Morton Subotnick’s Sidewinder
I appreciated the rigor and austerity of Stockhausen’s Hymnen and Mantra and some of the Columbia Princeton recordings as a high school senior, but it was Subotnick’s Touch and Sidewinder that provided aesthetic enjoyment. The music was alive, organic in its flowing movement, and—particularly appealing to me—playful.
Sounds can evoke both the familiar and the unfamiliar. The familiar can be altered or reinvented into new forms. There is no clear line here between the referential and non-referential. Sounds can suggest something of the real world without actually being about a particular object, place, or personality. In Morton Subotnick’s imagination, electronic music gained accessibility and playfulness, a potential source of interest and joy for listeners of any age or musical experience, like creative cartooning, painting on a canvas, or taking a trip to a “please touch” museum. “Hold” a sound in your hands, stretch it, change it coloration at will, use it create a kind of language, and allow it to unfold in time.
The early works of Subotnick were among my guilty pleasures as a high school senior. At the same time, I had begun to listen to Stockhausen’s Hymnen (1966-67) and Mantra (1970) and some of the Columbia Princeton recordings. I appreciated the rigor and austerity of these works, but it was Subotnick’s Touch (1969) and Sidewinder (1970/71) that provided aesthetic enjoyment. The music was alive, organic in its flowing movement, and—particularly appealing to me—playful. The sounds were so distinctly electronic, the rhythms lively and dynamic, the textures continually unfolding, and the music steadily self-revealing. The music reflected a refreshing aesthetic sensibility—and also an innovative means of making music.
Enter the Buchla!
When Subotnick (with Ramon Sender) commissioned Donald Buchla to design what became the Buchla Box, his goal was an artist-friendly compositional tool that didn’t depend upon recorded sound. Invented in the 1930s, the tape recorder had helped spawn a new way to make music. In the early 1950s, composers in France, Argentina, Germany, Japan, the United States, and other countries were beginning to assemble collections of recorded sounds, cutting and splicing bits of tape, sometimes played backwards or at different speeds. Radio stations—equipped with oscillators, filters, amplifiers, and simple audio test equipment—became workshops for composers to create works using electronically generated and processed sounds.
In practice, these approaches were simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting due to the long, arduous process. Subotnick, working at the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the early 1960s, sought to find a new and more intuitive means of generating and assembling electronic sounds into compositions. Subotnick’s idea was to create something akin to a real-time sonic painting canvas, rather than an electronic musical instrument. The process of its development by Don Buchla, initially a spinning light wheel to create waveforms and then a modular system with integrated circuits, is described in the Spring 2012 issue of Computer Music Journal.
Buchla’s Series 100 (“The Modular Electronic Music System,” conceptualized by Subotnick as the “Music Easel” and later known as the “Buchla Electric Music Box,” “Buchla Box,” or more commonly “the Buchla”) applied the principle of voltage control to shape sound and light, audio and visual media alike. Among its features were a pressure sensitive touch plate (not a keyboard) and a sequencer, each sending voltages that would control frequency, filter parameters, amplitude, and other parameters depending upon the choice of module. Simultaneously in Trumansburg, New York, a few hours northwest of New York City, Robert Moog was at work designing what he indeed saw as a modular electronic musical instrument, from the start featuring a keyboard. (There is a detailed chronology of Buchla’s various developments on the website for Buchla Electronic Musical Instruments .)
Subotnick’s goal was to devise a system that had no inherent bias based upon existing models of musical instruments. Speaking as the conceptual thinker behind the Buchla, in an interview with the author, Subotnick recalls:
It was my idea to create—I didn’t use this term, looking back on what I was thinking back then—a unique, expressive, gestural, analog computer. Something that was neutral so that everyone could make whatever they wanted. The neutrality was in the following form: if you look at the Moog, which was a year or so later, envelopes were thought of as amplitude envelopes, and they were associated with the voltage controlled amplifier that a tone would go through, and you would control whether it was a pizzicato or a sustained or whatever it was supposed to be. [He was] thinking of an [acoustical] instrument, and music.
My idea of an envelope was something that changed in time, voltages that changed in time. So Buchla’s idea then was to separate the voltage from the audio, make voltage something that was cheap and easy to use. So you could gang these up and use them for moving sounds across space. We used it for dimming lights. It didn’t matter what it was. Anything that changed in time was an envelope, but it was not associated with anything. It could be used … that’s the analog computer aspect of it. Everything was designed to stand alone, so you could interface anything with anything you wanted to interface with it.
The idea of voltage banks, “ganging them up,” was not part of the Buchla 100, as Subotnick recalls, “The banks didn’t come until I used it for a while. In fact, though, the idea was right, the implementation was too simple at first, not enough controls, both in and out. I was amazed at what we didn’t account for that Don and I began to understand. This got corrected in the Buchla 200.”
The Buchla prototype was ready for the 1964-1965 season, but was little used prior to Subotnick’s departure for New York in 1966. His theater piece Play 4 (1966) was the only work for the Buchla that Subotnick completed in San Francisco.
Subotnick in New York
Once in New York, Subotnick became one of two artists-in-residence at New York University’s School of the Arts. The position that initially brought him east was musical director for Lincoln Center Repertory Theater, but the position didn’t provide sufficient salary to support his family. Lincoln Center Rep director Herbert Blau spoke with Robert Corrigan, founding dean of New York University’s new School of the Arts (now the Tisch School of the Arts), resulting in the position at NYU. A composer/artist-in-residence would fill a gap in the curriculum, which at the time lacked a music component. Subotnick was joined by two artists-in-residence: first, kinetic sculptor Len Lye, and for the second academic year, visual artist Tony Martin who had been his colleague at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Reunited in New York, Subotnick and Martin also collaborated in the development of the multimedia sound and light shows of the Electric Circus, a Greenwich Village discotheque.
Subotnick’s position was open-ended. New York University easily agreed to his main condition: an off-campus studio of his own to be built around the Buchla. A suite of studios was opened upstairs from the Bleecker Street Cinema in the center of Greenwich Village. This was a neighborhood of cafés and folk, rock, and jazz music venues. Notable artists living or performing in the neighborhood visited the studio, among them Andy Warhol associate Isabelle Collin Dufresne (Ultra Violet), members of the Grateful Dead, Lothar and the Hand People, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and Angus MacLise, Maureen Tucker, and other figures connected with the Velvet Underground. Composers Toshi Ichiyanagi and—as one of Subotnick’s studio assistants Richard Friedman recalls—Steve Reich also stopped in.
Subotnick recollects: “I was really a celebrity in New York for a couple years and the studio became a famous underground thing that suddenly hit the news. People felt like they were part of something. It was a big moment in their lives and they’ve hung onto it in ways that I’ve forgotten. I moved along and kept being me. New York is the marketplace for the arts. It’s not a place where young people could easily experiment because anything you did took on an importance that would tend to squelch a kind of freethinking [and experimentation]. It was the whole scene that makes individuals capable of doing what they do… During that period, New York was really hot. Even if everything you did wasn’t out there for everyone to know, you imagined that it was.”
In retrospect, one of the most important features of Subotnick’s residency was his use of young studio assistants. This act of generosity sparked and nurtured the early composing careers of Maryanne Amacher, Rhys Chatham, Michael Czajkowski , Brian Fennelly, Ingram Marshall, Charlemagne Palestine, Eliane Radigue, David Rosenboom, Laurie Spiegel, and others, among them composer/instrument builder Serge Tcherepnin. But the artist residency didn’t last beyond its initial three-year funding.
Silver Apples of the Moon: Physical and Musical Gestures
The pedagogical legacy of the NYU studio is overshadowed by its status as the space where Mort Subotnick initiated his series of Buchla compositions. First to be completed in the Bleecker Street studio was Prelude 3 (1966) for piano and electronics. This was followed by the three works commissioned by major record companies, Silver Apples of the Moon (Nonesuch, 1967), The Wild Bull (Nonesuch, 1968), and Touch (Columbia, 1969). Subotnick subsequently left New York in the fall of 1969 to participate in the founding of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). There, he continued the series with Sidewinder (composed in 1970, released in 1971 on Columbia), Four Butterflies (Columbia, 1974), Until Spring (composed in 1975, released in 1976, on Columbia Odyssey), and an epilogue, A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur (Nonesuch, 1978).
“The idea for Silver Apples,” Subotnick recalls, “was a series of sonic gestural environments that would have no real connection [to one another]… I know it’s at this point a kind of cliché concept, but I saw it as a trip, in all senses of the word; a bunch of different trips. You’d have a whole set of experiences in the desert. Suddenly, a cold breeze comes in and you find yourself floating in a lake and you have that experience. Suddenly, you find yourself in a pristine stainless steel room, somewhere, that’s very shiny, and echo-y. So you have an experience. I didn’t take drugs, so I wasn’t tripping. But it was like that and I think that was part of the reason it had its flair. I was trying to imagine a hundred years from now—up until then, records were that, records of a performance. You would go to a performance. You wouldn’t listen in your living room… I was trying to imagine what that world of the future was going to be—when you could just listen, without orchestras, what kind of music would you listen to?”
In each of his Buchla works, Subotnick was particularly interested in translating physical gestures, such as finger motions, in real-time, to shape musical and other artistic gestures. “I think that there is always a physical element in gesture, whether you’re physically moving your body [or not]. I think gesture is a physical thing. More than that, it has to do with how things change in time. That’s the essential quality in it. And that became the cornerstone for everything I did. Back in the ‘50s, it was one of the reasons I moved into image, lights, dance, all of these things. I felt that music was the pure form of gesture, that it represented what I called energy shapes in time. I’m still working on it.” Touch sensitivity, on the Buchla touch plate, became an important element in Subotnick’s compositional approach.
To work on Silver Apples of the Moon, Subotnick created random processes on the Buchla, which he manually refined, to generate sequences of musical material. He selected material from these to construct the composition. Subotnick’s subsequent compositions completed on the Buchla at CalArts, however, drew upon a new, more directive approach to crafting gestures that he subsequently developed. Extensive documentation is available of the finale in the series, Until Spring. It was for the creation of Sidewinder that some of the key processes used in the composition and realization of that later work, particularly the use of control voltages, were developed. It was also just the second in the series, following Touch, to be realized in quadraphonic sound.
Sidewinder as a Fuller Realization of Subotnick’s Vision for the Buchla
To create Sidewinder, Morton Subotnick continued to generate musical materials, “sound events,” by running Buchla sequences. The principle of shaping gestures using a pressure sensitive touch plate continued. The innovation was Subotnick’s use of “control tracks,” information encoded and stored on tape, to direct the performance of these materials. The scheme was “designed to give the composer greater precision and the opportunity to add, modify, and rearrange his material without affecting the whole fabric.” Thus, “a composition could be laid out in time, envelope, overall amplitudes and spatial position. The details could be filled in later with far more modules on hand to control each individual event.” The implementation of control tracks originated with the first envelope follower, developed by Don Buchla while Subotnick was in New York. The composer recalls: “I called Don and asked for a way to use my voice to control voltages and he built me the envelope detector.”
By using control tracks the composer could design the patches, generate sounds, and subsequently adjust the tempo, attack and decay of notes and sounds. Subotnick would sing or hum into a microphone, which would be translated into performance information (control data) by the Buchla’s envelope follower. This module tracked the changing amplitude of his voice. Those shapes could be applied to changes over time of any musical parameter—not just amplitude. Subotnick would then set the assignment of sounds to multiple channels (to be placed in different speaker locations), and mix several tracks down to stereo, allowing him to add more tracks beyond the capabilities of a tape recorder of the day.
What I ended up with was deciding that one could compose segments of a piece of music with one’s voice and finger pressure in which you are only encoding the meaningfulness, and later you could do this one-minute section in one minute, or you could take five minutes to that same segment—but very quick. And then take three months to take little bits and pieces of it to see how you want that to be realized. So, for instance, I could take, with just my voice, I’m thinking now of an opening for something or a section [hums quietly, with most of his emphasis on articulation, not melody]. And then I could build an entire piece in this way. And not even be concerned with what it’s going to sound like. Just what I wanted it to feel. And so, I ended up doing that.
By the time of Sidewinder I had developed techniques, and by the last ones the techniques were quite complete, in which I would record my voice and finger pressure, put them on a track of tape and then decode them into control voltages and then break up a second of one of those, or three seconds of another one, and put it on leader [tape without information] and work on it for two weeks, not worry about the whole thing, just that. But when you take the leader out, you still have your performance, but you have perfected every sound along the way. And that’s how I ended up working.
Don [Buchla] developed the envelop detector for me to do this—the idea then was I could get another step where my voice would go to an envelop detector and a very high sine tone would then get recorded onto a tape, along with other sine tones of different pitches—I could get five or six. The early ones had my voice on the tape. The later ones had a sine tone that was moving with my voice. I don’t think that anyone, to this day, does anything like that. The ability to be able to do that in real time and break it up into little pieces is still something that I can’t do on the computer. You can come close, but you can’t really do that. You don’t have an equivalent to control voltage in a computer.”
These ideas are elaborated in Subotnick’s program notes for the CD re-issue of Until Spring. More recently, in 2008, after using new computer technologies to revisit Until Spring as a live performance work, Subotnick noted: “The problem was I didn’t have a big enough pallet that I could do everything at once. It had to be broken up into little pieces. Now we’ve got the pallet, so I do it in real time, using two microphones, and various kinds of other control devices I can work with.”
Speaking with Electronic Musician, Subotnick elaborated on how he made use of control tracks while creating Sidewinder: “I might have a vocal on one track [translated using an envelope detector into control voltages], 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.”
Subotnick’s patches could also be replayed in a multiplicity of ways, adding lights, live performers, additional material, and in new order and spatial locations of speakers. Electronic compositions moved from the domain of sounds structured permanently to events that could be performed at will. The 2004 DVD presentation of Sidewinder (Mode) includes not only a surround sound version, but also a liquid light show created by Tony Martin to visualize the work. Subotnick’s work with control tracks culminated with Until Spring and A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur (1978), which the composer called his “favorite.”
Sidewinder: Conceptually and Musically
In his program notes, Subotnick described Sidewinder as “virtual grooves,” akin to the grooves of an LP, “in orbit throughout space.” They “would periodically pass through the room, like a solar system where different musics are planets and the room is the sun. Each orbit had a different length and timing and the music in each was a distinct entity. As the orbit allowed its music to pass through the room, the music would be heard and would be blended with whatever orbit was playing its music at the time.”
Personally, I prefer to think of this music as akin to a car road trip, new sights continually appearing on the horizon, blending in my imagination with what immediately surrounded the car and had recently passed, fading and giving way to the events waiting to come. My experience of the music is more in line with Subotnick’s own description of Silver Apples of the Moon: “I saw it as a trip, in all senses of the word.”
Sidewinder introduces us to a cast of “sonic characters.” Deviating from inherited traditions of electroacoustic music in which sounds are described in strictly sonic rather than referential terms, I have given them suggestive names. My rationale is tied to the magical way in which Subotnick’s sonorities exist somewhere between the referential and the abstract. The opening sound sequence, after which this work is named, is highly suggestive. Whether or not the work is in fact simply about the sounds themselves rather than forming a dramatic narrative, is beside the point. One can choose—or choose not—to read in a story line, or multiple story lines. I personally prefer not to do so, instead allowing my imagination to take me at each listening.
1. “Rattler” is a continuously changing sequence suggesting its title.
2. “Stoomp” consists of clearly articulated, individual resonant sound pulses.
3. “Rev” is a brief sequence of reverberant sounds, suggestive of a jungle environment. The structure of the sequence will be described within the narrative.
4. “Sound Mass” is a two-note sound cluster; one low frequency and one higher, a perfect fourth apart.
5. “Worble” is a sound cluster with a noise component, frequency modulated.
6. “Helicopter” is a complex sound approximating the title I’ve given it.
7. “Pluck” is a high frequency blend of plucked string and xylophone sonorities.
8. “Kalimba,” suggests a bent metal, twanging sound, beginning with a kalimba-like attack, heard at lower and middle frequencies. Subotnick himself thought of this sound as a jaw harp. It “was made before there was a Q filter. This was a patch that even Don Buchla was surprised by.”
9. “Pulsing Mass” consists of two layers: mid-frequency jaw harp/wah-wah-like filter shifting cluster, and a rumbling, lower frequency sound mass. The machine-like qualities of the sound masses contrast with some of the more organic sounds of this work, like “Rattler.”
The original recording of Sidewinder includes two versions of the piece. The basic patches used to create the sounds are the same, but each realization—how the actual sonorities are shaped and structured—is quite different. Listening closely to each version enables a greater appreciation for the flexibility Subotnick gained by using his control voltage system. Notice, for instance, the variety of ways a sound can be treated—with respect to articulation, tempo, spatialization, and other features—within different sequences.
The description offered here as a listening aid treats the version of Sidewinder originally released on the first side of the recording. The reader is encouraged to listen closely, first without the narrative provided here; listen again with these notes, and then listen to both versions relying solely on your own ears. My narrative description suggests one possible mode of analysis. This approach is supported by Subotnick’s own similarly personified characterization of one of the sounds on side two: “Wild Alley Cats… they are scary cries. I had a fear of cats in those days.”
The overarching structure of side one of Sidewinder, 14:40 in duration, is divided into two sections: part one, which for two and a half minutes features a sound suggestive of a rattle snake (after which the piece is named, albeit given after its completion) and then, after a twenty-four second transition, part two, just under twelve minutes long, in which sequences of plucked metallic sonorities weave in and out, juxtaposed at times with dense sound masses.
In version one, the opening sound “Rattler” continues throughout the opening two and a half minutes. There are two subunits of equal duration within that time period, first a series of contrasting sound events juxtaposed with “Rattler,” and then a subsection “Sound Mass” that begins at 1:13.
“Rattler” is heard alone for the opening half minute, joined at 0:37 by “Stoomp,” and then, at 1:06, a brief sequence “Rev” (reverberant). Within the contrasting sounds of “Stoomp,” we first hear the resonant “Stoomp” pulses, and then longer sustained, modulated sounds, at 0:41-0:45, followed by quiet white noise panning back and forth. At 1:00 the pulses briefly return. The brief sequence “Rev” (1:06-1:09) is organized into a four-beat measure. A high frequency shimmering sound functions as an appoggiatura, leading to a low pitch with sharp attack on count one—its shimmer sustains throughout the measure—followed by short duration higher-pitched sounds on beats 2, 3, and 4.
The subsection “Sound Mass,” heard while “Rattler” continues, consists of two parts, “2 note mass” and, at 1:48, “Worble.” The latter has two subsections, “Worble” (alone, with “Rattler”) and “Helicopter.” At 2:32, “Rattler” fades, as “Worble” and “Helicopter” continue for a brief transition, joined by third layer of sound mass, frequency modulated at gradually changing rates, as part one of Sidewinder concludes.
In part two, we are first introduced to “Pluck” and “Kalimba,” sonorities that define this section, beginning at 2:56. At 5:21 we hear a bass marimba-like sonority and, at 5:50, “Sound Mass” and “Helicopter” predominate and then fade. “Pulsing Mass” follows, at 6:45. There is a hint of “Kalimba” beginning at 7:10. Sustained high frequency sounds, with slow attack and short decay, join starting at 7:20.
The balance of the work is “Kalimba Plus,” beginning at 7:38. The first of three subsections joins the “Pulsing Mass” and “Kalimba” sounds, followed at 8:38 by “Lively Mix” and, at 11:21, “Delicate Kalimba.” The first subsection opens with a continuation of “Pulsing Mass.” There are two layers of massed sounds, with the mid-frequency filter-shifting cluster predominating, subtly changing, and growing much louder at 8:30. At 7:47, high frequency sounds return, slow attack, long sustain, and short decay. Low rumbles are heard at 8:00. Brief “Kalimba” sequences appear in 7:38-7:52, 8:02-8:10, 8:20-8:27, and 8:33-8:40, when they become lost in the mix.
“Lively Mix” begins at 8:54 with a dramatic increase in amplitude levels. The wah-wah filter-shift sound mass predominates, continually changing in shape and emphasis. “Kalimba” and marimba sound sequences join in the fray. At 9:30, the volume level and density of activity drops markedly. The wah-wah sound mass continues, quietly, with sequences of “Kalimba” and bass marimba sonorities continuing to unfold.
The concluding section, “Delicate Kalimba” begins at 11:21. The sound masses drop away, leaving on their own the kalimba-like sound and other sonorities, which suggest knocking on hollow wood. The sequences of activity rise and fall in volume and energy levels, allowing space for quiet, unpredictable contrapuntal lines to unfold. At 12:36, emerging from relative silence, we hear a dramatic increase in activity and volume, with panning between speakers. The level of activity periodically thins and then thickens, the sequencer lines seemingly engaged in conversational dialog. The sounds suddenly cease at 14:32, leaving eight seconds of silence to conclude the piece.
In the liner notes to Until Spring, Subotnick describes his work as “sculpting with sound… placing sound into an imaginary ‘space canvas’ in front of me… molding the color of the sound… transforming the harmonic content… to begin to shape it like the beginnings of some strange visceral language…shaping the sounds into contours of pitch…bending pulsating points along an imaginary time line…” I find this description to aptly capture the nature of the creative process within Sidewinder.
What distinguishes Subotnick’s work of this period from many of its electroacoustic music predecessors is this notion of a “visceral language.” I do not experience Subotnick’s sounds as, to use composer Pierre Schaeffer’s term object sonore (sound objects). I do not experience them as objects at all. In this way, Subotnick reopened the aesthetic conversation. For Subotnick, sounds represent sonic materials to be freely sculpted like highly elastic, multidimensional clay. Rhythm and melody find their place as useful musical ideas, albeit treated very broadly. A metric pulse appears one moment and disappears the next. Or a series of beats can morph into a gesture that rapidly speeds up and coalesces into a complex sound mass. Its components can be placed anywhere in space and moved at will. Physical gestures can be translated into musical gestures; viewed as different manifestations of the same phenomenon, just as a dancer’s body movement and a series of musical sounds can convey the same arc of motion in space and time. Morton Subotnick’s music from the late 1960s and early 1970s opened a refreshingly imaginative world of sound. The listener can take a hint from the title of Subotnick’s third Buchla work, as sounds you can “touch.”
Except where noted in the text, all quotations in the text are from interviews by the author conducted in person as well as via telephone and email between August 2006 and May 2013. For further reading, the following texts, which greatly helped with the research for the present article, are highly recommended:
David W. Bernstein, The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
Buchla and Associates. 2010. http://www.buchla.com/historical.html.
Joel Chadabe, Electric Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1997.
T. Darter and G. Armbruster, The Art of Electronic Music (a compilation of articles from Keyboard Magazine, 1975–1983). New York: Quill, 1984.
Robert Gluck, “Silver Apples, Electric Circus, Electronic Arts, and Commerce in Late 1960s New York,” in Proceedings of the 2009 International Computer Music Conference, pp. 149–152 (available online).
Robert Gluck, “Electric Circus, Electric Ear and the Intermedia Center in Late-1960s New York,” in Leonardo 45:1 (2012).
Robert Gluck, “Nurturing Young Composers: Morton Subotnick’s Late-1960s Studio in New York City” in Computer Music Journal 36:1 (2012).
T. Holmes, Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture. New York: Routledge, 2012.
B. Murphy, “Morton Subotnick,” in Electronic Musician, July 2007 (a href=”http://www.emusician.com/news/0766/morton-subotnick/142767″ target=”_blank”>available online).
T. Pinch and F. Trocco, Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002.
A Discography of Morton Subotnick Recordings Mentioned in this Essay:
Silver Apples of the Moon (1967) and The Wild Bull (1968), Wergo, WER CD 2035.
Touch (1969) Wergo CD 2014-50. (It is also included on Volume 1: Electronic Works Mode CD 97.)
Subotnick, M. 2001. A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur (1978) on Volume 1: Electronic Works, Mode CD 97.
Sidewinder (1970/71) and Until Spring (1974/75), both included on Volume 2: Electronic Works Mode CD/DVD 132.
Four Butterflies in Volume 3: Electronic Works Mode CD/DVD 237.