April 30th 2009
Morton Subotnick
Chapel Performance Space, Seattle  WA

Its been one of those weeks – I’m in a busy phase at work, there’s a backlog of chores piling up around the house and to top things off my glasses broke on Tuesday.  My old backup pair was now quite old (from 1998 it turned out) and my last prescription was over two years out of date. So along with all the other stuff that needed doing I sorted out the insurance, got my eyes checked and then desperate for a pair of glasses that wouldn’t causes headaches went to one of those “glasses in an hour” places and got a new pair.  All of these latter activities happened on the day of this show and what with trying to get some work done and bad traffic I made it to the show about 5 minutes after the advertised start time.  Luckily they hadn’t begun yet and I found a seat way to the right in the back.  Glancing around the room I noticed the four speaker setup and knew I’d regret this position, so I moved up to an empty seat on the aisle of the center section. It still turned out to be somewhat dominated by one speaker, but definitely a lot better then my previous seat.

As I became increasingly interested in electronic music I of course checked out Morton Subotnick.  The college I went to happened to have several Buchla Synthesizers and they were the first of that kind I was ever able to play with.  Subotnick is as associated with the Buchla as Carlos is with the Moog, so this was my first reason to seek out Silver Apples of the Moon.  His mastery of the Buchla was clear, but honestly I wasn’t particularly taken with his compositions.  He does I think deserve his pioneer status as a real new music composer for pure electronics in that he avoided the two most common traps you found in electronic musics of the era: reinterpreting popular classics on new instruments and the gee whiz factor.  The first of these of course would be what made Wendy Carlos famous (though to her credit she went on to do a lot more, particularly excellent work in the soundtrack area) but it has a long history. Arguably the first electronic instrument the Theramin was heavily promoted as fitting in with the orchestra and its greatest practitioner Clara Rockmore devoted her immense skill to basically trying to replace the principle violin parts in classic pieces.  Far more common though was the “gee whiz wouldja listen to this” factor where electronic instruments would crank out wacky sounds and there was little or no effort placed on composition.  This too has a long history from the absolute beginnings of electronic music: so many of the musique concrete and tape music pieces are absolutely without compositional merit and are simply novelties.  

Subotnick composed real music for electronics it just happens that I’m rarely 100% behind his compositions.  They almost all have strong segments but then there is always some form of excess that spoils them a bit for me.  It wasn’t until the excellent Avant Garde Project that I finally heard Subnotnik’s “Ghost Electronics” and a number of pieces that I really loved especially on The Double life of Amphibians (though one track is not so hot, maybe the one with the soprano?). A later AGP volume feature more “Ghost Electronics” which while not as strong as The Double life of Amphibians is still worth the download. Ghost Electronics for those not familiar was a term that Subnotki coined for applying electronic processing to acoustically sourced sounds.  He had a system of parameters that he’d manipulate and the electronic score for the (conventionally notated) instrumental pieces would consist of the application of these parameters. More information on the Ghost Electronics process can be found in the technical section of Subotnick’s website.

I wasn’t sure at all though what sort of music Subotnick had been doing since the 70s and figuring this was a rare chance to see him perform his works I did all the necessary rushing around to get to the show. A few minutes after I got my seat the director for the Washington Composers Forum Transport series, who had brought him out, introduced the show. They hadn’t printed very comprehensive program notes so Subotnick came out and introduced the pieces.  It turns out that he still is working with ghost electronics though in a much more sophisticated way thanks to modern digital electronics. The program would consist of two of these later ghost electronics pieces and his last pure electronics piece composed in 1978.

1) The Other Piano (2007)
Subotnick described this as a “four dimensional painting of the piano piece” which was traditionally notated piano piece.  The piece was dedicated to Morton Feldman and is titled from an amusing episodes that the two Morties had experienced.  Apparently shortly after Subnotnik had gotten married Feldman was congratulated on his recent marriage, to which he replied, “thanks, but that was the other Morty”.  So this piece is “The Other Piano” which is presumably the electronic image that Subotnick painted of the acoustic piano piece.  Interesting he also described his processing of the piece as improvisatory making me thing he is no longer scoring at least all of the aspects of the processing.

The piece open with just the piano, playing faster and louder then one would expect for a piece dedicated to Morton Feldman.   Then the electronics switched on with that audible thunk you hear when you turn on an amplifier when a source is already on.  At this point the piano settled down and while it clearly wasn’t aping Feldman it definitely was more in his territory.  It was more sweetly tonal then Feldman and notes didn’t linger nearly as long so it didn’t have that effortless floating effect of his piano pieces. But it used a lot of space, short little runs, single notes and soft chords.  Clearly the space was there to give the electronics room to play out and often I felt this was actually to its detriment.  The electronics was quite often delayed afterimages of the piano’s lingering tones and some of this I felt was rather stereotyped and even a bit cheesy. For example on fairly lengthy segment consisted of a single note or chord that would be echoed three times (at least audibly) with a certain amount of processing one each echo. The processing was of a spectral nature, taking the tone and smearing it out across its partials creating a wash of harmonics that had a fuzzy gentle dissonance to them.  Much more effective to my ears were sections where the processing overlapped with the piano playing which gave the piano an alien sound as if it was playing glass strings or was actually made of electricity.  

In general I quite liked the piano piece and probably about a third of the electronics and for a long piece (20-30 minutes I’d say) I was pretty engaged most of the time.  The aforementionedd echo-y bits and later section the came across as almost new-agey string washes from the electronics were the only parts where my interest waned. You read more about this piece and actually watch a few video clips at The Other Piano page at Subotnick’s site.

2) A Sky of Cloudless Silver (1978)
This piece was Subotnick’s final electronic piece after which he focused primarily on combining electronics with acoustics.  Apparently from 1961-1978 he worked only with electronics which, especially in the early days, involved a lot of technical work and he was instrumental in the development of some of the early instruments and techniques.  He said it wasn’t until this piece that he was able to really work without limitations and after he did this piece he was able to move on.

Subotnick was seated a large-ish mixing console in roughly the center of the audience and for the other pieces the other musicians were up front on stage.  Subotnick remained in the back with his laptop playing this piece which definitely used the four channel system.  This piece was not super removed from his other electronic compositions of the  Silver Apples of the Moon era and while it didn’t seem to be a big break with any of those techniques it could be read as a summing up of that era of his music. In general I found this as I have all of his early electronics – interesting, occasionally fascinating, but the composition didn’t do to much for me. At first I thought it was going to be the best of his pure electronics yet as it began with a much more deliberate introduction that even included several gaps in it.  But as his pieces always seem to do, it evolved into a firestorm of activity which while still made up of pretty interesting sounds (and avoiding a lot of the traditionally cheesy sounds you’d hear such as arpeggios, ring modulation abuse, campy filter sweeps and the like).  The final movement was highly rhythmic and was clearly using African polyrhythms with this hollow almost drum like sound. This was actually pretty different and neat for electronics if not exactly my kind of thing.  In the final analysis this piece probably was the best pure electronics Subotnick I’ve heard but still wasn’t a piece I could totally get behind.

After the piece he came to the front to receive applause and told us that he is going to embark on a world tour next year where he’d perform this piece and all of Silver Apples on the original Buchla!  He’s said he’d try to book a Seattle date for that tour, which drew a cheer. I know I’d go.

3) Then and Now and Forever (2008)
This piece was not dedicated to a specific person but was loosely dedicated to a series of people who had died recently.  It was scored for Piano, Clarinet and Violin again with electronics.

This was probably my favorite piece of the evening though it did seem to display a little lack of restraint in the middle section.  The beginning was quite sparse with just the piano picking out notes in the beginning as the electronics, violin and clarinet seamlessly fused into an otherworldly texture. In a way it reminded me a bit of Lucier’s works for oscillator and ‘cello though not quite as piecing as those pieces. But it had that effect where it seemed like the electronics and acoustic instruments were working in a narrow range and twisting around each other’s tones to creating beating effects at times and at other times it seemed like there were impossible overtones from these instruments.  The piano would poke through this with spikier little interjections, usually little runs and chords.  This was broken for the more energetic section but it wasn’t a deal breaker. Mainly the piano and electronics were a little loud, losing the other instruments and the electronics was more in synth wash territory for a bit.

Overall a nice piece if not 100% to my liking.  It’s one of those slippery pieces were a lot of the events and details slip from memory though it was constantly varied. The parts that evoked the Lucier piece but with piano was definitely the most memorable.  Overall this was quite an interesting evening of music and it was good to see the Chapel so packed with people to see this kind of music.  I wasn’t sure what to expect and while I wasn’t blown away by anything I enjoyed myself quite a bit and would see Subotnick again.