Tag: music and technology

The Musical is Political

Singers on stage in performance

“I wish to enjoy music without the infusion of political opinion.”

This is an actual recent quote from someone in the classical music community. I’ve heard variations of this kind of statement throughout my own career: Why don’t you just write music? Why does it have to be so… political?

There has always been a desire on the part of artists to respond to the issues of the moment.

These invectives against “political” music seem to stand out more due to our current contentious climate, which may create the impression that there has been an uptick in the number of modern pieces with a political orientation. But the truth is that there has always been a desire on the part of artists to respond to the issues of the moment. This is particularly true in opera, the field in which I have done the majority of my own work. Opera has historically been a populist art form (please read Lawrence Edelson’s essay on the topic for more detail), and as such, composers and librettists have tried to create stories that reflect the concerns of their day. As opera companies began to focus more on a small selection of “canonical” works rather than contemporary compositions, the works in the canon became detached from their historical contexts. As a result, we have lost sight of how revolutionary these works actually were for their time.

Operas like La bohème showed the lives of ordinary people rather than kings or gods.  Rigoletto and Don Giovanni showed the depravity of the upper class. Audiences for these operas would have understood them in relation to their current moment. Now that these operas are performed outside of this context, there is a tendency to make them more precious than they were originally intended to be. We focus on performing the pieces the way they have always been performed without asking what the core messages of the works are and how those messages might resonate with a modern-day audience. And this is where a lot of the cultural baggage attached to opera comes from.

I did not grow up listening to opera, and I used to hold many of the same preconceptions about the form that many people do: it’s elitist, it’s boring, it’s outdated, and so on. I’m also all too aware of many of the problems with race and gender that the greatest hits of the canon still have.

Music allows us to assume the perspectives of people very different than we are.

Despite these problems, the reason I came to love opera (and what I believe brings many people to the form if they are able to experience it) is the immense power of sung drama. Music has the ability to touch us deeply, and music used in the service of storytelling can transport us into different places and times, even allowing us to assume the perspectives of people very different than we are. I believe that this is where the potential power of the art form lies. I also believe that embracing this power is what will allow the form to remain vibrant and relevant well into the future.

It is for this reason that I (and many of my contemporaries) often choose stories that can be described as “political.” Part of the reason that so many modern operas are perceived as “political” stories stems from the fact that they are taking perspectives that have long been absent from the mainstream and placing them on stage, just as Puccini was doing when he, Illica, and Giacosa wrote La bohème. For modern composers and librettists, there is now a widespread recognition that the historical default perspective (white and male) is not representative of the modern world (and was never really representative of the whole of human experience). Because of this, the conversations that we’ve been having around diversity and inclusion are key to keeping opera relevant. Understanding the importance of story in forming our sense of self and culture is an essential part of the equation. Storytelling is the bedrock this foundation. We can see the importance of story even from a young age.

Katherine Nelson’s work on early childhood memory shows the centrality of narrative to our developing sense of identity. Nelson has shown that learning the art of narration is the foundation for all of our autobiographical memories. The stories we learn to tell ourselves about ourselves form these core memories, and thus become the basis of our sense of identity and our place in the world.

We see a similar effect of story on our shared sense of culture. The stories we tell each other as a society give us a sense of cultural identity. They teach us about social norms and about who we are as a people: what our value systems are and how we fit into the world.

Therefore, we, as creators, must understand that part of what we’re doing is creating the stories that help to shape our culture. Because of this, all stories are inherently political in that all stories choose a perspective and place it front and center. If you’re thinking, “I have never chosen a perspective,” that is because you are assuming that your perspective is the default.

All stories are inherently political in that all stories choose a perspective and place it front and center.

The current age of American opera is more geared than ever toward letting everyone see themselves onstage. In the last year alone, we have been privileged to have operas including Fire Up in My Bones (Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons) and The Central Park Five (Anthony Davis and Richard Wesley), both of which featured work by Black composers, librettists, and singers. Modern operas have also tackled contemporary issues like human trafficking (Du Yun and Royce Vavrek’s Angel’s Bone), mental illness (Philip Venables, based on Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis), and sexual assault (Ellen Reid and Roxie Perkins’s p r i s m).

I have tried to address similar issues in my own work. I’ve approached this by putting people onstage who aren’t normally seen there (including Pakistani Muslim women in Thumbprint [libretto by Susan Yankowitz] and Appalachian snake handlers in Taking Up Serpents [libretto by Jerre Dye]). My new work, Looking at You, takes this a step further by reaching outside of the opera world to create a piece with urgent contemporary relevance, exploring the impact of modern technology on our right to privacy.  Looking at You is a collaboration with privacy researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and tech engineers at Bandcamp.com.

This piece is absolutely the most complicated thing I’ve ever made. There are several reasons for this. From the beginning I knew that the audience would be an integral part of the show, so there were many unresolved questions about how the technology that makes the audience experience happen could work and how to integrate it with the music. A lot of the decisions about the libretto and the way the score works were influenced by what the tech would actually be able to do. For example, I decided early on that I wanted the chorus for the show to be made up of singing tablet computers. Of course, the technology to allow tablets to sync together in real-time did not exist, so part of the developmental process was trying out different ways of making that work. I figured out how to make the singing computer voices, but it took finding collaborators outside of the opera world (Joe Holt and Daniel Dickison of Bandcamp.com) to actually build the software that syncs the whole choir (both with each other and with the backing tracks).

Mikki Sodergren and Brandon Snook in Looking at You

Mikki Sodergren and Brandon Snook performing on stage in Kamala Sankaram’s opera Looking at You (photo © by Paula Court).

This collaboration with academics and engineers from the tech world has been essential for creating a piece that gets at the heart of the issues we’re facing. We are in a pivotal moment, where new technologies are being created that will leave lasting social, economic, and political impacts. Tech companies are increasingly turning to machine learning based on mass user data to build better artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, machine learning utilizes what is known as “the hidden layer”—even the coders themselves often don’t know why their algorithms behave the way they do. An algorithm’s behavior is completely based on the patterns it perceives in the data set it uses to learn. Therefore, any structural racism or gender inequality that exists in the data will be coded into the algorithm’s decision-making and outputs. This has led to many problematic situations already, including the “decision” of Facebook’s algorithm to create an advertising category for “Jew-haters.”  More troubling, as algorithms are increasingly deployed to make consequential decisions including insurance rates, length of criminal sentences, and even whether or not to fire someone, there is no way to know how they made the decision and therefore no recourse.

Our continued right to privacy is at risk.

Despite the immediacy of the issue, and despite increased awareness of online privacy concerns in the wake of the Snowden revelations and the more recent scandals at Facebook, many people are either not aware of the extent to which their personal information is widely available and how it is used, or are not concerned because “they have nothing to hide” (to borrow a line from the show). This may come from the tendency to see technology as something mysterious and inscrutable.

Our continued right to privacy is at risk. By presenting the issues in a non-pedantic and entertaining way, we hope to open our audience up to the issues and then to provide them with the tools to better protect themselves and their personal data. Further, we are doing this by collaborating with a creative team that includes women and people of color, and by creating a story with women and people of color at its center.

Truly modern opera is and must be: a real representation of the world, featuring all of the people who inhabit it.

It is my belief that this is what truly modern opera is and must be: a real representation of the world, featuring all of the people who inhabit it, and telling a story that is relevant to the issues that concern them. These stories matter. The people we tell the stories about and the people we see on stage matter. And that, in essence, is why they are and should continue to be so… “political.”

Kamala Sankaram’s Looking at You will be presented from September 6-21, 2019 at Here in New York City in a co-production with Opera on Tap and Experiments in Opera.

“Automation Divine”: Early Computer Music and the Selling of the Cold War

It was a love song—not what viewers expected, perhaps, who tuned into a July 1956 episode of Adventure Tomorrow, a science documentary program broadcast by KCOP, channel 13, out of Los Angeles. But, then again, it was a love song to a computer. Push-Button Bertha. Sweet machine. What a queen. Jack Owens, the lyricist (and, on that July 1956 episode, the performer), had taken his inspiration from the tune’s composer: a Datatron 205, the room-filling flagship computer of Pasadena-based ElectroData, Inc.

Bertha’s not demanding
Never wants your dough
Always understanding
Just flip a switch and she’ll go

Push Button Bertha score

Just that month, ElectroData had been acquired by the Burroughs Corporation; Burroughs, an adding-machine manufacturer, was buying a ready-made entry into the computer business.[1] The Datatron had been programmed by Martin L. Klein and Douglas Bolitho, a pair of engineers. (Klein also moonlighted as Adventure Tomorrow’s on-air host.) “Push-Button Bertha” wasn’t Datatron’s magnum opus, but rather one of thousands of pop-song melodies the program could spit out every hour. Its inspiration was purely statistical.

We set out to prove that if human beings could write ‘popular music’ of poor quality at the rate of a song an hour, we could write it just as bad with a computing machine, but faster.

In fact, it was a perceived deficit of inspiration that supposedly prompted the project. Klein explained: “[W]e set out to prove that if human beings could write ‘popular music’ of poor quality at the rate of a song an hour, we could write it just as bad with a computing machine, but faster.”[2] Klein and Bolitho went through the top one hundred pop songs of the year, looking for patterns. They came up with three:

1. There are between 35 and 60 different notes in a popular song.
2. A popular song has the following pattern: part A, which runs 8 measures and contains about 18 to 25 notes, part A, repeated, part B, which contains 8 measures and between 17 and 35 notes; part A, again repeated.
3. If five notes move successively in an upward direction, the sixth note is downward and vice versa.

To those principles were added three more timeworn rules:

4. Never skip more than six notes between successive notes.
5. The first note in part A is ordinarily not the second, fourth or flatted fifth note in a scale.
6. Notes with flats next move down a tone, notes with sharps next move up a tone.[3]

The six rules were then put to work via the Monte Carlo method, which had been developed around the speed and indefatigability of the newly invented computer, harnessing the wisdom of a crowd of countless, repeated probabilistic calculations. Fed a stream of random, single-digit integers (which limited the number of available notes to 10), Datatron would test each integer/note against its programmed criteria. If it met every guideline, it was stored in memory; if not, it was discarded, and the program would move on to the next integer. After a few dozen iterations, presto: another prospective hit. Or not. Klein and Bolitho never admitted the program’s rate of success; out of Datatron’s presumably thousands of drafts, only “Push-Button Bertha” saw the light of day.

Push-Button Bertha

Piano version performed by Matthew Guerrieri

Datatron 205

The song took its place in a small but growing repertoire of computational compositions. 1956 was a banner year for statistically designed, computer-generated music. A team of Harvard graduate students, including Frederick P. Brooks, Jr. (who would go on to lead the design of IBM’s famed System/360 mainframes), programmed Harvard’s Mark IV computer to electronically analyze and then generate common-meter hymn tunes. (“It took us three years to get done,” Brooks later remembered, “but we got stuff you could pass off on any choir.”[4]) Lejaren Hiller and Leonard Isaacson used the University of Illinois’ ILLIAC I machine to create a string quartet, its movements moving through music history from basic counterpoint to modern speculation; portions of the Illiac Suite were premiered on August 9, 1956, only a month after the TV debut of “Push-Button Bertha.”

“Push-Button Bertha” was putting a cloak of high-minded research around that most hallowed of American art forms: a sales pitch.

“Push-Button Bertha” was a curiosity, but it reveals something particular about the early days of computer music in the United States. The Harvard and Illinois efforts were research and experimentation that were at least nominally driven by curiosity and the prospect of expanding academic knowledge. But all three were, in part, justifications of more hard-nosed concerns. When Owens sang of Bertha never wanting your dough, he shaded the truth a bit; Bertha wanted quite a bit of dough indeed. A Datatron 205 computer cost $135,000, and that didn’t include necessities such as a control console, punched-card input and output equipment, or magnetic tape storage. Nor did it include desirable extras, such as the capability to do floating-point calculations—that alone required an additional $21,000, more, at the time, than the median price of a house in the United States.[5] The Burroughs Corporation needed to justify the price tag of its newest product line. “Push-Button Bertha” was putting a cloak of high-minded research around that most hallowed of American art forms: a sales pitch.

Adventure Tomorrow Syndication ad, 1959

Off the air, Martin Klein wasn’t employed by ElectroData or Burroughs; at the time, he worked for Rocketdyne, North American Aviation’s rocket and missile division, based in the San Fernando Valley. The Brooklyn-born Klein had initially pursued music—as a teenager, he composed and copyrighted (though did not publish) a piano-and-accordion number entitled “Squeeze-Box Stomp”—but instead took up science. He did graduate work at Boston University, earning a master’s and a Ph.D.; his master’s dissertation, especially (on methods of using optical refraction to measure the flow of air around high-speed objects—supersonic planes or missiles, say), foreshadowed his work at Rocketdyne, which was largely devoted to designing circuits to convert rocket-engine test-firing data into forms that a computer could analyze.[6]

But that hint of a performing career would eventually resurface. In 1956, Klein began to spend his weekends on television. Saturdays brought Wires and Pliers, in which Klein and his North American Aviation colleague Harry C. Morgan (with the help of electrical engineer Aram Solomonian) showed viewers how to assemble simple electronic circuits and gadgets.[7] (The show’s sponsor, the Electronic Engineering Company of California, conveniently sold kits containing the necessary components for each project.) On Sundays, Adventure Tomorrow promoted technological optimism by way of the latest advances from California’s rapidly expanding electronics and defense industries. Burroughs needed a showcase for its technology; Klein needed technology to showcase.

Klein had demonstrated a flair for technologically enhanced promotion. His first efforts with the Datatron were intended to spotlight Pierce Junior College, where Klein was an instructor. In December 1955, Klein had the computer predict the winners of New Year’s Day college football bowl games; it got four out of five correct. News reports made sure to mention that Klein was teaching computer design at Pierce, “one course of a whole program in electronics offered by the college preparing men for occupations in this industry, so vital to our country’s defense.”[8] By April, Klein, under the auspices of Pierce and backed by several electronics-industry sponsors (including ElectroData), was on the air every week. Wires and Pliers didn’t last long, but Adventure Tomorrow did. From the beginning, Adventure Tomorrow was a cheerleader for the latest military technology—“the wondrous world of missiles, jets, and atomic projects,” as a later advertisement for the program put it. It was in that spirit that Klein and Bolitho went to work extracting a bit of publicity-friendly frivolity from the Datatron 205.

If Klein knew how to engineer attention, Bolitho’s specialty was wrangling the machines. Early computers were a forest of hard-wired components, fertile ground for capricious behavior. Bolitho’s rapport with the finicky beasts was legendary. His ability to coax computers into reliability eventually led him to be tasked with leading prospective customers on tours of Burroughs’ Pasadena plant. “He had some kind of magical quality whereby he could walk up to a machine that was covered with cobwebs and dust and turn it on and that thing would work, even if it had been broken for years,” a fellow engineer remembered.[9]

Depending on his audience, Klein would oscillate between extolling computers as inhumanly infallible and comfortingly quirky. Explaining the basics of the new tools to readers of Instruments and Automation magazine, he lauded “the advantage of automatic control over control by human operators where human forces are constantly at work to disrupt the logical processes.” But, recounting the genesis of “Push-Button Bertha” for Radio Electronics—a magazine aimed more at hobbyists and amateurs—Klein struck a more whimsical note, echoing (deliberately or not) the Romantic stereotype of the sensitive, temperamental artist:

The words “electronic digital computer” immediately conjure up a picture of a forbidding, heartless device. Those of us who design computing machinery know this isn’t true. Computing machines have very human characteristics. They hate to get to work on a cold morning (we call this “sleeping sickness”). Occasionally, for unexplainable reasons, they don’t work the same problem the same way twice (we say, then, that the machine has the flu).[10]

Klein’s joke turns a little more grim knowing that, by 1961, the United States military was using no fewer than sixteen Datatron 205 computers at twelve different locations—including the Edgewood Arsenal at the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, where the technology that produced “Push-Button Bertha” was instead used to calculate simulated dispersal patterns for airborne chemical and biological weapons.[11]

Computer Music from the University of Illinois

All the composing computers, in fact, were military machines. ILLIAC, for instance, was a copy of a computer called ORDVAC, built by the University of Illinois and shipped to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds to calculate ballistics trajectories. Hiller and Isaacson had first learned their way around ILLIAC and the Monte Carlo method trying to solve the long-standing problem of determining the size of coiled polymer molecules—a problem of more than passing interest to the United States government, which funded the research as part of a program to develop and improve synthetic rubber production.[12] (It was Hiller, who had coupled his studies of chemistry at Princeton with composition lessons with Milton Babbitt, who realized the same mathematical technique could be applied to musical composition.)

Computational composition in the United States got its start, quite literally, in the off-hour downtime of the military-industrial complex.

Harvard’s Mark IV was the last in a group of computers designed by Howard Aiken. The Mark I had helped work out the design of the first atomic bombs; Marks II and III were built for the U. S. Navy. The Mark IV, which had produced all those hymn tunes, had been funded by the U. S. Air Force; it worked out guided-missile flight patterns and helped design lenses for the U-2 spy plane.[13] The Harvard computers, it turned out, ran more reliably if they were never turned off; Aiken duly assigned Peter Neumann, a music-loving graduate student, to watch over the Mark IV from Friday night until Monday morning. Student projects—hymn-tune-generation included—happened on the weekends.[14] Computational composition in the United States got its start, quite literally, in the off-hour downtime of the military-industrial complex.

For a few years, American computer-music researchers may have looked with jealousy across the Atlantic, to Paris and Cologne and the fledgling, dedicated electronic-music studios that had blossomed under the aegis of government-supported radio stations. But there are suggestions that those European efforts, too, emerged out of a nexus of technology and defense.

The origin story of the famous WDR electronic-music studio in Cologne, for instance, starts with an American visitor. In 1948, American scientist Homer Dudley visited Germany, bringing along his invention, the vocoder; the device made a crucial impression on Werner Meyer-Eppler, who would later help create the WDR studio—and whose students would include the studio’s most famous denizen, Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Bell Labs ad, 1950

Dudley was an employee of Bell Labs, one of the great 20th-century American research-and-development shops, a hive of telecommunications innovation. The vocoder had originally been developed as part of investigations into shrinking the bandwidth of telephone signals, in order that more messages might travel over the same wires. But, especially with the onset of war, the work at Bell Labs was increasingly aligned with the desires of government. The vocoder had been pressed into wartime service as the backbone of SIGSALY, the Allied system that successfully masked high-level phone conversations from German eavesdropping, and which practically introduced numerous features of the modern digital communications landscape: compression, packet-switching, electronic key encryption.[15] (The keys for SIGSALY were stretches of electronically generated random white noise, pressed onto matched pairs of phonograph records, each pair being destroyed after a single use.)

One wonders if Meyer-Eppler had been targeted for recruitment into the development of SIGSALY’s sequels; after all, so much of the WDR studio’s work seemed aligned with and adaptable to the sort of research that Bell Labs was pursuing in the wake of its wartime work. Think of one of the WDR studio’s most celebrated productions, Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge; if the work’s combination of a transmitted human voice and electronic noise recalls SIGSALY, the way it deconstructs, processes, and reassembles that voice, the way it filters the sounds through various statistical screens—it practically outlines a research program for next-generation voice and signal encryption.

At the very least, the new music triangulated Dudley’s sonic manipulation with two other innovations, the transistor and Claude Shannon’s new information theory; all three had emerged from Bell Labs, which would also birth Max Mathews’s pioneering MUSIC software—all the while pursuing numerous military and defense projects. In later years, Bell Labs would consult on the formation of IRCAM, Pierre Boulez’s hothouse of computer music in Paris.[16]

But IRCAM, envisioned as a seedbed, was instead an endpoint, at least in terms of the sort of institutional computing that, in its interstices, had provided a home for early computer music. Already the future was in view: a computer in every home, a chip in every device, casual users commandeering the sort of processing power that the builders of the UNIVACs and the ORDVACs and the Datatrons could barely imagine. (The year IRCAM finally opened, 1977, was the same year that the Apple II was introduced.) Even the output of those institutions—for instance, Max/MSP, the descendant of an IRCAM project—was destined for laptops.

The sounds of the post-war avant-garde were never far, in concept or parentage, from the technological needs of the Cold War.

Surrounded by the surfeit of computation, it is hard to imagine the scarcity that led those first computer musicians to a marriage of convenience with the military and national-security bureaucracies—a marriage convenient to both sides. But to understand that give-and-take is to understand something about the nature of music in the middle of the 20th century, the technocratic faith that came to inform so many aspects of the culture. The sounds of the post-war avant-garde were never far, in concept or parentage, from the technological needs of the Cold War.

And what of the composer of “Push-Button Bertha”? Even as it became obsolete, the Datatron 205, with its blinking console and spinning tape drives, enjoyed a long career as a prop in movies and television, lending a technologically sophisticated aura to everything from Adam West’s television Batcave to Dr. Evil’s lair in the Austin Powers movies. That, too, may have been a result of Klein and Bolitho’s public-relations stunt. Only a few months after the Adventure Tomorrow premiere of “Push-Button Bertha,” producer Sam Katzman, a veteran impresario of low-budget genre movies, gave the 205 its big-screen debut, going to the Datatron’s Pasadena factory home to film scenes for a science-fiction production called The Night the World Exploded. In the movie, the 205—mentioned prominently, by name, in dialogue and narration—is used to determine just how long before a newly discovered and volatile “Element 112” works its way to the earth’s surface and destroys the planet. The Datatron had returned from its pop-song holiday to a more familiar role for the era’s computers: calculating the end of the world.[17]

Night the World Exploded poster

1. The founder of the Burroughs Corporation, William Seward Burroughs I, was the grandfather of the Beat writer William S. Burroughs. In a 1965 interview, the younger Burroughs gave his opinion of computational art:

“INTERVIEWER: Have you done anything with computers?
BURROUGHS: I’ve not done anything, but I’ve seen some of the computer poetry. I can take one of those computer poems and then try to find correlatives of it—that is, pictures to go with it; it’s quite possible.
INTERVIEWER: Does the fact that it comes from a machine diminish its value to you?
BURROUGHS: I think that any artistic product must stand or fall on what’s there.”

(See Conrad Knickerbocker, “William Burroughs: An Interview,” The Paris Review vol. 35 (1965), p. 13-49.)

2. Martin L. Klein, “Syncopation by Automation,” Radio Electronics, vol. 28, no. 6 (June 1957), p. 36. [36-38]

3. Ibid., p. 37.

4. F. P. Brooks, A. L. Hopkins, P. G. Neumann, W. V. Wright, “An experiment in musical composition”, IRE Trans. on Electronics Computers, vol. EC-6, no. 3 (Sep. 1957). See also Grady Booch, “Oral History of Fred Brooks,” Computer History Museum Reference number: X4146.2008 (http://archive.computerhistory.org/resources/access/text/2012/11/102658255-05-01-acc.pdf, accessed September 18, 2018).

5. Datatron prices from Tom Sawyer’s Burroughs 205 website (http://tjsawyer.com/B205prices.php, accessed September 10, 2018). In 1957, the median home price was approximately $17,000, as calculated from Robert Shiller’s archive of historical home prices (http://www.econ.yale.edu/~shiller/data/Fig3-1.xls, accessed September 10, 2018).

6. Martin L. Klein, The Determination of Refractive Indices of Dynamic Gaseous Media by a Scanning Grid, M.A. Thesis, Boston University (1949). Klein’s doctoral thesis was on zone plate antennae—forerunners of the modern flat versions used for HD television.

7. “TV Show Features ‘Wires and Pliers,’” Popular Electronics, vol. 4, no, 4 (April 1956), p. 37.

8. “Pierce College Teacher Picks Sports Results,” Van Nuys Valley News, January 10, 1956, p. 10.

9. Richard Waychoff, Stories about the B5000 and People Who Were There (1979), from Ed Thelen’s Antique Computers website (http://ed-thelen.org/comp-hist/B5000-AlgolRWaychoff.html, accessed September 10, 2018).

10. Martin L. Klein, Harry C. Morgan, and Milton H. Aronson, Digital Techniques for Computation and Control (Instruments Publishing Co.: Pittsburgh, 1958), p. 9; Klein, “Syncopation by Automation,” p. 36.

11. For the 205’s usage within the military, see Martin H. Weik, A Third Survey of Domestic Electronic Digital Computing Systems (Public Bulletin no. 171265, U.S. Department of Commerce, Office of Technical Services, 1961), p. 145. For the 205 at Edgewood, see Arthur K. Stuempfle, “Aerosol Wars: A Short History of Defensive and Offensive Military Applications, Advances, and Challenges,” in David S. Ensor, ed., Aerosol Science and Technology: History and Reviews (RTI Press: Research Triangle Park, NC, 2011), p. 333.

12. See, for instance, F. T. Wall, L. A. Hiller, Jr., and D. J. Wheeler, “Statistical Computation of Mean Dimensions of Macromolecules. 1” The Journal of Chemical Physics, vol. 22, no. 6 (June 1954), pp. 1036-1041; F. T. Wall, R. J. Rubin and L. M. Isaacson, “Improved Statistical Method for Computing Mean Dimensions of Polymer Molecules,” The Journal of Chemical Physics, vol. 27, no. 1 (January 1957), pp. 186-188. The University of Illinois had received $135,000 from the National Science Foundation for research into synthetic rubber, the largest such grant given to a university under the NSF’s synthetic rubber program; Special Commission for Rubber Research, Recommended Future Role of the Federal Government with Respect to Research in Synthetic Rubber (National Science Foundation: Washington, D. C., December 1955), p. 9.

13. As it turned out, Aiken’s conservative design left the Mark IV significantly slower than other computers; James G. Baker, who ran the Harvard group researching automated lens design, grew frustrated with the speed of the Mark IV (and his access to it), eventually switching to an IBM mainframe at Boston University. See Donald P. Feder, “Automated Optical Design,” Applied Optics vol. 12, no. 2 (December 1963), p. 1214; Gregory W. Pedlow and Donald E. Welzenbach, The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and OXCART Programs, 1954-1974 (Central Intelligence Agency: Washington, D.C., 1992), p. 52 (declassified copy at https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/2002-07-16.pdf, accessed September 12, 2018).

14. John Markoff, “When Hacking Was In its Infancy,” The New York Times, October 30, 2012.

15. For an historical and technical overview of SIGSALY, see J. V. Boone and R. R. Peterson, “SIGSALY—The Start of the Digital Revolution” (2016) (at https://www.nsa.gov/about/cryptologic-heritage/historical-figures-publications/publications/wwii/sigsaly-start-digital.shtml, accessed September 17, 2018).

16. Robin Maconie has speculated on the implications of the Bell Labs connections in a pair of articles: “Stockhausen’s Electronic Studies I and II” (2015) (at http://www.jimstonebraker.com/maconie_studie_II.pdf, accessed September 17, 2018), and “Boulez, Information Science, and IRCAM,” Tempo vol. 71, iss. 279 (January 2017), pp. 38-50.

17. For the 205’s film and TV history, see the Burroughs B205 page at James Carter’s Starring the Computer website (http://starringthecomputer.com/computer.php?c=45, accessed September 12, 2018). The Night the World Exploded, written by Jack Natteford and Luci Ward, and directed by Fred F. Sears, was released by Columbia Pictures in 1957.

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.