Morton Subotnick at Play in the World of Electronic Music

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Morton Subotnick has almost as many pioneering credits to his name as he does compositional ones. A leader of the San Francisco Tape Center in the '60s – a place where Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros and many others took some of their earliest aesthetic steps – Subotnick has consulted (or commissioned) the building of synthesizers from the ground up, and also recorded the first electronic-music album meant just for listening, instead of live-performance miming. (So radical!)

Issued in 1967, Silver Apples of the Moon isn’t just a record that gets by on its “first” status; it has managed, thus far, to stand the test of time. There really is a sensual heft to its whizzes, gasps and farts -- one that, more often than not, eludes the blip-bleep-bloop school of early electronic experimentation. "On Part B" of Silver Apples, a distorted polka groove runs against a sighing melodic line that suggests a trilling soprano, up until the mix is infiltrated (and then overcome) by the addition of parts that sound like nothing so much as canons from a Conlon Nancarrow piano-player study gone electric. An essential piece, Silver Apples has been coupled with another early Subotnick work, The Wild Bull, on CD.

Surprisingly enough (at least by modern standards), the popularity of Silver Apples afforded Subotnick some major-label patronage in the 70s. A series of CBS recordings followed, until the inevitable industry belt-tightening of the latter part of the decade. It would eventually take the sustained attention of Mode Records to bring works like Touch and Sidewinder to CD from LP (occasionally with the added-value bonus of video accompaniment on DVD releases).

In any case, starting in the mid-'70s, Subotnick began moving away from strictly electronic composition and performance. “It was about 10 years from Silver Apples to Until Spring,” Subotnick has explained, “and I’d evolved a whole concept and a technique, but I had gone as far as I could go with it. I could do everything I wanted to do, but I couldn’t do it in real time.”

Technological advances – and something called an Electronic Music Box – followed, allowing the composer/performer the ability to process and reincorporate live performance sounds into pieces in a reliable fashion (these efforts running roughly concurrently with those of Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM in Paris). A Fluttering of Wings is a good example of Subotnick’s less electronically mediated writing for acoustic instrumentation – though, naturally, the quick, multi-channel panning of the string quartet’s playing ensures the composer’s authorship is never in doubt.

More revealing is The Key to Songs, a suite for mallet instruments, pianos, viola, cello and Subotnick’s own computer-assisted Yamaha. Patterned after a “collage novel” by the Surrealist Max Ernst, the suite takes the form of seven chapters, which connote a variety of moods. Inside most sections, however, the listener finds a steadier commitment to percussive effects than can be heard on Subotnick’s early electronic pieces, or even many of the his later, acoustic-electronic blends. As played by the Louis Andriessen specialists in the California EAR Unit on a New Albion disc, Subotnick’s Key to Songs comes through as the muscular pinnacle that it rightfully represents in the composer’s catalog.