A Profile of Morton Subotnick

By · Title Image Morton Subotnick and Nyoman Wenton in rehearsal for the world premiere of “Intimate Immensity,” in 1996 · Date 5/24/2018

“I don’t even know what it means,” Morton Subotnick admitted, when I asked if his music could be called psychedelic. We were sitting in his hotel lobby on a Friday afternoon, a few days before his concert at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter. The influential experimental/electronic music composer’s appearance fit right in the spirit of their program. Located 20 minutes outside of Oslo, Norway, the museum is currently holding a retrospective on Scottish artists Mark Boyle and Joan Hills, who collaborated with canonical psych rock acts Jimi Hendrix and The Soft Machine in the ‘60s. The couple’s visual art, some of which falls under a form known as “liquid light shows,” was important to a particular aesthetic. They were also averse to being labeled psychedelic since their work went far beyond that; the couple produced interdisciplinary studies, mixing art with environmental science and natural history.

Interdisciplinary in his own right, Subotnick has likewise been associated with psychedelia, though he seems a little more sympathetic towards the label. “It has some bad connotations; I don’t feel connected to it, but I understand [the association].” Subotnick’s response felt brief, so I thought mentioning psychedelia might’ve been a dull point on my end. But while I was asking my next question he interrupted me with the topic of his opera “Sound Blocks: an Heroic Vision,” which debuted in 1961 in San Francisco, at the time a notorious hotbed of hippie culture.

Subotnick conceived the work as “a model for a public performance in a hundred years from now,” except he subsequently noticed its immersive, trippy aesthetic quickly growing popular around town. “The piece itself wasn’t all that good, but the idea was there,” he believed. “What I didn’t know was that, within four years—not a hundred years—the whole world was gonna go psychedelic. I didn’t call it ‘psychedelic,’ but looking back, that’s what I was doing.” He never had a need to do drugs, since his creative method has always been intoxicating enough. “The idea of music itself, it should take you to a new place.”

Subotnick with Ralph Grierson preparing “Liquid Strata” for piano and electronic ghost score at The Kitchen, 1979 Photo © Carlo Carnevali
Subotnick with Ralph Grierson preparing “Liquid Strata” for piano and electronic ghost score at The Kitchen, 1979 Photo © Carlo Carnevali

Subotnick is best known for his 1967 composition “Silver Apples of the Moon,” a landmark work that further demonstrated his avant-gardist, visionary aptitude. After “Sound Blocks,” a few other theater pieces, and his involvement with the creation of the first Buchla synthesizer in 1963, Subotnick was offered a $500 album deal by an executive from Nonesuch, but since he hadn’t heard of the label before, the composer thought he was getting scammed and rejected the offer. After he found out Nonesuch was actually legit and the label rep came back with a doubled offer, he recorded “Silver Apples”—the first ever wholly electronic album to be commissioned by a label.

It partly signified, on record, his break with composing serially in the spirits of Schoenberg and Webern (which had been his mode pre-“Sound Blocks”), along with composing at all with defined notes in mind. Because the Buchla 100 was without a keyboard, the instrument necessitated purely electroacoustic performance via its myriad knobs and oscillators and extensive circuit-patching. Through all this, Subotnick was able to defy the twelve-tone system.

In addition, because the Buchla was later instrumental in the advent of techno music, numerous critics have hailed Subotnick as a father of the genre. With this in mind, a “Family Guy” sketch on the origin of techno reads as not entirely absurd and baseless. “What key are we in?” says one guy at a keyboard. “No no no,” replies an engineer, “none of that.” Quite inadvertently, it corroborates Subotnick’s goal to move past tonal composition into new sonic dimensions, based around more textural possibilities.

Performing at Henie Onstad, Subotnick played a single piece that married his 1967 composition with 1978’s “A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur.” Its new composite title, “From Silver Apples of the Moon to a Sky of Cloudless Sulphur,” textually embodies a double-sided journey. One through a realm of cosmic alterity, based on the combined imagery, the other in a worldlier respect along the path of Subotnick’s output, in that these are two pieces created 11 years apart. While he used a Buchla 200 on “Cloudless Sulphur” instead of a 100 (which he’d stopped using by the early ‘70s), both pieces feature similarly percussive, serrated frequencies. These sounds render vague the fine lines separating polyrhythm from contrapuntal melodicism and other kinds of sonic elements.

Onstage he plays a hybrid instrument comprised of his Buchla 2003 running through Ableton Live, thus unifying the two compositions and their shared qualities within a single setup. This particular Buchla is significantly more compact than the original model, while maintaining its versatility. Ableton allows him to pull a bunch of captivating tricks, such as sending audio signals to speakers located around the room and preparing samples to spontaneously trigger live. All these aspects illustrate his enduring philosophy on live performance.

“I would bring my studio to the stage in a sense—metaphorically or symbolically, whatever—and take a bunch of materials, somewhere between samples and patches, and then layer it with post-produced new material, plus old material from a season of performances, then layer it with actual things that [I’m playing live],” he told me. “It’s made from oscillators that you’re playing in your studio post-produced, plus old stuff that you did last year or 10 years ago, and new stuff that you’re making right there on the spot. That’s what the performances have been for the last 50 years, except that the repertoire has grown because I’m making new things all the time.”

Joan La Barbar and Subotnick during the recording of “Jacob’s Room” for Wergo Records • Photo © Curtis Roads 
Joan La Barbar and Subotnick during the recording of “Jacob’s Room” for Wergo Records • Photo © Curtis Roads 

The central focus of Subotnick’s recent concerts, including at Henie Onstad, has been “Silver Apples,” because it turned 50 last year. Since he’s retired from putting out new records, on the belief that “the medium isn’t clear anymore,” recordings of what Subotnick has been up to in the studio can only be heard live, like when he’s incorporating them into performances of “Silver Apples.” So far he hasn’t greenlighted any live recordings captured by fans to be released publicly and officially—“but I may at some point, I don’t know.”

Along with his live approach and philosophy undergirding it, more artistic trends and convictions have stayed permanent throughout Subotnick’s extensive career since around the time of “Sound Blocks,” the point when he firmly went avant-garde. One of these was made apparent in preparation for a staging of his mono-drama “Jacob’s Room,” at the American Academy in Berlin in 2009. He was introduced to some contemporary artists for potential collaboration and out of the group he selected Lillevan, a Berlin-based media artist.

He seemed to bear an ethos reminiscent of a figure Subotnick collaborated with during the ‘60s, Tony Martin, who happens to be included among the same “liquid light shows” cadre as Mark Boyle and Joan Hills. The word Lillevan is Norwegian for “little water,” recalling the presence of earthly, fluid motion in the styles of both the Scottish couple and Martin.

“I wasn’t looking for the imagery of Tony, but the kind of abstract way he worked and things like that,” Subotnick said of the media artist. Although Lillevan used laptops, which obviously afforded greater technical possibilities compared to Martin’s light projection machines, the two grasped precisely what Subotnick wanted to achieve in the live setting. “I wanted a silent visual partner in performance and Lillevan understood that very well, so it turned out to be a really good relationship.” Lillevan joined the composer on a world tour lasting through 2015, where they played “From Silver Apples of the Moon to A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur.”

Another artistic consistency for Subotnick has been his lack of musical influences or awareness of more recent artists. For example, in 2015 he played the inaugural Trip Metal Fest in Detroit, organized by popular noise group Wolf Eyes. Unfamiliar with the meme-loving, eardrum-challenging group before they asked him to play the festival, he decided to check out Wolf Eyes on YouTube: “It was interesting.” He doesn’t quite know where to begin looking for new music, “because it’s so diversified now.” However, personal connections have proved informative. The one contemporary musician he expressed clear fascination with was German electronic music producer Atom™, who opened for Subotnick at Unsound Festival 2011.

Still, he’s managed to insulate himself for decades, and for a sensible purpose. “I haven’t paid much attention, even back [in the ‘60s], to what’s going on around me, because I’ve had something of my own I wanted to share with everybody, so it didn’t make much sense to get influenced by other people,” he said. “I had my own vision, I was trying to figure out what it was, and I didn’t want to get mixed up with thinking beyond [that]. I never thought I’d be part of anything, I thought everything was much further off than my whole lifetime. Maybe someone would pay attention, maybe they wouldn’t.” ¶