Morton Subotnick :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

With a staggering list of achievements and breakthroughs, Morton Subotnick stands as one of the great innovators of 20th century music. He is presently in the midst of his As I Live and Breathe tour (Los Angeles/San Antonio), his final series of live performances.

In 1961, Morton Subotnick formed the San Francisco Tape Music Center with Ramon Sender, Pauline Oliveros and other luminaries, and their playful experimentation set the template for the ‘West Coast’ school of electronic music, which eschews a more traditional ‘keyboard’ based approach for a unique fusion of modern composition, the avant-garde, and technologists building their own equipment. It was Subotnick who first commissioned Terry Riley’s groundbreaking modular composition “In C.” The SF Tape Music Center had an impact on the rock scene as well, culminating in the famed 1966 Trips Fest.

Arguably Subotnick’s greatest breakthrough came with the development of the Buchla synthesizer. Subotnick had begun his career as a virtuoso performer but soon sought to reconcile performance with his work as a composer, leading him to what he termed ‘music as studio art.’ Electronic music, still in its infancy, seemed an obvious method to that end, but the studios were mostly inaccessible and still relied on the laborious tape splicing and collage techniques of musique concrete. Eventually, Subotnick connected with Don Buchla, and together they developed the Buchla 100 series Modular Electronic Music System, which allowed composers to create electronic music in their own studios.

Buchla brought his revolutionary approach to New York in 1967, where he was the creative director of the legendary Electric Circus (the venue was previously called The Dom, for all you Velvet Underground lovers out there). During this NYC stint, Subotnick was commissioned by Nonesuch Records to create the first electronic music piece specifically for the LP format. The result, Silver Apples of the Moon, had a seismic impact on the global music scene.

Buchla was also instrumental in the field of dance. Parades and Changes, his 1966 collaboration with legendary dancer Anna Halprin, gained notoriety for its use of nudity, revolutionary choreography and electronic score. Parades and Changes has been deemed the ‘birth of post-modern dance.’ Subotnick was also amongst the founders of revolutionary Cal Arts, originally modeled after North Carolina’s famed Black Mountain College.

His archives are now part of the Library of Congress.

Aquarium Drunkard: Can you describe the origin of the Buchla synthesizer?

Morton Subotnick: Ramon Sender and I had started the SF tape music center in 1961, and in the 2nd year, I was trying to do something to take advantage of the technological big bang we could see coming – the portability of the coming transistor technologies. What I was trying to do was bypass traditional musical instruments, the ones that have been passed down for hundreds or thousands of years. And all based on the same scale.

Ancient instruments – flutes, instruments made from bones – were based on the pentatonic scale. Archaeologists found a 45,000 year old flute in Austria and, based on the holes, determined it played the pentatonic scale. So it’s been going on for some time! Probably longer than 45,000 years. They found an even older pentatonic flute not even made by humans – made by neanderthals 55,000 years ago.

To this day, the pentatonic scale is the most popular scale in the world. If I told you, ‘you can play anything you want on the clarinet,’ you’d still have to go a long way to get away from it. Same with those flutes. You can burn the flute, you can bang a tree with it, but you can’t get around the scale.

The music has mutated over thousands of years but it’s not new — it’s always the same scale. You can’t get around it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It mutates into Strauss, mutates into Wagner, beautiful music, incredible music. Like skyscrapers or beautiful towers evolving from little huts. There’s nothing wrong with traditional scales, I’m not criticizing it. That is the main part of music and probably always will be. I love that music, I listen to it all the time. And I love how a symphony orchestra is an instrument made of instruments.

But with a new technology, we have a new possibility: That each individual could make his or her own music, not only their own music – but a new kind of music, how a painter does. On your own – completely individualized. What I wanted to develop was not an instrument, but an instrument to make instruments. I wasn’t making something easy to play, not a synthesizer – it was an analog computer. People don’t really understand that.

AD: A completely new instrument to create instruments, allowing for individualized creation.

Morton Subotnick: I thought computers would do this eventually, but by the time they got cheap enough, they’d be fucked over by the programmers who would be dragging traditional techniques into the computer. And it’s true, that’s what happened. MIDI is based on the piano!

I knew this would happen, so at the very beginning, when all this was just getting started, I wanted to make something different, that could be, down the line, a ‘new’ music, rather than something that’s already been going on for thousands of years.

AD: And Don Buchla helped you create that.

Morton Subotnick: I placed an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle. Don Buchla responded to my ad and I commissioned him to make an analog computer for creating music. Buchla made the keyboard later. The original was 16 plates, equal to the 16 points of the sequencer, so you had random access with the keyboard and also sequential access. We also developed a ten plate keyboard, but that was because we had ten tape loop machines! Ten Viking loop decks. Finger pressure to do musique concrete and control the amplitude of the Viking tape machines doing loops, for samples. I never wanted the look of a keyboard, in the normal sense. Buchla did that after we stopped working together. He really just wanted to make a musical instrument.

AD: And you wanted to create a new musical form, more or less.

Morton Subotnick: I wouldn’t call it that. When you paint, you don’t create a new form, you just paint. But it’s not easy. I decided the best medium of performance for this approach was the long playing record (LP). I spent ten years working on that, making records.

AD: You wanted a new range of possibilities.

Morton Subotnick: Yes, to individualize it, not make it part of the evolutionary thing I mentioned. Of course, everything eventually becomes that, because we all live together.

AD: You use the analogy of painting frequently.

Morton Subotnick: It wasn’t just an analogy but a real metaphor – the metaphor of painting and the painter. That worked quite well but also hindered me. I’d been blinded by the metaphor. If you were a painter, you’d mix colors to make a new color. I did that by having a knob where you could go from sine to sawtooth wave. That knob shouldn’t have been there. A painter mixes color, it stays that color. So that blinded me.

I would call Don and he’d have to make a new module, see what he could do for voltage control. Eventually he said, let’s stop this and do a new one. (laughs) That become the Buchla 200. That was the classic one. It came back towards the end of his life as the 200e.

AD: You’ve been working with dancers from the start, right?

Morton Subotnick: Yes, dancers and the theater. For dance, I’ve been working with Anna Halprin since the beginning.

AD: Parades and Changes changed the world of modern dance. I participated in a performance of Parades and Changes in 2012 at the Berkeley Art Museum. I was running in a circle and meditating.

Morton Subotnick: Parades and Changes, we’d only done 4 performances and put it away. Then 30 years later, it got revived and became known in Paris as the night post-modern dance began. I mostly trained the group for three months and they did something like 300 performances! Tours all over the world. Anna and I got a prize – a Bessy – when that group performed it in New York. It was for the most avante-garde performance that season. So, the thing lived on.

AD: What about your work for theater?

Morton Subotnick: The theater work started with the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop. I made this really wild score for King Lear and the whole production became a big hit worldwide – people were talking about it everywhere. The production was 1959 or 1960, but started in 1958.

They gave me $300 in advance and I bought my first tape recorder. And I made all the music, including the trumpet calls and everything, it was all musique concrete. I won’t tell you how hard it was but… it was really hard. (laughs) I had the dining room of an apartment, I’d sit there, day and night, cutting and pasting tape. In 1965, when they started the Vivian Beaumont at the Lincoln Center, they brought our company to start it. That’s how I got to New York.

AD: When you got to New York, you were involved in the Electric Circus.

Morton Subotnick: I was invited to New York to become the music director of the Actor’s Workshop. When I arrived, the Tisch School at NYU had just started – they asked if I would be an artist-in-residence – and gave me a three year contract. NYU was where my studio was– they’re the ones who bought the Buchla for me. The only other electronic studio was at Columbia-Princeton, which was fairly traditional. My studio was different. I was wide open to whoever wanted to work with me, and worked with whoever came to me. I had folks who sharpened pencils in exchange for one or two hours a week in the studio. I got a lot of the beginnings of different people’s work going on.

These two guys Stan Freeman and Jerry Brandt came to me and said, ‘we registered the name Electric Circus. It’s a groovy name, but we don’t really know what an electric circus is…. everyone we talked to said we should come to you.’ I said, yeah, I know what an Electric Circus is, because of my work with dancers, and my use of strobe lights that were compatible to the Buchla. I could use my sequencer on the strobe lights, I had machines that would turn with lasers on them… I knew exactly what an Electric Circus is.

I became artistic director of the Electric Circus for a year or two. I’d program the evening so you’d have dancing, records and DJs, at a certain point, the DJ would play these little electronic pieces I’d made, sort of dance-like, they were rhythmic but couldn’t really be danced to. This is when I was making Silver Apples of the Moon, so the rhythm music is sort of like that. Suddenly, the whole place would hear a huge heartbeat sound… THUD THUD. Huge sound. A light would come on and you’d see a tightrope walker walking across the rope, eating a banana or something like that. We’d have actual circus acts. (laughs) I also I had my own little room there where people could interact with technology.

Then we started Monday nights, we did the Electric Ear, which was avante-garde music with electronics. It was a really going thing. Sal Martirano had this multimedia piece called “L’s G.A.” An actor was wearing a gas mask with a microphone in it and helium pouring in, reciting the Gettysburg Address. Because of the helium, his voice is going up and down. Anti-war movies playing, electronic music in the background.

After a couple years, it got bombed, a terrorist attack, and it never really recovered from that.

AD: Then you went to Cal Arts?

Morton Subotnick: The head of the Actor’s Workshop became the provost of Cal Arts and the Tisch president became the president. So I was well known to them. Herb, the provost, asked me to be the dean of the music school. I said, I can’t be the dean of anything. I’ve got a whole life. They kept calling me every month. But my contract was up with NYU that year – so I eventually said yes. I only stayed full time for 2 or 3 years, but it was at the beginning when it all developed. There were about ten of us.

AD: Cal Arts seems like a special place and you were there at its founding. What were guys doing differently there?

Morton Subotnick: It’s a long story. It’s being documented. On my upcoming tour, I’m giving a talk at Cal Arts and finally telling the story, which will be available in my Library of Congress archives. Right now, there is no real history of the first year, which was the most dramatic. That’s because of the politics of Cal Arts belonging to Disney. The head of the board of trustees that started Cal Arts was Haldeman, who went to Washington and created the Nixon-Watergate scandal. He got put in jail. Years later, Disney’s widow was talking about Nixon and called him ‘that damn commie.’ That’s how far to the right they were. They paid for Cal Arts and didn’t like what we did. So they lifted the history.

AD: Back to the Buchla. When you were imagining it, could you ever have imagined how generative today’s music would become?

Morton Subotnick: Yes, I saw what was gonna happen, and they’re gonna carry the past into the future. We all do that. You try to look at something completely different and you can’t do it! I didn’t know how weird it was to go that direction, but I kept at it and I’m still doing it. I certainly did the best I could. I knew it was gonna be hard.

I made Silver Apples of the Moon and the Moog came a year late with a keyboard! And the album, Switched on Bach. If you listen to Silver Apples of the Moon from the beginning, then listen to Switched On Bach, listen to them side by side, you’ll know exactly what happened. You have a ‘new new’ music with one and not even a ‘new old’ music with the other. It’s not even really a synthesizer, it’s more of an electric organ.

For the ‘old’ music, you need discreet pitches and the opening of Silver Apples has discreet and “whooshy” – that’s what I call them – pitches. Even then, it’s mostly ‘old’ sounds on Silver Apples. It took me 8 to 10 years before I could do something and I began to understand what I was doing.

And I’m still working. At 90, I’m still working ten hours a day. | b baird

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