Morton Subotnick: A Conversation (Bonus Material) - EMusician

Morton Subotnick: A Conversation (Bonus Material)

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Is it true that you haven’t recorded a new album since the 20th century, and only two since the ‘80s?
I haven’t done an electronic recording. I have some “ghost” pieces that have been done, and someone just recorded my piano music and that sort of thing. We brought back a bunch of things into CD, but I haven’t done a live electronic performance on a CD.

Why?
Because the pieces for a record were actually created for records, and I’m not really interested in doing that anymore. I would do a CD, perhaps, of live performances that are put onto a CD. I’m not sure about that.

Are you planning to record and release your new composition Crowds and Power?
Crowds and Power can’t be a CD because there’s too much visual. We have some more performances coming up, and I’ll be doing some (probably for the rest of the season) making adjustments. And then we’ll probably make some kind of DVD or something of it. But it can’t be recorded as a CD because there’s a lot of it—I guess about seven or eight minutes—that is totally silent.

Yeah, that would be a problem on a CD.
[Laughs.] Yeah.

I’ve heard that Buchlas are notoriously unreliable, especially when traveling. Has that been your experience?
Well, I suppose. I haven’t had too much trouble. The 200e has been pretty reliable. In the old days, Don would get on an airplane and fly out if I had trouble, as far as Norway [Laughs.]

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Suzanne [Ciani] told me the same thing.
I don’t think that they’re that unreliable. They’re unreliable if you want to think of them as a musical instrument. They’re not as reliable as a normal instrument, because it’s got a whole different concept to it.

If you’re not playing a piece that you have to have C# for sure at a certain point and C# disappears… In the process that I use, if something isn’t working, I just play around it. I change what I’m doing. I’ve had that happen in the middle of a performance where I’ve had to make an adjustment like that. But it’s not a piece, so it doesn’t matter.

So, you can work around whatever limitations it gives you in the instant.
Yeah, and other things happen that I didn’t expect, and I can build them in. It is different than what most people think of. Analog to some people is always that way. Some people do it in such a way that they never know what they’re going to get. That’s what they do. But mine’s somewhere in between there.

Do you consider electronic instruments more intuitive than acoustic instruments?
No.

Do you think they’re as expressive?
As I said, I don’t think of the Buchla as an instrument. It’s not a musical instrument like you would be playing. I don’t consider the palette, the paintbrush, and the canvas as an instrument.

Yes, but they are used for visual expression.
They are visual expression, and this is audio expression. But when you make an instrument, it is an instrument, of course. A brush is an instrument, a toothbrush is an instrument. But a musical instrument as we’ve gotten to know it in our culture in Western music is an instrument on which you play a piece of music that was intended to be played, and it has a correct and an incorrect. You can interpret it. You can become expressive with it.

For instance, at the turn of the century, I did a lot of interviews, and one of them was with a Keyboard magazine. Of course, they asked me the question, “In the 21st Century, do you think we’ll have a more perfect piano?”

I said, “No! The piano is already perfect.” It was evolved to do what it does. It wasn’t evolved to do anything else. It was perfectly done. You could maybe make it lighter so you could carry it or fold it, but you can’t make it more perfect. You can’t make a musical instrument more intuitive and more…What does it mean, intuitive, actually? Music isn’t intuitive, unless you’re singing. But if you’re playing an instrument, think about the keyboard. You think that’s intuitive?

No. You have to learn. You have to study for years.
That’s right, you have to. But you get it to the point that it becomes intuitive. There is no intuitive in music because the music itself becomes intuitive. Our intuition doesn’t include a C major scale or anything like that. That evolved over thousands and thousands of years. Music as we know it requires you to be part of the musical culture, and if you’re not, that’s why you can’t play a violin and start when you’re 18 years old. You can’t do it. You can do it like I did when I started at five or six years old playing music so that I never thought about it by the time I was 18: I just played. That’s intuition. I just played.

In fact, we used to do these things for young people who needed to hear their music, and the Musicians’ Union would give us $15. We’d group together and play people’s scores and read them for them. One time we were doing that (this was back in the ‘50s), and at that point you’ve got your music copied so that they’d be a blueprint from a blueprint machine, and they’d be folded—accordion fold. There were four of us playing, and I was playing, and the music started falling off the music stand. Someone ran up, and I kept playing. I had never seen the piece before. We were sight-reading. I kept playing for at least 30 to 40 seconds right with them because I already knew from what I just played approximately what the next 30 to 40 seconds were going to be. That’s how intuitive you become at playing music. He got the music and he turned the pages, and I had to nod when he got to the right page because I knew where we were. I knew what was 30 seconds further down the line. I was playing and it was very, very close to what it was supposed to be. So that’s something that, without years and years of playing, a person could not have done. It sounds impossible, right? But it’s not at all.

If I say, “I think I’m going to go…” you know right away. In fact, they’re doing it at Google all the time; about five words within the next word (not all the words). That’s how intuitive it is, because you know language. But if you didn’t know language, you wouldn’t know what it was that was coming next. And music became that. That’s not intuitive, that’s a result of… I mean, it is intuitive. But our intuition is not the result of something that’s just, “Oh I know what that is!” You have to know a lot to know what that is and where it’s going.

But the electronic instrument I was looking for would be something that wouldn’t be intuitive from that standpoint, because you’d be inventing music from time zero. You wouldn’t be trying to put anything together. So, its operation has to be intuitive, but it’s not musically intuitive. But if you use the Moog, that’s intuitive. If you played a keyboard, you know exactly what to do with the Moog, and you know how to do it. So, I think the question that you asked has no absolute answer in the normal sense of the word, because it’s in a different world. If you take a Eurorack [synthesizer] and you don’t really know what a Eurorack is; if you give it to any musician who knows music, is that going to be intuitive to them? I doubt it!

Have you tried any of the polyphonic multidimensional controller instruments, like the Haken Continuum or the LinnStrument?
No, but I use controllers. I’ve used breath controllers and different kinds of controllers. But I don’t think of them as instruments. I keep saying it because if you use the word, it’s a non-sequitur to what I’m trying to do, and it’s a problem that is not going to be there eventually for generations to come.

The reason Silver Apples and my work has, over the last 15 years, become part of the younger people’s thing is because they’re beginning to understand innately that maybe the keyboard isn’t the right thing to be doing. There may be another way to go in it, and looking at it and what I’ve done and what other people like me have done, they say, “Whoa, maybe I don’t need a musical instrument. Maybe I can just do this.”

The piano, the piano keyboard, invites you. It has a message. It says, “Play me in a scale.” Well, what the f**k is a scale? Is that natural to a person? No. They’ve heard it, but they never did it with their bodies. It’s very complicated. It’s really a big issue.

Do you have any advice for someone just starting out in electronic music?
No, I really don’t because electronic music…I don’t even know what electronic music is. It’s so many different things.

If you were to tell me, “I want to do x with electronics,” I might be able to give you some advice. But I never thought about something as electronic music. I think of music with using electronics. And then you have to ask what kind of music. Then, if you go through all that process, I would be able to give advice. Otherwise, I just don’t know. I think my only advice is to try to figure out for yourself what you’re really after, and you will probably know what to do.
Photo of some of the the candy tins Subotnick used to store his Ghost proms, from the Library of Congress collection. (Photo: Gino Robair, 2017)

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