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Morton Subotnick Has Been Expanding Minds and Music for More Than 50 Years

Originally published on Vice

Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" is one of the most recognizable musical moments of the entire Western canon. The ode, the last movement of the composer's ninth and final completed symphony, has become a timeless proclamation of human unity and progress. "All men become brothers," reads one of the lyrics, recast from the poem of the same name by Friedrich Schiller. The familiar tune and its badge of brotherhood have been invoked across the globe for decades, from Chileans demonstrating against the Pinochet dictatorship to Chinese students at Tiananmen Square.

In the final section of his new piece, Crowds and Power—just premiered last weekend at the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, part of the Lincoln Center campus—electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick invoked the unifying elements of Beethoven's ode. "I use pulse, rhythm, melody, and pitch together in a more meaningful way between individuals. Instead of being controlled, they work together," Subotnick told me on the phone a couple weeks prior. "It becomes my 'Ode to Joy.'"

The piece supplemented the program's cynosure, the 50-year anniversary performance of Subotnick's Silver Apples of the Moon, the first electronic album ever commissioned by a record company (the esteemed New York label Nonesuch). The piece's name is borrowed from a Yeats poem because, as the album's original 1967 liner notes read, "it aptly reflects the unifying idea of the composition." While writing, Subotnick sought a formal strategy that would become the "message of the vinyl medium," focusing one side of the record on pitch and the other on rhythm, two of the fundamental building blocks of composition.

In a performance-first landscape, Silver Apples validated music as a viable studio art—a "new kind of chamber music you listen to from your home," he told me—and introduced electronics as an operable medium. Kraftwerk, Daft Punk, and Paul McCartney have all cited Subotnick's trailblazing work as influential. And with Crowds and Power—its multitudinous sonic palette, its contemporary and contextualized drama, his assiduous command—the 84-year-old showed that, half a century later, he's still an au courant force.

It's the 1950s, and the transistor has just arrived. The device is being mass-produced and implemented into myriad products. All electronics—radios, computers, calculators—are now smaller, cheaper, and much more accessible to the average consumer. Subotnick, at the time, was a clarinetist and composer making a modest living. Surrounded by innovation, he drew his focus to the possibility of incorporating electronics into music.


Subotnick combined that possibility with a futuristic mindset—he was reading the early works of farsighted philosopher Marshall Mcluhan, who predicted the World Wide Web 30 years prior to its invention—and made a prescient prediction of his own. He observed that local performance, until then, had been the only means for listening—"you could not hear the Berlin Philharmonic anywhere but in Berlin." But electronics would change all that.


"In 100 years you could hear anything from anywhere. It felt like we were at a moment where music was about to be catapulted into a new era, just as language was with the printing press."

Subotnick started performing with out-of-sync tape recorders and helped found the San Francisco Tape Music Center, an electronic music studio whose foremost collaborators included co-founder Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley (the premiere of Riley's groundbreaking minimalist piece, "In C," was held there). It became the incubator for Subotnick's vision, too.

"I wanted [my synthesizer] to have no traditional musical input, so it wouldn't lead you to try to learn the keyboard. I wanted it to lead you to use your imagination."

The composer envisaged electronic instruments that dispersed of musical tradition and could be used by anyone, regardless of musical background. In 1963, Subotnick collaborated with physicist Don Buchla and helped design the modules that would become the Buchla 100, a modular-voltage-controlled synthesizer that was flexible, easy-to-use, and revolutionary. Its units, built at the Tape Center, were designed even before Robert Moog's. And the famed sequencer has been integral to Subotnick's sound throughout his career.

The Buchla didn't look like an instrument, though. The Moog synthesizer, equipped with a keyboard, appeared familiar and was thus more commercially viable. But Subotnick saw that idea as limiting. Only keyboardists could play it, and things like pitch and tune were confined to pre-existing notions of how a piano should function. "I wanted mine to have no traditional musical input, so it wouldn't lead you to try to learn the keyboard," he said. "I wanted it to lead you to use your imagination."

In 1966, Subotnick moved to New York City to work with the Repertory Theater at Lincoln Center, bringing with him the original Buchla and building a studio at his apartment on Bleecker Street. People like Charlemagne Palestine and Ingram Marshall wandered in at night, doing chores in exchange for studio time. Two rock promoters stopped by as well, asking Subotnick to participate in an interactive discothèque called the Electric Circus.


The composer became its artistic director, and during its grand opening, he played back what would become the second side of Silver Apples of the Moon. He paired electronics with rhythm, distancing himself from the abstract electronica of the early avant-garde.

More than 1,000 people crammed into the small venue, among them members of the Kennedy family, composer Seiji Ozawa, and writer Tom Wolfe. "They ended up dancing, they were all moving to it," he remembered. "It was truly a moment in history."


In recent years, that history has ignited new interest. Subotnick and his contemporaries have been fêted as part of a revival of interest in modular synthesizers, which was documented in the excellent 2014 doc I Dream of Wires. Waveshaper Media, the production company behind that film, recently completed fundraising at Indiegogo for the final production of a new documentary chronicling Subotnick's career and his paramount contributions to music. The film combs the composer's career from its early days to its ongoing renaissance, which finds him playing music festivals to young audiences who revere him as the "father of techno." "I think of myself as the electronic mummy that they resurrected for the stage," he told me, laughing.


Subotnick, who has always used the modular, analog Buchla (today he uses the 400 Series, which he pairs with Ableton), attributed the rise in interest in such machines to a desire to go back to basics, to start from scratch and be unfettered by extant parameters—an MO Subotnick espouses in everything he does. "I think that's why the Buchla became a good model," he explained. "It was designed not to tell you what to do." Few things allow that kind of free thought anymore.


The first two movements of Crowds and Power, like Silver Apples, split focus between pitch and rhythm. Part one, "Intimate Immensity," concentrated on pitch and the awareness of being oneself. While Subotnick—dressed casually in black with a shock of white hair receding from his bald head—helmed his Buchla, his wife, the seminal composer, vocalist, and actor Joan La Barbara, stood onstage in front of a screen. She smiled and made gestures toward the crowd, expressing herself in sibilant yet incomprehensible mutters as Subotnick generated tranquil tones. On-screen projections—created by visual artist Lillevan—carried us through a still sea of thousands of glacier blue lights, hanging like clouds of bioluminescent plankton.


As the bass emerged, La Barbara's face turned toward dread. Carcinogenic plumes and a carrion-like scrim covered the screen. A fusillade of tense, razor-like roars ripped across the room, stabilizing as sinister pulsations. La Barbara, enraged and swollen with power, spat guttural barks at the audience. The familiar trappings of fascism—tanks and soldiers treadmilling past crowds in city squares—tore across the screen.

Slowly, though, the terrifying power of the crowd burned itself out. Fiery branches gave way to green. The ambient sounds of nature—birdsong and wind—filled the theater, and La Barbara, though desperate, grew quiet. The stillness of "Intimate Immensity" and its vast sea returned. Slowly, percussive blips flitted and grew. La Barbara joined her voice, and over several minutes, a progression developed and individual parts enmeshed. A gentle convergence of sound left us finally in contented quietude, together "not as 'crowds'—where many become one," Subotnick wrote in the playbill, "but as many 'ones.'"


A couple weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel programmed Beethoven's Ninth as part of the G20 Summit in Hamburg. All participating leaders (including Donald Trump) were in attendance for the resounding performance of "Ode to Joy"—today the anthem of the EU. The unifying spirit of the Ode (which has neither a guiltless nor straightforward history—it featured heavily in Nazi Germany, and Beethoven, a critic of the aristocracy, dedicated it to a king) was no doubt the goal, but its allusions to revolution and harmony seemed dubious amidst the rallying populist movements and Trump's recent rebukes of global/EU coalitions. It's become increasingly difficult to envision a happy ending where individuals actually work together in meaningful ways, uniting as many ones and not as nameless crowds.

"Had I started [Crowds and Power] after Trump was elected, I would have never given it this ending," Subotnick said, referring to the cooperation in his final movement. Perhaps Beethoven, given foresight to the future horrors that would keep his piece at prominence, would have omitted his "Ode to Joy," too. But even if it wasn't the ending Subotnick would have produced in a post-Trump creative headspace, it's certainly the one we need. That image of breaking down the machines into modules and modules into even more elementary units. Units that don't tell you what to do or try to control. Building blocks that can be reassembled in myriad ways, accessible to all, limited only by our imaginations.

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