Interview with Morton Subotnick

RESEARCH SERIES #22 Interview with Morton Subotnick By Arie Altena Kontraste festival, 12 October 2013 Morton Subotnick (1933) is a pioneer in the development of electronic music and multi-media performance. He’s also an innovator in works combining instruments and other media, including interactive computer music systems. Most of his music calls for a computer part, or live electronics processing; and his oeuvre utilises many of the important technological breakthroughs in the history of the genre. In 1962 Ramon Sender and Subotnick commissioned Don Buchla to create an electronic instrument for live performance, which became the Buchla synthesiser. His work Silver Apples of the Moon, which uses the Buchla, has become a modern classic. In October 2013 we invited Morton Subotnick to the Kontraste festival in Krems (Austria), where he performed Silver Apples of the Moon, with visuals by Lillevan. After the concert Arie Altena sat down with Morton Subotnick to discuss his particular approach to electronic music.

Morton Subotnick, Silver Apples of the Moon, Kontraste festival 2013. Photo by Markus Gradwolh
ARIE ALTENA (AA): Tonight we heard your composition Silver Apples of the Moon that was originally released on LP in 1967. It's a classic of electronic music. How did you perform it? I saw that you used your Buchla synthesiser and a computer? MORTON SUBOTNICK (MS): I’ll explain what’s going on in my set-up. I have Ableton on my computer, and there’s a loop-like interface between the Buchla synthesizer and Ableton. A single oscillator goes out of the Buchla and into one channel of Ableton. I duplicate that channel several times, and send all of them out of Ableton and back into the Buchla. I mix them in various forms within this matrix into two or three voltage-controlled amplifiers. Each one is controlled by the same pulse, but each one is broken down into different rhythms. In each instance the oscillator can be altered in Ableton before going back to the Buchla; the pitch can be changed, it can be processed with a little reverb, and so forth. Each of the six exits from Ableton back into the Buchla is multiplied into two different sets of rhythms, each one has a fast and a half-speed thing, and I can move those around the room. By using the faders, I can choose from the six and decide in which combinations they go back into the Buchla. That gives you a tiny taste of the back and forth process. It is essentially the Buchla you’re listening to, but it’s being multiplied and altered in basic ways that don’t change the timbre. I use the timbral changes in the Buchla. Basically it’s a single patch that gives me huge flexibility. I had a much bigger Buchla for travelling when I was young, and this is something I could never have achieved with that. There is enormous variety and flexibility available now.
It is essentially the Buchla you’re listening to, but it’s being multiplied and altered in basic ways that don’t change the timbre.
AA: You don’t play within Ableton at all? MS: I use a midi keyboard through Ableton to control pitch when I need absolute tuning and I load and play samples in Ableton but these also go through the Buchla before going into the auditorium. AA: You started to explore this way of making music in the 1960s… MS: When I started in the 1960s there wasn’t anything like this. I didn’t do Silver Apples of the Moon until 1966. It came out in 1967, but I received the commission in 1966. It wasn’t like I stepped into a world where thousands of people were doing what I was doing. There weren’t even synthesizers yet. So when I started, I set a task for myself. I had decided that once I could create an electronic tool, that tool would become my painter’s pallet, and I could create music – perfect music, or at least perfect for me – for a recording. I decided on this general philosophy and goal in 1961. The antithesis to this is, of course, live performance. What do you do on stage? If you’re a composer you write on paper, and because you want the piece to be perfect, you throw things away. When you go on stage, you cannot be perfect. The ideal is to not be perfect, but to be spontaneous. Instead of cutting all the mistakes out, you live with the mistakes and you go with them. I decided to not throw anything away. I wanted to take everything I’d used and everything that I hadn't used, and somehow make all of it available for live performances. At the time I made little loops of tape to perform with. Now we have samples and Ableton is a great sample player.
The ideal is to not be perfect, but to be spontaneous.
AA: You’ve been touring again for a few years now, performing your electronic compositions from the 1960s and 1970s... MS: I’ve been back on the road with my pieces for six or seven years now. My goal was to take all the work that I’ve made, and put it in a form that I can improvise with on stage. As you just heard, I took the ending of Silver Apples, but I did a whole different thing with it. Everything is at my fingertips. I can recall samples and put them back together again. They are fed into the Buchla as well. Nowadays the idea of recalling samples is dominant in a lot of music. That’s the direction that music took. What didn’t happen though is the notion of picking up your whole life’s work, and bringing it forward. In the piece I just played, the beginning was made of samples from Silver Apples, but it sounded like all kinds of other stuff. That was because I had them going back into the Buchla, sampled them, and moved them around the room, and then I gradually brought Silver Apples through it. But it was Silver Apples all the time! That kind of flexibility is the result of four months of virtuoso instrument making. AA: Do you rehearse for your performances? MS: I don’t rehearse them from beginning to end; I only rehearse to get to what I want. I do improvise. It became doable with the small computer and software like Ableton. First I used Max, but now Ableton with Max is a better tool for me. The machine does most of the playing. I move my fingers in time with the machine. In instrumental music you’re making all the music. People still haven’t got that difference straight in their head. People still ask: how is someone else going to play this piece. Well, no one else is supposed to play it. This is my stuff – that’s what’s great about it. AA: Would someone else be able to play your instrument? MS: Well, they will, in a way, because I believe in finding out what you’re really good at, doing it the best you can, and then sharing it. So I’m working on a book that will contain all the patches I use, and everything else we’re talking about. So yes, they will be able to play my patch. But you have to be able to understand that patch with Ableton; it’s a really complicated patch, but it’s very logical as well. If I explained it to you, you would say, ‘of course, that’s obvious, that’s how it works’. AA: This particular notion of an electronic instrument was present in the development of the Buchla synthesiser from the beginning, wasn’t it? MS: Yes, it was all there, at the beginning, starting already in 1959. In 1961 the idea became clear to me. Ramon Sender and I had started a studio together. We worked together. We looked for equipment. We weren’t even sure if we were going to make something ourselves. We began by looking for things that existed, and it took us two years to realise nothing did. We got all kinds of little objects that could automate processes. We got a loop machine. There was a wonderful organ, the Chamberlin organ. It's real organ and it had tape and buckets at the bottom, and you hit the ‘flute’ button and a piece of tape with a recording of a flute ran through it. I think it was Ramon’s idea, he thought, ‘wow, suppose we could get that and each composer could make their own sounds and play with them’. We were trying to find something that existed to achieve this. It never occurred to us that we had to make our own machine. Once we understood that, we started working with Don Buchla to create an instrument for the live performance of electronic music. AA: So nothing remotely like it existed? MS: Looking back it makes sense that what we imagined didn’t exist. It’s because in the music world, people were making instruments. I was a good clarinettist. With the right mindset good musicians can play anything that is written for their instrument, because an instrument is designed to play any kind of music for that instrument. It seems crazy to make a musical instrument unless it can do that. Don Buchla and I had this discussion over and over again. He wanted to make a new instrument that people could learn to play. If you’ve never played an instrument, you don’t understand that you don’t just ‘learn to play’ one. It has to become part of your nervous system. You have to have scales, you have to have a regularity, you have to know what you’re doing all the time. The beauty of the computer is: every summer I turn it into a new instrument! But it isn’t a musical instrument like a clarinet or violin. It’s like a performer-composer-conductor tool. That’s how I feel about it. I’m making decisions all the time, I tell it ‘do this, play louder, now stop, now play.’ And they – the machines – are doing the playing. I’m sure I’m not the only one who uses this approach, but the general flow of recent music history hasn’t been in that direction. In this respect my development didn’t parallel the general development of electronic music. It’s not that I thought others should go down this path; it’s where I wanted to go. It’s fine if other people follow different tracks.
But it isn’t a musical instrument like a clarinet or violin. It’s like a performer-composer-conductor tool. That’s how I feel about it.
AA: Why did you get involved in creating such an instrument? MS: One of the reasons was that I knew that the people who make the instruments control to a large extent what they’re capable of. I wanted to impact the possibility of a machine that was designed to do something other than creating new old music. I wanted this machine to be able to produce a new kind of new music. I think I achieved that. Of course it isn’t perfect enough for everyone, but I made a little niche in history where it exists. I run into young people who understand, and who are even trying to do things that are comparable. But it isn’t the mainstream. AA: Those young people, are they, for instance, the ones who use Ableton? MS: They use Ableton. But they mostly use it for sampling to play tracks. People who use Max are closer to what I’m thinking of. But to do what I’m doing in Max is cumbersome, whereas it is a simple procedure: I’m just multiplying stuff out. You couldn’t do what I’m doing now in the early days. Early electronic music used to be very patch-based. The patch I use now with Ableton isn’t really a patch in the old sense, or in the Max sense, it’s the Buchla multiplied in a virtual world. There’s still a patch – it’s in the Buchla. Ableton expands that patch way beyond the memory settings. I can change the patch – that’s why I have all those sliders. It’s a very flexible matrix. AA: What would happen if you re-patched your Buchla – because you’re not doing that? MS: I would never re-patch the Buchla in a performance. Could you imagine that? AA: Well, there are people who do it. MS: Yes, people are doing that. AA: But they have a radically different approach to music making. MS: Not only that. They’re playing the patch. That is playing a really crazy instrument. You could do it with a violin too: you can take the strings off and put them back on. And that becomes the piece. That’s the difference. The patch is the playing. That’s not what I’m doing. I’m going over 50 years of my music and making decisions on how I want to put it together. There’s a strong argument for playing the patch. It’s a legitimate approach to a piece of technology, a legitimate approach to make it an instrument that you’re playing, that you’re patching while playing. It was the Tudor approach. That’s absolutely valid. But David Tudor’s approach wasn’t my approach. Mine was making a new kind of music. AA: What sort of new music? MS: Essentially Silver Apples from the Moon is a tone poem, it’s a kind of Mahler; it comes out of a nineteenth-century aesthetic. But it couldn’t be done in any shape or form without the technology. Also the heavy pulsing, the dynamics and the movement through space are impossible without the technology. I use space in a way that most musicians and composers don’t. I really take advantage of the machine in lots of ways. But it’s not machine music! My music isn’t about the machine. It is about something else. And that something else comes from my love for playing and making music. I connect to music from the nineteenth century; I wrote about that in the mid-1960s. There was no way I could have ever approached electronic equipment by making raw sine-tones. I wasn’t interested in that. Tudor is a really special case. He had the same training I had. He threw it away to go in his direction. I threw the clarinet away to go in my direction.
My music isn’t about the machine. It is about something else. And that something else comes from my love for playing and making music.
AA: How does the instrumental music you compose fit into this story? MS: The instrumental music I write is a whole other thing. I’m divided into so many parts you wouldn’t believe it! I also create children’s software: Pitch Painter. It’s for little kids. Everyone says it’s for making electronic music, but it isn’t. It’s to make children literate and then stimulate them to compose music. It’s an app for the iPad. That’s a whole other part of me. The same idea that you do what you can to the best of your abilities, applies here as well. I could throw away my clarinet, but I couldn’t throw away my musical background. I try to do the educational programmes as well as I do my writing for instruments.
Morton Subotnick, Silver Apples of the Moon, Kontraste Festival 2013. Photo by Markus Gradwolh

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