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by Andrew Duke
Morton Subotnick is an electronic music pioneer who is not content to sit back in the proverbial stuffy halls of musical academia. Born in Los Angeles in 1933 and currently residing in New Mexico, he continues to tour the US and Europe as a lecturer/performer, records new compositions, and is active in developing new applications to encourage musical creativity in today's children.
You've had many music companies commission you to record pieces in your career, most notable of which was Silver Apples Of The Moon; composed specifically in two parts to correspond to the two sides on a vinyl LP, and released on Nonesuch in 1967, it helped to acknowledge the presence of the home stereo system. Tell me about this particular work.
"The commission to do Silver Apples Of The Moon came in the beginning of 1966. For almost a period of three years prior to that, I was struggling with the brand new analog synthesis, the Buchla synthesizer, which I actually worked with Don [Buchla] in helping to design and conceptualize. I had not yet written a full piece using it, I was exploring the possibilities but also I had begun to understand, having been writing music for instruments and media and really moving all around the musical scene, that putting a tape recorder on the stage and pressing the 'start' button in an auditorium was something rather futile (laughs); there was something empty about that situation with nobody up there, especially with the sense that the playback of recordings in the home was getting better and better. So, in fact, one could just have a tape recorder or a record player at home-you didn't need to go to an auditorium to hear that, especially if you weren't using multiple speakers and all sorts of gadgets around the auditorium. This was all in the air and what I was thinking about during this two to three year period that I was beginning to explore the new analog possibilities. I had pretty much determined that what I was really after with this wasn't just to write another piece, but to actually try to conceptualize what music in the living room meant. When the commission came to me for Silver Apples, my first thought was to create a piece that people could, by turning knobs or doing something, actually participate with the piece and not just sit back and listen to it. But that wasn't possible, the technology just wasn't there. And so I then went to Plan B which was thinking of a piece which was true and pure music, but had nothing to do with performance, but was the piece that would be in the living room and that's what it turned out to be."
Interactivity is a theme in your works, both in your compositions and software programs.
"The period from when I started working with MIDI, the works were moving towards instruments and computer; they weren't pure electronic. When I was in residence at MIT [Massachusetts Institute Of Technology], just as MAX [music software developed in Paris in 1987 by Miller Puckette; the name is a tribute to Max Matthews] was getting started, I developed my own software called Interactor. That allowed the computer to follow the performance of the instruments so that the modifications of the additional sounds and all of that eventually could follow the musicians rather than the musicians having to follow the electronic sounds of the computer."
With the changes in technology, you started to think again about your unrealized Plan A for Silver Apples.
"As the years went on, I got involved in all sorts of things, and in the last ten years I realized that the one of the original ideas of Silver Apples could now be realized-I could now create a work for the living room where the home listener would have two options: one is to listen to this piece, and the other is to interact with it in a real kind of situation in the home. By interacting I did not mean to sort of play at such or to redesign it or something, but rather, my original thought was that when you're sitting in front of a string quartet, the string quartet is different in some meaningful way because of our presence there as an audience; the string quartet actually plays louder, softer, slower, faster, more beautifully, less beautifully depending on the reaction of the audience; it's subtle, but it's real."
In addition to your lectures, you've continued to remain busy in the programming and compositional fields.
"My work now, strangely, has moved into two directions. One is a continuation of the work with instruments and electronic or computer sounds, but more in the direction of the home media CD ROM. I've done two CD ROMs for children for composing, Making Music, which is in twelve languages now, and Making More Music. I'm currently working on an application called Gestures and people will be able to use it to put their own sounds in; the computer understands the gesture of the mouse completely, so it understands when you have a jerky gesture or a smooth gesture, it's like conducting. And like the left hand of the conductor, dealing with balance of instruments and bringing things in and out, making things faster and slower and so forth. The music I'm doing now actually doesn't actually sound like Silver Apples, but I feel it's very close now to the original work I was doing with analog synthesis. It doesn't sound like digital music. My early electronic music defined a kind of electronic music, but it wasn't electronics, it was music done with electronics, and that's where I'm back now with this whole new area."