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Morton Subotnick, the pioneer of synthesizer, on what keeps him engaged in electronic music

Morton Subotnick, the pioneer of synthesizer, on what keeps him engaged in electronic music
Photo courtesy Morton Subotnick

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Morton Subtonick (due Thursday, April 26, at ATLAS Institute as part of the annual Communikey Festival) is the pioneer of synthesizer music. Before he commissioned engineer Don Buchla to build a device that didn't yet have a name, the synthesizer did not exist. Electronic music existed, but not to the degree of development possible after the creation of the synthesizer. Subotnick benefited from his lifelong curiosity and applied intelligence. That and a little good fortune put him in a circle of people that included a good deal of the American avant-garde of the '60s and '70s, including filmmaker Stan Brakhage.

Subotnick's landmark 1967 album, Silver Apples on the Moon, is a classic of experimental music and a pioneering work in electronic composition. Since its release, Subotnick has continued to push the envelope of the medium and even today is working on developments that will impact anyone working in electronic music for decades to come. We had the rare opportunity to chat with Subtonick at length about his life, his work, his views on "noise" and what keeps him engaged in working in electronic music today.

Westword: What first got you interested in making the kind of sound and visual art you aimed for after you got out of the Army?

Morton Subotnick: That didn't really have anything to do with anything. I was drafted into the Korean War at the end of the war. I had been playing in the Denver Symphony in Denver. When I got out of high school, I was there for a couple of years, two or three years, playing clarinet. From there, I ended up in the Army band at the end of the Korean War. I was stationed in San Francisco, so that's how I got to San Francisco.

Obviously, you're not from Denver.

No, I grew up in Los Angeles. I did one semester at the University of Southern California. I graduated mid-year, and you could start any time of the year when I was little. I had started in the second semester. I got out of high school in January of '51, I think it was. Then I went to USC for one semester, then auditioned for the Denver Symphony and played Red Rocks that summer. I played a couple, three years before I got drafted.

What was Denver like when you were living here?

Quiet. Small. I was trying to stay out of the Army, so I actually went to Denver University and majored in English literature and anthropology, but I didn't get a degree. I went back after the Army and finished up one summer and finished up my degree, so I eventually did get a bachelor's degree at Denver University and came back to San Francisco and stayed on.

In the Army, what was your job?

I was in the Army band. It's long story, it's a funny story, but it's not very pleasant. But I managed to get through. What happened was... I don't know your background, but do you know who Stan Brakhage is?

Oh, of course.

Stan and I were very close friends. When I got to Denver, I met Stan. He was just out of high school. And Jim Tenney, also. The three of us hung out together along with a couple of other people. I was playing in the orchestra, but we were hanging out together, so I was connected to avant-garde film right off the bat. I was composing, but I made my living with the clarinet. So it was a very fabulous time for me. Those two or three years was one of the most important, formative periods of my life. We stayed friends all through until he died, obviously.

It was an exciting time, and when I got to San Francisco, of course, I was in the Army, but while there, I had met Harry Partch, because he was across in Sausalito. The Army was made up of a bunch of interesting musicians form the L.A. musicians' union. It was basically a daytime job. I had an apartment off base, which was not legal, but I managed to get in and never got into trouble. I was living in the Marina in San Francisco and had a pretty full bunch of activities at night. I even played in the New Music concerts and things like that in San Francisco and got to know the musicians and the artists and poets and so forth.

So I got accepted as a graduate student in music. When I went to USC out of high school, I had passed my entrance exams, my placement exams, and the music I needed to take for four years. When I went to Denver, I was playing in the symphony, and the courses I could take were whatever happened to be available at whatever time I could manage to take a course. So I didn't have a really thorough education.

I majored in English literature because I had never done anything but music in my life up until I got out of high school. I played clarinet very well, and I was writing music, and I studied music, obviously, because I could pass all the music-theory tests, but I had never really read much. I read philosophy and a bunch of stuff, but my grasp of literature was very weak.

So I flunked the entrance exam in English at USC and took that semester with the football team in remedial English. So when I got to Denver, I realized to stay out of the Army, I had to be in college, so I majored in English because of that. So I became rather prolific in reading and proficient in the language. Altogether, it added up to a happy ending.

When I got to San Francisco I was offered a fellowship at Mills College to study with Darius Milhaud. But in order to do that, I had to get my bachelor's degree, so I went back to Denver for the summer after I got out of the Army and took a huge number of courses and worked at Piggly Wiggly to make a living. Then I came back and worked with Milhaud in San Francisco.

Why did you form the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1960 with Ramon Sender?

We actually didn't intend to form a center. It was 1959/1960. By 1961, I was sure I wanted to be involved in electronic music -- with technology, basically, not just electronic music. I was going to give up the clarinet, which I was playing with the San Francisco Symphony at the time. It was a major decision, because I could easily make a living with the clarinet, but I didn't feel like I could do both because this was so pioneering at that moment.

I didn't know much about technology, and I was learning, and I had created a piece in 1960/1961 to just get a feel as to whether or not I had an aptitude for it, and I did. So Ramon was a very close friend, and so was Pauline [Oliveros] and several other people -- Terry Riley and so forth.

But Ramon and I were the ones involved with the technology. So in 1961, I discovered I really did have the ability to do it. He had some real electronic stuff, and I had a tape recorder and a bunch of sound sources. We pooled the equipment to make a studio together, and we found a house in San Francisco that was going to be torn down at some point; they didn't know when.

They said we could use the house on Jones Street. It was an old Victorian house with a huge living room. We ended up doing concerts there because it could seat up to eighty people. It had a dining room that was used as a stage and our studio.

Ramon and I had heard about this woman, I forget her name, who was from the family that owned the Wells Fargo Bank. She had just bought a Stradivarius quartet of instruments for one of the famous string quartets. So we thought maybe she would help us with some equipment. We wrote her a note, I guess; I don't remember how we did it. Anyway, we met her, and she said, "Oh, I'd be happy to help." But we had to become a nonprofit.

We got a lawyer friend and paid him $125, I think it was, to become a nonprofit. We had to have a name, so we called it the San Francisco Tape Music Center. We called it that because at that moment in time, Europeans and a little bit of New York dominated the electronic-music scene that had been going on for about five years at that point.

There was a battle between musique concrète and purely electronic sounds. We decided, the hell with that, we'll call it the Tape Music Center. Any sound you can put on a tape is good enough for us. We didn't want to be a party to an aesthetic brawl. So that was how it got named that, and that was the reason we did it.

We called her once we got the non-profit status and told her, and she said, "Oh, fine, I'll send you a check." So she did. She sent us a check for $25. Which we put on the wall, because it didn't even pay for becoming a non-profit corporation -- so, so much for that.

How did you meet Terry Riley and Steve Reich, and were both involved in the Center before you moved to New York?

Steve came later. He was a few years younger. He came toward the end. The Tape Center had started, but it wasn't the earlier part. He called me on the phone. I don't know how he located me or why he did that; he called me because he was going to graduate school.

By then, Luciano Berio was teaching, and that was probably around 1961. He wanted to know what my opinion was -- whether he should study with Berio or another professor. I told him I didn't think there was any question about it, that Berio was more interesting. He must have thought so, too, because that's what he did. So we became friends during that period. The Tape Center was going, and he became part of the scene.

Terry I had met earlier, and we were all sort of doing improvisation together, exploring new sounds with our instruments. Then Terry, and La Monte Young, too, went off, as did La Monte, to New York. Terry also went to Paris to check out Fluxus and decided it wasn't for him and came back. That was 1964, because at the Tape Center, we had played music for everybody, including our own, but we had never focused on the local composers.

We decided we'd all gotten a fair amount of recognition by then and we would do one season, the '64/'65 season, I guess, featuring local composers. Terry was coming back, and one of us asked him if he was going to be free in November of 1964 to do a concert. One of us asked him to write a piece we could all play. He did, and that was "In C." Steve was around then, and everybody played in that.

The following February, Steve Reich did what I think was his first public concert at the Tape Center. That was "Come Out." I think Piano Phase was done at that point, but I'm not absolutely certain. We didn't know we were making history, so I didn't keep track. Anyway, it was a seminal season, obviously. But I left for New York after that.

That was also the beginning of the Buchla. I had commissioned Don [Buchla] to do what I called at the time a "music easel." But it took almost two to three years because we couldn't raise the $500 to do it. We finally got the $500 and got it. In the same '64/'65 season, it was brought into the public. He'd made a copy of it for me when I went to New York, so I went there with the second Buchla. The first one is still at Mills College.

That was the Buchla 100?

That was the 100. But there were four or five of them made. The print on the module actually says "San Francisco Tape Music Center." I had him take that off anything he made because that sort of meant that we were in business, and I had a very bad feeling about money and business and those types of things in those days. I don't have that anymore. Maybe I do, but not the way I did then.

He was surprised, but he did take it off, and from that point on, the next ones were the 100, but they were called "Buchla and Associates." He sold that to CBS in 1969, when CBS Musical Instruments bought him out. He continued, but he couldn't use "Buchla" anymore. The first ones have "San Francisco Tape Music Center," and that sets them sort of historically apart from everything else, but they were still the 100.

How did you meet Don?

He and I have two different stories about it; I'll tell you both. I put an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle. I had decided after this 1961 concert of my piece that I had the aptitude and I was going to take the plunge to give up the clarinet as soon as I could afford to and write music and deal only with instruments with technology and technology. I talked a lot with Ramon and imagined something like an electronic-music easel. I thought of it like how a composer could be a studio artist and make music without a studio and so forth.

So I put an ad in the paper for an engineer who could come and help us make that, create that thing. A couple of people came, but they were definitely not the right people. I won't go into that. But as far as I remember, Don came and we went with him. I remember vividly the day we met him and what we talked about and everything. He claims that he just showed up, he didn't even know there was an ad in the paper, because he heard we had a three-track tape recorder. Which may very well be the case, but I didn't know that. He showed up and he was an engineer, so I assumed he answered the ad.

That's how we met, and we hit it off right away. In the days we were plotting this thing, we split off and I worked primarily with Don. Ramon wasn't as interested as I was. We worked together for the better part of the year. I don't know any electronics, so I didn't design it.

But the functionality -- what there should be, what it would do and how it would do it -- and his great creative mind just invented all the technology to be able to do that with. The use of transistors and early forms of the circuitry that was always there made it cheap, and that's how it happened. We finally got that $500, and we made it and it worked. It was pretty remarkable.

Were you involved in the development of those synthesizers beyond the initial models?

Of his, I worked through the 200. I would call him from New York, and I think he developed what would be the first Envelope Follower. I'd say, "I need something I can sing into that would turn into voltages" and things like that. When he started the 200, we were still collaborating in the sense that I was giving him advice and everything. I came back to California in 1972 to start the California Institute of the Arts, and he built the first sets of the 200 for us for there, and the 200 came up after. I stayed with the 200.

He was going in a direction that was slightly off from what I was really interested in. The 200 is an incredible set of modules, and I was able to do everything I needed to do with it. We've remained close friends. He'd come out and ask opinions about almost everything, but we didn't collaborate like that again. When I come to Colorado, I'll be playing the new 200. The 200 E. It's partially digital. And my laptop.

How did Silver Apples of the Moon end up on Jac Holzman's label?

You can read that story, and it's true. It's in The San Francisco Tape Music Center and the Counterculture of San Francisco. I can tell you really quickly. I was working in my studio in New York, and I had given lectures in 1966 on this thing I'd been thinking about since 1959 and how records would be the new chamber music. It's amazing how correct I was, but I didn't imagine what would really happen. But I was on the right track anyway.

In public I would say things like, "People will rise up and say it's immoral and unethical to hire musicians that were intended for the concert hall and put them on the record. Record companies and the common person will understand that a new medium requires a new music that will be made just for the record." But I never thought that would happen.

So I was up in my studio on Bleecker Street, right around from where the rock bands played up the street. Guys used to come in around two o'clock in the morning and just sit in my studio, I worked all night. One night, this guy comes in and he's dressed in a suit and he gives me my lecture and tells me, "We're going to pay you $500 to be the first one." And I kicked him out because I thought he'd been to one of my lectures and was kidding me. Then I discovered he was Jac Holzman, the president of Nonesuch, and it was a real label.

The next night I was really depressed, and I thought, "What have I done?" He comes in again, probably around the same time, one or two o'clock in the morning. I was going to tell him I was going to do it for nothing. He said, "Don't say anything. Let me talk first. We've decided to give you $1,000." So I said, "Well, I'll take it." That's how Silver Apples came to be.

It's been said that the first time anyone danced to electronic music, it was at one of your performances, maybe your first at Electric Circus. This, of course, being outside the ballet companies and the like that have used your music in their productions. Can you tell me about that show?

What happened there is that with Silver Apples, I got the commission, as I told you about, in 1966, and it took me thirteen months to do it. In that thirteen months I had a performance at Hunter College, two evenings with the Anna Halprin Company. I'd been the composer for that company since 1961. We used a lot of material I'd been developing for thirteen months. The stuff I'd been developing for Silver Apples was in that piece called "Parades and Changes." It's now being toured by a French company, and Anna and I helped them reconstruct what we did, and they have the original music and so forth. They've done thirty performances worldwide.

Then I helped start the Electric Circus during that same period. I don't know the year, but I do know that when they opened -- what's on the second side of Silver Apples was much much longer; it was a whole bunch of material that I pruned down to that -- I used that for the opening of the Electric Circus. The opening had member of...well, Seiji Ozawa from the Boston Symphony was there, members of the Kennedy family were there all dressed up.

I was working with Tony Martin on the visuals, Buchla did all the electronics, we had strobe lights and all sorts of things, the subwoofer was into the floor at the end, so the whole place really moved. We started with a heartbeat, but it wasn't real; it was something I made, a pulse, and that became the second side of the rhythm of Silver Apples of the Moon. We had strobe lights going, and it went on for 30 or 35 minutes, and people were actually dancing to it, which was amazing.

Did you ever work with the band Silver Apples at that time? It seems obvious they borrowed their name and some influence from your album.

I don't remember. I didn't work with bands. I didn't actually create the dance, either, but that's what people did. I did work with a band, I think it was Circus Maximus, a Middle Ages singing group. We did two concerts at Carnegie Hall called The Electric Christmas. That was a little later, in '68. I was using parts of The Wild Bull.

I had dancers behind a screen and rear-projected. I had strobe lights making shadows onto the screen as they were dancing. Some of it was live, some of it was recorded from The Wild Bull. That's the only time I worked with the band. And I didn't work with them; they were just at the same venue we played.

How did you come upon creating the "electronic ghost," and what sorts of artistic possibilities did that discovery open up to you?

When I finished The Wild Bull, I was struggling to get a kind of sense of what I was really after. Not so much musically, but in terms of the medium. It was a brand-new medium I practically invented. I felt like what Chopin did with the piano couldn't be done on a harpsichord. It was truly piano music. You know, real grand piano music. It didn't belong anywhere else. It didn't belong in an orchestra. You could listen to it but it was really piano music, and it couldn't have happened before the piano.

What I was looking for had to do with the medium I was working with. I began to realize that one of the things that I really liked with the medium was direct contact with the material through the physicality of the electronics -- the keyboards and things. The one thing I couldn't get was I couldn't sing into it. So I asked Buchla to make an envelope follower. I don't know if they even existed at that time. [Like I said before], I just told him I wanted something I could sing into a microphone, and it could come out controlled voltage at the other end. So he made an envelope follower. It may be the first one.

I developed a technique of singing and using my fingers on the keyboards, as well, not playing notes, but just energy. Singing what I called energy melodies...[Subotnick here demonstrates non-verbal vocalizations]...sing an improvised performance, and it would record it onto tape and play it through the envelope follower and instead of a keyboard, instead of a sequencer.

It became the voltages that I could use to make oscillators change, to make sounds pulsate, to make sounds move in space and so forth and so on. I perfected that over a period of time until my final recording of A Sky of Cloudless Sulfur. I feel like it's my masterpiece of music. The entire piece was done this way.

And I stopped because I figured I had solved that problem. Now I was on to adding instruments to the thing. So what I did was took my voice on a tape and wrote a piano piece for a friend of mine, and then the tape went through an envelope follower and controlled panning, amplitude, modulation and frequency shift, and you had to tune the amplitude of the tape recorder exactly right.

And then he played into it, and it modified the piano in real time. It was called a "ghost" because it read my performance, but in the concert hall you never heard me or saw me but you got the energy of me; it was like a ghost. That's where the concept came from. Gradually I perfected that and I got it in a digital form, and there's a little ghost box. Now I imitate my voice in a Vax patch. But interestingly enough, I'm just developing the ability to be able to redo them again with my voice that's digitally recorded and then going through an envelope follower and controlling it in real time.

Up until just now, that wasn't possible. Now I can actually go back to what I did, and it's going to take me a couple of years to get eleven or twelve of those pieces in, but they'll all have my voice coming through envelope followers and eventually be in the original form, but completely just with an Ableton sound file. With the file, they'll be able to do it without boxes and tape recorders.

With 1981's Ascent Into Air, you created another way to process live electronic sounds using live performers to place sounds and to control computer-generated sounds. How did that come about, and what did that allow you to do with the music and perhaps the multimedia experience that you hadn't been able to with just the "electronic ghost" scoring?

That was going to be the beginning. I eventually did a whole evening piece called The Double Life of Amphibians. That was the first part of it. That was conceptualized when I did that piece. The technique there was to use two cellos that went through envelope followers. I was taking it to the next stage. It was early on in the ghost pieces; I didn't know what direction it was going to go. The two cellos control the modification of the other eight, nine, ten instruments in real time. It moves them in quadraphonic space, and you get beats and all sorts of things in the real performance. It was quite remarkable.

There is no ghost. There's really two cellos. You hear the cellos as they're also modifying the instruments. That piece was very hard to do. It could be done. In about a year or so, the technology will get there where we'll be able to bring out that piece again. But using what I used was really complicated and really something you could just hand to someone.

How involved were you with the creation of Interactor and similar software?

Interactor I designed. I was brought to MIT for a couple of months as an artist-in-residence in the early '80s. I was just moving into the ghost pieces. I had given up the analog stuff, and I was trying to find my way into the computer. I was trying to get gestural stuff into the computer that could control electronics. I developed, in that two months...which was my first foray into the computer, the first Mac Plus, I think it was...I developed algorithms that worked. But they were not in a form anyone could use. It was too slow and cumbersome the way I had done it.

Yamaha gave me a small grant, and I hired an undergrad student at Cal Arts who was a composition student but also a whiz with computers. I gave him the algorithms, and that's where Interactor came from. He programmed it. Do you know Isadora? He's the one that did that, Mark Coniglio. He was my student, and he picked up all this stuff about interactivity through working with me those years, and now he's developed his own stuff working with dancers and things.

How have you integrated older analog equipment with newer computerized technology in composing music and performing it live?

What I'm doing now is that I have a Buchla 200e, I think I mentioned that, and I'm performing with that, and it interfaces with a very complex Ableton patch. I can't tell you over the phone what it is, but it's a complex patch that's growing. It's a project that I've been at for almost two years, and probably in another two or three years and I'll have it down. It allows me to do what I was doing in the studio, but in real time.

So when I'm on the stage, my concept of performance is to do in real time not something that's written down, but have sort of an orchestra, a palette -- it's beyond an orchestra -- to have musicality at my fingertips so that I can decide what to do when, and how to do it. So I can change every aspect of it. But I'm not inventing the notes as I go. The notes are this array of a huge amount of materials that I have available that I can call upon to make go.

The Buchla is actually producing notes. But the trajectory of them is pre-designed. So when I sing or move fingers into it or use the little touch-plate keyboards -- I've got a whole lot of stuff that's programmed. We used to call it a patch. But a patch now is very complex because I'm incorporating Ableton into it.

What do you think of the contemporary "noise" scene and where some of those artists have taken their inspiration from your own work? A guy from New Mexico who plays around here occasionally, Raven Chacon, was once a student of yours.

I don't know much about it. I have been going on these tours where I'll be in a museum performing or a radio concert like I did in Bremen. Which is part of the "new music," fine arts music scene. In between I'll be playing in clubs, which I didn't know anything about. And there are other acts, and sometimes it's a noise thing. Over the last couple of years, I've heard all of it for the first time.

What I think of it? There are two kinds of responses. One is, "Do I like it or how do I like it?" I actually don't even think of it that way. To me, I feel like I'm time-traveling. I've ended up either in the past or the future, I don't know which, but from the past, having moved into the future, I marvel at what everyone is doing.

I don't even know how to say whether I like it or whether I don't. It's really outside. I'm just marveling at all the wonderful things that are going on. All the remarkable things that are going on that people are thinking to do. I haven't gotten to the point to where I can sit down and say [I like it or how I like it].

To say one likes something or doesn't like, if you say it as a judgment, that's good and that's bad, that's something I would never have done anyway. To say I like or I don't like it would require living with it for a while before I'd know. And I haven't lived with it long enough to say that. All I can say is that it's remarkable that all that stuff is going on. It's wonderful to see all these people doing so many different things. I'm very flattered to think that people think I had something to do with what they're doing, so that's nice, too.

Many of your peers from the '60s and '70s have receded from performing live, but you continue to do so. What keeps you inspired and motivated to continue with performing live outside of the context of academia?

Well, I never performed live in academia. My music didn't exist in that realm. What existed was the tape music, you know, the electronic pieces in various places around the world. These are pieces that would end up on tape recorders. There was nobody playing live. The other people who played live were rock bands. They weren't electronic, but they had electric instruments.

I don't think there was anyone doing what I was doing. You could play live on a Moog, but they were playing a piece of music, Bach, or something like that. Everyone who played keyboard could play Bach, and you could play Bach with electronic instruments as well. So I don't know anybody who was doing what I was doing.

The closest would have been people like David Tudor, who was working with electronics at the time, and he continues to this day doing that. People like David Behrman, who still does it. But that wasn't academia; that was the grand old secular world out there. I don't think what I did existed in an academic setting. Who did you have in mind in asking that question?

No one specific, maybe Steve Reich or Terry Riley? That's probably just a perception among certain people.

Steve Reich is still out there. He only did two tape pieces, and after that it was all performance pieces. Terry still plays. He doesn't play as often. Pauline still plays. That wasn't academia, either. Terry was basically doing keyboard stuff with loops and things like that. Steve's real trajectory was to take that phasing and put it into instrumental music. He made a clear decision not to do that anymore.

In terms of what I was doing, it was not playing a piece of music as such. It was using the electronics to invent a new approach to music and to the stage. The one who probably comes closest, but who also didn't do it publicly, was La Monte Young, who went through these pieces that lasted for five months, and they were a very different thing than what I did. But they weren't pieces of music as such. It was an interesting time. The '60s was a very interesting time no matter how you look at it.

Almost everybody went off in a different direction. Most of the people stuck with what they did. I don't think anybody stopped doing what they did. When you said "peers," I was thinking people like Mario Davidovsky and people who were doing tape music at that point. That was the academia for me. That was something that really did exist at universities and didn't exist outside of that, pretty much. People are still doing that, and it's still part of the scene. I knew everybody, and we were all close, but what I was doing didn't really fit into that world too well.

So what keeps you motivated to perform live?

I couldn't do what I wanted to in the late '70s and early '80s; that's why I gave up the analog stuff. So I never finished what I started. I got it finished for the recording, but I never got it finished for the performance technique. I would have required a house full of equipment to be able to do it in those days. And it's still not so easy to do, but I think I mentioned I have another two years.

I've got a task that has to be closed. It's my life's work. I thought everything I wanted to do I could get done in about ten years in 1961, and I'm still at it! But I have closed off a couple of other areas, and a couple of other areas opened up in the meantime. This particular one from performance, only as a result of programs like Ableton and the new Buchla are allowing me to now say, "I think I can do it." So I'm working at that. It'll be another two or three years and I'll have that closed off, and then I'll go off to something else.

The children's stuff I've done, I see fulfilling with things like the iPad. So I have an iPad app that should be out by the time I get to Colorado. It's an iPad thing for three-, four- and five-year-old kids where they can fingerpaint music and hear it as they do it. They can press buttons and hear it played by instruments from four different cultures in four different tunings so that they can hear it as though they were creating it with traditional Chinese instruments and various kinds of things. So that'll be available by [spring].

Morton Subotnick, with Leslie Flanagan and Lillevan, 7 p.m., Thursday, April 26, ATLAS Institute, Communikey Festival pass required, 303-735-4577, All Ages.



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