A model for the future: Synth pioneer Morton Subotnick on 50 years of Silver Apples of the Moon

Few figures are as important to electronic music as Morton Subotnick, the composer who helped forge a new path in the 1960s, challenging established notions of the nature of music itself. Oli Warwick talks to Subotnick 50 years on from the release of his seminal album Silver Apples of the Moon and finds out whether his predictions about electronic music did indeed come to pass.

How many visionaries get to see their theories about the future unfold before their eyes? When Morton Subotnick decided to turn his back on an accomplished career as a classical clarinet player and composer, there was no such thing as a synthesizer. He dedicated his life to this new concept with the belief that electronics were going to have a profound impact on music far beyond the established dogma of traditional instruments and musical notation.

In San Francisco in the early 1960s, Subotnick searched for a scientific mind that could help realize his ideas about sound manipulation using electronic circuits, and found his match in Don Buchla. Through their work at the San Francisco Tape Center, the Buchla 100 was built; it was one of the very first modular synthesizers to have ever been made. Subotnick and Buchla’s vision for a new way of making music rejected the notion of the black and white keyboard, instead focusing on the movement and manipulation of frequencies in ways that were quite simply unimaginable back in the ‘60s.

Subotnick predicted that the potential of this new technology would be slept on for at least 100 years while people tried to apply electronic music practices to existing musical forms. The widespread popularity of Moog synthesizers (developed and produced at the same time as the Buchla) was proof of his suspicions – the inclusion of a keyboard saw them more widely adopted by trained musicians, while the strange new technical practice of working a Buchla (or, equally, a Serge system) remained a niche concern for inquisitive, often academic minds.

Subotnick was the first person to be commissioned by a record label to record a wholly electronic album, and 1967’s Silver Apples Of The Moon is rightly hailed as a landmark in the development of electronic music. However, Wendy Carlos’s Switched On Bach was a more popular record of the era, rendering classical compositions via Moog for a public wholly unfamiliar with the sound of a synthesizer. Subotnick continued to pursue his vision with successive albums such as The Wild Bull, Touch, Sidewinder and more, creating what he considers to be “models” for how synthesis could be used to create daring new musical languages.

In the end, Subotnick’s vision has come to pass sooner than he expected – modular synthesis is being adopted at an exponential rate and experimental electronic music is expanding in kind. Given the interest in a culture he helped instigate more than 50 years ago, it’s no surprise that Subotnick himself is busier than ever, performing live and giving lectures across the globe.

Half a century after Silver Apples… was released, the kindly, modest octogenarian finds himself the subject of a documentary titled Subotnick that explores his life’s work. In this in-depth conversation, Subotnick reveals his thoughts about being on the big screen, the art of interacting with technology and being proved right sooner than he expected.

How does it feel to be the subject of a film? 

I have all kinds of feelings about it. If they do the film and I die the next day I don’t have a problem. If they do the film and I go into a movie house and I see myself up there on the screen, I think I’m going to have a little difficulty! Generally I’m very pleased, but I’m trying very hard to give them the information and go to the right people and make sure everything is correct. I just did my memoirs for MIT Press, so I’ve been through the whole thing over a period of four years and even hired a researcher to make sure what I think happened really happened when it did, so it’s a good time for me.

Do you feel reflective about how your career has evolved thus far?

When I started moving in the direction I was going to go in, around 1959-60, I was a clarinetist as well as a composer. That was the time that the transistor made its debut in commercial products and Bank Of America issued their first credit cards. I was in my mid-20s, and it was pretty clear that at that point, with my whole life and career ahead of me, that I was about to see music be affected the way the printing press affected language. To be alive at that moment and aware of it, I thought, “My god, maybe I should really get involved in this in a very serious way.”

By 1963 I was looking for a way to create a new kind of instrument that would allow people without musical training to become creative with this new technology. My basic thought was to be creative with this new instrument to show people how, without black and white keyboards, you could create a new kind of music, and so all these years I’ve been spending doing that.

In the last 10, 15 years I’ve actually seen what I imagined starting to happen. I didn’t think it was going to happen for at least 100 years. To be sort of recognized by these young generations that I anticipated I was working for is pretty special, and so the idea of getting the information out in the MIT book and now with the documentary is very special to me and I take it very seriously.

Do you feel like electronic music was preoccupied with approximating existing, traditional music for a long time after you helped develop the Buchla 100 and recorded Silver Apples Of The Moon?

Luckily I got the commission to do Silver Apples before the Moog, so it came out before [Wendy Carlos’s] Switched On Bach by at least a year. Had it been the other way around I’m not sure what would have happened, but either way I was pretty sure at the time that electronic gear was going to happen, but that it would be taking old instruments and making them electronic.

It takes years to learn how to play a black and white keyboard well, and with the early monosynths you could only play one note at a time. You couldn’t really play music very well, even traditional music. That’s one of the main reasons I threw away my whole career as a clarinetist. Even if I had been wrong, I would have gone ahead to try it. I imagined I’d never know whether I was right or wrong because I didn’t think it would change that fast. I wanted to find something that really allowed me to show how you could make big pieces of music without keyboards, just using the technology. That’s what the Buchla was about.

“My life’s work has been to open up to the possibility of not worrying about the technology, but worrying instead about your imagination”

Do you think there’s something more intuitive and expressive about playing with and reacting to the technology on a Buchla rather than writing out a score, practicing and playing it on a traditional instrument?

I guess the answer is yes and no! [laughs] It’s a big, big question. It’s much more nuanced than that. I’ve spent my whole life on this, because I realized over the years that it was a much bigger issue than just making a machine and new music. One of the problems, is that for some people, their idea of what they want to do creatively with sound isn’t what we’d call music. Some people are just using noise and sound and manipulating it. It’s not aimed at what we normally use music for, it’s aimed at what we do in the world of fine art painting and sculpture, but they’re doing it with sound.

An easier answer is, yes, by eliminating the interface which requires that you play a keyboard, that allows for the creative intuition to take you anywhere sound wants to take you, which includes things that are not part of what has historically been the music world. If you were growing up with pop music, you can do new kinds of pop music, and if you grew up with fine art music you probably won’t even touch it because you practiced your instrument four hours a day from the time you were four years old, and why should you go somewhere else? It’s a very complicated issue, and I began to realize as the years went on that I’d really kicked a hornet’s nest. I love it. I’m trying to write one more book about this issue because it’s huge.

If you take music away from the intuition and you just say ‘creative intuition using sound’, yes, what I helped bring into the world is a much better thing than a black and white keyboard, which essentially tells you what you’re supposed to do.

It’s now common practice for electronic artists to channel their creative energy into building systems in modular or programs such as Reaktor and Max MSP, taking away the need for composing, sequencing and arranging. This leaves them free to guide the behavior of the system and resultant sound rather than straining to write a melody or rhythm, and it seems like that’s something you struck upon at the very beginning.

At the very beginning, when I worked with Don [Buchla], we were trying to design a system that was capable of playing Bach if you wanted it to, but you could also manipulate sound in any possible way that you could imagine. It’s a very large range of stuff that is possible, and the extremes are what you’re seeing right now. You’re seeing people who really don’t want to write music, and there are others who actually want to make pieces of music.

The Eurorack and those instruments are generally moving more in the direction you’re talking about. The interfaces are very important. In the beginning we had the touch plate, which could do all kinds of things you couldn’t do with anything else, but then by the end of the ‘60s I had Don make an envelope follower so I could sing and use the amplitude of my voice as a controller, and a lot of what I did on the later records was a result of that.

There are breath controllers now that are just fabulous. I have one from Sweden and you can do anything with it. It even follows the movement of your head! [laughs] The interface thing is now catching up with the electronics itself, and I think over the next 15 years you’re going to see amazing new kinds of genre coming about. My life’s work has been to open up to the possibility of not worrying about the technology, but worrying instead about your imagination. That’s the next threshold.

Have you been watching and waiting for this to happen?

I didn’t pay too much attention to tell you the truth because what I saw basically was what I expected, which is that it would model previous music. What I didn’t really think about at the time was that the music it was going to model was going to be rock ‘n’ roll and pop music and dance music. That’s where it all stayed for a long time. There was a kind of avant-garde of dance music, but it still had a beat and all that. Not that there’s anything wrong with a beat but I was also interested in other things. I guess it’s about the last 15, 20 years I’ve seen it actually begin to break from the basic model of dance music to all kinds of stuff. I think it’s changing extremely fast now, and people with different emotions and different kinds of thinking are beginning to create things, not just the people who are part of the dance music scene.

“All my records went in different directions because I was really creating models for the future”

Genres such as techno have been a haven for experimental sound in terms of texture, sound design and so forth. You’ve been quoted in the past describing yourself as, “a father with children he never knew he had.” From what Silver Apples… did all that time ago, do you feel like in some way you inspired things like techno?

I never thought I’m the father of any of that – I think people would have come to it if I hadn’t existed. I think what we’ve done is made it easier for them to come to it and I have done what I intended to do – I’ve offered a model.

Even though I was working with electronics that were very new, I wasn’t doing music. I was offering a kind of sound that you would find it very hard to replicate, even now. It’s a pretty complex piece for my first one and I worked six days a week minimum, 10 to 12 hours a day for 13 months making that. There aren’t too many people who would do that right now with anything. I was offering something that isn’t easy to do, but that was the point.

All my records went in different directions because I was really creating models for the future. The last couple dealt with pulse a lot, but when I did Sidewinder, there’s a little bit of rhythm but most of it is sonic stuff changing, it was a whole different model. I think I did what I intended to do, but I really don’t know whether I was the father of anything. There’s no way for me to know.

Aside from the key electronic albums you’ve released, there have also been times you returned to instrumentation and composition, as on 1984’s Ascent Into Air. How did that fit into your mission to build models for future generations?

Well that was another direction. The records were dealing primarily just with electronics. Then I went to instruments to make models for using technology with instruments, and Ascent Into Air was a big leap forward for me. In the last five or six years I’ve finished with instruments and I’m going more towards large scale electronic works with visuals, so I’ve gone all over the map. I had set a whole programme for myself of pure electronics, then electronics with instruments, and now I’m on the theory of the stage and I have been for some years now.

So, in terms of your own artistry you became more concerned with live performance?

The last part of my life now I’ve been dealing with live performance with electronics, interfacing the Buchla with Ableton, and then focusing on the dramatic side of playing live, producing works which have a kind of theatrical or dramatic sense.

Are you providing the audience with a multi-sensory experience?

I think it’s presumptuous to say I’m going to create masterpieces that people will live with forever. I’d rather think like a teacher – you encourage and nurture people and give them models and ways to think about things. It was clear at the beginning that I had a vision that wasn’t everybody’s vision. It really has moved in the direction I thought it was going to do, pretty much. That’s why the book and the documentary are really nice for me, because it’s a further way of documenting this stuff and trying to be really clear about what it’s all about.

Is there a social motivation behind what you do, rather than the more ego driven tendencies of a typical artist?

I think so. For me, this major part of my life has been a personal obligation as a human being. I had an idea that I thought would be very useful to share, that would be meaningful to lots of people.

I’ll give you a little experience from when I was about 14 years old. Before I was even in high school I auditioned for an all-state high school orchestra and I got first chair clarinet. As I’m walking out of the audition this woman is screaming at these guys saying, “Well that kid is not even in high school and he’s playing first clarinet, my son is in high school and he plays good and he should be the first one!” They said, “But he plays better. He should be the first…” and I went up to them and I said, “I don’t care if I’m first clarinet, he can do it, I don’t really want it.” And they said, “No, no, you’ve got it,” and I turned to the mother and said, “Well maybe we can share it. I’ll play half of the music, and you’ll play half,” and that’s the way we ended up doing it. [laughs] So it hasn’t been that important to me to be first or whatever. If you have the ability to do something that you can share with someone else, you should do it. Otherwise we’re going to be back in the jungle again.

Oli Warwick is on Twitter

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