordings ever made - and as they get made - and make decisions about recordings that have particular qualities. It is not about the best, is not that they think a record is the most important in any way, but they look at it like a contribution, a very special contribution to our culture. That feels very good. I feel like I have accomplished something. You can imagine it is very satisfying.
Apart from your work in music, you've also dedicated part of your life to teaching. You have worked as a teacher, as a lecturer, you've founded educational institutions, you've written books. Do you find it important to create dialogue and discussion about music, apart from interpreting and composing?
Yes I do. Ever since I can remember, from the time when I was eight or nine years old, I was very consciously trying to understand... this is gonna sound odd, but, I tried to understand what it was to be a human being. I read started reading philosophy at nine [ laughs], trying to figure this whole thing out. I don't have a religion. I gave up all that stuff very early in my life and I tried to create a sense for myself of what I was and what I was supposed to be doing. I decided that the important thing for a human being was to find out what you are capable of and to do it the very best you can. Just continue doing it till you can't do it any better. So that is what I did. But then the other part of it, as the human condition, is to share what it is that you have learned with other people. Otherwise where will we be? If we didn't do that? What makes us special, I decided, is to take the abilities we got and expand them and exploit them and push the envelope of ourselves as much as possible - and then to share it with other people. So the teaching and the lecturing and the books are the sharing part.
Recently you have been developing a series of tools intended for the musical education of children. What can you tell us about that?
Well, besides what I did with the CD-ROMS and so forth, now I am going to do an iPad app for little children. The reason for this choice, is what I have learned over the years in my own process and thinking. It is the struggle of getting rid of the keyboard, for instance. It is to push the envelope, forget about the past, try to create something new, don't let it limit you. The creativity is becoming very limited. One of the first reasons why you want to get rid of the keyboard is that if you keep using the keyboard you are not going to reinvent. Maybe you can improve it, or change it, but you are still gonna be bound by certain metaphors that are gonna not allow you to break out of what you are totally capable of doing. By the time you are five or six years old - or seven years old, or eight years old, depending on the person - many of these social metaphors have come into being and you are locked in. Many people can break that – but it is hard to break, even for very creative people. So I am trying to get to the three years old and say, “Hey, you don't need a keyboard right now, you don't need to learn scales, and you can still be creative. Technology can let you be musically creative. Just go.” And the kids three, four, five years old have no problem with that idea. You know, six years old, seven years old, that is the period when you are playing. You are playing being a doctor; you are playing cops and robbers...you are playing, you are having a good time. That play period in early childhood – before it becomes structured, before there are rules - is helping you to grow in certain ways that will inform the rest of your life. We can do this with music. I was hoping that with the new technology little children could play with all kinds of musical materials, in a very sophisticated way; but always being playful. I think it is being done and I think that even more can be done about it. That is why I am writing the book.
Last question: when you read about your story and some of your comments, it's obvious that you've always felt very involved with the concept of “the future”. How do you see that voyage to the future, your own trip, today? Does today look like the future you wanted to visualise forty or fifty years ago, when you started to work with the first analogue machines?
Forty, fifty years ago... I have to go back to 1950, I was in High School. When my mother died, she left some things. Some boxes came and we looked through them, that was about thirty years ago. I found in one of the boxes a story I wrote in High School, so this was probably 1949 or 1950. And the story was a description of a concert in the future. I didn't remember. I remembered after I read it, but I didn't remember having written it before that. There were four people on the stage and they were sitting at these chairs. There was no sound in the room. All the people in the audience were sitting at chairs - with arms on the chairs - and they were connected. Everybody was connected to their chairs with straps and there was no sound. But the people on the stage were creating with their minds a piece of music, together. And the audience was receiving that information directly, telepathically. That was my description of the future [ laughs]. I have been on that for a long time, thinking of the future. I did imagine what the future was gonna be, but I didn't know exactly that I did it that specifically.
And now that we're here, do you see any similarities?
I am surprised that in my life time it has come so close - not to what I have described, that's years away. But through my work in the last forty years with electronics, I am very surprised on how that world has really come about. I am surprised how close it is, conceptually, and how different it is in terms of the actual music that is being made. I had no idea what the music was going to be in the future, but the biggest surprise - using that word again - is what it sounds like. I am surprised that people are still trying to do new things with a black and white keyboard. And why they aren't spending more time - and more people aren't spending more time - exploring that world that I thought they would be of. I called the first synthesizer not synthesizer, but an “electronic music easel”. I was thinking of it like painting. Like a painter with an easel and a pallet where you can just do anything you want. I am both very surprised at what didn't happen and very surprised that a lot of what I thought did happen [ laughs]. In Krakow we are gonna have a Q&A with the public, we are gonna have a dialogue. And we decided to do it about the “Future Shock”, the motto of the festival. We are going to talk a bit about what that means, so I will be able to express some ideas about that. It will be fun. PlayGround is a media partner of Unsound In 1967, Morton Subotnik imagined the future of music with one of the most influential pieces of electronic composition ever, “Silver Apples Of The Moon”. But his voyage didn't end there; for forty years, the American composer continued to work with synthesisers - imagining the future and trying to understand the human being. We spoke to him on the eve of his performance at the Unsound festival in Krakow.
"Silver Apples Of The Moon"
“A Sky Of Cloudless Sulfur”