Inventor Morton Subotnick on the Dawn of Modular Synthesis

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The inventor talks about how he revolutionized what music is, how it's made and how we think about it.

Certain artists contribute to an era such pivotal works that any description of them threatens to dissolve into cliché, and Morton Subotnick is one of them. His corpus is so intertwined with the emergence of electronic music that it’s impossible to think of one without the other. By founding the San Francisco Tape Music Center with some of his contemporaries in mid-century avant garde composition (Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Pauline Oliveros) and by creating the first modular synthesizer with Donald Buchla, Subotnick unfolded a new vocabulary and mode of thought to music. His historical significance and ongoing influence made him the perfect artist to perform at the Berlin screening of the definitive modular synthesizer documentary, I Dream of Wires. The screening was followed by a performance of his most famous piece and the first electronic work commissioned by a record label, “From Silver Apples of the Moon to a Sky of Cloudless Sulfur Revisited: VI.” It was a joyful display of compositional sophistication, playfulness and sound design that reaffirmed the evergreen vitality of a true genius at work.

You lived in Berlin in the late 1970s, which was a fertile period for experimental and electronic arts. Did it feel that way living here?

Well, here’s the thing: I didn’t come out of that world. That world may have come out of me, but I didn’t come out of it. My world, from the time I was 6 or 7 years old, was the fine art music world. During this period and up until the mid-1960s, music was divided into the fine art scene—in the European, American sense—which consisted of the avant-garde, the traditional and so on. In the avant-garde, there was my generation, including Steve Reich, La Monte Young and Terry Riley. We became part of what was to become the postmodern; it was the split of the avant-garde. We didn’t know that, but that’s what we see when looking back. But Steve, for example, never considered himself a popular artist. He didn’t even coin the term “minimalism.” He was doing phasing, which came from Morty Feldman. You had jazz that became during that time “free jazz,” but that was pretty postmodern too and was joining the fine art scene. There wasn’t any other music, really. I mean, you had Frank Sinatra and country Western, but they didn’t do what we wanted. Then you get the whole electronic scene, which I really anticipated in many many ways.

When you say “electronic scene” in relation to that period, you’re referring to…

The emergence of the potential for electronics. Until then, there was nothing. The early stuff was tape recorder splicing and making it sound like a new version of old music. I really anticipated a major aesthetic change. As for genres, I didn’t know what the new genres would become. I certainly didn’t think it was going to come out of Elvis Presley, which is where it happened!

What about the electronic scene in relation to your time in Berlin and its history of mid-century electornic music?

That was Stockhausen. That’s what I’m talking about: it wasn’t a new genre, it was an extension of fine art. And even much later, Stockhausen didn’t move from fine art. I was part of that world but already feeling like I had been alienated from that scene. There was no place to put me, in spite of Silver Apples and that world that was beginning. So in the period between ’79 and ’81 in Berlin, Joan [La Barbara, Subotnick’s wife], met Michael Hoenig of Tangerine Dream. When she said we were together, he said “Oh, I didn’t even know Morton was alive! He’s one of the great dinosaurs of modern music!” From my standpoint, I didn’t belong to the avant garde of Stockhausen.

I’m interested in the idea that you sensed a distance between Stockhausen and yourself. Did you consider it in such definitive terms?

Silver Apples was a clean break. At the time, I was writing piano pieces that are actually going to come out in spring 2016. It will be three works, and only one of them contains electronics. Two of them are from 1957, and if you jump from there to Silver Apples, it’s a complete break. I was thinking of—looking for—a new kind of music, and a new type of art form.

How did you start such an audacious endeavour?

Two things happened to me by 1961. I was playing clarinet, writing avant-garde fine art music and trying to make a living by writing music for a big production of King Lear. I decided that it might be interesting to do it with tape instead of writing incidental music to be performed. It may have been the first—or one of the earliest—incidents of sound design. There were no musical instruments in the performance, only the cutting and splicing of tape. It took almost eight months to make. I recorded the actor’s voice, and then through playback, mixing and changing the speed, I made a thunderous soundscape that came out of the speakers. It rocked the audience.

Could you see a phenomenological novelty to what they were hearing and the potential power of the new ideas you harvested?

It was like nothing they’d ever heard before, I could tell. The experience from that reinforced how much I loved being in my studio and making music. When I looked at the world that was developing, I knew transistors were coming in, and while I didn’t know what they did, I knew it meant technology was going to be cheap. I realized that we could start making music better than with tape. It wouldn’t be a genre; there would be a whole new artist: a person, a composer and a studio. I called this imaginary object an Electronic Music Easel. I knew this was all going to happen, but I didn’t know whether I could be involved because I didn’t have the aptitude.

How did it develop from a speculative idea to an instrument?

I put an add in the paper! I was looking for an electronic engineer that would be willing to try to make the instrument I had in mind, and Donald Buchla arrived. He had dabbled in things like that, so we began working. I started my re-education by reading Navy manuals on electronics. The first thing I told him was that we didn’t want a black and white keyboard: this was not a new way to do old music. The idea was that we were 20th century cave men, and we were going to create a tool to make a new kind of way to make a new music. Not just a new old music.

You wanted to avoid keys because they dictate a certain representation of sound?

If you give someone a black and white keyboard of any sort and say, “Do anything you want,” they’ll never think to sing with it. So it had to be completely neutral. What we were doing was not making an instrument, but making tools to make other tools. It was going to be a way to make instruments that wouldn’t tell you what they wanted; you’d tell them what you wanted them to do. I wanted to find out what kind of sound you would make if you had a tool to make tools. What kind of tools would you make?

Did the name Silver Apples of the Moon reference this “futurespective” thinking?

On the back of Silver Apples, I wrote, “This is the chamber music of the future.” What I meant was this record as an object is a thing into itself. It’s going to be the thing. That’s when I had to retool my thinking, and that’s when the title comes in. Place yourself 100 years from now. That’s science fiction. What kind of music would you like to hear? Not this extension of the last 4,000 years of tradition. I was doing utopian thinking. The name comes from a Yeats poem, where a guy is in search of his Holy Grail, and that’s sort of what I was looking for myself.

How did you see the subsequent records? Did you master this instrument, or was it a proliferation of new ideas?

When I did Silver Apples, I thought it was a good piece, but I didn’t think I got the “real message” of the future for a record. The Wild Bull was an attempt to make a tone poem, but I realised that it was so orchestral that I could almost write it for instruments. So then in Touch, I took the word “touch” and broke it up using a strong VCA attack so I got these gamelan patterns, but there was still something missing. Sidewinder was the real breakthrough. A lot of connoisseur analog synth people like Sidewinder the best, but in a way it’s the hardest to listen to.

The problem with the other, older pieces I made was that they were good pieces in the tradition of “good pieces.” Sidewinder doesn’t have a beginning or end; it’s constructed through long passages, and I put them in motion so they change over a long period of time as sequencer moved extremely slowly. I would get a string of modulated passages, and I thought of it similar to planets orbiting around the sun: some of these strings would be brighter at some moment. It has dramatic moments, but they come out of no traditional musical concept at all. I realized that was truly different, and part of it was because my metaphor changed. I was creating a time/space canvas.

How have you structured your studio to help translate these ideas into a piece?

I’m still working the same way, except that it’s become more sophisticated. I have a large space with four quite good speakers and a subwoofer, and I have a second space which is much smaller where I use really tiny monitor speakers. This is a studio where I don’t work with the sounds as such, but with the music. Once I get down in the big room, I really am thinking sound. When I go upstairs, I’m a different person, and I think content. I still end up with powerful content and sonic orientation.

What concepts do you explore when you sit down in the studio now?

I’m still trying to finish what I did in ’61! And that’s kept me separate from what other people are doing, mainly because I take as little as I can from what others are doing in order to keep my vision alive. I thought I’d be done with it already, but I never thought I’d have any impact on the aesthetic. What has surprised me is that I would have imagined that from ’61 there would have been a parallel evolution to seeing more possibilities, more connectivity and content changes. I didn’t see it at all for a while, but I’ve noticed that in the last three or four years there seems to be an increase not only of people becoming more content-based, but with fewer keyboards. I became so sick of keyboards and chords and dance organ music—not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it seems like a real throwback.

Are you surprised that the modular as you conceived of it, which is as a new concept of music, still persists with Max MSP and other virtual programs?

When we first began, Moog hadn’t made his first synthesiser yet. I was hoping that we would impact the technology and people would see the idea of the patch as a very profound notion. It’s a concept. Now that I look back, it is the machine to make machines. When the Moog came into being, that disappeared. You patched, but more like a telephone operator, connecting this to this. It’s similar, but not the same. You were changing the sound, but you still were playing with a black and white keyboard. You were still on the telephone to someone, but you weren’t teleporting! And so I’m not surprised it persists. What I was surprised by was how people took to the black and white keyboard. I thought it was hardly a direction you’d want to go. Why wouldn’t you want to go into new fields?

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