A Conversation with Morton Subotnick

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Silver Apples of the Moon
Image placeholder title

Music technology journalists often overuse the word pioneer, but there’s no more apt description for composer Morton Subotnick. Most notably, he was the first composer commissioned by a record company to produce an album of electronic music. The company was Nonesuch Music, the year was 1967, and the album was Silver Apples of the Moon. Forty-two years later, the album was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Registry of Recorded Works, recognizing it as one of the 300 most important recordings in history, alongside Switched-On Bach, Giant Steps, and The Dark Side of the Moon. In July, celebrating the record’s 50th anniversary, Subotnick performed his groundbreaking composition at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in Manhattan, where he also debuted a new composition called Crowds and Power before an enthusiastic audience and to glowing reviews.

Photo Credit: Ed Jansen

Image placeholder title

In 1962, while teaching at Mills College in Oakland, California, Subotnick cofounded the San Francisco Tape Music Center. While there, he approached engineer Don Buchla about building a “music easel,” an electronic instrument without a keyboard or any other traditional instrument interface, so that the player would have no preconceived notions about how to play it or how it should sound. The result of Subotnick’s ideas and Buchla’s technical expertise was a series of instruments that enabled previously unheard tone colors and new ways of making music.

Buchla’s synthesizers turned Subotnick’s vivid dreams about the future of music into reality. Sadly, Don Buchla passed away last year, but at the age of 84, Morton Subotnick continues to compose and perform his music in concert halls around the world.

How did your musical career begin?

My musical career started when I was about 16 years old. In high school, I was playing semiprofessionally in Los Angeles. About a year after high school, I was playing in the Denver Symphony, and I was a clarinetist. I was writing music, but my career at the time wasn’t making a living as a composer. I was just getting started, but I was a musician performing.

When was the last time you picked up a clarinet?

I stopped playing the clarinet in 1965. The last time I picked it up was when Terry Riley was having some anniversary of In C at Carnegie Hall, and they asked me if I would play in it because I played in the original in 1964. I had my clarinet case that had been sitting in my studio for years, decades. About two days before we were going to have a rehearsal, I decided I’d better open it to see if there was a reed on the mouthpiece or if I could still play it, and there was no clarinet in there! [Laughs.] I played on a borrowed clarinet. That was the last time I played, but I hadn’t played in years before that.

Suzanne Ciani told me she didn’t touch the piano for years after she took up electronic music. Is there something about Buchla synthesizers that makes good players abandon their previous principle instrument?

Not for me, that wasn’t the reason. In 1959–1960, we were just on the edge of starting the Tape Center. I was playing with the San Francisco Symphony part time and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra full time. Around that time, I was just playing with electronics as an idea. I was writing music for instruments and performing, but it was a time when I was getting everything started [that would lead to] where I ended up.

Image placeholder title

The first commercial uses of the transistor were in 1959, and Bank of America released their first credit card. It was obvious, with the transistor being so cheap and money not really being necessary to purchase things in any large amount, that the delivery of music in our culture and in the world was going to change radically. To me, it was like being alive at the time of the printing press because—this was my analogy at the time—the printing press was to language what the transistor and electronics would be to music.

The electronics were going to produce new cheap instruments, but it was pretty clear to me that the instruments they would produce would be electronic versions of what we already had in some form or another, anything from flutes to guitars to pianos. There would be easy access to buy the stuff, but you’d still have to learn them.

I [recently] wrote a book, a sort of memoir, for the MIT Press, and I used a quote from [Marshall] McLuhan where he says, “We walk into the future backwards looking through a rearview mirror.” We can’t see the future, so we take what we’ve got and sort of drag it with us into the future. That was the feeling I had, that the first thing that would happen with electronics is we would create instruments that were modeled after the instruments that we already have.

At the actual performance side and the creation side, it was going to be rudimentary, because if you take a normal instrument or write music the way we’ve been writing it, you can’t start at 18 years old. You need the whole background of having played an instrument for years and it becoming part of your nervous system and knowing instruments and knowing notation and knowing orchestration and knowing all this stuff.

So, I imagined that if we could create a new kind of instrument that was not going to replace anything, it would be time zero for a new kind of music. You started from scratch at that point and developed as you have with—I use the painting as a model—the palette and the brush and the canvas. I had at that point decided I would start with a new kind of instrument that was, in effect, an instrument to make instruments. I was thinking specifically that for the first time in the history of human being, the making of music could be a studio art where you don’t write a piece; you do it in your studio.

That was where the Buchla came from, because I tried various ways to do it, and then finally Don came along. I had put an ad in the paper for an engineer, and he was one of them that came. The idea was to make this music easel, and it wouldn’t reflect a musical instrument. You weren’t going to perform it in public; you were going to have it in your studio and some tape recorders. And it was a new kind of music. It had to be not what I had been trained to do and I knew about and was doing with instruments. It had to be something that was… I didn’t know what it was. It had to be something else, a record that had no place other than coming out of your studio.

It was such a remote thing and such a wonderful idea, I just felt like I had really hit on something. I was only 25 or 26 years old. I thought, I could recreate myself and forget about all this. I could play the clarinet—I was a very good clarinetist—but if I never played the clarinet, the world wouldn’t notice. [Laughs.] And I was not a bad composer. I was getting commissions and did pretty well for that age group, but the world wouldn’t have suffered if I didn’t write my music.

But with an idea like I had, if I could do something that was even remotely meaningful to other people, it could be a real contribution. I thought, how do you give up something like that? If I had the opportunity and the ability to do something that would be meaningful to a large—to any—part of a population that would have some impact, you sort of have an obligation to do it. I was excited about it. So I decided, as soon as I could afford to not play the clarinet anymore, I would just give it up because it was going to get in the way.

I had two kids at the time and a wife, so I needed a living. I finally was offered a job in New York in ’65. I was writing music for the theater, and the company was invited out to start Vivian Beaumont [Theater] at Lincoln Center, and that gave me about half of a salary. NYU had just started their School of the Arts, and I was doing a lot of multimedia at the time. They were looking for an artist-in-residence, two of them, one who would bring music. So, I became an artist-in-residence at NYU, and they gave me a studio. I left the original Buchla at the Tape Center, and they bought a duplicate of it for me for NYU. So, I gave up the clarinet at that point, and the rest is history.

Herb Deutsch encouraged Bob Moog to build synthesizers with functions he wanted for himself. Would you say you served the same role for Don Buchla?

It was the same kind of relationship. Don actually built it for me. He built it for the Tape Center. It wasn’t the Buchla synthesizer; it was the San Francisco Tape Music Center. That’s what it said on the first modules. It’s actually even more specific than the Moog, because Deutsch wanted Moog to make a synthesizer. I didn’t want Don to make a synthesizer; I wanted to create an entirely new concept, which was the easel, and that would be just for me to experiment with at that point. We never thought about selling it or anything like that. Don did, but I didn’t have that in mind at all.

He was making it for us, for the Tape Center. After that I said, “No, I don’t want to be in business. You can take my name off. You can do anything you want with it.” It became Buchla and Associates.

But it is the [same kind of] relationship. Deutsch was the kind of musical muse with Moog, and I was certainly more than the muse, because I actually commissioned it. It wasn’t Don’s thinking. He was interested in making electronic musical instruments. I wasn’t at all interested in that. And that’s what he finally did after the 200. He thought of them as electronic instruments, and he actually worked with keyboards and all that kind of stuff. Even when they didn’t have a black-and-white keyboard, he sketched in where the keys would be on them, the ones you touched. And on the original ones, that didn’t exist.

With Don, if I needed anything he would just make it for me. His reputation altered with mine at that moment when Silver Apples came out. It took off at that moment, and we were like Siamese twins at that point. I couldn’t have been there without him, and he couldn’t have been there without me, so that was pretty clear at that point. I think to a large extent it stayed that way. Our names have been sort of linked together. Our lives got linked together in a way that Deutsch’s and Moog’s never did.

You play the 200e, don’t you?

No. I don’t play anything.

The last time I saw you perform, you had a 200e.

Photo Credit: Steve Gunther

Image placeholder title

I use it. It’s not really performing in the normal sense of the word, but yes. I don’t play it; I compose. I don’t know what you call it, but it’s not like playing an instrument. It’s been very hard for me to get across that it’s not an actual performance. Instead of using tape recorders, I have samples and new stuff, and I’m making decisions on the stage. I’m composing and performing and listening on the stage, and people are witnessing me while I do it. I think of it as a process. The records were pieces as a result of a year of process, and then they got frozen. But when you’re on the stage, they’re not frozen, they’re in flux.

You don’t consider that improvisation?

It’s improvisatory, but when you say improvisation, we used to think of the improvisations as actual performances that have a beginning, middle, and end. Although this does, because I have to start sometime and end sometime, it’s different for me. It’s a different way to think about it and look at it, but I don’t think of it in the normal sense of a performance. It’s very difficult because there’s no actual format.

If I go out, I’m asked to be on a set where people are playing pieces. “How many pieces are you going to do? Give me the names of the pieces”—that kind of thing. I try as much as possible to do an evening like an hour long, somewhere between 45 minutes to an hour and ten minutes, and I just play. I put things together and I compose. It’s not totally improvisational, because I have to have some ideas of what I’m doing and get things together. I bring the studio, in a sense, onto the stage, and then it’s an hour’s worth of something like a piece. [Laughs.] I don’t know what it is.

What equipment do you take onstage?

I have favorite samples from all my music, all my electronic music, and a lot of stuff that I’m working on. A lot of it has been stuff in the last six or seven years and stuff I’ve been developing for Crowds and Power, and I put them together. I have things that I’m doing live on the Buchla, and I have lots of samples I’ve recorded in the studio, and then samples from the past of parts of pieces. I usually call it something like From Silver Apples of the Moon to A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur: Revisited, and I add new stuff. I sometimes give it a name that gives an idea of the direction I’ve been going in, but it’s just part of the process.

Does it feel like 50 years have passed since Silver Apples of the Moon?

It feels like more than that. When I started, I thought, this thing I’m talking about now, which I thought then, is probably fairly remote still—not Silver Apples, but the idea behind it. If it ever comes, it probably won’t be there for at least 100 years. So, 50 years is only half the time. [Laughs.] And I think I may have been right. I think what I’ve been trying to do will become even more clear to the generations 50 years from now than it really is even to me now. But that was my first attempt.

Image placeholder title

[Waveshaper Media is] doing a documentary on me now, so we’re reliving a lot of stuff, and it seems like yesterday in some ways. But it also seems like what everybody thinks of 19-anything—1960, as that’s another century. I feel sometimes like a time traveler. I feel like I don’t belong here. This is way into the future that was hugely far away. If I relive the making of Silver Apples and that whole period of what I was doing, it doesn’t seem like 50 years, it seems like 150 years. But if you listen to it, it still seems to have a freshness. People seem to feel that way, so that’s pretty good.

I heard that when Jac Holzman from Nonesuch Records first approached you about making the album, you threw him out. Is that what happened?

Well, I did ask him to go, yeah. I didn’t physically throw him out. He came back the next night. We’re going to go to Los Angeles with the film people, and we’re going to sit with Jac and talk about it. I’d like to hear how he remembers it. That’s how I remember it, anyway.

Fifty years ago, I was talking about the future like I’m talking to you now, and nobody understood what I was talking about. And this guy came in, and he actually said what I was thinking, and I thought he had been to one of my lectures. That’s why I kicked him out, because I thought he was making fun of me. But he was really visionary, and so he came back. He had offered me $500, and when he came back he offered $1,000. He thought I kicked him out because it wasn’t enough money. I would have paid him to do it, but…

Have you learned a lot about yourself from researching and writing your memoir and doing this documentary?

Photo Credit: Adam Kissick

Image placeholder title

If you mean did I learn something new about myself, no. But given what I’ve already told you, I was very conscious of what I was doing from the beginning, and I stuck with it pretty much all my life, not completely, but… I even thought at some point I would complete my task and go on to other things, and I still feel that way, except I’m 84, so I don’t know how much of another thing I can do at this point.

A flutist who’s my age—I knew him when I was in high school—we played chamber music together. I ended up in the Denver Symphony, and the next year he came to the Denver Symphony, and so it was nice. We had not been in touch, but maybe once or maybe twice in all those years. He wrote me an email about a year ago, so we’ve been in communication. He lives in San Francisco, so I thought, when we do the interviews in San Francisco, he should come in and be interviewed, so he did. I said, “Talk to them about what you remember of me,” and I sat there and listened to him, and [it was like] he was talking about a different person than me.

Doing the documentary has rekindled old memories and given you new perspectives on yourself.

Yeah, that’s because other people are getting involved. [The documentary] and the book have filled out things that I had forgotten and sort of nuanced my life. I have a better picture of myself than I had, certainly more realistic. In some cases, I did more than I imagined, and other things I may have done less than I imagined. But it’s nuanced and it’s given more truth to my life, and that’s very exciting.

So, you have learned things about yourself.

Yeah, I’ve learned things about myself and life. That’s what it’s all about.

Will I see you again at the next AES show?

No. I’m playing in New York a big concert on November 3rd. I’m going to do the Silver Apples to A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur with a percussion ensemble of about ten people and visuals. I’ll start working with a percussionist and develop a whole thing. That’s the next time I play in New York. And I’ll be in Berlin in November, also, and in Yugoslavia somewhere. So, if you’re in any of those places, let me know.