Only a small group of aficionados may realize it today, but just a few blocks from where Morton Subotnick now lives and works in New York's Greenwich Village, the modern synthesizer arguably got its first dry run as a compositional tool. The unit itself was the Buchla modular system, and it was housed in a studio above the former Bleecker Street Cinema — a brief walk from the august halls of academia at New York University.
“NYU had brought me in as an artist-in-residence,” Subotnick recalls, “and I had agreed to do it even though I was sort of allergic to academic institutions. They got me the studio, and then they paid for Don Buchla to build a synthesizer to my specifications.”
The year was 1966, and Subotnick had just moved to New York from San Francisco, where he and composer Ramón Sender had co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1961. “When we started the Tape Center,” Subotnick continues, “my burning desire was to have what I call an electronic-music easel — something that would allow anybody to actually paint music. With the advent of the transistor and the sudden potential for everything to be cheap, I just felt that this was what I wanted to do. Ramon and I didn't know anything about electronics, so we started reading books, and we finally came up with a notion of how it might be done. Once we had that, we put an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle for an engineer.”
The engineer who got the gig was Donald Buchla, and his design became the prototype for the Buchla 100 series modular synth, which was introduced a year before the Moog modular. Subotnick himself soon broke through as the first classically trained composer to release an all-electronic full-length album; his legendary Silver Apples of the Moon (Nonesuch, 1967) was made entirely on the Buchla system in his Bleecker Street studio and was quickly followed by The Wild Bull (Nonesuch, 1968) and the quadraphonic Touch (Columbia/Odyssey, 1969).
Subotnick also pioneered the concept of the “control track” — the use of recorded audio as control voltages that could be routed back into the synthesizer to manipulate the original sound. In essence, the process was a precursor to MIDI technology. “Buchla made me these envelope followers — they were maybe the first,” Subotnick explains. “They allowed me to translate my voice into a control voltage. I just hated the idea of tape splicing, so I was developing all sorts of ways with the Buchla to avoid that, including control tracks. So I might have a vocal on one track, and then I would be controlling oscillators through a comb filter so I could get three different pitches with my three fingers using touch-plate sensors. This way, I might end up with four sets of control voltages and two tracks of tape.”
The method was perfected on Sidewinder (Columbia/Odyssey, 1971) — a stripped-down but keenly orchestrated slab of electronic psychedelia that morphs through several “movements” as Subotnick reroutes the control parameters to the synthesizer in real time. “Sidewinder” was recently revisited with multi-media artist Tony Martin, whose work with Subotnick stretches back to the mid-'60s (shortly before Martin brought his colored liquids and lights to the LSD-fueled atmosphere of the Fillmore West) and is one of the key performances presented on Subotnick's two-volume collection, Electronic Works, Volume 2 (Mode, 2004).
In the late '70s, Subotnick began another phase of composition that incorporated what he calls an electronic “ghost score,” based on a “ghost” device he designed to affect the live signal of a performer. “It started with a big orchestra piece [called “Before the Butterfly”] that I did for the bicentennial in 1976,” he remembers. “Twelve violinists had little contact mics, and they controlled the processing of the signal from four soloists in the orchestra, plus a little bit of the whole orchestra's microphone. They could move the sound across the proscenium, they could alter the pitch, they could ring modulate and they had amplitude envelopes. So that was the beginning.”
Now a youthful 74 years old, Subotnick has designed a music-learning curriculum for children called Creating Music, and he still keeps a busy performance and recording schedule. Recently, he returned to his older works — among them Until Spring (Columbia/Odyssey, 1975), now titled “Until Spring Revisited” — to reconfigure them for a live multimedia performance (with visual artist Sue Costabile) using the latest technology.
“I've used [Cycling 74's] Max/MSP, but now I'm onto [TroikaTronix] Isadora as an intelligent interface,” he says, citing the program authored by longtime assistant Mark Caniglio, “and it's really like walking into my own brain. I never wanted to come to the computer just to find out what I could do with it; instead, I think I wanted to tame it in my direction. Now, just to give you an example, I've just premiered a 45-minute solo piano piece [with a concert pianist], and I can sit at the computer and literally paint the sound of the piano throughout the entire piece, which is exactly what I wanted to do back in 1961. To me, that's pretty amazing.”