Tag: electronic music

Boston: Bromp Treb Busts the Matrix

Bromp Treb (Neil Young Cloaca) at Café Fixe, June 10, 2014. Photo by Susanna Bolle.

Bromp Treb (Neil Young Cloaca) at Café Fixe, June 10, 2014. Photo by Susanna Bolle.

The pre-concert chatter for Bromp Treb’s June 10 show at Brookline’s Café Fixe (another in the ever-copacetic coffeehouse performance series presented by Non-Event) was all about the crowd—more specifically, the lack thereof. Even given the post-commencement dissipation of the Boston area’s academic population, attendance was looking disappointingly lean. So Neil Young Cloaca, filmmaker and noisemaker, member of the Northampton-based noise quintet Fat Worm of Error, and the one-man band that is Bromp Treb, took his microphone outside and engaged in a little old-fashioned one-on-one promotion. His one successful negotiation—convincing a couple to take a flyer with the promise that they would only have to pay the $5 cover if they stayed for longer than five minutes—was pumped through the speakers inside, becoming the prelude to his set.

In retrospect, it was the perfect introduction. Cloaca, a once and occasional concert promoter himself, is an irrepressible showman. Bromp Treb is an opportunity for him to apply that carnival-barker enthusiasm to a table full of mismatched gear: effects pedals, mixers, a sampler, electronic drum pads, roto-tom, and cowbell. Contact microphones and bouquets of wire; bits of alligator-clipped metal. An electrified tin can. A brillo pad. Cloaca treats all this stuff as a source of caprice, admitting to one audience member that the configuration of the equipment is always changing. More than once during the sound check, Cloaca let out a delighted giggle at some unexpected sound.

The performance proper began with electronic sirens and stuttering static. Some irregular, repeated subbass growls set up a couple of agogo-bell-heavy percussion loops, sliced into each other with cowbell punctuation: an atom-smashed Carnival. The line between patch and glitch was obscured; overmodulated short-circuit pops were turned, via reverb, into makeshift percussion, Cloaca’s own voice was filtered and delayed into an asynchronous house of acoustic mirrors. Throughout, Cloaca’s performing persona was on hyperactive, spasmodic display, pirouetting, pouncing, gyrating, jerking, a cross between a malfunctioning Mick Jagger and a Beckett-like post-apocalyptic last man. During one long, sparse section, Cloaca circled the table, triggering highly distorted samples while playing up theatrical befuddlement, as if he was trying to decipher a recalcitrant machine—or defuse an eccentric bomb.

Much of the sound of Bromp Treb can be heard as either a critique or a celebration of the questionable level of control we have over our own gadgets: Cloaca’s weave of cables and equipment is one designed to exacerbate rather than minimize the instability of any such network. The brush of a live wire against a powered jack; the crackle and heavy breathing of radio frequency interference; the gasoline-and-matches feedback possibilities of too many microphones and criss-crossed inputs—Bromp Treb rushes in where conventional audio engineers would prefer not to tread. At several points, Cloaca simply lifted up a corner of the table and then dropped it back down, the set-up’s fragility yielding an amplified squeal and squelch. It is the sound of the technological web breaking down, failing, consuming itself and us.
The flailing is partly an illusion, especially from the musical end: the sounds might surprise, but Cloaca knows what he’s doing, shaping long arcs and judicious transitions from texture to texture. After some mid-set banter, Cloaca geared back up for another number, this one more noisy and busy than the first: cartoon-worthy sampled drum hits, off-balance, looped beats cutting in and out like intermittent radio signals, a final crescendo into an unorthodox, whooping rave. But the theatrical narrative was similar to the first half: someone discovering, commandeering, gradually losing control of, and finally seeming to merge with a cache of computer-age detritus.

What is most notable about Bromp Treb is how cheerful Cloaca manages to make all this, especially in comparison with the often clinical aura surrounding so much electronic music performance. There is, to be sure, a streak of anxiety in Cloaca’s theater, an acknowledgement, maybe, of the fact that it has become well-nigh impossible for us to extricate ourselves from our self-created technological realm. To use the appropriate reference: we have created a monster, more accurately, a horde of monsters, colonizing every aspect of day-to-day life. But with over-the-top physicality and deliberate unpredictability, Bromp Treb holds out hope that the monsters might end up as warped and goofy as we are: temperamental, volatile, unfathomable, but genially willing dance partners. It is the most optimistic electronic racket you’re likely to hear.

Oh, and that couple Cloaca coaxed in off the street? They paid the cover.

Miya Masaoka: Social and Sonic Relationships

At the composer’s New York City apartment
May 13, 2014—11 a.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video recorded by Molly Sheridan
Video presentation by Alexandra Gardner

Nine summers ago, there were tons of sound-producing gizmos on display during the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival’s “Homemade Instrument Day.” It was a fabulous way to introduce some really avant-garde music to a very broad audience. Perhaps the most mind-blowing thing people encountered that day was an installation by Miya Masaoka in which sound was somehow emanating from house plants. It was like some weird kind of Island of Dr. Moreau phenomenon. Yet it was also somehow both instantly engaging and musically fascinating as it unfolded over time. It involved a lot of brainy science—electroencephalography, data analysis, and computers—yet it was also extremely down to earth.
While it could have degenerated into a clever gimmick, it was much more than that because Masaoka manipulated the data from the plants to construct a very interesting sonic environment. But because it was all happening in real time, with a group of pots containing seemingly innocuous plant life, it became something much more than just a musical experience—it made the audience think about plants, and life in general, in a totally different way.

Masaoka has been making us look and listen to the world around us in totally new ways for decades. There has been a clear socio-political component to virtually everything she has done, but at the core level her work is ultimately always about finding new sounds. She first came to prominence in the Bay Area for her experiments with the koto, a multi-stringed zither which has played a prominent role in the court music of Japan for centuries. Though she was born and grew up in the United States, her Japanese family included traditionally trained musicians who were her earliest teachers on the instrument. While she initially immersed herself into gagaku and other classical Japanese repertoire, she soon found a way to make the koto a vehicle for a broad range of contemporary American music-making—bowing it, electrifying it, playing it in experimental improvisation combos, performing Thelonious Monk compositions and other jazz standards on it, etc. In so doing, she has made the instrument completely her own.
She has also done a great deal of sonic work involving the human body. She has created musical compositions using the brainwaves of audience members as well as data retrieved from participants via electrocardiograms. Her most provocative work has been a series of performance pieces involving groups of insects (bees, cockroaches) crawling over her own naked body; their motion triggering sensors attached to her which amplify the actual sounds the insects are making. Again, what could come across as gimmickry is viscerally powerful visual and sonic engagement, though admittedly probably not for the overly squeamish. (Although it isn’t to her in the slightest.) As she describes it, it is simultaneously politically charged and sound obsessed:

It’s the most amazing electronic kind of sound and it’s actually coming from a bug. Bees also have a very electronic sound component. But they were chosen not only for their sound abilities, [they were also chosen for] the idea of them maybe being individuals, maybe a colony. … I really wanted to understand and study their social relationships to each other. I’m not allergic to bees, so it’s okay. It was the idea of what the individual is, what our bodies are, and what the relationship is of our bodies to nature. It was searching for some kinds of clues to get closer to that. … Collaboration—whether it’s with insects or plants or people or musicians or the earth’s environmental sounds—is thinking about a sound world and how to enter somewhat of a psychological and sonic space.

In the last decade, Masaoka has concentrated somewhat less on performing and more on creating extended musical compositions for others to perform. She acknowledged when we spoke to her last month that her seeming shift in focus was partially a function of relocating to New York City and having a young daughter, but it’s also a way to channel her experiences and creative energy into larger scale projects that she would not have been able to perform on her own. And the results have been equally stimulating: For Birds, Planes and Cello, an all-encompassing sound-scape in which cellist Joan Jeanrenaud competes against a barrage of bird calls and airplane engines; and While I was walking I heard a sound…, an extraordinary choral piece involving three choirs and nine soloists spatialized in balconies which was premiered in San Francisco by Volti, the San Francisco Choral Society, and the Ensemble of the Piedmont Choirs. Last year, inspired by kayaking on a lake near the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, she completed her first orchestral piece, Other Mountain, which was performed by the La Jolla Symphony as part of the EarShot Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Readings. But she’s still committed to performing. Earlier this season, she performed at Roulette in Triangle of Resistance, a new interdisciplinary work she co-created with filmmaker/videographer Michelle Handelman featuring a score she composed for koto, string quartet, percussion, and electronics, and in a couple of months she’ll be returning to the studio to record a new album of improvisations with Pauline Oliveros, who has been a long-time collaborator and mentor.
After spending a morning talking with her about her music and why she’s made the choices she’s made, I’m even more convinced that whatever she does will continue to push the envelope in ways that are both intellectually challenging and sonically captivating.


Frank J. Oteri: You’ve done so many different kinds of things musically, but people always want to have a tag line, a one sentence sound bite. “Oh, Miya Masaoka, she’s the person who experiments with the koto.” Or “Miya Masaoka, she’s the person who does the music with plants.” Or, “the stuff with bugs.” These projects are all so different from each other and don’t even encompass everything you’ve done. So I’m wondering in your mind if there’s any through line that connects all of these things, something that informs the choices you make and shapes your identity as a musical creator.
Miya Masaoka: Identity is kind of interesting—the relationship between the individual and whatever social context is happening, whatever interaction with the outside world. So it’s really this interior versus exterior relationship, which is something we don’t necessarily have control over. I remember when there were only a few of us calling ourselves composer-performers; it was actually before you could get degrees in such a thing. These terms are really fluid, in a sense, like gender or ethnicity. They’re really social constructs. For example, when I think about what it means to be Japanese or Japanese-American—before my relatives were sent to the Japanese American concentration camps, it was decreed that you had to have 1/16 Japanese blood. This was a definition for if you were Japanese or not, to go to the camps. And so this is what my parents had to contend with. I certainly don’t have to contend with these kinds of blood percentages to define identities, but certainly the idea of aspects of sound, and relationship to architecture, and how pieces are exhibited, or whether there are instruments involved and what the relationship is to performing on that instrument or whether you create music for other instruments—those things are also really fluid and they change from piece to piece. So for me, whatever is fascinating for me and what I am obsessed with at the moment, drives me to create the next piece. I don’t consciously shape an identity. That’s not been so conscious. I wish, in a sense, that things were more narrowed down and could be in a sound bite, because then it would be much easier to do everything in a world that’s sound-bite driven. But I can’t stop myself.
FJO: Sound bites are sort of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they help explain work to people in a fast, straight-forward way, which can be very useful, especially when there is so much noise out there. But in terms of wanting to create the next piece, or actually wanting to create any new work, it creates limitations if it doesn’t conform to the sound bite—you know, that doesn’t sound like what that sound bite tells me it’s supposed to sound like! So it’s a constant battle between how you establish something so people have some kind of grounding in what you’re doing and how you can grow from there.
MM: That’s true. I also like it if I can find a sound bite. That’s how we organize our minds and organize the vast amount of data that we have for so many artists out there. The next piece I’m doing is using three dimensional objects, sculptural objects, as scores. In some ways, it’s a departure from some things I’ve done, but in other ways, it’s not at all. Then I’m coming off of writing for full symphony. It’s completely different to go in towards making these objects as scores, or scores as objects.
A common thread is this idea of a sound and how to think about sound—whether it’s using forces of musicians or whether it’s thinking of sounds in more of a visual sense, whether the pieces are using kinetic motion or a physicality. Are these waves that interact with air to create a certain kineticsm that we experience as sound? How does it deflect off whichever reflective surfaces are there in terms of the architecture? That’s true whether it’s a concert hall, or whether it’s in a gallery space, or an open air situation. So I think this element of experiencing sound is probably the common thread, and how that can be conceived and perceived and achieved in different angles in different ways.
FJO: Now one of the things that’s been a very long-standing interest of yours going back to the beginnings when you first became active in the Bay Area new music scene has been working with the koto. I’m curious about how you first got involved with the koto and what attracted you to it. Obviously you come from a Japanese background, but you grew up in the United States, you were born in D.C., you spent many years in the Bay Area. There aren’t a lot of kotoists here.

Laser Koto

Miya Masaoka performing on the Laser Koto. (Photo by Lori Eanes.)

MM: Well, my cousin and my aunt played koto, and one of them studied in Japan. I grew up playing piano. It was definitely coming from the Japanese American history of trying to be as American as possible because of the camps and the whole wartime experience. At the time in the Bay Area, there were different Asian American musicians like Jon Jang, Mark Izu, and Francis Wong who were keen about Asian American music and embracing these traditional instruments. So going back to these instruments was something that was a part of what was happening. I became a part of that, as well as having it in my family.
I studied traditional koto, and I also started the Gagaku Society. Gagaku is imperial court music. I did that for seven years in the Bay Area. Our master was from Japan and he was working at UCLA. So we flew him up once a month to work with us. And those concepts of structure, and how sound occurs over time, and how it unfolds and kind of builds up a propulsion and momentum were some of the most fascinating kinds of principles that I still live by.
But a turning point for me was when I was invited to play with Pharaoh Sanders for a few concerts at Yoshi’s. From playing with him and improvising with him, I also got introduced to other improvisers in the Bay area, like Larry Ochs and Henry Kaiser. So then I began collaborating with them, and that opened up this whole other door to what they would call non-idiomatic improvisation, free improvisation and that kind of thing.
FJO: There’s an interesting essay you’ve posted to your website that you wrote back in 1997 in response to Royal Hartigan’s issues about taking a traditional instrument that’s in a certain context and recontextualizing it to make it your own. There has been a lot of debate about this phenomenon. These are cultural artifacts of a specific culture which perceives of them in certain ways. So some would argue that to use them in ways that are outside of that culture are somehow disrespectful to that culture. But I find it interesting that the people who make those kinds of arguments about traditional Asian instruments, and also traditional African instruments, don’t make them for European instruments. It’s assumed that western instruments are somehow universal, that those instruments belong to everybody. You can do anything you want, say, with a piano or violin, but you can’t necessarily do anything you want with a koto, or an mbira or a ney. To exempt the West from cultural specificity seems like cultural imperialism and is really disconnected from 21st-century American cultural experience.
MM: I think some of those arguments that took place in the ‘70s and ‘80s have been really superseded by the internet—concepts of appropriation and taking these cultures from developing countries or from non-western countries and that it is somehow disrespectful or impure. Plunderphonics has come and gone, and there’s access to so many different rare cultures that it’s become a moot point to a certain extent. But I think whatever you do as an artist, whatever choices you make, there’ll always be people who will have issues with things. Especially if you’re doing something new and something slightly different, you’re going to have people who aren’t going along with it. So, that’s fine.
FJO: In the age of the internet, it does seem like everything from everywhere in every time is fair game. At this point to say that you’re continuing a tradition, it begs the question, what tradition? We have access to all the traditions, and we’re not necessarily continuing any of them, and not necessarily continuing “Western classical music.” The term seems meaningless to so much of the stuff that we’re all doing at this point.
MM: Tradition is something that people can personally embrace, whether it’s a tradition of American experimentalism, or a certain kind of tradition of minimalism, or certain kinds of traditions of time-based work, or some kind of performance, or generative electronics—modular synthesis has its own tradition. So there’re all these traditions that exist that are very historical and very meaningful, and we can embrace them in various ways, as individuals, to make them meaningful for us.
FJO: You mentioned playing with Pharoah Sanders. One thing that has certainly been a very important tradition in the trajectory of American music is the music that people call jazz. It’s a loaded word in some circles, but it is a tradition and it’s a tradition that you’ve interacted with in some of your work, though not all of your work. I love the trio recording you did with Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille where you’re taking music by Thelonious Monk and completely reinventing it in a way that echoes traditional Japanese music, but that also really is jazz. It really does swing. It feels like Monk to me. So I wonder how you see your own music within the context of jazz traditions.
MM: Well, I grew up playing and listening to all different kinds of music and, of course, studying classical music, teaching myself folk music on the guitar, and studying flamenco music with a gypsy who lived in the town. Listening to rock and roll, listening to jazz—it’s really hard to escape that if you grow up in America. Jazz has this incredibly rich history of ways of being in music and ways of creating music. And I feel very lucky to have worked with some amazing jazz artists. And I continue to work with them.
I think at different times, there’s been a certain fragmentation and diffusion and at the same time a real boxing in of what jazz is into a kind of very boring and negative modality, which it certainly is not. I mean, the history is so expressive. It’s been so influential to so many parts of American culture. It’s had a rough patch, I think, and people like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor have kind of gone through and made it to the other end of that, the narrow definition of what would be swing or how to define jazz. I’m hoping that that’s going to open up again.
FJO: So taking on Monk. Monk’s compositions are iconic jazz repertoire even though he was an iconoclast. He was never conventional in what he did with rhythm. What he did with harmony was also completely unique. You hear a Monk chord, and you know instantly that it’s his. Yet those pieces have become canonic of a certain era in jazz. So to take that on and to do your own thing with it is very brave in a way because people have certain expectations about what that is.

CD cover for Monk's Japanese Folk Song

The CD cover for Monk’s Japanese Folk Song featuring Miya Masaoka with Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille.

MM: Well, Monk did an album of Japanese folk songs, so I kind of did a version of him doing a version of Japanese folk songs. And then, like you mentioned, the rhythms are asymmetrical; they’re very spiky and they’re very interesting. It’s definitely very interesting repertoire to dig into. So I thought it was challenging and would be a fun project to do. It’s funny, when I go to Japan, sometimes I still hear it in some of the jazz clubs. They play that record; it’s wormed its way in.
FJO: You did another project that is probably even more clearly jazz sounding—What is the Difference Between Stripping and Playing the Violin?—which for me is definitely coming out of big band music, but it’s also referencing a lot of other things, too.
MM: That was a long time ago. But there was some jazz in there definitely, quotations from Duke Ellington and things like that. I had a big orchestra and I was doing actually something I made up that I called tai chi conducting where I would try to get the energy from the musicians. I used some of the Butch Morris sign language. I also invented some of my own at the time. There were people in that group like Vijay Iyer and Carla Kihlstedt, tons of incredible artists who were living in the Bay Area at the time.
FJO: The more non-jazz improvisatory stuff that you’ve done also in some way connects to jazz’s greater contribution to American culture—this notion of work that’s collaborative in some way, the idea that a group of people can participate in the making of something in real time by responding to one another. It’s not just one person’s vision—I did this piece and now you peons, here are the precise rules you need to follow. Rather you have a group of people who are listening to each other, and they’re responding to each other, and the work becomes what it is because of those interactions. No one necessarily knows what’s going to happen at the end. Something can become completely different from what you had initially envisioned it being.
MM: That’s true. I mean, you know, I’d definitely been open to what kinds of things could change and how that could be meaningful. I did this piece with Joan Jeanrenaud—For Birds, Planes and Cello. Joan was playing the cello and also listening and also looking at some graphic ideas of what to play while she was listening. This was a piece with basically an uncut film recording of the planes at the San Diego airport starting out at six in the morning, and slowly there would be more and more of them. And the birds were in these natural canyons so they were in this enormous kind of sound amplifier; the birds were so loud they sounded like they were being amplified artificially. Whenever a plane went by, they would start screeching with the plane, and then as time went on, there was just more and more sound and it built up to a structural climax with the schedule of the planes kind of dictating that. So in a sense, it’s a kind of a collaboration with the earth, the birds, and the scheduling and creating and taking these kinds of environments and finding some kind of coherence and structure and meaning from them.
FJO: What I find so interesting in terms of the whole sound bite phenomenon is that collaboration has been a hallmark of your work through the last several decades, but the people you collaborate with have been extremely different from each other. So, because of that, the music that results from those collaborations is always very different. I’m thinking of the trios that you were a part of with Gino Robair which can be very frenetic versus, say, your work with Pauline Oliveros, which is often much sparer and much more introspective. I’m curious about what makes you choose a collaborator to work with because obviously those different identities are both you since you’ve done both of those things. They’re both extraordinary, but they’re very different from each other.
MM: Collaboration—whether it’s with insects or plants or people or musicians or the earth’s environmental sounds—is thinking about a sound world and how to enter somewhat of a psychological and sonic space. And a spiritual place you could even say, like with Pauline Oliveros. We’re going to be going into the studio again in a couple of months, actually. She’s an icon, and I’ve been so honored to be able to have worked with her and to work with her in the future. To answer your question about sparseness or density, those kinds of things can be preconceived or not preconceived. Things with Pauline can be sparse or not sparse, or this or not that; it’s working towards a larger whole to a certain extent. There are so many parameters that are a part of getting there.
FJO: So in terms of choosing these collaborators, how do these relationships happen? Who initiates them?
MM: It changes, and it varies. This time this one with Pauline was initiated by Issui Minegishi, a player of the traditional one-stringed koto called ichigenkin. With Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille, there was someone from Germany who said, “Who do you want to work with?” I just named these two names and he got them. It really varies. I often do a lot of just working by myself.
FJO: There is that fabulous album you did of composition and improvisation which is almost completely solo except for the last track that has flute. Once again, from track to track, the music is extremely different. One solo project of yours, although perhaps you might not think of it as solo, is the work you’ve done with bees and Madagascan cockroaches. I find it remarkable, but I have to confess that I also find it unbelievably disturbing, and I think that that disturbance might be an element of why you did it. I’ve never experienced these performances live. I’m not sure I could. I’ve watched the videos online, and I had to stop the recordings repeatedly. It got through my skin, as it were. I felt like these insects were crawling on me.
MM: Well, that piece was about the Japanese American experience. Around that time, they had just come out with some new studies of DNA and the differences with gender and race; people were something like actually 99 percent the same. And it’s really this small miniscule amount that we thought we were different. So I was going back to the 1/16th Japanese that you had to be to go to the Japanese camps. So the idea of the naked human body, as it is, without these ideas being fostered onto it… These large bugs crawling on it, kind of just discovering the terrain, as if it’s for the first time, and seeing this as a blank slate. Now we can buy that or not, you know, in terms of blank slates, but the idea was just having a very kind of cold viewpoint of the human body as the canvas—that was the idea. And then taking the sounds of the bugs, and amplifying them, and making samples of them, and having them create the structure of the piece. So I would be sending an array of lasers over my body, and they would break the beams, and that would trigger the sounds of the piece. The sound worlds are based on their movements.
FJO: So how were you able to do this?
MM: I went to this amphibian store. At the time they were legal to buy and I bought 12 of them. Later somebody took care of them for me and would send them through FedEx to the different places that I would play in Europe.
FJO: But how were you able to have bugs crawl all over you? How did it feel? You don’t move at all during the piece; how were you able to get yourself into that zone?
MM: It’s the idea of the body being this passive canvas that society pushes things upon. And you know, you just do it. I mean, it’s discipline. It’s like anything else. It’s, you know, you just do it.
FJO: What were audience reactions like to that in different venues around the world?
MM: Well, that piece became very popular. It also got picked up by some kind of syndicate in Canada and played a few times. And these Madagascar cockroaches later became much more popular in lots of popular culture. This was before that happened. But, how things get received? I don’t know. I should probably pay more attention to that. I think at the time, people weren’t used to seeing anything like that. Some people thought it was interesting, and some people thought it wasn’t, I’m sure. I can’t have my ear too much to the ground as to how things get received or not received, because it can just get me in the wrong frame of mind.
FJO: I have to confess, before I experienced it, I thought the idea was sort of gimmicky, but then after looking and listening to it, though at times I found it really disturbing, it was also viscerally powerful. But I’m curious about what it means to you as music, because a lot of it is a visual experience, including what you were saying about the body being a blank slate. But it was conceived of as a piece of music, right?
MM: Yes, as a performative semi-installation with music, because that’s my background. I did these collaborations with cockroaches, but their sound sounds like white noise. It’s the most amazing electronic kind of sound and it’s actually coming from a bug. Bees also have a very electronic sound component. But they were chosen not only for their sound abilities, [they were also chosen for] the idea of them maybe being individuals, maybe a colony. I think it’s very fascinating to have a blur of something that’s a whole. Ants are that way, too, but ants don’t have the same kind of obvious sound possibilities as these other ones. I really wanted to understand and study their social relationships to each other. So a lot of pieces from that period have to do with inquiries into the nature of society and culture and politics and sound.

FJO: Now with the bees, there’s the added layer of danger. Cockroaches tend to make people flinch, but with bees you can actually get stung and be physically injured. Is putting yourself in harm’s way part of the aesthetic here?
MM: No, not at all. And I’m not allergic to bees, so it’s okay. It was the idea of what the individual is, what our bodies are, and what the relationship is of our bodies to nature. It was searching for some kinds of clues to get closer to that.
FJO: I found it very interesting when we were talking earlier on about collaborations that you included the insects along with your collaborations with some of the most iconic human musicians. But insects, unlike people, don’t necessarily create a work of art of their own volition, so it’s a different kind of collaboration.
MM: Well, from my point of view, I really try to give the cockroaches agency by having them crawl and their movements create the sound structure for the piece. So I really try to imbue a certain agency for them.
FJO: But they’re not necessarily cognizant of their agency. Or are they?
MM: I have no idea.
FJO: But unlike collaborations with other people which are the creative work of the entire group collectively, certainly work for which you’d all share royalties, you don’t have to share your royalties with these bugs! Ultimately, it’s exclusively your work as a creator.
MM: Correct. But let me tell you about these cockroaches. I would be in the hotel room with these cockroaches night after night, travelling with them, and they were in a shoebox. I stopped taking both males and females, because the males would just attack too much, constantly going after each other and fighting each other. So I ended up with just one male cockroach, and the rest females. But I would just watch the way they interacted with each other for hours and hours in the hotel room, you know, after the performance. They did amazing things—very, very tender things with their antennas to each other, really very dramatic, very erotic things. When they would have sex, the things they would do with their antennas were fascinating. And how they would manipulate each other for food, and keep food from certain other ones. The whole thing was just fascinating. And for me, it was also part of the piece in a certain sense.
FJO: Now, to take it to plants. One could argue that even if insects may not be engaging in the same aesthetic processes that you are in the pieces that you involved them in, they certainly have will. Most people don’t think of plants as having will. I think that what you’ve done with plants is particularly fascinating, because it’s trying to address the living qualities of these life forms that we take for granted.
MM: I don’t think of plants as having will, but I will say some plants are very different from each other, even in one species. Some will be very responsive and some won’t be. I use EEG sensors on leaves, so I can monitor activity, and some plants are really responsive. You can get good readings on the sensors from the ones that are semi-tropical with very sebaceous leaves. If they’re in the jungle, they have to think which branch am I going to have to wrap myself around. Aristotle said the difference between humans and plants is plants can’t move, and human beings can. But actually these plants in the rain forest can actually go several miles by living on the treetops, and then shooting roots down. When they want to go somewhere else, they kill the nutrients off and then they move and get new roots in another location. But there are these plants, of course, like a lettuce, that just open and close; they are kind of like a toggle switch. Other plants grow quickly, and their vines shoot in directions where it’s most beneficial for them. So there’s definitely a lot of going there. These root systems can be considered somewhat like a neuron center of some sort.
FJO: So how does this all translate into music?
MM: Well, they give off mini-volts, which is one millionth of a volt. They recently discovered that plants have ultraviolet sensitivity, which is something human beings aren’t even able to discern. There’s a lot going on there. But it’s like any kind of data piece, whether you’re taking the information from earthquake activity, or wind activity. But my plant pieces were in real time. Often data pieces are not. They’re just taking a splice of something that happened and then interpreting that data. It started from my taking data from people’s brains in concerts, going from brain-activated pieces to using plants’ data. For some reason, those pieces got farther along for me than the brain pieces.

Masaoka performing with plants

One of Miya Masaoka’s performances with plants. (Photo by Donald Swearington.)

FJO: But it’s another one of these things where, if one were to hear it without knowing how those sounds came about, what would be the difference in the experience? And this begs the question of where does the music lie in this for you in all of these pieces—the plant pieces, the insect pieces. What is the musical issue that’s coming out of it for you that led you to create in this way?
MM: Well, they’re very different in a certain sense because the ones with insects are taking the actual sounds of the insects, but the ones with plants are taking their relationship to voltage output. A lot of it is negotiating what’s going to happen, whether it’s an installation, or whether it’s something that’s an eight-minute piece that goes from beginning to end. That’s a challenge for those kinds of pieces, to take the data and to make it interesting. I guess there are different ways of thinking about data, how pure this relationship is to the scientific frequencies coming out or whether that can be interpreted or manipulated for compositional purposes. I always err on the side of artistic license to really take the data and then apply it so that there is some sonic interest and development and satisfaction.
FJO: So how do you know when these pieces end? What is an ending?
MM: For long durational pieces, I think there’s the question of my own attention span and the attention span of the audience, the perceiver, the listener. I’ve been to India many times and have experienced seven-hour concerts, as well as [extended] durational concerts by different composers, like La Monte Young. There’s something very beautiful about this kind of eternity and things going on and on, but I also like something that you can kind of experience and then you have to go back to the memory. Once the piece starts, you start listening to it and then you go back to the memory of what you listened to. It’s like reflecting upon whatever just happened in a time-based way. The last event that happened that was meaningful, maybe you return to that. And then there’s a new meaningful event. And then you return to that along the timeline. And it kind of goes like that. And after a span of time happens, you reflect on the whole experience, and find what was meaningful or satisfying, or maybe what was not. For me, there’s kind of a ratio of attention span plus time plus satisfaction equals end. I just made that up right now. [laughing]
FJO: That’s good! You were talking about using raw data versus manipulating it for aesthetic ends. Even though we’re now in the 21st century, we’re still playing all these games with binaries. It’s either this or that. Either it’s about structure or it’s intuitive. One of the things I was trying to think through for what could be the sound bite to describe your music is its corporeality. At the onset of our talk you described your interest in physical moving sound. There’s a physicalness to most of your music, much more so—at least it seems—than the working out of a rigid process. You do all these experiments, but they’re really about how sound exists in the world more than how it exists in your brain. Is that fair?
MM: Anything’s fair. I think that’s an interesting way of thinking, and that sounds like an approach.
FJO: Here’s where it becomes a loaded gun thing—a lot of recent debates about aesthetics contextualize creative choices in terms of gender. The argument goes that men like to create all these rules which result in highly structured pieces, whereas women are more intuitive and they respond to things. Reality is a lot more complex than that, but this binary is something used to explain, say, why there are no 90-minute symphonies by women composers.
MM: Even 40-minute symphonies, why aren’t there those? They don’t have to be 90 minutes.
FJO: Well, I can think of at least ten 40-minute symphonies by women, but I can’t think of any 90-minutes ones. But is this related to gender and is this kind of thinking an issue for you in your own music making? When we talked about identity before, we didn’t talk so much about gender. How important are those questions for you?
MM: Those questions are very important because they have to do with how we function in our social context. So that’s very important. Some things are just done out of necessity. I would often do lots of solo things, especially in the earlier days, because I didn’t have the funding and the resources to hire people. Then whenever I did get funding, the first thing I would do was create more structured pieces to include more people and hire them. That’s always been something that I’ve done consistently. And there’ve been scores and rules for all of my pieces that have to do with larger groups because it’s too unwieldy otherwise. I think that serialism was kind of an extreme, and certainly it broke down, not just for women, but for men as well, but still there are certain things that are very interesting about serialism. For me, it’s more a question of access, being able to have musicians and being able to get your work performed. These kinds of things are more important to me than thinking that this is generalized for this gender or for that gender, which really is not very helpful for anybody.
FJO: But one thing that certainly is helpful to someone who is creative, especially during one’s formative years, is being able to have role models. While there have always been women composers, they did not really have much of an impact on the greater trajectory of music history until composers of Pauline Oliveros and Yoko Ono’s generation. Before their time, the role models were pretty much all men. I know that Pauline Oliveros is somebody who has been very important to you as a mentor. And on your website you include a fascinating talk you did with Yoko Ono, who also created work that blurs the line between sound and vision and performance.
MM: I don’t consider her a role model per se, but she’s definitely been an iconic artist.
FJO: So who are your role models?
MM: Well, Pauline Oliveros, Kaija Saariaho, Olga Neuwirth… I get very inspired by visual artists as well, like Kara Walker, and writers.
FJO: Everyone you mentioned is a woman.
MM: Well, there are men, too, but they get mentioned a lot. I like to mention people who aren’t mentioned as much.
FJO: The person you chose as your life partner, George Lewis, is also an iconic composer and musical thinker. I’m curious about how having the central person in your life also be a creator has impacted your own work. I know that the two of you have collaborated in the past.
MM: Not for a long time. We have a really separate artistic life, I’d say. We buy different pieces of equipment, even if it’s the same a lot of times, because it just makes it easier. You have your equipment, and no one’s going to mess with it. And then when you need it, it’s going to be in the exact same state in which you left it. Those kinds of things are important. And we have different places where we work. But it’s so enriching, because when we do get a chance to sit down and talk about different things, there’s always something interesting to say. So, I really appreciate that part of it.
FJO: It’s interesting. You were such an important fixture in the Bay Area new music scene, and now you’ve been in New York City for over a decade. Since so much of your music is about the physical world around you, I’m curious about how being in a different place has affected the work you’ve done since you’ve been here.
MM: The work I’ve done here in New York is focused more on composition. I just finished this string quartet. But in some ways, it all somewhat follows a life trajectory to a certain extent, since I’m not in my 20s and 30s anymore. I’ve got a small child. There are these kinds of interruptions of life to a certain extent that affect things. The Bay Area was, too, but New York is such a stimulating place to be, so I love being here every minute.

Score excerpt from "Survival"

An excerpt from the score of “Survival”, part 3 of Triangle of Resistance. Copyright © 2013 by Miya Masaoka. Reproduced with the permission of the composer.

Triangle of Resistance

From the world premiere performance of Miya Masaoka’s score for Triangle of Resistance at Roulette on November 17, 2013: Jennifer Choi and Esther Noh, violins; Ljova, viola; Alex Waterman, cello; plus Satoshi Takeishi, percussion; Miya Masaoka, koto; and Ben Vida, analog modular synthesizer. Conducted by Richard Carrick. Video projections by Michelle Handelman. Direction by Brooke O’Harra.

FJO: You also recently wrote your first orchestra piece.
MM: It was a piece called Other Mountain that was performed by the La Jolla Symphony last year.
FJO: Is that something you’re interested in exploring more now?
MM: Well, the large forces of a symphony are a learning experience, and it’s also a very intriguing way of thinking, how the sounds from each individual instrument work together. It’s something new for me, and it’s been endlessly fascinating. I don’t know really where the future goes with that, but it’s really an incredible thing to be able to have done.

Other Mountain orchestral score excerpt

From the orchestral score for Other Mountain Copyright © 2013 by Miya Masaoka. Reproduced with the permission of the composer.

New England’s Prospect: Fellow Travelers

5th Floor Collective

“Come, then, into the music room,” she said, and I followed her into an apartment finished, without hangings, in wood, with a floor of polished wood. I was prepared for new devices in musical instruments, but I saw nothing in the room which by any stretch of imagination could be conceived as such. It was evident that my puzzled appearance was affording intense amusement to Edith.

She made me sit down comfortably, and, crossing the room, so far as I could see, merely touched one or two screws, and at once the room was filled with the music of a grand organ anthem; filled, not flooded, for, by some means, the volume of melody had been perfectly graduated to the size of the apartment. I listened, scarcely breathing, to the close.

—Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1887)

Collectivism has a long history in Massachusetts (periodic paroxysms of reaction notwithstanding). The Puritans, after all, were nothing if not utopian collectivists; the Transcendentalists, too, had their communes. At the end of the 19th century, Edward Bellamy, hailing from Chicopee Falls, saw his utopian best-seller inspire the Nationalist movement, an organized effort to put utilities, transportation companies, and other such private enterprises under collectivized government control. (It is a testament to the depth of collectivist sentiment here that such sentiment could divide along class lines: Nationalism was for Brahmins; those without the proper family connections instead joined up with the Socialists.)

Composer collectives are a more recent development in the Commonwealth, but they, too, have become a constant, ever since Composers in Red Sneakers got the ball rolling in the early ‘80s. They tend to be short-lived—indicative, perhaps, of their often academic origins and their bootstrapping purpose, a way to bridge the gap between the thrown-together enthusiasm of a student cohort and the geographic scattering of professional achievement. (Even the Sneakers have been quiet for the past few seasons, though their history of resourceful persistence makes one unsure whether to mourn their demise or brace for their unexpected return.)

But some of them do keep going. The Fifth Floor Collective, for instance, is now in its fourth season. That comparative longevity is probably due to Fifth Floor’s habit of inviting other composers, lots of other composers, to join in. The official members (Joseph Colombo, Patrick Greene, Andrew Paul Jackson, and Keith Kusterer) make ample room for compositional friends and acquaintances. At their concert on January 14—“Plugged In 2,” an evening of electroacoustic music—participating member composers (Greene and Jackson) were outnumbered by guests.
The locus of Fifth Floor is The Boston Conservatory; all four member composers are a

lumni. There is also a strong Chicago connection in the group, through Kusterer, a Columbia College graduate. Two of the guest composers on “Plugged In 2”—Monte Weber and Daniel Dehaan—had that Chicago provenance, as did the guest soloist, the excellent soprano Tony Arnold. The other guests—Amber Vistein and Timothy McCormack—were local, but with résumés that diverged from the core constituency. Fifth Floor concerts are all about expanding a web of colleagues. That collegiality extends to the concerts, which aim for a casual atmosphere—the black-box ambience of Somerville’s Davis Square Theater for this concert, with some pre-concert chit-chat, the possibility of in-concert drinking, post-concert cookies, and a DJ.

Weber’s Chanting Atmospheres, an exercise in loops and layering, featured Arnold, dispatching vocal effects into the microphone (breath sounds, clicks, whistling, vocal percussion, and singing) which were then broadcast back, repeated and multi-tracked into a foundation for the next round of live-produced, digitally-reiterated sounds. An opening section of all white noise and unvoiced consonants led into a series of clustered drones; a series of swooping glissandi—laminated into to a nice, Penderecki-homage roar—led back to the drones; and then the whole thing was rounded off with a more delicate stacking of open fifths and hollow overtones. Chanting Atmospheres did, however, trigger one of my own (admittedly irrational) pet peeves about electroacoustic-plus-live-performers music, the way a lot of it circumscribes the performer’s range in order to better suit the electronic possibilities—to write for someone like Tony Arnold and not have her do more flat-out singing felt like a bit of a missed opportunity. But those ramjet glissandi warmed my in-your-face-modernist heart, and the ending section was particularly lovely.
The muse for Greene’s contribution, Juicy (subtitled “Spectral Studies for a Citrus Juicer”) was the whimsical, mass-produced Juicy Salif, a standing juicer designed by Philippe Starck for the Alessi company in the 1980s. (The Juicy Salif’s unusual shape was supposedly inspired by a squid, but it looks more like an enlarged chrome teardrop resting on a spindly, space-age tripod.) Greene used a host of other household objects to ring the juicer like a bell, subjected the results to some SPEAR-powered spectral analysis, then assembled the waveforms into a grand, gradually-building slow-motion clang of overtones. Having generated that shimmering multitude, Greene then dropped everything down to a fat, low buzz appropriate to the juicer’s resemblance to a Doctor Who prop. (Seriously: compare and contrast.) Like Chanting Atmospheres, Juicy had the feel of an elaborate sketch, but the simple formal unfolding (and—let’s be honest—the visual lark of a spotlit, foot-high juicer holding the stage) created an estimable divertimento.

Not all the music stayed within a synthesized hothouse; Jackson’s EIMI Два (“I am” [Greek] “two” [Russian]) ventured out of doors, drawing on ambient recordings Jackson made during a trip to Russia. (The title references one of e. e. cummings’s oddest books; EIMI is a fractured, dream-like account of a disillusioning trip to the Soviet Union in 1931.) The piece’s use of documentary sound was more mashup than musique concrète, the sources—broadcasts, conversations, an opera singer, an orchestra—were often easily identifiable, and not so much recontextualized as artfully rearranged (singer and orchestra kept bumping into each other at various angles), an entire journey converted into the discrete jumble of an envelope of snapshots.
Timothy McCormack’s Interfacing with the Surface and Daniel R. Dehaan’s Objects in This Mirror were, as the composers admitted in a bit of pre-concert banter, a yin-and-yang pair. Interfacing with the Surface was a quadruple-forte, fun flood of maximalism: hornist Sarah Botham and cellist Benjamin Schwartz working hard as McCormack (currently a PhD candidate at Harvard, a department that has definitely gotten louder in the past few years) manhandled a MIDI keyboard loaded up with what seemed to be all manner of industrial samples—revving engines, jackhammers, car horns. The effect was that of a catastrophically-malfunctioning chip-tune version of An American in Paris, urban energy compacted into an impenetrable surface; even McCormack’s apology for a botched ending felt as much like an extension of the aural critique of the modern condition as anything.

In Objects in This Mirror, a purely electronic work, Dehaan peeled away where McCormack piled on. A shimmering cluster was first deconstructed into audio artifacts: the crackle of overmodulation, the diffracted, stuttering chime of intersecting oscillators isolated and extracted. Then the cluster was divided and recombined into a slow, lush, Eno-like progression. To call something “tasteful” might seem like damning with faint praise, but the piece’s sure-footedness was impressive—with Dehaan tweaking away at a mixing board, the durations, balances, and timbres always felt like just the right choice. (If you’re going to indulge in circling, melancholy pop harmonies, you could do a lot worse than a repeated vi to V7/V to IV.)

The final work of the evening was Vistein’s; Apropos set a text by Rabelais, referencing an old myth that words spoken in winter would freeze, only to thaw the following spring. Vistein’s background has a strong conceptual streak—installations alongside performances, an MFA instead of an MM—but Apropos was, perhaps, the most musically straightforward piece of the evening: Arnold singing the text in longer, blooming phrases, her voice processed into a sonic background that unfolded an almost traditional narrative of illustrative effects.

Despite the congruence in electronic means, the program was distinguished mainly by a lack of any other connecting thread. If anything, it confirmed that style is not much of a banner to rally behind anymore (even if old dichotomies continue to stalk the new music world like some sort of rare, protected species of zombie). The only possible theme I could sense was one of simulation: all the pieces might be heard as using very up-to-date technology to produce sounds that, within the comparatively brief history of electronic music, could be considered somewhat retro: Jackson’s cut-up field recordings, Weber’s loops, Greene’s and Dehann’s oscillator-and-pad soundscapes, McCormack’s riot of sampling. Even Vistein’s piece could, perhaps, plausibly be realized by a chamber group with enough percussion and extended techniques at their disposal.

There were hints of other speculative generalizations: that we are in a musical era of consolidation rather than innovation, maybe, or that processing power has allowed more of a convergence of the aesthetic of electronic and conventional music than was possible in the days of more uncooperative equipment. But, really, the concert was too small a sample size to make any sort of larger statement; and larger statements didn’t seem to be the point, anyway. The Fifth Floor Collective is after something both more modest and grander: community, collaboration, camaraderie.

Dan Trueman: Man Out of Time

Trueman’s office on the campus of Princeton University
November 4, 2013—2 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video presentation and text condensed and edited by Molly Sheridan

I readily confess that I lifted the title for this piece directly from a poetic description of Dan Trueman that appeared in Electronic Musician just a few weeks before I interviewed the composer myself. “Trueman is a man out of time,” noted Ken Micallef, “one foot in tomorrow’s software, the other in yesterday’s folk music.”

I scribbled this seeming contradiction across the top of my notes, but quickly began to wonder if these musical worlds were so very far apart after all. Trueman’s beloved Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, after all, is its own kind of remarkable technology. And the work he does with programming, particularly when building his own invented instruments or working with the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk), often takes metal, plastic, and code into areas of incredibly organic and tactile creation. That they implied to me a type of contradiction felt narrow minded on reflection. If there is any line to cross, Trueman certainly doesn’t trip on it.

What he does notice are some other tensions, which then influence his work from project to project. Coming from a family of musicians who regularly played chamber music together, Trueman is extremely conscious of how much we privilege professional performance over communal music making. As a result, he works to make sure those playing his music—whether on stage or in the classroom together—feel a meaningful engagement with the notes and instruments in their hands. He’s much less concerned with the preservation of his catalog for posterity and instead focused on making sure that the new technologies he develops for it function correctly from year to year so that he can keep building and developing creatively. When time concerns him at all, it’s not in how the past meets the present, but in how a human sense of rhythm meets a metronome’s tick.

His innate intellectual curiosity keeps him exploring topics within music and beyond, but whether the eventual expression of his ideas requires old instruments or the invention of new ones, at its root is something basic and strong.

“I guess what I’m saying is that I always feel like I have to make sure I’m coming back to playing music with my body and with other people, and trying to keep myself honest about how I think I understand things,” Trueman acknowledges at one point in our conversation. Later, he hits this same lesson from a slightly different angle. “It’s funny how we get these inherited bits of wisdom about what it means to write music. In the end, we all have to find our own way.”


Molly Sheridan: On your website there’s a neat juxtaposition that crops up among resume bullet points where your work with the Hardanger Fiddle Association of America butts right up against other work produced for the Computer Music Journal. Anyone familiar with your career knows you are certainly not just dabbling on either side of this aisle, and ultimately it’s all just technology in a way, but I think there are still clear dividing lines for most people. Have you always just been pulling things that interested you into your toolbox or were these separate strands that eventually braided themselves together?
Dan Trueman: What you say about them both being technologies is totally true and has been something that I argue all the time. It’s really not that different. That said, I actually think that the reason I have done both over the years is that I just like them both. I’ve played the fiddle forever; my fiddles hang on the wall, always waiting to be played. So if what I’m doing is not as interesting as playing the fiddle, then I usually go play. But with the newer technologies, I like something about the process of programming, in particular. I actually like programming—writing lines of code and having it work. It’s very satisfying. It’s funny: composing is hard and it’s hard to get a sense of closure writing a piece of music. When I finish a piece of music, there’s still a sense of things to work on and trying to come to terms with what it all means. Writing code, you just write it, and it works or it doesn’t. I like that. You take the fiddle and try to imagine things you could do with it that you can’t really do right now. For example, I play in a lot of different tunings, but once you’re in one you’re sort of stuck. I remember years ago wishing that the strings could be retuned on the fly, so that while I was playing, I could go to a different scordatura. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could hit a pedal or something and then it would just change? I suppose you could do that mechanically, but building instruments in the digital realm allows you to try things like that. So in a way I’m inspired by the limitations of these real physical things, but trying to come up with new ways of just being musical.
MS: In a way, is it fair to say that straddling this roof point, this man and machine, acoustic and electronic, often encapsulates what your music is “about” or at least hints at some of its creative impulse?
DT: A lot of times I think that’s true. Certainly in this So Percussion piece [neither Anvil nor Pulley], I was specifically interested in exploring this space between moving and training as musicians do, and seeing what machines can do, and putting them against one another. I also embrace certain elements of computer stuff that I think are native to it and are sometimes avoided. For instance, the glitchy stuff which now is sort of common in a lot of music—for a long time, we always avoided things like that. But I like things that are native to the electronic or the digital realm, and I like to foreground those and pit them against more carbon-based things. Paul Lansky always used categories—I think it comes from Star Trek, actually—like “this is carbon-based music” and “this is silicon-based music.” There are identifiable features of both, which I like to have present all together at once. I don’t feel like it needs to be one or the other. But even more to the point of your question, I really like to see how new instruments that we might build engage with how we like to make music. So you take, for instance, So Percussion—these people who have years and years of experience playing in a certain way, with very virtuoso approaches to engaging with rhythm and time. Then you find that it really doesn’t even line up with how we represent time on paper or with a metronome or on a piece of software. To see what happens when we push those against each other is definitely something that’s really been at the center of my work for the last seven or eight years.

In Trueman's Princeton office, where old ideas meet new technology

In Trueman’s Princeton office, where old ideas meet new technology

MS: I was wondering about that issue of notation, because both from your folk side and also the technology side, it seems like there must be a certain tension between what’s in your ear and what’s on the page.
DT: Yeah, and the fiddle music is particularly interesting in that regard. Actually, some of it relates to the very specific fiddle music that I play. For years, I’ve been playing this Norwegian fiddle—the Hardanger fiddle—and a particular kind of dance music from a part of Norway called Telemark. Any type of musician or music lover who isn’t familiar with that music is always scratching their head because you can’t count it the way we know how to count. You have to feel it in your body in a certain way. Swing may be the closest thing that we all know about in terms of it not really being quantifiable in a clear way. But in the case of this Norwegian dance music, it’s that times ten. So to represent it on a page is really difficult. And if you forget that it’s just a really rough approximation, and you start doing what the page tells you, you actually lose all the magic—this kind of warped sense of time that you get from this dance music.

So even apart from dealing with new technologies, just the issue of representing what’s happening when we’re making music with our bodies in a certain way, trying to represent that on a page with notation, is one challenge. Then when you think about building a new instrument, say with software, you always have to work with some kind of representation because computers are dumb. We need to tell them exactly what to do. So we write these lines of code, and they have to be totally explicit. In some ways, when you write a program, more than any other way it reflects the limitations of our understanding of how that music actually works. You write it down, and the computer does something exactly the way you told it—so it reflects how you understand that music—and you listen it and go, “Huh, that’s not really quite right.” I love that, and I find that really super interesting. I think we can sometimes get too comfortable with how we think we understand things. For instance, when we talk about meter and rhythm, we assume that we build everything up from small subdivisions. This is basically accepted wisdom, and that’s how we teach people. But if you do that, and you apply it to this Norwegian dance music, it’s just wrong. You actually do violence to that music. So there’s something that we think we understand, but it’s not lining up with this kind of music that we actually make.
I guess what I’m saying is that I always feel like I have to make sure I’m coming back to playing music with my body and with other people, and trying to keep myself honest about how I think I understand things—so that I don’t let my representation of things sort of swallow or overly constrain the thing that actually drew me to it in the first place.

Sample code from neither Anvil nor Pulley

Sample code from neither Anvil nor Pulley

MS: This discussion of time and perception leads nicely to my next question, which is how you ended up with such a fixation on messing with your metronome. Twisted references to this little timekeeper crop up in a number of your pieces. Did you have a traumatizing experience as a student or something? What happened with the metronome?!
DT: I had an amazing experience with a metronome! This was with a digital metronome back when I was in college studying violin. I love practicing with metronomes—there’s something almost spiritual about it—and there’s a practice that I can get into where I’ll set the metronome for a certain tempo, I’ll work on something, then I’ll increment it up a little bit, and then I’ll come back down. This experience that I had, I was playing these sixteenth notes with spiccato with the metronome and gradually increasing the tempo. And I was really trying to make my sixteenth notes as even as possible, so I was attending really closely to the details. As the tempo went up, I noticed at a certain point that every time I stopped playing, the metronome would speed up. I’m like, something’s wrong with this metronome. It would happen every time I would stop. Then I asked someone to come in and said, “What’s going on? Is there something weird going on? Have we entered the Twilight Zone with this metronome?” At the time, I hadn’t really thought about it very much, but of course it makes sense. As we attend to things, our sense of how time passes changes. So I literally slowed down my experience of time.

I’ve met a few other people who have had this same experience, you know. So I’m confident I’m not just weird here. But ever since then, I’ve just been really curious about the power of mechanical time: how we measure it, and how we represent it. Nowadays we think, well, the metronome is right. I need to practice and get very good. A lot of our contemporary music these days I think reflects that. We play with very regimented types of pulses and beats. I think it’s in part a reflection of our acceptance of the metronome and, more generally, the idea of calculated pulse that we get from sequencers and so on. So we write pulse-based music, and it doesn’t have the same kind of flow and rubato that, say, 19th-century music has, where they were very skeptical about the metronome. So yes, I had a semi-traumatic experience with a metronome.
MS: So you’re taking very precise machines, and then you’re interested, well, not in imprecision, but in non-perfection I guess.
DT: That’s right. I’m very much interested in the dirty, crunchy areas around this mechanical sense of time. If I may say, one of my favorite places in this piece that I wrote for So Percussion comes right at the interface between the first and second movements. The first movement is this sort of jaunty fiddle tune, and the So guys, they’re grooving it, feeling it the way fiddlers feel it, at 120 beats per minutes. Then the very last note, Eric hits this wood block that starts the metronome for the second movement, which is also 120 bpm. There’s this moment where it’s like, wow, they’re really playing at 120 bpm, but there’s a quality in the way this changes from this sort of, you know, it’s grooving, it’s tight, but it’s not this crrrk, crrrk, crrrk type of calculated pulse that we get from metronomes. There’s this twist that I feel every time we get to that moment where two ways of articulating that pulse come right up against each other.

MS: There does seem to be a remarkable naturalness between how you integrate acoustic and electronic instruments. Do you have a personal stash of rules or guidelines for how you go about doing that at this point?
DT: That’s a really great question. I make a lot of things, and then I play with them. I think my instincts have gotten better over the years, but I still feel like maybe instead of nine out of ten things that I make, that eight out of ten things that I make are really boring. I’ve gotten a little better at anticipating, but basically I’ll have an idea: Wouldn’t it be cool to do this? Wouldn’t it be cool to play with an instrument that can do this? And then most of the time, I’ll code it up in some way, or maybe it will involve some hardware, and I’ll make it and literally, within seconds often, say, “Aw, geez. That’s boring.” Or, “I really need it to be able to do this.” And then I’ll go back and code some more.

That was actually the thing about this So Percussion piece. The second movement, this 120 bpm movement, is the first one that I wrote. I spent about three months banging my head against the wall, trying to find the thing that I thought would work for this because I wanted something that really engaged their incredible musical training and something indigenous to the computer which was pushing against them. And that’s not an easy task, but still—three months in! This is terrible. Then finally, I built this one thing I wanted to try and it was maybe three days later that I came up for air because I started playing with it and—wow—this is so fun. I wish that I were better at predicting. Maybe if I were more analytical I could come up with some principles that I could write about, but I still pretty much follow my nose on these things. Basically, I’m aiming to make something that is physically engaging in some way and that’s going to be interesting for the player to do.

Actually this does get to a fairly big thing for me. Ninety percent of my musical life is spent by myself playing fiddle or maybe trying to hack through some Bach at the piano. You know, not performing. And my enjoyment of music really is primarily there [off stage]. I think we forget that sometimes. There’s such an emphasis on performance and making things that are always going to be presented that the role of the players and their experience can really get lost. They’re executing something, as opposed to engaging with something. So one of my first principles in designing these types of instruments is really, well, what’s this going to be like for the player—is this going to be super engaging in some way to play? Again, that comes back to my fiddles hanging on the wall. I can just pick one up and play some tunes, and that’s really great. So anything else that I do, I want it to be at least similarly engaging—making me feel like I’m actually, and with some urgency, involved in the music-making process. That’s hard, but I try to develop an instinct for making things that will accomplish that. Most of the time I miss, but occasionally, I get something that, wow, three days later I’m still doing this. So there must be something right here.

Trueman's 5-string Hardanger-inspired "5x5 fiddle," built by Salve Håkedal

Trueman’s 5-string Hardanger-inspired “5×5 fiddle” built by Salve Håkedal

MS: Do you trace that pretty directly to the fact that you’re an active performer, so you’re especially sympathetic to those considerations?
DT: I suppose that may be true. I grew up playing music, but I came to composing fairly late. My older sister is a composer and so I thought, well, that’s what she does. I can’t possibly tread on her turf. So it really wasn’t until I was almost 22 that I started writing music. Being a fiddler, I always loved playing chamber music, and I actually mean in sort of the old-fashioned sense, sitting in somebody’s living room and making music together. I grew up sight-reading music with my parents. They built a harpsichord and a clavichord and so we had these instruments in the house. My older sister was a terrific musician and so she’d play piano or harpsichord, my parents would play recorders, and I’d play violin. So there was something about that—it was something that we’d do, not something that we were rehearsing to perform to impress people. That’s what makes me tick and that is so marginalized now. In the new music world and in the electronic music world, it’s like the presumption is that, well, we’re aiming for performance. And people don’t even talk about it! I hope I’m not saying something too obnoxious here, but I just feel like maybe we’ve sort of lost hope that music making is something that people do—a vital and continuing thing. But then, I hang out with these fiddlers. The fiddle world is this incredibly vibrant place, and they’re always putting on shows and performing, but I still think they live for being in somebody’s kitchen playing tunes together. That to me is the most incredible thing, and if I’m going to do this with new technologies, well, it better at least have a chance of succeeding there.

MS: I think this kind of musical engagement happens so often among musicians behind closed doors, maybe especially among players who don’t end up pursuing professional careers, but it’s not something we often talk about.
DT: And when we get to a certain level, the assumption is, well, we’re putting on performances. I feel like our performances would be better if this part of it were well tended to. I mean, I love putting on shows and rehearsing a piece and really trying to have it be as awesome as possible. But I also like when I hear fiddlers who get up and play tunes every day, and I’m just with them in their living room.
MS: It seems to me that this attitude was perhaps further ingrained through your somewhat unconventional string training, right? Your violin teacher early on seems to have had a rather long-term influence on your own sense of ambition and career and the deeper artistic goals you developed.
DT: Oh, boy. Yeah, so this is Irene Lawton back in Stony Brook, on Long Island where I grew up. I remember her telling me once, “You know, I don’t care if you become a professional musician. In fact, I’d rather you not become a professional musician. But if you play for five minutes a day, and you go for that sound, and you do that for the rest of your life, I’ll be very happy.” Which was kind of an incredible bottom line in a way because on the one hand, you say, I’m not trying to be a professional musician. But on the other hand, I’m trying to stay awake in a certain way. She was always talking about being awake to the moment. She also had this incredible way of undermining one’s ego. I had a very healthy ego when I started studying violin with her, and in really good ways I think she wanted to make sure that I was making music for music reasons, and not just because it fed my ego.

I think she actually did some damage to me as a performer in the sense that I became very insecure. I had to reinvent myself and start playing other kinds of music because the notion of standing up and demanding attention and impressing people—basically it was equivalent to feeding my ego. I’m actually very appreciative of that, but I still wrestle with it. It’s funny, these lessons that we get from an early age. They leave a mark. My wife is a guitarist and she teaches. She has students for eight, nine, ten years. I think for a lot of them, she makes an incredible mark on them. Whether they become professional musicians or not, just from my own memories and my own experiences, it’s amazing how long that lasts.

Trueman as a young violin student

Trueman as a young violin student

MS: Seriously. We like to hold up the fact that music lessons might improve a kid’s math scores, but there’s so much more beyond that in those intimate mentorship moments—deep life lesson that come out of that period and stick around.
DT: Totally. As my years went on with Irene Lawton, we had these long lessons and I’m not kidding you, we’d do yoga. This relates to everything we’ve just been talking about. She was very aware and interested in our bodies and the relationship of the body to the instrument. Doing some yoga to wake up your body before sitting down and doing this is really a natural thing with the violin. It’s really important. The next thing we would do would be sight-reading. We would sight-read duos. So again, it was this very in the moment, almost trying to survive type of thing. A little bit like improvisation, but from another angle. That was where the priority was.

The stuff with the body I’m still really interested in with new technologies—the music really lives in our bodies in certain ways. I think of particular fiddlers, for instance, and the way they do ornaments—two fiddlers in particular, Brittany Hass and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh. Both of them have this beautiful way of making ornaments, and it’s in their hands in a way. You can write it down—you can analyze it however you want—but in some way, it’s about the whole thing and how it’s put together. I developed an appreciation for that from Irene Lawton early on, because she really was all about the bow arm, thinking about the sound you were conjuring from this instrument and how it related to your breath, your shoulders, the weight of your arm, the joints in your fingers, and so on. It was all tied together.
MS: So how did composing finally get on this palette of interests for you?
DT: I started composing little bits of things when I was 12 or 13. I remember having sheets of paper with big notes on it. Actually, maybe I was even younger than that. But like I said, my sister was a composer—super talented—and also writing lots of music very early on. I also had all of these inherited notions about what it means to be a composer. You have to play piano, of course. I took some piano, but I eventually quit because I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to play violin, and there are only so many hours in the day, so now I can’t be a composer. But I tried little things here and there. I was really active as a chamber musician in college, and in my last term at Carleton College in Minnesota I needed a couple of extra credits. So I took a composition class with the same composer that my sister had taken composition with, actually: Phillip Rhodes, a wonderful composer and incredible teacher.

I remember him, sort of a stern guy; I still call him Mr. Rhodes. After the first or second class he took me aside and said, “Well, I’m not sure you should be in here. You know, everybody else has got a lot more experience.” “Just give me a couple of weeks,” I said. “Let me try.” And so he let me stay in. It was a revelation. Just to give you an idea of where I was: I was 22, just learning how to compose. I brought him one of my many things that were 15-seconds long. I couldn’t get any further. So I brought this string quartet to him—absolute beginner stuff. Stuck at 15 seconds. He looks at it, and he’s got this furrowed brow, and he says after a few minutes, “Well, you know, Dan, you don’t have to have all the instruments play all the time.” Ohhh! So all of a sudden, I can write, you know, a minute of music. After that lesson, I went home and made a whole list of things like that—just a list of ideas to remember when you’re stuck. All of the sudden, the floodgates opened, and I started writing a lot of music.
I started getting over all these hang-ups. I remember one young composer saying, “Oh, well, every good piece of music should have all of its key elements in the opening moment.” I was very impressed by that for a while, to a debilitating extent. All my pieces had to have this. I realized eventually, of course, that’s not true. That is just baloney. It’s funny how we get these inherited bits of wisdom about what it means to write music. In the end, we all have to find our own way.

Sample score page: "Feedback" from neither Anvil nor Pulley

Sample score page: “Feedback (In which a Famous Bach Prelude)” from neither Anvil nor Pulley
(click image to enlarge)

MS: Do you feel that you had a musical home then? Considering all your different interests, and then coming to composition late, you could have easily felt somewhat isolated in a sense, or deeply divided at least.
DT: Well, my whole family is musical. My parents are both amateurs, but both very accomplished. Then my sister, she’s one of these annoying people who can do anything. You hand her an instrument, she’d be able to figure it out and play well on it in short order—something I’ve never been able to do. So I was surrounded by it. My dad’s a physicist and my mom’s a painter, but they were building harpsichords. I mean, I thought that was normal. They were building harpsichords, and then I eventually inherited the task of tuning these instruments. So having music around all the time, but also having the notion that these things are things we can mess with. It all kind of makes sense to me now that I say it, because I feel like that’s sort of what I’m doing now. I’m getting under the hood, but also just wanting to make music all the time. And that was there from the beginning.
MS: You’re often an active participant in your pieces or, when you’re taking a slightly more traditional composer role, you are at least very close to the performers bringing the works to life. Has there been or will there ever be much music by Dan Trueman that does not include this particular type of intimacy?

DT: Yes. Well, maybe. We’ll see. I do find it most compelling to write for people whom I know or whom I feel like I’ve got some connection with. With So Percussion, I was so engaged by how they make music. And when I met them, I liked them as people, and so I knew I wanted to make music with them. So there’s that element of it. I remember Bill Frisell telling a story like this about meeting this pedal steel player at a party once. He didn’t know anything about him—didn’t even know what he played—and within ten minutes he said, “I know I’m going to play with this guy.” I was really impressed by that. I think it’s true. There are people you just want to make music with. The notion of me just making a score and sending it off, I don’t do it very much.

The other question is me being in it, and I’ve been wrestling with that for a long time. For many years, I mostly only did that, in part because I was making pieces where I would be playing either electric violin and laptop, or I’d be playing Hardanger fiddle. I was very adamant at times—I don’t care that this isn’t practical. I’m going to make these pieces because these are really interesting, idiosyncratic places that I want to go—so I know that these pieces are going to be really hard for anybody else to do. Maybe impossible, because they require a Hardanger fiddle—how many people have one of those?—or some weird software that, at least at the time, would have been sort of impossible to share with anybody. But I did it anyway, because I didn’t want to be governed by some lowest common denominator. I still feel that way.

Trueman and his beloved Hardanger fiddle

Trueman and his beloved Hardanger fiddle

There’s an accepted wisdom that we want to maximize the number of performances we get. We make things that as many people can do with as few complications as possible. That’s fine, but I feel like, wow, there are really some interesting musical places that we rule out by insisting on that. So I go down my little rabbit holes and make these things that only I can play, or that require six-string violin and sensors in the bow and some weird custom software, and sure, nobody else does them. They’re not even really necessarily a model for somebody for writing further pieces. Some of that bothers me now, but it changes from month to month. I have this sort of idealistic belief sometimes that if I make something, it may be really hard to do and personal and idiosyncratic, but if it’s really great, then at some point, somebody else is going to want to do it, and they’ll figure it out. NewMusicBox had this thing recently about software, in particular. And that’s related to this in a sense. How do you make things that you can share, that can at least be useable for another year, or five years, or ten? If you are in it yourself, you can tend to it. If you want other people to do it, then almost by definition you have to make things less adventurous.

So there’s a tension there between wanting things that can go far and stay around, and wanting to just simply go for it and see what it is that you can find in this weird place. Then there’s the other fact that I really like playing music. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve started to have experiences as the composer where I sit in the hall and actually enjoy myself. For many years, I basically hated that more than almost any other musical experience. Now, like when So Percussion plays my piece, I love being there. They’re just so great and it always turns into something that I can’t actually believe exists.
MS: Has that shift required you to make any of those composerly concessions you’ve mentioned?
DT: I’m just finishing some pieces now that Adam Sliwinski from So is playing. They are these pieces for what I’m calling prepared digital piano, and these actually go at this whole thing from a lot of ways. I’m really excited about it because they’re for laptop and 88-key MIDI controller. That’s it. Sets up in about 30 seconds. Software—you open it up, it just works. It’s notated in traditional notation. Any pianist can sit down and play this. I actually can’t play these pieces. I actually feel like for the first time, I’ve got something here that is idiosyncratic and lets me explore these things in a way that I like to, but also it’s totally easy for other people to do. I’ll be able to distribute that software and I think that lots of people could play it.
MS: I want to focus in a little further on that idea of sharing and software expiration. I was listening back to some of your decade-old work, the Interface recordings in particular. Considering that the hardware and software used to create some of this music may have a much shorter shelf life than the violin, are you anxious about compositions in your catalog that even you can’t really play anymore?

Trueman's hemispherical speaker design on display

Trueman’s hemispherical speaker design on display

DT: I have one like that in part because I made it for six-string electric violin, and I don’t play six-string electric violin anymore—and I don’t really want to—but I don’t know how to do that piece without it. That’s funny because that’s actually not even a question of software. The Interface record you mentioned with Curt Bahn, there’s even all these old sensor bows that I made for that that are in various states of disrepair. I could never get back to that place where I made music with Curtis in that way. I have a couple of thoughts about that. One is that in that case, that was all improvisational. We were building these rich software instruments that we’d improvise with, and we really felt like the instrument building was part of the whole process. So the thought that we needed to be able to do this again really didn’t matter. We didn’t care about reproducing things.
In fact, we’d rather the next gig have the next version of our software and have our sensors take us to a new place. I really like that about working improvisationally with software and viewing instrument building as part of the compositional and performance process. It’s like Coltrane working on his licks in the bathroom during intermission. He was actively building things into his hands that he could then use in the second set. So we would try to do the same thing with software—the next set is not going to be the same as the last one.

Regarding old software, it’s not even just that there might be objects in the Max patch that need to be updated or something like that. Back in the day, I was building things where the composition was really in the specific presets of how things were wired and the parameter values, so that over the course of a piece I might change a hundred numbers 20 times to slightly different values because it would basically create a different type of texture or a different type of response. They’re actually really hard to reproduce. I don’t do it anymore. Now I make the instruments I make, and whether consciously or unconsciously, I sort of avoid things that I think are just so fragile that I’m going to lose them in a year or two.
MS: So considering what you’ve just said, ultimately how concerned are you about issues of preservation and protecting your catalog?
DT: Okay, now you’re provoking me here because I’ve been known to rant about this. I sometimes talk to student composers about notating their music. So much of the time it’s about longevity—how are people going to play this music when I’m gone? I really don’t care! I mean, to me, it’s actually kind of bizarre to worry about whether people are going to play our music when we’re dead. I understand this hope for immortality and so on, so in some way, yeah, of course I want my kids to understand what I’ve done and ideally to appreciate it in some way. But the notion of prioritizing that in the creative process really does seem problematic.
The history of the new technology is that sometimes it’s actually a question of, well, this doesn’t work next week, and I do care about that. I want to be able to make things that I can build on, and that I can revisit. So for instance, this even comes down to languages that we can use. A lot of people use Max/MSP, which I use a lot. Then there’s another language called Chuck that I use a lot. These days, I mostly work in Chuck because it’s a text-based language, and I find that I can revisit my work there more easily. I can read it. I can understand what I did. I can reuse it. It basically comes forward in time with me in way that I struggle with Max. In Max, I’ll look at a patch that I made yesterday—how does this work again? Let alone a patch that I made five years ago. So it’s not so much caring about the longevity of the catalog, because I really do think that’s sort of preposterous, but I do want to feel like I can build on my own ideas in productive ways.
MS: Somehow, we’ve gotten all this way and haven’t even referenced the Princeton Laptop Orchestra or the hemispherical speakers you designed. Though the ensemble has been around for a while and is even imitated elsewhere, I suspect for many people that the name still might conjure images of a bunch of students gazing blankly into the blue light.
DT: Totally.
MS: So would you mind taking us behind the curtain a bit there, as far as how the laptop orchestra really functions and what kinds of music it is able to create and perform?
DT: The whole thing with the Laptop Orchestra for me was to build a context for experimenting with making music together with more than one or two people—trying to find new ways of making music with new technologies. I’d been teaching computer music here [at Princeton] for a couple years, and teaching it the way it generally has been taught—and still is taught, to a certain extent: You work in isolation in a studio, you make your track, and you share it with somebody. That’s all fine and good, but to me as a fiddler, it felt very dead, in a way. I would make something and then put it on a concert, sit in the dark and listen to it. It’s hard for me to get excited about that. I wanted to get this stuff out of the studio, but how do you do that? I had done a lot of laptop improv over the years, where you get a bunch of people, you plug into a mixer, and you all come out of a couple speakers. Nobody knows what anybody’s doing.

I’m kind of conservative, I guess. I wanted it to feel old fashioned so I could be making music with somebody else, attending to what I’m doing and aware of it, while hearing what somebody else is doing. That’s hard to do with conventional speaker technology. That was a project Perry Cook—who’s this great computer music researcher and musician—and I worked on together and ultimately it resulted in building these spherical and hemi-spherical speakers that radiate sound in a room roughly the way acoustic instruments do. So you can put one right near you, even on you. I’ve got one that I sit in my lap—I have sensors on it and I bow the thing—and the sound comes right out, so it’s like a cello in some ways.

The idea of the Laptop Orchestra [takes that further]. What happens if we’ve got four people, or six, or 40? With the show we did with Matmos, we had 30 or more laptop people on stage with these speakers, Matmos, and So Percussion all going at it. It has been great to do it with students because I still feel like we’ve only explored some of the corners of what we can do with this. The students come in, and they don’t have a whole lot of preconceptions about what it is we need to do, so we can try all sorts of things.

So that’s it in sum: a group of people each with a laptop, a hemispherical speaker near them for their own sound source, and maybe some kind of interface device that they’ll be using to physically engage with the sound. It has evolved and spread, and we even have a pro level one that we started here called Sideband that is made up of former and some current graduate students and faculty and staff—between eight to twelve people at any particular performance, sometimes as few as six. We started that five or six years into the whole process of doing laptop orchestras, because you can only get so far when you’ve got new people every year. You can’t really accumulate expertise. With Sideband, we really want to see how far can we push this. That for me is where the laptop orchestra is now, really trying to develop small communities—bands, basically—where we’re trying to accumulate experience and repertoire that we can get better at and see where it takes us.

Sample score page: "120bpm (Or, What is your Metronome Thinking?)" from <em>neither Anvil nor Pulley</em>

Sample score page: “120bpm (Or, What is your Metronome Thinking?)” from neither Anvil nor Pulley
(click image to enlarge)

Tether notation explanation for the piece.

Tether notation explanation for the piece.

MS: It strikes me every time you relate one of these anecdotes that while a lot of composers talk about constraints being creatively fulfilling, you’re inventing your own instruments to make a piece. It seems like that would introduce some inherent challenges. I get how that would be incredibly inspiring, but it also means that on your palette, anything is possible.
DT: Right. That’s why composing for laptop orchestra, or laptops in general, is so hard. I think one of the reasons I like working with percussion so much is that some of the questions are similar. If you’re writing for string quartet, you know what you’re writing for. If you’re writing for percussion ensemble, well, you’ve got to make a bunch of decisions about things, right? Percussionists in general are really adventurous. You can give them anything, and they’ll do something with it. Laptop orchestra is one step beyond that. Not only do we have to write the piece, we’ve got to build instruments and learn how to play them. We’ve got to teach people how to play them. We have to invent notation that makes sense for those instruments. It’s totally daunting. I mean, I love it, but I’m only up for one every year or two because it’s just so hard to do.

Though there’s a sort of myth about computer music and computers, that they can make any sound you can imagine. I actually think computers have a really limited vocabulary. Of course, you can record something and then you can do stuff with your recordings. That’s great. But basically it’s a very small palette, and a lot of times the palette is just not very interesting or you might have an allergy to it. For instance, a lot of people won’t do anything with FM synthesis, because ‘80s popular music is just marked by FM synthesis and it sounds dated. That’s a problem with a lot of computer music stuff. The vocabulary is really small, so either you embrace it or you try to find something that works for you in some way. But it’s just stupid hard.

MS: Until I read the interview you did with Cycling 74 on your programming work, I don’t think I truly grasped the depth of your knowledge on the programming side; as a string player myself, I had perhaps just been more focused on your violin side. Though for a man with your background, this diversity of intellectual curiosities is perhaps not terribly surprising.
DT: Like I was saying earlier, I like programming partly because it scratches an itch. I loved studying physics—my dad is a theoretical physicist. I think it gave me a little bit of fearlessness—I never thought I couldn’t because, well, I’ve majored in physics!
MS: And maybe it even helps explain how you ended up becoming a fiddle player interested in seriously complex folk music and a computer programmer who wants to make sure the music preserves clear human interaction.
DT: That’s why I’ve been so pleased with this So Percussion piece [neither Anvil nor Pulley], because I feel that’s come across. It’s got all these things in it, and I’m really happy about that. But yeah, I guess I’m kind of a nerd. I’m drawn to the weird parts of it—probably more than most.

Trueman's Norwegian Hardanger fiddle

Trueman’s Norwegian Hardanger fiddle

Morton Subotnick’s Sidewinder

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

Silver Apples of the Moon

The original LP cover for Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon, released on Nonesuch Records in 1967.

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?”

Touch LP

The original LP cover for Touch (1969), Subotnick’s first album on Columbia Records.

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


The original LP cover for Morton Subotnick’s Sidewinder, released on Columbia Records in 1971.

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.”

Sidewinder CD

Mode’s 2004 CD re-issue of Sidewinder offers a 24-bit remastered stereo mix by the composer from the original analog master tapes. It was also issued on a DVD featuring 5.1 surround sound as well as a liquid light show created for the work by Tony Martin.

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.

Sounds Heard: Noah Creshevsky—The Four Seasons

Creshevsky--Four Seasons

Noah Creshevsky
The Four Seasons
(Tzadik 8097)

While the four concertos for violin and string orchestra that comprise Antonio Vivaldi’s 1723 Le quattro stagioni unquestionably remain the most famous as well as ubiquitous example of music inspired by the seasons, there is a long and illustrious history of other, similarly themed music. A mere 25 years later, Gregor Joseph Werner kicked it up a notch with his 1748 Calendarium Musicum by composing several illustrative pieces for each month of the year, presented in calendrical order. While Werner’s own endeavor is admittedly relatively obscure at this point, his game plan was adopted nearly a century later by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel in 1841 and then again by Tchaikovsky in 1876 in their respective solo piano suites comprised of twelve short movements for each month. Grander still, however, was Joseph Haydn’s elaborate four-part oratorio Die Jahreszeiten, an evening-length work for soloists, chorus, and orchestra which was first performed in 1801. Perhaps the most over the top musical renderings of a year ever realized are the four large-scale symphonies representing the seasons from spring to winter (Symphonies Nos. 8-11) which Swiss-born German composer Joachim Raff labored on for three years between 1876 and 1879 (though they were not composed in seasonal order). But none of this has prevented more contemporary efforts. In the first year of the 20th century, the Russian Imperial Ballet presented what is probably the first season-themed dance music, a ballet with music by Alexander Glazunov. In 1947, Merce Cunningham crafted a completely different season-spanning ballet set to John Cage’s first orchestral score. It is divided into nine sections, and each season from Winter to Fall is proceeded by a prelude, with the initial prelude reprising as the work’s finale. Between 1969 and 1970, Nuevo Tango pioneer Astor Piazzolla followed up his 1965 “Verano Porteño” (a.k.a. “Buenos Aires Summer”) with three other similarly themed works collected under the title Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (or “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires”), which remain among his most popular compositions. Wendy Carlos’s Sonic Seasonings, which combines studio created electronic music with field recordings, was released as a 2 LP set in 1972 with each of the four LP sides representing a season from string to winter. More recently, Chen Yi weighed in with Si Ji (“Four Seasons”), a single-movement 15-minute orchestral work from 2005 that seamlessly weaves together four sections inspired by four classical Chinese poems about each of the seasons. So Noah Creshevsky’s expansive 2012 sample-based composition The Four Seasons, which forms the basis of his latest CD release on Tzadik, is hardly without precedent. However, it is one of the most meticulously crafted renderings of this much-traversed concept and is arguably the most elaborate of all of his musical creations thus far.

Creshevsky’s output has been extensive and well-documented on a series of recordings released by Centaur, Mutable, Pogus, Tzadik, and EM Records. For over 40 years, he has been mining samples to create a fluid compositional language he describes as “hyperrealism” in which pre-recorded snippets of music and other sonic ephemera are exaggerated and somehow heightened. Unlike the musique concrète of an earlier generation of composers, Creshevsky’s hyperrealism eschews obfuscation, yet surprisingly all of his sonic materials, despite being culled from myriad sources, seamlessly fit together and yield narrative arcs that are very effective. There probably is still no better primer on Creshevsky’s idiosyncratic technique than the lengthy exegesis of it by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz that we published on NewMusicBox in 2006. So I won’t attempt a detailed analysis of how Creshevsky’s compositional method works in The Four Seasons. But since the present composition didn’t exist at the time of Báthory-Kitsz’s writing, it does require and merit our attention.

The previous recordings of Creshevsky’s music offer collections of miniatures whereas The Four Seasons, though multi-movement, is one large integrated musical statement. It’s something of a summation of hyperrealism, but it also explores new sonic elements. Many of the samples featured herein were created for this recording and feature vocalists and instrumentalists performing material that Creshevsky prepared for them, which then becomes the raw material for his own self-plundering. I would dare say the result is almost orchestral in scope, although clearly this is music that no orchestra would ever be able to perform live.

It would be nearly impossible to chart all of the various sonic fragments that cascade by during this nearly 47-minute composition, but a few guiding posts are worth pointing out. There are a total of seven movements—the four larger season-themed movements are separated by three brief interludes which range in duration from three minutes to a mere thirty-nine seconds. Overall, the season movements are more densely packed with sonic information whereas the interludes juxtapose spoken texts and vocal effects with samples of individual instrumental lines—the overall effect, to my ears anyway, is not unlike that of third region of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s massive electronic music composition Hymnen which includes conversations that were recorded in the studio during the making of the piece.

The larger movements are far more symphonic. The first, Summer, begins with an almost giddy duet between what sounds like a harpsichord and a vibraphone. Then a solo piano is soon interrupted by break-beat-sounding effects that would not be out of place on a 12-inch dance remix. Four minutes in, a violin enters playing Baroque-like figurations—perhaps a nod to Vivaldi—amidst what sounds like a vocal group singing a madrigal, albeit one that has been cut up and spliced back together again. Suddenly a flute joins in, a brief hint of sitar, then brass. It is easy to imagine walking down a city street on a hot summer evening when everyone’s windows are open, allowing us to eavesdrop on a mélange of sounds emanating from people’s homes. Autumn begins with a frenetic cut-up guitar solo. When the madrigal-like voices return here against a backdrop of guitar and mallet percussion they are somehow dreamier and more wistful, like the fallen tree leaves that permeate the autumn landscape. Winter is fittingly the most austere sounding of the four larger movements with its various sonic elements paced out almost like a processional. At some point, fragments that are discernibly like traditional East Asian music take center stage, continuing the overall tone of solemnity. But there is space for raucous festivity as well; this is, after all, the season in which revelers celebrate the end of the year with abandon—so toward the end an Eastern European brass-band takes over. Creshevsky, unlike his season-minded predecessors, ends his account of the year in the Spring, which most other composers take as their starting point, since Spring is traditionally perceived as a time of beginnings. By placing Spring at the end, however, Creshevsky is able to wrap up his largest musical composition to date with a euphoric sound world that constantly renews itself—it is a wild sonic roller coaster ride!

Morton Subotnick: The Mad Scientist in the Laboratory of the Ecstatic Moment

A conversation in Subotnick’s Greenwich Village Studio in New York City
September 10, 2013—1:00 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Photos and video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Pundits nowadays are extremely fond of saying that the digital technology advances of the last decade are the equivalent of the emergence of human language or the Gutenberg printing press. Some believe that the digital revolution is even more significant than either of those seismic events since it have ushered in an era that is beyond history. But Morton Subotnick has been living in a technologically transformed world that is “beyond history” since 1959!
In that year, according to Subotnick, a great convergence of events happened that would forever change his life and, subsequently, the course of society and in particular one of its most significant cultural artifacts—music. In 1959, although he was on his way to establishing himself as a prominent clarinetist, Subotnick decided to stop playing the instrument and to instead devote himself exclusively to creating his own music. During the same time he came to that decision, he read a photocopy of manuscript by Marshall McCluhan that would be not be published until a few years later as the book Understanding Media. He also saw an ad in a newspaper for transistors; they had just started being mass produced and sold commercially. And, as he acknowledged with a slight grin when we visited his Greenwich Village studio, that same year Bank of America issued the first credit cards “which meant you didn’t have to pay anything.”

But Subotnick’s personal musical transformation did not happen overnight. It started with his fashioning a pre-recorded score for an Actor’s Workshop production of King Lear and then an early multi-media work employing four musicians, four speakers, and four light boxes that presaged psychedelia. Together with Ramon Sender, Subotnick founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center which soon emerged as an epicenter of forward musical thinking. Taking an inspiration from painters who could create work in their own studios, Subotnick wanted to have a similar process to creating and disseminating music—to create music and put it directly onto a record that people could then buy and listen to in their own homes rather than in a concert hall. In the mid-1960s he worked with Donald Buchla to develop the first portable electronic music equipment—the Buchla box actually predated the Moog synthesizer. And in 1967, Nonesuch Records released the first piece of music created expressly to be experienced through the medium of recording, Subotnick’s virtuosic exploration of the Buchla box, Silver Apples of the Moon (an album contemporaneous with The Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). Now, forty-six years later when live performers often lip-synch to pre-recorded tracks, it’s hard to imagine a world in which music fashioned in a studio was not the norm. Subotnick himself confesses that at the time he assumed what he was doing “would not be commonplace until 100, 150 years down the line.” But that now seminal LP almost didn’t happen as he related during our talk.

Silver Apples spawned an entirely new genre of electronic music created for home listening. Nonesuch followed it with several others including Andrew Rudin’s Tragoedia, Charles Dodge’s Earth’s Magnetic Field, as well as Charles Wuorinen’s Time’s Encomium which became the first all-electronic composition to win the Pulitzer Prize. Other labels followed suit as well, such as Vanguard, which issued People The Sky by Michael Czajkowski. But it went way beyond the realm of academically-trained avant-garde composers. Arguably electronic music artists from Vangelis and Jean-Michel Jarre to Aphex Twin and all of today’s laptop musicians emerged as a result of Subotnick and Silver Apples opening up the possibilities for such music to exist. Subotnick himself went on to create additional albums of electronic music which showcased the sonic variety this new medium was capable of producing—The Wild Bull, Touch, Sidewinder, Four Butterflies, Until Spring—records that have the depth and breadth of symphonies. But never being content with resting on his laurels, Subotnick soon started exploring other kinds of work, creating a new form of interactive music involving live instrumentalists and electronic soundscapes which he called “ghost electronics.” When CD-ROMs appeared, he was one of the first people to explore the medium as a basis for new creative work. Yet, despite his fascinating and extremely varied compositional output, Subotnick views his own compositions as being far less important than his attempts to create a medium that could release creative impulses for everyone else.

But in addition to Subotnick’s contributions to the development of electronic music and the various tools that help people to compose it, his own compositions—which now span some seven decades—have set a very high standard. His music not only shows us what is possible; its inherent humanism and its ability to communicate on an instant visceral level ensures that we never lose track of what it means to be musical. Though some of his most exciting pieces are now nearly half a century old, they still sound like they are very much of our own present time. He still lives up to the name given to him by members of the Mothers of Invention in the late 1960s: The Mad Scientist in the Laboratory of the Ecstatic Moment.


Frank J. Oteri: I thought a good place for us to begin is with something you said during the interview Maggi Payne did with you for the book on the San Francisco Tape Music Center. You mentioned your desire “to break away from being a composer of instrumental music who was just adding more to what was already a great literature.” Of course, looking back 50 years later, what you wound up creating has also become iconic literature; it too is now part of history, something that people look up to and have to respond to. So I wanted to get inside your mind about that time and when it crystallized for you to do something completely other.
Morton Subotnick: It’s the central issue for my life. At the moment you’re talking about—not the moment I said it to Maggi Payne but that moment that was probably between 1959 and 1960—I was 19. I was studying with Milhaud and Kirchner at Mills College, but I had just gotten out of graduate school a year or so. I was a very good clarinetist; some people think even more, but at least very good. I was subbing with the San Francisco Symphony, playing part time, and doing concertos and so forth. I had a career as a clarinetist if I wanted it. I was also doing well as an instrumental composer. I had already won some awards and I was getting performances, so I had a career and I was making a living. It was hardly very much money, but you know, I was doing it.
But then a few things happened. One was that I had decided I wanted to just write music. I wanted to write music for anything. So I was creating music for dance companies, I did music for KQED films, and I was commissioned by the Actors Workshop to do a score for King Lear. It turned out to be a monumental historic production. We worked for a year and half on it. I basically had been writing music for instruments, but I had played a little bit with recording things—musique concrète sorts of things. It seemed weird to create a movie score for a play; it seemed like it ought to grow out of the play itself. I thought maybe this was a place for musique concrète. So I created a score with cutting and pasting and recording, and forwards and backwards, and faster and slower, everything including the trumpet calls. And the storm scene turned into this monumental thing. I recorded the voice of the actor—remember I was working for a year and a half on this thing. The storm is all made from his lines, but you don’t recognize it at all. It’s all a big huge storm. At the end of the scene, I had this whooshing sound that was moving—I had speakers all over the auditorium—but it was all made out of his breathing. At one point, [the director] Herb Blau allowed me to interject some directorial things. I said that this storm is raging in his mind, from his mind, and the way to get that is for him to drop for one moment to his knee, and we’ll turn the sound off just for that second, so that it grounds when he touches the ground. It was that carefully done. It was really beautiful. At the end of it, he’s lying down, breathing, and I bring the sound down, he’s breathing to the rhythm that I made of his voice, and his chest is going so that as it gets softer and softer, everybody in the auditorium imagines that they can hear him breathing on the stage. It was just incredible. I still occasionally hear from people who were there about that score. I knew at that moment that I was doing something special. I was creating sound design. I don’t know that it even existed. Maybe it did, looking back now, but I didn’t think about it at that time. Then I imagined myself spending my time in my studio day after day creating music and sending it out on a record, like a painter puts a painting on the wall. But this is even more special, because records are cheap, so anyone who wants to listen to it can listen to it, and I don’t have to go into an auditorium. I don’t have to worry about that stuff anymore. This is the real thing with the new technology. This is where it could really take you: a new kind of composer who is a studio artist.

Subotnick Work Station

The current work station in Morton Subotnick’s studio.

Then another thing happened. [Beat poet and pioneering multimedia artist] Gerd Stern came to see me. He was introduced to me by Michael McClure, because he wanted somebody to help him with music. So I got to know Gerd, and the three of us met at Gerd’s apartment because he had just met Marshall McLuhan. Marshall McCluhan’s book, Understanding Media, hadn’t come out yet, but Gerd had photocopies of a lecture that McCluhan had given that was going to become the new book. He had only one copy, because it was expensive to copy things, so we were all reading page by page, and then the page passes to the next [person]; we were on the floor reading this, the Holy Grail. We were reading Understanding Media, at least two or three years before there was Understanding Media.

Then there was a third thing that happened right around that time, which was there was a big announcement in the newspaper that the transistor was going to be used for the first time in a commercial object, so that they were ready to mass produce transistors. There was another event, too, again all happening in 1959: Bank of America issued the first actual credit cards. [Before that there] was Diner’s Club and things [like that], but you had to pay at the end of the month. This was a credit card that meant you didn’t have to pay anything. So not only was all the technology that would deal with media going to be cheap, but you didn’t need any money to buy it. And reading McLuhan, I realized that it wasn’t just me in my studio but it was the whole world that was going to change. Everything was going to change and that’s when I decided if I have the aptitude to move into this direction, to be at this edge. We were living at the crest of a wave like the beginnings of the printing press, the edge of something so enormous, like the first writing or the first language; this is the first of a huge change for the entire world. I could continue writing music and add to it. I could play the clarinet. But there’s no way I could offer to the world anything like what Beethoven did. There’s nothing wrong with not doing that, but if I truly have the ability to be at this moment and be part of this, whatever it’s going to be, and have even the tiniest impact on it, how could I give that up?

And the fact is I knew it, and that’s why it was important that I did it. I mean everybody was around, but not everybody knew that this was about to happen. [At first] I thought, “Well I can’t give up the clarinet and writing for instruments. I don’t know anything about technology, so I have to see if I have the aptitude before I say to the San Francisco Symphony, ‘Goodbye, I don’t want to see you anymore.’ I’m going to put the clarinet away. I’m not writing any more music.” So I created a piece called Sound Blocks. It was in the fall of 1961, right after King Lear, and it used the lighting flats that we had used in King Lear. And in fact, the artist that worked on King Lear did the visuals for it. [Each lighting flat] had all kinds of things in it; you could rear light it using different colors and it would literally transform. It was like what would later be liquid projections; but this was an early way to do that. We had those four big lighting flats and we had four musicians, one in front of each lighting flat; the audience was in the center. I had four tracks of tape, two stereo tapes. And Michael McClure read from Flowers of Politics at the end. It was about a 40-minute piece and it was a sensation. I mean people were wiped out. We got offers to keep doing this. We performed every Sunday night for three weeks, or something like that. Reviews in the newspaper were saying a new art form had been born. We got offers to tour it. But my daughter was about to be born so I said, “No. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I don’t know what this is that I made. I’ve got to re-think this whole thing.” But I thought, obviously I’ve got some aptitude, so I made my decision. I was given reinforcement from the live performance, not that I just wanted to do it. This psychedelic event that I made was three years before psychedelia, so you know, looking back, it wasn’t so surprising.

Then I worked for two years with Ramon Sender. We both worked on trying to figure out what it was. I decided at that point that I would give up. I’d put this piece away. It hasn’t been played since. But I was going to take every element of the piece, and really learn what it’s about. I knew how to write for instruments since I knew what instruments were about, but not this new world that we were moving into and that we were creating. We were literally at the edge of what I assumed would not be commonplace until 100, 150 years down the line. Visuals, I wasn’t so sure about, but I knew enough about it. What I didn’t know anything about was this electronic medium for sound, because what I was working with was not the way to go—cutting tape wasn’t it. So I started to look for something that would be more meaningful, to be able to be in the studio painting with sound.
FJO: Prior to that pivotal decision you mentioned your studies with Milhaud and Kirchner, and how active you were as a clarinetist. You gave what I believe was the West Coast premiere of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.
MS: Yeah, I think that was probably true.
FJO: I want to take it back even further to what music you were exposed to growing up in Southern California. It probably wasn’t electronic music, although by the time you got interested in electronic music there had already been a whole decade of people messing around with tape and with mainframes in studios like the one at Radio Cologne or at the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center.
MS: No, I didn’t hear any of that. The closest I came was Spike Jones, but that was when I was really little. I was a wiz at the clarinet from an early age. By 9, 10 years old, I was playing concertos. I could play almost anything that was put in front of me. I didn’t listen to popular music. I listened to jazz. And the only jazz I cared about was bebop. When I got to high school, I was offered a tour with Tex Beneke, which was terrible music, but it was a chance to go on the road playing the tenor saxophone. But my parents wouldn’t let me go. I was too young to say it myself. So I didn’t go on the road at that time.

The music that I was attracted to from my first instance of getting involved in music was when I was, I guess, seven years old, whenever my teeth came in. I don’t remember. I had a bronchial condition or something in my chest. And the doctor told my mother that they should give me a wind instrument to blow on and that would maybe help my lungs. So my mother came to me and said, “What instrument do you want to play?” I had seen a move with Tommy Dorsey, so I said that I want the instrument that goes like that. [Makes sliding trombone gesture. ] But my mother didn’t know the name of that and I didn’t either. So like a good Jewish mother, she goes to the library and gets a book with no pictures in it, only descriptions with words. So I go through it and I decide clarinet. The description about clarion sounds like that. So they ordered it from the school. I was very excited. I was listening to the radio every day, and I said my favorite is [sings the theme from Rossini’s William Tell Overture]: da-da-dum, da-da-dum, da-da-dum-dum-dum—the Lone Ranger! And I said that as I soon as I get that instrument, I’m going to play that, I know it. And she said, “Well don’t be disappointed if you can’t do it the first time.” I said, “I know I can do it. I just know it.”
And so the instrument comes, and first of all, it’s not a trombone. I don’t even know what this is. I can’t get anything out of it, because I don’t know how to put it together and I didn’t know what a reed was, or anything. And she said, “Oh, it’s not the right instrument.” I said, “No, no, no.” I never could make a mistake. “It’s the right instrument. I just don’t know how to play it yet.” So I got a teacher, a young guy who came in, a graduate student probably. I don’t know who he was, but I could almost see him today: He was skinny and tall, and very shy. My mother would stand in the kitchen and we would have lessons in the dining room. She’d be in the kitchen with her ear to the door listening, but on the other side of the door. I guess it must have been the better part of a year. And one day there was this squawking going on in the dining room. And she opens the door and runs in and says, “He never did that before.” And the teacher said, “That wasn’t him; that was me. [Laughs. ] Your son can play the clarinet better than I can at this point. You need another teacher.” So that’s what I remember as the first inkling that there was something, but it didn’t make any sense to me. You just showed me how to do it and I just did it. So it didn’t mean anything. It was when he said that, that I realized that maybe I can really do this thing.
FJO: But there’s a bit of a leap from playing an instrument to writing your own music.
MS: Well, I was seven-years old. But when I was nine-years old, we had moved. We were living in Boyle Heights. And we had gradually left Boyle Heights, and moved south of Pico Boulevard and the Pico Robertson area, which was the Jewish area, but the poorer part of the Jewish area. The main part was in the Fairfax. This was the poorer area, but it wasn’t as solidly Jewish, it was just where we sort of joined in as close as we could get. I had a few friends, but I didn’t have much of a social life. That’s why I mentioned that it was the Jewish area; it was sort of isolated in many ways. It didn’t bother me particularly; it ended up that I started reading a lot. At one point, I read a biography of Mozart. I read comic books, but I didn’t read any books that were fiction. My parents were in the Book of the Month club, so they had all the latest stuff which I never bothered with. I don’t know why. But they had a bonus, the classics. And the classics went in the garage on a shelf. And because it was in the garage, and isolated from the house, it was special. So I glanced through several of the classics, and I ended up with Stoic philosophy; I read three volumes. Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and I don’t remember the rest. It took me a long time, I was nine years old, but I got through them maybe by a year. That plus the Mozart somehow went wham. And I decided, I don’t want to play the clarinet. I want to be a composer. That’s what I want to do. I want to write music, not just play it. I actually want to create music.

I started a regimen, I don’t think right at nine years old, probably around when I was twelve. I took a couple of theory lessons with an Italian man who taught at one of these store front music schools that sold instruments in the front and gave you lessons in back. I don’t know what caused this guy to do this, but he said “Come up to my place; I’m going to show you some music.” He was writing twelve-tone music. It certainly wasn’t the earliest twelve-tone music, but it was still esoteric at that point. I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know the name Arnold Schoenberg. I didn’t know anything. We couldn’t afford the lessons, so he said, “O.K., I’m going to give you a present: books that you can study. I can’t give you regular lessons, but if you want help, just call me on the phone and I’ll help you. He gave me the entire library of Ebenezer Prout that goes through counterpoint, and I went through the entire thing. I saw him occasionally, when there were questions. And then, by the time I got out of junior high school and into high school, I was starting to write my own music.

At that time there were five symphony orchestras [who worked] with the studios. But they had a lot of time off, so they were playing classical music, chamber music and things. When a clarinetist would get a call [from the studios] and have to go off and [therefore] couldn’t make a rehearsal, and sometimes even a concert, they would call me since I was such a good player. I could sight read anything, so I’d come in and I’d play Dvořák or whatever it was. I could just take their place. And so I got to know the studio musicians, and when I wrote music, they put [together] a group of people who played my music for me so I could hear it. I had a little private conservatory going. Several of them took me under their wings; they helped and guided me, told me if I wanted to play in a symphony orchestra what I’d have to learn, and how I’d have to do it.
FJO: So were your early pieces twelve-tone?
MS: No. I only know that [the music of] this guy [I was studying with] was twelve-tone [now] when I look back. He told me that it was, but I didn’t know what he meant.

I was a terrible student, by the way. From the time I started writing music, I just couldn’t deal with going to school at all. I hated high school with a passion; it was like being in prison. I did my composing in the early morning before school for three or four hours; I’d get up at the crack of dawn. Then I’d go to school, and pretty much sleep through it. Then I’d go home and practice the clarinet for three or four hours. That was my life. But the orchestra conductor in my school, North Hollywood High, allowed me to play every instrument of the orchestra. I had two weeks with every instrument, just so I could play and get a feeling of what it felt like. And—I think it was in the last year of high school—there was a man who was teaching music theory whose name was Joel Harry. So I decided I’ll take a course in music theory. I get in and he gives us a little test to see who knows what. He looks over all of them and he reads my name. “Morton Subotnick, would you stay after class please? You already know all of this; how much do you know?” And so I told him. And he said, “Have you been writing music?” And he said, “Bring me some music.” So the next day, I brought him some music and he said, “You don’t really need to take this course, but if you do, I will introduce you to some new things.” So, I said, “Oh, that sounds good.” Krenek had done a twelve-tone counterpoint book and he put me through that. I did twelve-tone counterpoint. He took me to the Monday Evening Concerts, to every single Monday evening concert, and he introduced me to the music of Ives. And so I knew Schoenberg’s music, I mean somewhat, in my last year of high school. There was very little available. Schoenberg lived there, so we had some of his music. But Webern—there was only one score available at that time. We’re talking 1950-51. There was only one score that I know of that was available. I believe it was the Concerto for Nine Instruments, and there was a recording of the Saxophone Quartet. There was one recording and one score, and they didn’t match. But this was the introduction.

The next year I went to USC. I was actually paid a stipend by the month, free tuition, free room and board, but I had to play in everything. I had to play in the orchestra and the opera orchestra. When I got to USC, I had two days of placement exams. The first day was the English placement exam. I was 45 minutes late to an hour and a half test, so I flunked it. And I took the best course in English I ever took in my life—with the football players—five days a week. The next day I got there on time and took my placement exams in music, and passed four years of music theory. So I had no undergraduate music courses, except history, in order to get my degree. But they didn’t want to let me take composition lessons; I was too young. Ingolf Dahl, who was the conductor of the orchestra, got word of it—probably from the studio musicians—and he gave me lessons as long as I didn’t tell anyone I was taking lessons from him at USC. But the musicians said to me, “This isn’t for you; you’re sitting there playing music for 500 dollars a year. That’s what they’re paying you; you’re not learning music because you [already] passed it all. You could be playing in a symphony orchestra. There’s an audition for the Denver Symphony, and we’re going to line you up with the audition if you want to do that.” So I said sure. I took the audition, got the job, and went to Denver the next year. That’s where I met Jim Tenney and Stan Brakhage. Jim and a few other composers just out of high school came and every Monday night we got together and I taught them twelve-tone music. It was like what happened later with Gerd Stern and McCluhan’s book. This was the gold; it just wasn’t available.
FJO: So tell me more about your early, pre-moment of epiphany pieces. I know on your website timeline, you list a quintet for clarinet, mandolin, violin, cello and piano. That’s an interesting combination.
MS: It was more than a quintet. It was about seven or eight instruments. The mandolin came from two sources. It came from the Schoenberg Serenade which I was absolutely in love with. It was great. It was pre-twelve-tone, and it had a mandolin in it. Also, my father had played the mandolin. So I’ve used the mandolin and mandolin-type sounds all my life in various ways.
FJO: That’s the earliest piece listed on your website there, but according to a Wikipedia page that someone created about you there’s an even earlier sonata for viola and piano.
MS: Yeah, that was my thesis under Milhaud at Mills College. That was a twelve-tone piece. I still have it now and it’s going to get published, because Schott’s going to publish all this stuff. But I have no idea what it sounds like at this point.
FJO: There’s also a two-piano piece that Milhaud was actually in the audience for the premiere of, and there was a near-riot at that performance.
MS: Yeah, that’s right. That was before the one with the mandolin, too. That was my breakout piece. I was graduating from Mills in 1958 or ’59. I don’t know, something like that. I was also conducting during that period. I conducted a concert of Terry Riley’s music with a piece by Terry that was in the style of Zeitmasse by Stockhausen; it was in three tempos at the same time. And I was conducting a concert of Milhaud’s music. This was when I was graduating. At that point I had one child, a boy, and a very, very ill wife. We had medical bills and psychiatrist bills. I was earning money, but it was really tight and Milhaud knew. He said to me, “I know you have a hard time. I teach at Aspen in the summer. I’ve invited all my seminar students to come and study.” But he didn’t like my music. It was too gnarly and chromatic—twelve-tone. He really didn’t like that at all. But he liked me and he had great admiration for musical ability and all the stuff I was already doing already in public. So he said, “I’d like you to come and just write music. I don’t want you in my class. But you can come and just write music.” And he had a scholarship for me. I think it was something like $500, which was a lot of money in those days. And I said, “I really appreciate this, but I can’t do it. I can’t survive on $500.” I was conducting at a rehearsal of his music in the Mills Auditorium. There was a big middle aisle and it was where he sat because of his wheelchair. And so we had a break, and I came up to him and asked, “Is there anything I’m doing that you’d like me to change?” He grabbed my hand, which he often did between his two hands, and he said, “No, my dear. When you conduct my music, it’s perfect. Thank you.” And as I pulled my hand out, he had asked me how much I needed. I said I needed twice that, so I pull my hand out and there’s a check there for $1000. He said it’s from an anonymous donor. When I tell the story, I could cry. It was so moving.

So I went to Aspen. I was given a little practice room, with a piano in it and no electricity. It was cold in the mornings. You lit a candle to keep your hands warm. But I had my son to take care of. My sister came along to help, because my wife couldn’t do it. Early in the morning, four o’clock, before everybody got up, I’d go [to the room] and start writing. I wrote a clarinet quintet. It was not in the style of Milhaud, but something he would like. It didn’t have chromatics; it wasn’t twelve-tone. It was nice. And I brought it to him as a present. And he said, “Oh, this is beautiful. Thank you.” Before I was going to leave Aspen, he programmed it. It was going to be played the week before I left, which was five weeks down the road. And so I was going to have my first, big public performance with this clarinet quintet. So then I start writing a piece for piano four-hands. I couldn’t play [through] the piece obviously, [since it was for] four hands. [Plus] I wasn’t that good of a pianist. But there were two composers who were great pianists in the seminar. So they played it for me and we all decided—the three of us—that this was dynamite. I mean, it was so fresh and so new. So I went to the office and I took my clarinet quintet off and put this piece on. A week before the performance, I thought, whoops, I better tell Milhaud what I’ve done. So I bring in my music and I tell Milhaud what I’d done. “Ahh,” he said, “No.” He was like this. I said, “Oh, Milhaud, believe me, this is fresh. This is new. You told me to open the window to get fresh air. This is it.” So he said, “O.K. It’s alright.”

So the performance comes. I’m expecting a major ovation, because it’s no question: this is great; this is fresh. I think there were three movements. At the end of the second movement, there was so much commotion that the two pianists had to stare the audience down to get to the third movement. They play the last movement, and people rose to their feet like I expected, except they were shouting and screaming. People ran up to the stage and started pounding on the piano. The two pianists ran off. It was just before intermission. I’m walking out, sick to my stomach; I never experienced anything like it in my life. Milhaud was at the edge of the tent. He had his little hat with the brim up, and he pulled me down. And he said as tears were coming down his cheeks, “Thank you my dear. It reminds me of the old days.”
FJO: So aside from that early clarinet quintet, Milhaud really was not an influence on you.
MS: He was, but not musically. He didn’t like my music. He didn’t spend any time with it in the seminar, or as little as possible. But I would have tea with him once a week. I’d tell him what was happening in the avant-garde, my avant-garde in San Francisco, and he would tell me about Paris in the ‘20s. So, for a year, we did this. Not every single week, but lots of times. And he gave me an early edition of the Sylvia Beach book; it was a limited edition. That was his graduation present for me. It was so positive. And I kept up with him. He really wanted to come to the Tape Center. When we got to Divisadero Street a couple of years later, he really wanted to come visit, but he couldn’t get up the stairs. Later when we got the grant from Rockefeller, Ramon and I didn’t want to stay with the Tape Center. I had this offer in New York. At one point, we were talking about not accepting the money, but that was stupid. We had to move it to an institution. Everybody wanted it. Berkeley wanted it, the Conservatory wanted it, but we gave it to Mills mostly because of Milhaud. He really cared; this was important to him. It wasn’t just a feather in the cap to get a Rockefeller grant.
FJO: But still, Milhaud didn’t really influence that big epiphany you had. You mentioned bebop and we talked about your early pieces and some other early teachers. What about Kirchner?
MS: No. [chuckles] No. Zero. The opposite. Leon thought this stuff was terrible—tape, electronics, Stockhausen; it was like the devil to him.
FJO: But he eventually did tape music in his third quartet.
MS: Come on! He came to me and said, “I’m writing a string quartet, and I’d like to use tape music. Can you help me?” You don’t know this story? Oh Christ! He came to me and he stayed with us about two weeks up in my studio on Bleecker Street, and he was hopeless. He couldn’t learn anything. So I said, “O.K., what do you want?” He said, “Well I want blahhh.” I did the whole thing, beginning to end. So he wins the Pulitzer Prize and when they asked him about the electronics, he said, “Oh, electronic music is simple. There’s nothing to it. I learned it in two weeks.” To his dying day… He had me over for dinner several times. He said, “I’m going to make it up to you. I’m going to let people know; I’m going write program notes now for these concerts for my 80th year.” He sent me the program notes which, again, didn’t do it. He mentioned that he learned it from me, but that was his notion, so I gave up on it.
FJO: I was curious about the precedents for all those conceptual pieces you did early on at the Tape Center, none of which I’ve ever heard but which I’ve read about. You mentioned bebop and you talked about discovering twelve-tone music. And we spoke about your teachers—Dahl, Milhaud, and certainly Kirchner would not have been an influence on that sort of music, pieces like the fish tank piece.
MS: Oh no. That was, that was not mine. Ramon got the idea for the fish tank.
FJO: When I was in high school I had a teacher with whom I talked about experimental music who first got me interested in a lot of this stuff. And he told me about some free jazz musician who drew a staff on a fish bowl and played according to what line on the staff the fish swam in back of. In preparing for our talk today, I learned that this was Tropical Fish Opera which was done by you, Ramon, and Pauline Oliveros; I wish I had known about it when I spoke to her for NewMusicBox!
MS: Pauline, right! Well, we didn’t actually take credit for it. In recent years, Ramon has taken credit for it. I honestly don’t know whose idea it was. We did a lot of improvisation. I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you. But we did a performance at RPI, they did a Tape Center retrospective—Ramon and I and Pauline and Loren Rush, who was [also] in the original one. There is a DVD of it.
FJO: Wow! Anyway, that fish tank idea as well as the other conceptual piece that I read about in the book about the Tape Music Center—like the Fluxus concerts that were happening in New York or the ONCE Festival in Ann Arbor—seem to be an extension of Cage’s ideas, and I know that you mounted a Cage tribute at the Tape Center pretty early on.
MS: I don’t think I ever thought of it as Cage, but it could be. It wasn’t thought of as a tribute to Cage at that point; it was more in line with happenings. Paint was coming off the wall for us. [Same thing with] music; we reconceptualized it. But none of that was the impetus for the electronics. The electronics came just at that point of understanding that electronic music wasn’t a continuation or an offshoot and didn’t have to be. Its potential was the result of a big bang, the technological big bang that would resonate.

From at least 40,000 years ago—that period when humans became human as we know them with tools—that’s probably the beginnings of instruments and this whole thing. From that day, you only learned music by someone playing it, and you imitated it, until the printing press. But even through the printing press and everything, we believed music was a continuum. It belonged to five percent, two percent of the population. Because you could only hear music if someone played if for you, or you played it yourself. So the evolution of music was like religion and everything else. It was a very narrow evolution of a continuity, until 1959—the technological big bang in my mind at that moment.

Music is a cultural artifact of musicality. But people could be musically creative and create something that may not be part of that. In fact, it might become all kinds of things like painting became because it was easy for people to get their hands on. They didn’t have to learn; they could be Grandma Moses. They could do whatever they wanted. And we would have that opportunity in creativity with music for the very first time in a history of 40,000 years. And what would happen, I don’t know. Nobody could know. If everybody had the capacity to make music without ever studying it, we would have genres all over the place. Some of them would be musical, some, who knows what they would be? What I saw was that I could bring a history of musicality to this moment. What I thought was that I could impact the development of the technology so that there would be the possibility that people would have a more musical interface to the technological world. That’s what I saw myself doing. My thing was not that I was going to write something that was going to change the world, but that I would approach technology in such a way, and I would have to not only do it, but I’d have to share how I did it with people so that I could make good the promise to be human and say this is what I can do with it and how I do it. Use it if you want. Don’t use it if you don’t want, but not to become famous and rich, just to be more human in some way.

Pens Amidst Electronics

A moment of humanity amidst all the machinery in Mort’s studio: tons of pens and a notebook.

FJO: It’s interesting how your own music developed immediately after that point of realization; how the Buchla music box developed as did the music that you created with it. You talked about how there was this moment where it opened up this whole new door. I mentioned all that electronic composition that happened in studios with the giant RCA synthesizers and people splicing tapes. Back then there were all these competing musical “isms” in the realm of instrumental music: the twelve-tone serial stuff at one extreme and the Cage-ian indeterminate stuff and the conceptual stuff at the other. And then minimalism started happening. Composers from all of these camps dabbled in studio electronic music: Babbitt with his Ensembles for Synthesizer, Cage with Fontana Mix, then Reich with It’s Gonna Rain. All these polar opposite styles were also possible with electronic music. But what you did seems to transcend what was going on before and contemporaneously; it’s not about a compositional style, per se.
MS: It was different. All of the things you mentioned, what was happening with the RCA synthesizer was twelve-tone music with a synthesizer. The first study of Stockhausen is a twelve-tone piece with electronics. This is making what I call new-old music—with machines. I thought that was a dumb idea from day one. I mean, we’ve got a new machine. What we want to do is approach it with musical creativity, which has nothing to do with scales, or anything else. Technology allows you to move back to your inner self. What if you grew up with didgeridoos? You can’t have twelve-tone music. Now you have technology which doesn’t have anything. So here’s what we did. Buchla comes along and says I can do what you want to do. I said the one thing we do not want is a black and white keyboard; that’s the most important thing. We built what I called, at that time, an electronic music easel. It does not introduce what you’re supposed to do, like—do anything you want with my three-holed flute. Play anything, but you’ve [only] got seven pitches and that’s all you can do. Great. There are all sorts of things you can do [with that flute]; you can spend a lifetime doing it. But I didn’t want to introduce something that said, “What you’re going to do is anything you want to do with these seven pitches.” I wanted it to be wide open. But I found out that it was much harder.
FJO: Ironally, what wound up happening with electronic musical instruments for the most part is that they essentially became vehicles for what you call new-old music, twelve-note seven-white-keyed, five-black-keyed keyboards with a bunch of pre-set timbres like an organ.
MS: In the lecture I gave yesterday, when I get to that point, I show a picture of all the wires and everything of the first Buchla which was a year and a half before the Moog. In 1965, the Buchla was full blown; in 1966 or ‘67, the Moog is full blown. And the first piece, Silver Apples comes, almost a year, about eight months before Switched on Bach—that wasn’t even new-old music; it was old music played new. I didn’t know why it didn’t dawn on people what had happened when it happened. At that moment it was very hard to conceptualize a new thing. I didn’t understand how hard that was going to be. And it was brilliant. My brilliance was in not using a black and white keyboard. If I’ve offered anything in the world, it’s that. It’s saying, let’s go back to musical creativity. Let’s not call it music. Let’s not call it a book. Let’s call it verbal communication. Let’s call it musical verbal communication or whatever you want. Let’s not give it a generic name. Let’s express ourselves. It’s hard to do. It’s actually just as hard for a person who’s never had the background, because it’s sort of a double edged sword. Everyone can hear anything and they hear it before they’ve tried anything, and so they imitate. They’re imitating what they’re hearing, not doing what I did—get in the studio, isolate myself, and without the apparatuses that make the normal music, to force myself to start over again in some kind of way.

Original Buchla

Part of the original Buchla music box which Subotnick still keeps in his studio.

FJO: Yet the irony about that is that in Silver Apples and then other pieces that you did very soon afterwards, even though you’re creating this whole new thing that’s not beholden to any genre or any style, there’s something about those pieces that’s more inherently musical in an almost old fashioned sense than most electronic music that had come before it. It triggers emotions in a way that’s not all that different from the way standard repertoire classical music does.
MS: The inherent musicality that I grew up with, why should I throw that away? That was the whole point. The whole point to me is one should not be creating genres; one should be going to one’s inner musicality. Not music. Musicality. Express new thoughts, new feelings, new vision, or I don’t even know if they’re your visions. Not even new. Who knows? They’re going to be unique for you. But you do it without the artifact. That’s why we get so taken with an indigenous music somewhere, like with the didgeridoo, because for us it’s raw emotion. They don’t worry that it doesn’t express something. We worry about it because we think of ourselves as a march from 40,000 years ago to the present and on to the future. We don’t know for sure, but Schoenberg is said to have said to one of his students, “Now that I have created this technique, I have assured the dominance of the German composer for the next hundred years.” And then something like 30 years [later], Boulez writes, “Schoenberg is dead. Long live Webern.” They were thinking of these threads moving forward. They were creating the future. You can’t create the future with 19th century musical thought, right? So you have to get rid of everything as you go. But everybody’s on their own. There is no march. There was no evolution. Yet that’s all we had, so that’s the way we thought about it. But we don’t have evolution anymore. What we have now is a kind of quantum existence of everything at the same time. Nothing is going to go away and history is gone forever. Time has been collapsed because we now know, for sure, when we look in the sky, that we’re seeing millions of years into the past. Things that aren’t even there anymore we’re still seeing. And it won’t be, not in my life maybe, but maybe in yours and certainly in our children’s, they will probably see the edge of the Big Bang. Now if they see the edge of the Big Bang, what is the past? That’s in the present. They’re seeing the past and the present. It doesn’t mean anything anymore.

So this idea of the next hundred years doesn’t mean beans. It means now, and we’re seeing that there are new things being born, like new universes developing all the time, or things that are potentially universes. That, you know, it’s a constant. And it doesn’t mean that this has to die before this can exist. They can co-exist. And the only reason they didn’t is because there was this minority, this tiny percentage of people who were like kings carrying this thing forward; anything else was secular. It was not worth it. If you read Aristotle on music education: “There’s all this other kind of music, but it’s not worth teaching because the only thing worth teaching is this.” And that’s why we had only the modes and all this kind of stuff. And they’d keep that going forever, but the rest of the stuff now is dominant.

Silver Apples of the Moon

The original LP cover for Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon (1967)

FJO: Well, that’s the other thing that happened in the 1960s. All these other kinds of music were happening at that time that suddenly really kind of took over the world. Jazz began to be taken seriously, various world music traditions suddenly got international exposure, and rock became ascendant in mainstream culture. You read all these histories of rock that talk about psychedelic rock and the advent of concept albums. They claim that the Beatles invented all of that with their 1967 LP Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band because it was created in a studio and was designed to be listened to at home from start to finish. You were creating Silver Apples of the Moon at the same time they were in the studio recording that album and your record deals with these very same issues. The way people used to think about listening to music—music was what you heard in a concert hall or in a club. There were records already, of course, but they were perceived as just artifacts of those live experiences. Creating music that was intended exclusively for home listening was something totally new. Now we take this for granted in an era where people walk around with earbuds listening to their own personal soundtracks created from recorded music. But this was a completely new idea at the time.
MS: On the liner notes of Silver Apples, I say this is the new chamber music. When interactive CD-ROMs came, I made a piece for that right off the bat at the moment that the color monitor was coming in. Wired quotes me—I don’t even remember doing it, but I must have done it—saying that the computer has now becomes the medium for chamber art because it’s the chamber. It doesn’t keep you from going to galleries, but it offers another medium. Long-playing records with high fidelity were just coming in. It was so good it sounded like the real thing. You couldn’t separate them. And I would give lectures saying now that we’ve got long-playing records, it will just be a matter of time before the people will rise up and say: “It’s immoral and unethical to take a piece of music written for musicians to be in person playing for other people in real time and put that on a record, freeze it, and use that in the living room.” We’ll use 78rpm records for that, because it will be like black and white photos. You’ll get to know the music, but you get the real experience when you get the real thing. So we need a new medium, a new music, and we will commission composers to come in and write music for it.

Wild Bull LP

A year after Silver Apples, Nonesuch released Subotnick’s The Wild Bull (1968).

That’s what struck me when Jac Holzman came to my studio in the middle of the night. I thought he had been to one of my lectures. It was 2:00 in the morning. I had, I think, someone from the Mothers of Invention and Ultra Violet there. I don’t remember who, but these were people who came into my studio at 2 or 3 in the morning and just sat around. And, this guy comes here on Bleecker Street in a double breasted suit and he gives me my talk: “Immoral, unethical, record companies.” And he said, “I’m the head of a record company, and we think record companies should commission composers, and we’ve chosen you to be the first one.” And I said, “Get the fuck out of here!” And I pushed him out the door. I thought he was making fun of me. And the next morning when I got home to see the kids off to school, I had this cheap record on of a Bach Brandenburg to calm me down, to get me in position so the kids would get up, and I could give them breakfast and get them off. And it was on Nonesuch Records. This guy said he was the President of Nonesuch. He was real! And I tried all day to call him on the phone. I couldn’t find a phone number because they were part of Electra-Asylum or something. So that night I’m thinking, “What a nebbish I am! I just destroyed my life; the opportunity came and I blew it.” And around the same time, he comes in again. The next night! I’m ready to get on my knees and beg forgiveness. He had offered me $500; I’ll do it for nothing. He thought I was coming to push him out again. So he says, “Just listen to me. Don’t kick me out. We talked about it all day long, and we’ll offer you $1,000.” So I said, “O.K., I’ll take it.” That’s how it came about.
FJO: It’s amazing to me how much resonance what you were doing had with the people who were shaping popular culture at that time. Soon after Nonesuch released Silver Apples of the Moon a rock band formed named Silver Apples which used tons of electronics. This was a major moment of cultural convergence, and you were in the center of it somehow. So-called high art, low art, popular culture, jazz, rock, classical music, the avant-garde, it all converged at that time. How did members of the Mothers of Invention wind up in your studio in the first place?
MS: Well, I was right in the middle of all the rock clubs. So when they got finished, they heard that there was this guy, Morton Subotnick, who is the mad scientist in the laboratory of the ecstatic moment. Someone used the term, and it passed through people—the Mothers of Invention, Lothar and the Hand People. It wasn’t a lot of them, but people would pop in. This was the Ecstatic Moment Laboratory. And that’s how the Electric Circus came about. These guys came and they said, “We’ve bought this name, Electric Circus. And everyone says you know what that would be.” I said, “Sure, come tonight.” And I gave them these lights and strobes and the whole thing, and they hired me as artistic director. They gave me what they called at the time a lifetime contract where I’d get $4,000 a year for the rest of my life for doing nothing.
FJO: For the rest of your life?
MS: Yeah, of course, the thing ended. I quit and I said I don’t want your money after the second year. And then two years later, they got bombed out, so it didn’t mean very much anyway.
FJO: Well, one thing that didn’t end were these pieces of electronic music created specifically for LPs. It became a whole new musical genre. You did seven of them yourself, but after that, it seems, you missed having a live performance element and started writing works that incorporated musicians performing in real time with the electronics.

Touch LP

The original cover for Touch (1969), Subotnick’s first album on Columbia Records.

MS: No, remember with Sound Blocks, that 1961 piece for four musicians, four tracks of tape, image and someone speaking, my first problem was to solve the electronic problem. I thought I would get it solved quickly, but it wasn’t until 1978 that I felt comfortable with that for myself, with A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur. I now had my language, or my whatever it is, my personal tools for electronics. So now that I finally get the electronics done, it’s my time to start working back with instruments and see what I can do with instruments and electronics. It started with [what I call] “the ghost pieces.” I tried MIDI and different kinds of things, and then the next thing was to add visuals back. I actually started to add that back in in the ‘70s. First there was The Double Life of Amphibians, then Hungers, and then finally Jacob’s Room. And in Jacob’s Room, I felt that I had put in a long time. Double Life of Amphibians had no words in it. Hungers had two words in it: “I,” “Want.” Actually I think it had “I Want” and “I Need.” I can’t remember. But it had subject matter. Both of them had subject matter, but people watching Double Life of Amphibians would not have gotten it, except for the program notes. Hungers had—by the title itself—human needs. But Jacob’s Room was an opportunity to write with a real important text. The very first premiere of the multi-media version of Jacob’s Room came in 1993 when I turned 60. And that I felt was close to the end of the trek from 1961. I put it all together finally. But the final version will be premiered at Juilliard in October.
FJO: What’s ironic, though, is that even though you decided to re-introduce instruments and a live performance setting for the music, these pieces then got released on recordings and this is probably how most people have heard them.
MS: Right. It’s a big problem for me. I could have turned down the recordings, but what I decided to do, which is what the rock bands had already done, is that we could make a recording of it, but it wasn’t the live performance. It would not just be edited, but it would do things that a live performance couldn’t do. The Key to Songs is a dynamite record, but when people play it [live], it doesn’t sound like the thing. Because we did things that you couldn’t have done on the stage. But it’s not one of my great thoughts in the world. I wasn’t trying to make records; I was trying to make live performances. But I wasn’t about to not have the records made.
Anyway, what happened is I finished this Sound Blocks piece, now in its final form, which was Jacob’s Room. I’m still working with it, but the basic notion is there and it’s done. So then the final way to go was… The composer as studio artist works and works until it’s just right and makes a record, and that’s its life. You end up with this distilled thing. But in the process of the year’s work—or six months, or two years, or whatever it is—a lot of stuff has been thrown away. A lot of ideas have gone, and they’re good. So what I decided was that with the new technology—Buchla’s new version and Ableton (the guy who programmed Ableton, by the way, was partially inspired by my work)—what you could do is, like a jazz musician, go in public with Silver Apples of the Moon. What I perform in public is from Silver Apples of the Moon to A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur—“revisited,” colon, and a name. This year’s name is Lucy, which is all the new stuff I’m doing. I go back, and I give myself this bank of stuff in Ableton, outtakes and new versions of all the old stuff, plus some of the original stuff that got put in.

Digital Controllers

Some of the newer gear Subotnick uses to create music.

I work and, for that season, I make a new instrument with the Buchla, so that I get really good at it. I begin to evolve a plan. I make sure that I have control over everything, and there’s enough material to be able to go from 45 minutes to an hour. And then each performance is an improvisation. It’s practiced in the way you practice scales. And so each performance for a season is for the moment. You could record that, I suppose, although those I wouldn’t let out as a record. Someone took a film—nothing wrong with someone doing that. But to me that’s real time. What the audience is getting may or may not be great on a record, but what they’re getting is me playing for them, taking my studio to the auditorium and being free and spontaneous with it.
FJO: So you’ve found a way to bring back the live human element even for the pieces that were created exclusively in the studio. When the reissue of Until Spring came out on Mode you also released Spring Revisited, which I believe was your first attempt at doing a performance version of one of these studio pieces.
MS: Yeah, that’s right. That was the beginning. That was the beginning and now I’ve gone all the way back to Silver Apples. I’m taking the entire span of stuff, each year with a new emphasis. You know who Lucy is? The ape. That’s the beginnings of musical creativity and that’s what I’m dealing with now.
FJO: I’m curious about the performance materials you work from for these concerts. The original Nonesuch LP of Silver Apples of the Moon has a little excerpt of a score.
MS: That’s a mistake. I didn’t mean that. The big thing that had happened at that moment was I had used a sequencer for the very first sequence; I was the very first human being to have what became things like drum machines and all that. I helped design the sequencer. It had three knobs, and it was assumed that one of one of the knobs would be the duration between beats. The power of the sequencer—the power of the pulse—was so striking to me. When I sat there and started working with a pulse, I could articulate new things, but the pulse was going underneath the whole thing. I could divide it up into threes, fours, sevens, and it was so powerful that it opened up a whole new area for me. So with that score I was trying to visualize it. No one knew what a sequencer was. I was working with something I didn’t think I had words to explain. So I used a graph. Those lines coming up in the graph and the notes and so forth are what you’re actually producing in the sequencer, I mean, if you were to visualize it, that’s the way it would look. I didn’t mean it to be a score. When I used the word score, I was thinking of a score of the turning of knobs and making them go up, and visualizing them that way. I didn’t realize until I re-read it that I had actually misrepresented what I was trying to say.
FJO: So you never had a score for any of these pieces in advance?
MS: No. There were patches, though. But imagine what I’m trying to do at that point. It’s like some magic thing. Unfortunately, I did a good job of making people understand the wrong thing. And I feel badly about it to this day.

Endless Patches

An endless cascade of patches are still a central component to Subotnick’s work station.

FJO: But now that you’re going back to those pieces, and performing new versions of them again—now that this is living music once again—what do you have to go on to recreate it?
MS: Well, I don’t recreate it in that sense. The process of creation was the process of creating patches that would create sound worlds that would get recorded. Put that on this tape recorder. Play it back and play against it. And then take recordings of that, mix it with that. I’m doing what a DJ does. I was doing that before there was such a thing as a DJ. I was organizing things in groups of things that I could bring in and out at will with the Buchla. I’m doing that now with Ableton. There’s a combination of playing things against things that I am changing—literally changing pitch, amplitude, sending it through the room, transposing a single thing five times at the same time, and bringing this part out over here. Everything in my vocabulary I can do somewhere between post-production and live performance.
FJO: You’ve written all this other repertoire for ensembles, like the pieces you describe as being for instruments and “ghost electronics.” We haven’t talked about those yet.
MS: No, we don’t have time to do that.
FJO: But since for those pieces there are scores, there could be a performance one day in one part of the world and a different performance somewhere else. This is a repertoire that could have multiple interpretations.
MS: Yes. But my job was not to make music for people for the future. My job was to impact the possibility of using technology for other people. That’s all I intended to do. I tried to put my ghost pieces to sleep, but people want them. A tuba piece I actually thought I threw away, a bunch of tuba players wanted it. We finally did find the thing, and so I’m not going to keep them from playing it. But it was never my intention to become famous, or to have music that would become a literature. It wasn’t my intention. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it, but that wasn’t why I was doing it. I had something I wanted to put together in 1961, and I wanted to get it so I really understood it and it was as good as it could be and I could explain to people what I did, and how I did it. Not for them to do that, but to have some kind of impact on possibilities for people. That’s all I was thinking. I was never thinking that I would write a masterpiece. Johnny Carson invited me twice on The Johnny Carson Show, and I turned him down two times because it just seemed like a stumbling block; it seemed like getting in the way. I was too busy to do that. I didn’t want to be famous. I wanted to get my work done. I thought I only had until I was 30-years old and I was going to die. And then when that didn’t happen, I thought, I didn’t know how long I could go on. But I was driven to get this thing done.

Subotnick Mode DVD

In 2011, Mode records, which has reissued many of Subotnick’s classic electronic albums, issued a DVD including some of his video experiments.

I had given up a lot to do this thing in my life. And I wasn’t about to stop, not for a Johnny Carson Show or a publisher or any other thing, until I got the thing done. I’ve been driven to this. So the fact that people interpret the music, or they play the music, or they like the music, they don’t like the music, is a sideline for me. I was just doing the ghost pieces as an attempt toward this larger issue, which—it’s very ironic—turned out wasn’t with instruments at all even though instruments are in Jacob’s Room. But when I got to Jacob’s Room, I had real subject matter. Important subject matter trumps media. No longer can it be just a part of a media presentation. It has to require the media it needs for the subject matter. I used the Holocaust. Nothing trumps the Holocaust, so all the ideas of interactive technology fell to the wayside. I realized that subject matter can require technology, but technology doesn’t require subject matter. It is the subject matter. That’s too big a subject to talk about. I really shouldn’t even have said it.
FJO: Well, in some ways, despite your desires, you have created these iconic pieces that people love, and people play, and people listen to. And your other really lasting contribution, which we only touched upon very indirectly, has been getting other people to create. You’ve done particularly revolutionary things to inspire young people to create. Early in this conversation you mentioned that music traditionally only belonged to two percent of the population and how it could be much more than that. More than fifty years have gone by since that epiphany you had. Few people would deny that music has totally changed since then. But there are some things that haven’t changed at all. What could we be doing, as people who are interested in fostering musicality, to get more people to share in this phenomenon that we know is a joy?
MS: It’s a good question. It’s more important than what I could do by writing more pieces. They’re not going to miss me; there’s lots of beautiful literature there. I’m 80, and I’m doing all this: writing a book and doing all this stuff, but I’m also doing an online K-6 curriculum called Multi-Dimensional Ear Training and Musical Creativity for Children. That’s going to be my contribution to what you’re talking about. I don’t know the answer to the question. I would like to write another book, after I finish this one, and that book would deal exactly with what you’re talking about—trying to re-identify musicality and music, to recombine them, instead of what we have which we could call an Olympian notion of music. Everyone can walk—some people can’t, but generally, as a human being who has two feet, you can walk. And you can run. We wouldn’t have evolved to where we are if we couldn’t run and can run quite well, actually, as a group. But not all of us can be Olympic stars. So you wouldn’t say don’t walk or run because you’re not good enough. Right? That would be a stupid thing to say. But if you can’t sing the Queen of the Night aria, we say don’t sing. Or if you can’t sing a tune in tune, don’t sing. Don’t use your natural musicality unless you can be an Olympian star of one sort or another. So the metaphor we’ve got is singing in the shower; don’t sing in public. That’s what we’ve got to get away from.
There’s nothing wrong with the enormous contributions human beings—Chopin, Beethoven, Stravinsky— have made. To me Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron is one of the great experiences of all time. Symphony orchestras—these are huge, mammoth, constructions, like cathedrals, and they’re wonderful. But that doesn’t mean you can’t fix up your house because you’re not an architect. You know, it doesn’t take away from it. It doesn’t mean you can’t do all sorts of things. But that’s what we’ve done. People are afraid to sing. They’re afraid to express themselves musically. So afraid that you know, when I was in high school or maybe early college, I remember sitting around, working on a piece, in a room with an upright piano, and I went over and closed the door, because I was going to play a major triad. I just loved the sound of it, but I couldn’t use it in a piece. Isn’t that stupid? Luckily, we’re not there anymore. And what’s interesting is that electronics have not generally filled the world with a continuation of traditional classical music. It’s gone its own way, and rightfully so, because it didn’t belong there.

Space Age Synths

Almost 45 years ago, Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach album first came out. It’s hard to know exactly why this particular combination of Baroque music and synthesizers became such a popular phenomenon, but to me it seems inextricably connected to a certain optimism about the future, a kind of narrative where novelty is progress. (The past shall not be forgotten, but it can be updated.) Switched-On Bach was both revered and reviled, and it’s not hard to see why. Carlos’s synthesized arrangements could be incredibly sublime or unbearably awkward, all within the span of a few seconds. But at their best they could project a kind of strange majesty, like her version of Henry Purcell’s “Funeral Of Queen Mary,” used as the title music for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

It didn’t take long for Carlos’s work to inspire others. Patrick Gleeson and Isao Tomita, unaware of each other’s plans, both released electronic versions of Gustav Holst’s The Planets in the same year, 1976. Gleeson and Tomita, in turn, inspired yet another crop of imitators, like this workmanlike but rather flat rendition from Ed Starink in 1989:

Tomita, on the other hand, does a remarkable job of preserving (and in some cases enhancing) the dynamic range of the orchestra, with meticulously choreographed swells and articulations. Listening to Tomita’s outsized expressivity, you can almost believe the “novelty as progress” artistic narrative, if only for a second.

The music of the first half of the 20th century seemed to be especially fertile ground for Tomita, as he released arrangements of Stravinsky, Ives, Ravel, and my favorite version ever of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” And there does seem to be at least a spiritual kinship between the novel harmonic language of that era and the novel timbral language of early electronic music. (And perhaps a mystical/extraterrestrial kinship, too–like Stockhausen, Tomita claimed to be educated by space aliens.)

But as society became more concerned with earthly things, the fashion for space age classical synth covers faded. Now they seem a bit like majestic old ruins, simultaneous evidence of great talent and great folly. When synthesizers are invoked now, they are more likely to be a historical reference than a forward-looking one. Classic Chips, an album of 8-bit classical covers by Canadian musician/programmer Brad Smith, is more about limitations than about progress. Using the NES chipset to perform Scriabin, Debussy, Brahms, Bach, and Schoenberg, Smith superimposes two bygone eras over one another.

And when Rich Vreeland (a.k.a. Disasterpeace) performs a lush Tomita-esque version of Chopin’s Prelude in E minor, it’s also a reference on multiple levels. Spoiler alert: this is heard in the endgame of the recent indie video game hit Fez, accompanying a spectacular light show that recalls 2001, another Kubrick film. Except instead of symbolizing transcendence or evolution, this particular event represents a literal “reboot” of the game’s universe.

Here, we’re no longer looking into the future. We’re just looking to start over.

Kenneth Kirschner: Pirate This Music

Before Napster was even an idea living in Shawn Fanning’s dorm room, composer Kenneth Kirschner saw something idealistic and beautiful in the notion of sending his music out into the world in a way that was freely accessible to everyone.
“I’m not telling you to copy other things,” Kirschner clarifies. “But I am telling you to pirate my music because I think it’s important.”
Screen shot from kennethkirschner.com
When you visit Kirschner’s über-minimalist single-page website, you get a clearer sense of how central this outlook is to his work. Since its launch in late 2002, new pieces have been posted upon completion (older works have also been added, rounding out the breadth of the catalog) and all are freely downloadable (as MP3s and, since 2010, FLACs). Each work carries a date in a hazy cornflower blue font as its sole identifier—it’s the date that the piece’s concept “crystalized” for Kirschner, a filing system that he characterizes as “a disaster that I love.” The track’s total running time is the only other detail listed. No program notes are offered, no composer bio included. Scroll all the way down the page past the last (which is to say the first) track, May 19, 1988, and you get the only information on the music’s creator on offer here: you can email him, follow him on twitter, or sign up for the mailing list.
The lack of explanatory material about his music on his website is quite intentional. Kirschner wants listeners to focus on the end result and is uninterested in seducing them with detailed notes about his compositional process because “if you don’t like what you’re hearing, the methods have already failed.”

Considering all he’s keeping under his hat, the fact that all the work is available at no cost suits Kirschner. “If you can download it freely, then you can take a risk with it,” he points out. “And I think, being an experimental composer, it’s about encouraging a listener to take risks.” This obviously begs some personal financial questions, and Kirschner is very forthcoming on this point, explaining that he works part-time in an unrelated field as a freelance copy editor. “I basically do just enough work to get by and support my music while giving myself the maximum amount of time and freedom. It’s a tricky balance, and there are definitely tradeoffs.”

To source the building blocks for his compositions, Kirschner works with live instrumentalists, coaching and recording sounds with them. He’s also comfortable enough at the piano to produce what he needs, and isn’t afraid to knock out some of his own percussion as well. Field recordings and sample libraries round out his sound palette. From there, it’s a process of improvisation and chance procedures to build up musical material, and then a lot of editing at a desk in his Brooklyn home until the final piece takes shape.

What electronic music gives you the ability to do is to obsessively edit everything. You have more control than you ever should have. And you can take chaos and take chance and take unexpected events and capture them and let them become an essential part of a composition. So you’re not composing intentionally a lot of the time, you’re reacting to what’s happening with the technology and what’s happening with the parameters that you’ve set up.

When that obsessive editing is complete, the file is posted to Kirschner’s website. A few record labels, including 12k, have put out collections of his work, though the CD covers often carry the printed suggestion that “this music may be freely copied.” While he does occasionally perform live, Kirschner is adamant that the recording is the work. He doesn’t create scores in the traditional sense, associating printed music with a certain anxiety. “I’ve always felt I had some very basic form of musical dyslexia,” he explains. “Notation was very intimidating to me. It was something I could never connect with and I could never have become a musician in any sort of serious sense if I had to go that path.”
Coming of age at a time when synthesizers and drum machines and four-track recorders were at hand, however, meant that he could create music in a way that worked for him and he wasn’t blocked by tools that he just couldn’t use.

I’ve always known this is what I wanted to do. I was fortunately very clear on this since I was twelve or thirteen: that I want to do this kind of music, I want to do it in a certain sort of way, present it in a certain way, distribute it in a certain way, have it philosophically structured in a certain way. And I’ve stuck to that program.

In many ways, Kirschner sees it all as a grand experiment in objectless, abstract music. “I think it’s a cool thing to try and see if it works.”
“And by ‘trying it’,” he concedes, his laugh filling the room, “I mean my entire life.”

Sounds Heard: Blowing In The Wind (Flute Edition)

Among the CDs that have landed on my desk in recent weeks are a few that showcase flute prominently. Here are three artists whose highly individual styles of integrating flute into their compositions perked up my ears.
Elizabeth Brown, Arcana
Performed by Elizabeth Brown
New World

Composer/flutist Elizabeth Brown is aptly described in the liner notes of her recent CD Mirage as a “gentle maverick.” Her work is experimental in nature, yet rather than whacking the listener over the head with that, the music has an understated and beautifully handmade feel that begs careful listening and exploration. Brown is a talented flutist as well as a shakuhachi and theremin player, and within the disc’s seven works she performs on those instruments in combination with ensembles that include string quartet, recorded sound, Harry Partch instruments, and Japanese traditional instrument orchestra. The track featured here, Arcana, for flute and recorded sound, is full of bending, melting sounds that suggest a dreamlike tale of intrigue.


Harris Eisenstadt, What Is A Straw Horse, Anyways?
Performed by Nicole Mitchell, flute; Sara Schoenbeck, bassoon; Mark Dresser, contrabass; Harris Eisenstadt, drums, compositions
Golden State
Order Directly

Harris Eisenstadt’s Golden State features the somewhat unusual instrumental combination of flute, bassoon, contrabass, and drums. I was immediately struck by the pointillistic style of drumming that opens a number of the tracks—as if Eisenstadt (who is performing on drums) is reveling in the individual sound world of each drum or cymbal—and by the pleasantly quirky, occasionally stuttering, restless nature of the woodwind writing, not to mention the casual sprinkling of extended techniques through the pieces. What Is A Straw Horse, Anyways? combines all of these elements into an engaging (and fun!) musical statement.


Matthew Joseph Payne, flight of the bleeper bird: obviously I was abducted by paper aliens
Performed by Meerenai Shim
The Art of Noise

As an unrepentant fan of most things “bloop-bleep”-oriented, I couldn’t resist Matthew Joseph Payne’s work flight of the bleeper bird for flute and Game Boy on flutist Meerenai Shim’s compilation album The Art of Noise. The second movement, entitled “obviously I’ve been abducted by paper aliens,” opens with a somewhat “typically contemporary music flute-y” melodic line, but is quickly enveloped by cascading waves of electronic tones, transforming into a gleefully bouncing, frenetic duet. Anyone needing a fix of well-honed music derived from electronic game sounds should have a listen.

And while you’re at it, give the whole CD a spin—the four other thoughtfully constructed and well-performed works on The Art of Noise, which also deliver doses of cello, piano, and percussion in addition to Shim’s flute, were composed by Daniel Felsenfeld, Janice Misurell-Mitchell, Jay C. Batzner, and David E. Farrell.