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Pioneering electronic music: 40 years on

Interview: Morton Subotnick. Electronic music has been around for longer than one would think, so transmediale is bringing one of the originators right here to Berlin.

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Photo by Anja Koehler

In the last 50 years, electronic music has morphed from the Space-Age synth creations of the 1960s, when Walter-then-Wendy Carlos recorded Bach classics using only electronics, to the software now inhabiting every MacBook. Composer Morton Subotnick, whose revolutionary first record, 1968’s Silver Apples of the Moon, represented a fundamental shift in the way music was constructed, has watched the technology grow every step of the way.

Subotnick recently performed a version of the original work, including sounds taken from his 1978 record A Sky of Cloudless Sulfur in a partially improvised, one-off performance to launch the 12th edition of the transmediale festival. EXBERLINER caught up with the musical trailblazer to get his take on the radical shift in the way we make, play and listen to music.

How did you first get involved with electronics as instruments?

I got a good commission from a theatre company in San Francisco to do music for a King Lear production, this was ‘58-‘59, and I decided to try out using the tape recorder and making sounds for the music. I really got hooked. I was the composer and I was the performer and I could listen to it. There wasn’t this social thing where you wrote a piece of music and handed it to the musicians and they interpreted it, and then it goes out into the auditorium, and then people listen to it. I was doing everything in my studio.

It’s such an odd thing to talk about because everybody can do that now, but there was no possibility of doing that up until that time. I saw the possibility of being a composer as if I were a painter, composing as a studio art. I immediately started working on music at that point, but the real problem was that the technology was just awful. I mean it was terrible: you had to cut tape and splice it together.

What led you to developing and performing works simultaneously with a visual artist?

I wanted to have a music that reacted in real time, so that the composer/performer who was usually in the studio making these things was now making choices at that moment – not just playing a piece, but making choices with materials. We used those Pyrex plates and dyes and things, and projected them. They were simultaneous performances that were linked together loosely, but they weren’t planned. Lillevan works exactly that way, so he and I can get into a moment. He’s working with computers as I am, so he can be very quick in responding, where as the plates didn’t respond very quickly.

How does it feel in comparison to more traditional performance?

It’s an entirely different situation. I always got bored playing the clarinet. Even if it was my own music: I’m playing a piece and it’s already written. I’ve already played it. I reached the point where I was afraid I was going to fall asleep on stage. At my first job in Denver, when I was playing in the symphony orchestra, within the first three weeks they called me into the front office and said, “We want you to raise your music stand.” I said, “Why?” And they said, “Because you’re causing a yawning epidemic in the audience.”

But with the synthesizer… I only practice knowing where everything is, because I do it differently every time. I’m making creative decisions constantly and there’s a risk it could not be so good. But that’s why I have the underlying whole shape that I can fall back on. And of course having an audience charges you.

Do you respond to what’s happening in the audience?

I don’t respond to them at all. I’m probably sensing – one senses one might be empathizing. I just know that people are watching me; I’m on the spot. Having another person there is a great help, because sometimes that person’s responding to you directly. That energizes both of us at that moment.

How do you define a performance as live?

Obviously, if you’re playing the piano you’re playing it live. You can see the person doing it. When you see a person with computers you don’t always know exactly what’s going on. I’m making interpretive and compositional decisions on the spot and I have a machine to do the work for me. The machine is your musicians, it’s your orchestra and you’re composing the work at that moment.

Where do you draw the line between music and so-called sound art?

You can be sitting by yourself and sitting in front of the computer or your synthesizer and you can just start from scratch making things. Expressing yourself musically is something we do with our voices, we do it with tin cans, and we do it with a computer. It should join the world of music, but only the culture can make that happen. It’s not a club you can just join. You have to be invited, if you know what I mean. You can be invited after you’re dead: “Oh look what he did! That’s music, we just didn’t realize it at the time.”

Are there really completely new sounds to be made?

There are new sounds, and that itself can be an art, just like there are new colors and new shapes that can be art. Those sounds move in time, and then they begin to form musical-like entities, just like shapes begin to look like a rock or a car or an amoeba or something. We can create new musics, new musical structures. We can do all of those things and they’re all being done on a daily basis. And they’re going to be done a lot more because we’ve just started.

Is this new creativity related to the astronomical increase in consumption of music through the use of MP3 players?

The ease with which people can access this stuff has completely exploded the consumption of music, and I don’t know what that’s going to do to the creativity. I think it’s a separate entity. People really have always liked music.

Why? I think because we’re musical creatures. Our mothers sang to us. When we talk, we talk musically, otherwise we’d be robots. [speaks in monotone] “I talk this way.” And pulsing is even separate from the normal musical thing – people could just take off on pulsing. Because pulse is a synchronicity that goes with the body and draws us like moths to a flame. And you start putting the inflective gestural quality of music to the pulsing that draws us together – it’s dynamite for us as a species. If you didn’t do anything else but pulsing, the whole world would just be pulsing together.