BY Erik Morse in Interviews | 14 MAY 12

Morton Subotnick: The ‘Godfather of Techno’

The New-York based musician and composer talks about the nature of electronic music, the zoology of noise and the unique sound-worlds of the child

BY Erik Morse in Interviews | 14 MAY 12

The New York-based musician and electronic composer, Morton Subotnick, is often referred to as the ‘godfather of techno,’ by avant-garde and left-field pop musicians who have experimented with the technologized space of the studio-as-instrument. Known principally as the creator of the landmark recording, Silver Apples of the Moon (1966) – the very first electronic composition commissioned specifically for the vinyl disc – Subotnick was originally a clarinetist and classical music prodigy. In 1963, he developed the first analogue synthesizer with inventor Don Buchla and incorporated the early multimedia theories of Marshall McLuhan and the incidental scores of Darius Milhaud into his late ’60s work. Alongside Pauline Oliveros and Ramon Sender, Subotnick also founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center, the first West Coast studio dedicated to experimental music, and went on to lecture at the newly established California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

Subotnick recently reprised his earliest electronic scores during an evening performance at LA’s REDCAT theatre. Entitled From ‘Silver Apples to a Sky of Cloudless Sulphur’, Subotnick improvised with the experimental jazz triplet, California E.A.R. Unit, using a vast arsenal of digital and analogue equipment to dramatic effect. On the previous day, I was invited to the desert fringes of CalArts, nearly an hour north of the city, to interview the composer. The arid planes and occasional, rocky promontories of the Santa Clarita Valley seemed eerily like the imaginary, lunar landscapes evoked in Subotnick’s classic recording. As I neared the house, the familiar sonorities of Subotnick’s swoooshes and pings could be heard echoing against the desert background. What commenced was a multi-hour interview in which Subotnick mused on the nature of electronic music, the anthropology and zoology of noise, modern home design and the unique sound-worlds of the child.

Morton Subotnick, Silver Apples of the Moon (1966)

Erik Morse  I was intrigued by a description you gave in a recent interview that music is a sound gesture measured in time. I’ve long been fascinated with the psychological distinctions we often make between acoustic and electronic sounds, in which the former is typically determined as real/authentic/primary and the latter is vilified as false/simulacra/secondary. What I’ve come to hazard is that electronic music is often not considered to be ‘performative’, ‘gestural’ or ‘utterative’, since it fails to contain either the human voice or the acoustic/natural sound world. Is electronic music, in your opinion, a fundamentally distant and extra-human experience?

Morton Subotnick  That’s a really interesting question. I think we have to talk about the assumptions, which you make or which you assume people make, something I think is true, that the human voice and the sounds of animals and all those things are natural and that electronics are unnatural.

EM  I should add that what I’m talking about is electronic music that is digital in its nature or domain.

MS  Well, all sound is made the same way, including electronic and digital sound. And that is by getting molecules in the air moving. So the way that molecules move by digital means is different than they move by vocal cords, so from that standpoint, it’s true, we can’t reproduce sounds in a digital way, we can only reproduce them in an analogue way. But to some extent crickets are digital because they go ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta that’s almost machine-like. The point I’m trying to make is that molecules are neutral, they don’t give a damn what’s making them move. It’s the way they’re moved that’s caused this problem. For instance, if there weren’t any humans around, the first human sound would appear to be unnatural because it wouldn’t be like any other sound. There are a lot of gestural qualities that are there, and that has to do with expression; it doesn’t have to do with the sound itself, it’s how you make the sound move.

From day one, I didn’t use a regular keyboard. A regular keyboard is very unnatural compared to… I mean, a harp, a keyboard, they’re very unnatural compared to what you described earlier by saying the voice is the most natural. The keyboard must have seemed like a computer screen when it was first developed. It didn’t go ooooooooohhhhhh, it goes dunk-dunk-dunk, so it’s all very relative from that standpoint. But I think it’s an interesting question because it allows me to describe what I meant when I said ‘gesture’. The way in which we recognize communication has to do with a gestural quality that is not easy to do with a machine. For example, in 1969 I was commissioned to record Touch for Columbia Records to be their first surround sound record. They made a surround sound record player. I don’t know how they did it. Somehow they got the needle to vibrate on two sides so they could get rear and front. And they didn’t have any record that kind of used that environment. I was already working with multiple speakers so they commissioned me to do this. And I did, and I got all sorts of things happening. It was pretty good at the time. I was invited to MIT to talk to graduate students. And they asked me how I got that sound to swoosh around the room. What was the algorithm to make that sound go swoooooosh? And I said that I took a microphone and I had an envelope follower that followed the amplitude of my voice and I turned my voice into a voltage and I sent the voltage around the room. They were very disappointed, of course, because they were looking for a mathematical explanation. But the fact is, because I did that it had a very natural feel as it went around the room. So from day one, I was using physical things like my fingers, pressure and vocal gestures to make aspects of the electronic music. And that’s probably what has made the sounds seem more ‘natural’ to everyone. So what most people think of digital is when composers would let the machine just go and not intercede in a meaningful way. So it’s not a product of the digital or the electronics, it’s a product of what we’re used to or what feels natural to us in the world – what we grew up perceiving. But it is still a natural thing. The speakers are vibrating and the air if moving. Think about, have you ever heard someone who is completely tone-deaf speak?

EM  No.

MS  There are very few of them.

EM  Do you mean someone who has Asperger’s Syndrome or autism?

MS  They have a very monotone quality, but someone who is really tone-deaf, it’s really eerie. It’s like a machine is talking. Because, you don’t notice, but right now, I’m making different pitches for everything that I’m speaking. We can’t generally speak without making some sort of differences in pitch. A tone-deaf person doesn’t hear any pitch change, so he can’t reproduce it. It’s striking, it’s spooky. It’s an extremely serious problem. But it’s not somewhat like a machine, it’s exactly like a machine. I think the natural-ness is the not issue, the issue is how you approach music, and music and musicality and all the expressions we have contains a gestural quality, which include pitch, time, amplitude, timbre, all these things are linked together like dimensions of expression. All creatures have this. Frogs have it. That’s why I mention crickets. Crickets are fairly digital, they are rubbing these little hairs, so it’s like a little comb. And there are some differences in them, they’re not absolutely digital, but they don’t have any control over that. But every thing above that, frogs, birds, they use their lungs and various kinds of apparatuses and you get some kind of variation of how the body feels at that moment. And of course then you have monkeys and apes, who are extremely good at it, they have a very wide range. That’s why we have music.

Morton Subotnick & California E.A.R. Unit performing at REDCAT Theater, LA (2012). L-R: Vicki Ray (piano), Eric KM Clark (violin), Amy Knoles (percussion), Morton Subotnick (electronics). (Photo: Steven Gunther. Courtesy: REDCAT)

EM  I’m also intrigued by the emphasis electronic music often has in shifting the dynamic from time to environment, particularly with so-called ambient, ‘wallpaper’ and ‘furniture’ music – from the compositions of Les Six all the way to Brian Eno – all of which is often non-gestural, repetitive and incidental, and thus sometimes dismissed as mere ‘noise.’ Must music remain immured in the realm of the gestural? Have we reached a plateau in electronic music where we can begin thinking of it not as temporal but as spatial/environmental?

MS  It’s true that a machine lends itself easier, it almost begs to just be turned on and stay on. But if you wanted to make that kind of music with strings, you wouldn’t be using the players very well to do it. To some extent, I think machines lend themselves to that kind of experience. But you know it’s a very old concept. Plato says at one point in The Republic that we should all be wary of those musicians who are doing very different things… it could cause trouble. But while people know what Plato said, what most people don’t recognize is the fact that he said it means that there were people doing those kinds of things that we don’t know about. We are only told about the music that he allowed us to know about. And Aristotle takes it to the next step and says that we should only allow those things that make us virtuous. People who create music to drink by or to go to sleep by or relax by, those kinds of music are not important. So they must have had some trance music at the time. Of course, we don’t know what it sounds like, we have no idea, because what we learned they did was only what he allowed us to know. And the Church certainly threw all of that out. And so there is no record. Even if they didn’t make this music very well, the desire was there, even then, to do something that made them feel that way. So it isn’t that the machine has brought this to us, but maybe because as a society we’re so dynamic, there are more of us that like it and can appreciate it. Even the Aristotles among us like it so it’s not that much of a problem. And machines have lent themselves to do that. But I don’t think machines have brought that to us or that we have gone to another plateau.

I think to get to the very crux of this for me, what I can say is that, on the one hand, you could use machines to play J.S. Bach but why? We can already do that. It was written for people to play and the best you can do with a machine is to have it play it as good as a person can do it. You can’t make a machine play it better, because there is no concept of better. You can’t make a better piano, the piano is a perfect instrument, because it was made to do what exactly it was supposed to do. Machines can do something else. We don’t really need machines to do the music we’ve been doing. From my standpoint, what I saw for the machine, for technology, as a composer and a musician of instrumental music up through I got to be 33 or 34, when I was finally able to give up everything and concentrate on the machine, and what I saw it in was the ability to combine all of my efforts. I didn’t have to write a piece and have someone else interpret it. I could be my own interpreter. I could be my own audience. I didn’t really enjoy playing in public. I liked playing music and writing music, but I didn’t like critics or audiences booing. So this was perfect for me. I could sit in my studio and play the music and make these records which people could buy, sort of like Glenn Gould. That was the impetus for it. And so what I looked for in the machine was the ability to master the technology and that meant I had to help create that technology. I had to work with [Don] Buchla and make the [Buchla synthesizer] that could do what I wanted to do. And what I felt about the record itself was that it was not the experience of a record of a performance, but it was the performance.

But, again, addressing the issues you are bringing up, for me, if I’m going to come onto the stage and use a machine, what is it about the machine that gives me something different than if I were to sit at the piano or organ and do it. What I realized is that it wasn’t so much the sounds or the gestures, it’s more than that… we have a model for it, it is the orchestra in which the conductor gets up in front and he doesn’t play any instruments at all, he hasn’t written the music, but he molds the music on the spot and that’s what gives it life. So he says at one moment, ‘A little louder there,’ and if you take it a little further and say he’s actually composing the music and getting into the mind of the players, so that when he gestures with his hand, the oboe player responds by playing what’s in his head, then he’s conducting and creating at the same time. And you can do that with a machine. You can set up all the materials as a composition as a set of what Earl Brown called ‘available forms’, as a set of materials that you can use, that you can call up on the spot, so that you are not playing individual notes, you’re playing whole groups of things like an orchestra would and combine things.

EM  What that is indicating to me is music as a kind of environmentality, because what you are speaking about is creating almost ecosystems or environments of sound rather than individual harmonic notes?

*MS  *But I’m not articulating the machine. I made all the things gesturally, So, for instance, with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Paaaa-pah-pah-paaaaaaa, Paaaa-pah-pah-paaaaaaa. But what if you took all the gestures, the purely Beethoven gestures, and recombined them. It would be a totally different piece of music, yet it would still sound like Beethoven and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. But it would be a brand new experience wouldn’t it? But not a new environment, because you’re making all those decisions and you know what it’s going to sound like. You’re not simply making aggregates that are environmental. You’re composing and improvising. But you’re not improvising notes, you’re quite right about that. It’s groups of notes. It’s more like a remix, but it’s more than that, because you can actually slow it down and speed it up. So the machine allows me not to stay away from the music but to be involved in it like the conductor. So for me the most important aspect of working with machines is to do even more than what I ever did before, but I don’t want the machine to tell me what I want to think or hear or feel. So if the machine can’t offer that to me, it’s not at all meaningful.

EM  At the time of the release of Silver Apples of the Moon in the late 1960s, you explained that your primary interest in musical format was to transmit your work via record exclusively for home listening, capitalizing on the medium of the record itself. At the time, the consumer electronics industry was finally producing not only the recording formats for longer private listening experiences but also the equipment necessary for homes to have their own hi-fidelity acoustic experiences – something that had previously only existed in concert halls. In other words, homes were becoming their own privatized environments for more complex audio design. The space of the house itself was becoming more technologized. And, in this sense, music was becoming as much a design practice as a traditional artistic medium. How much do you think the private home experience of music listening has fundamentally changed the way we perceive and interact with sound?

MS  When I look at younger people who grew up in this environment, which I did not, they are making a different music. And that’s part of the reason, they grew up in this new world, you may not call it the natural world, but it is for them because they grew up in it. But going back to the question, this is exactly why I got involved. In 1959, ’60, ’61, I was playing for the San Francisco Symphony, writing music and performing, and I was reading some early McLuhan and I was very aware that we were about to be changed as a culture. That media, the long-playing records, all those things you mentioned, there was the potential for this huge change.

As I got involved in this, I realized one of the biggest things, and I say it on the liner notes of Silver Apples of the Moon is that the living room record has become the new chamber music. It has taken the place of the piano. And now you have the music in your chamber, because of high fidelity and all of this stuff. It was almost like virtual reality. But it was all virtual, it didn’t seem like a meaningful thing. It shouldn’t replace that other music. Then, what was the music for that medium?

The second issue that came along with that, all simultaneously, is whether what you’re recording actually belongs in the living room. It had to have a number of elements. So you couldn’t depend entirely on dynamics. Dynamics would need to be relative. Because the person could play the overall recording at any volume they wanted. Only the amplitude of the gesture would be the important thing. And then, the order of the piece wouldn’t be important, because a person could flip over and play either side. You could also pick up the needle and play wherever you wanted. So I began to think of ways to make the recording as wonderful if you went from left to right as I had intended it to be, but it would also be okay if you didn’t do that. You’d still have references. Those are the demands I placed on myself.
Then, in order to do that, I had to understand what I would do in public that would really be different than [the private recording]. The rock ‘n’ roll world understood the difference but the classical world did not understand the difference. When someone does a video of a string quartet playing, it was just the string quartet playing. And that’s almost less, not more than just listening to it. If you are going to do something with a new medium, you have to add something to it, do more. And look how long it’s taken. There’s little in the traditional art world that comes as close to what the world of rock ‘n’ roll did. Instead of just shooting off fireworks… that doesn’t help the music any, it’s just a gratuitous addition.

I’m still alive and I was doing all this stuff before it was really done. There were no synthesizers, no nothing, I was doing all this from scratch and I’m still alive. So it’s not a very old thing. It’s like the printing press. It was a hundred or two hundred years before it had its real impact, before it came to be understood. How you could use it to make money, spread ideas. A lot of people at the beginning still thought it was preferable to copy books, it was more beautiful, and who wants to read all of this stuff anyway? It’s hard for us to even imagine. And I think we’ve got a way to go before a kind of maturity hits. There’s a kind of growth where these things become more natural and people are able to do more things with it that they don’t have to think about anymore. Let me show you something.

[Subotnick takes out iPad and shows his newly developed music application for children]

Morton Subotnick & California E.A.R. Unit performing at REDCAT Theater, LA (2012). L-R: Morton Subotnick (electronics), Eric KM Clark (violin), Vicki Ray (piano), Amy Knoles (percussion). (Photo: Steven Gunther. Courtesy: REDCAT)

EM  This is wonderful. I was actually going to ask you about your interest in music education. Over the years, I know you have helped develop computer programmes for children to expose them to computer-generated music at a younger age. I’m reminded of Raymond Scott’s early ’60s collections, ‘Soothing Sounds for Baby,’ which were meant to be played for children at very specific developmental thresholds. What was your interest in creating this software for young children? Do you think there is a specific link between the free-associative mind of a child and the kinds of tones produced in electronic music that allows them a greater appreciation than might occur in an adult?

MS  Well, this has to do with creativity. The child can be directly creative. They could never do this kind of thing before.

EM   I think what I’m trying to say is that, for instance, with Scott’s albums, they were prescriptive. The first album was for someone ages nought-to-six months, the second for a two year old, etc. So that his idea was that you could introduce an environment in which a child slowly appreciate more complex tonal experiences, and then possibly create something on their own. I agree it’s in a very different format though.

MS  But there is a difference. The problem with music while growing up is that … you could always finger paint from the time you could move your hand, but you couldn’t do music. You couldn’t reproduce music. You could bang on something. But nothing like you could do with building blocks or finger painting.

EM  What about the history of the child prodigy. Mozart, who you would put in front of the piano at the age of three?

MS  The average child does not have that ability. Those are very special cases. You could hand a piano to all the three year olds in the world and you would only have one or two Mozarts. So the point is, we couldn’t create music on any kind of rudimentary level compared to all the other things we could do. So I took the metaphor of finger painting, which any kid could do, but the fact that we grew up without doing that [form of music] as a kid, it’s like we grew up without being able to crawl …and I think it would be fun at a certain point to be able to go back and crawl and see what it feels like. So even though this application is developed for a three year old kid to use, it’s actually made for all of us to use. I honestly do not know what it will produce nor do I have any ambitions for what I’d like it to produce. All I see is that there is a possibility for something that wasn’t there before and I did it. I mean I didn’t prescribe it for three year olds because I think it was a three year old thing. I prescribed it for three year olds because that’s the age when I think we all lost this [musical interest], and so it’s good for the three year olds but it’s also good for the rest of us to find out what we could have done. I think this has to do with the joy of creating with sound, pitches and time. Manipulating them as you would putting blocks together. I’m looking to the machine for it to offer us things that we couldn’t do before.

EM  But something like this is also transforming how we look at music, what it means to make music. It almost becomes painterly.

MS  Yes, but also … I remember the first time I did something like this program with a kid. I had a little program that would do Mary Had a Little Lamb that they could use to create their own melodies and it would put this in the same syntax as Mary Had a Little Lamb. So they’d get the idea of syntax intuitively. And the first time this kid heard that, he shot back in his chair and said, ‘Is that legal?! I just ruined Mary Had a Little Lamb!’

Back to your original question, what seems most unnatural in music is to do the DJ thing of taking a musical piece and then taking it apart. But that’s human. That’s natural. We were just unable to do it before. The cave man couldn’t do this. But does that mean we shouldn’t do it?

EM  Without a doubt, Silver Apples of the Moon is one of the most seductive and intriguing musical titles in modern composition. It’s so evocative of a particular time and sound and a period of great musical curiosity. Among a number of avant-garde/pop musicians of the ’50s and ’60s, futurism and images of outer-space were an important inspiration for expanding their musical palettes. Here I’m thinking of everyone from Karlheinz Stockhausen to Raymond Scott to Joe Meek to Iannis Xenakis. Was science-fiction or futurism, either in literature or film or TV, an important influence on how you imagined certain sounds or types of music when you composed Silver Apples?

MS  I certainly was a science-fiction bug. That was definitely part of my life, and I’m sure that had a sub-conscious connection with the music. But that wasn’t the motivating thing however. The one thing I felt like at the time was that I didn’t know what this kind of music was going to be. I knew it wasn’t going to be a normal piece of music like anything I knew about before. You can’t think of what you don’t know. So I just sat in the studio and put patches together and fiddled for thirteen months, from ten hours a day, six days a week. And I begin to hear what I was doing, it evolved. I saw myself as interacting with the medium. And one of the earliest sounds I made on Silver Apples… actually comes first on the song, this wooshing upper register sound with a sort of pingy quality. It was a sound I became really attracted to. And at that time I read that Yeats poem and I forgot the name of it, but the first two lines are, ‘Golden apples of the sun/And silver apples of the moon.’ I didn’t pick golden apples of the sun because it was a sound that I imagined was closer to what an apple would feel like and sound like on the moon.

But the title of the Yeats poem, what attracted me to it, was that it was about traveling, about a trip that somebody was taking. That’s why I opened and read it. But I don’t think I ever finished it because after the first two lines, I went ‘Whoa!, that’s the name of the piece!’ But I wasn’t trying to make a science fiction piece. Also, in 1966, we hadn’t yet landed on the moon. And when NASA did go, a couple of years later, CBS called me up and asked if they could use Silver Apples of the Moon to broadcast it from the moon. I thought that was incredible.

EM  Wow, that’s amazing!

MS  But I got a call back later on from the culture department in charge and they decided they didn’t want my music played. You know what they chose in its place?

EM  No.

MS  The Star-Spangled Banner.

Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon (2004) and Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South (2012). He is a former lecturer at SCI-Arc, Los Angeles, USA, and the 2015 recipient of a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant.