Morton Subotnick: Electronic Works

(Art work: Steven Subotnick)

Morton Subotnick – “Volume 1: Electronic Works”:
Touch” (1969) – “A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur” (1978) – “Gestures” (1999 – 2000)
Mode Records mode 97. Duration: 72:46.

Morton Subotnick has been an important impulse in the development of electronic music, especially in the United States, since the experimenting beginning in the 1960s with friends like Pauline Oliveros, Donald Buchla, Ramon Sender and Terry Riley at the Tape Music Center of San Francisco and his Bleecker Street studio in the East. (It seems some of these early pioneers of the sounding electron welled back and forth across America like their Beat Generation colleagues of a decade earlier.) Also in Sweden – where I have my desk – Subotnick has had a considerable influence, through the intervention of his Swedish composer colleague Folke Rabe, notorious radio producer and diffuser of new music, who traveled the States in 1965, meeting people like Subotnick, Riley and Oliveros as well as Zappa and Varèse!

San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 1960s:
From left: Tony Martin, Bill Maginnis, Ramon Sender,
Morton Subotnick & Pauline Oliveros

When Nonesuch – a label full of insight in those days – signed on Subotnick, the first piece released was a masterwork of sorts; “Silver Apples of the Moon” (1967); a first release that I treasure in my old vinyl collection – though I listen to it in laser-light on a CD from Wergo Schallplatten: WER 2035-2.
Touch” (1969) – the first piece here, was originally released by mighty Columbia/CBS. As a sign of the times – the experimenting and expanding qualities of those days – “Touch” was originally recorded in quadrophonic stereo, which was a format that never did catch on, and which is given a second try now by the DVD- and Super CD manufacturers. On a simultaneous DVD-release of “Touch” you can now listen to the piece the way it was originally intended, whereas all the older material on this two-channel CD has also been remastered and re-mixed, making for a truer-to-the-intent experience anyhow, even if your hearing the music on a regular CD system - and with a silvery shine too!

Also “
A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur” (1978) was originally recorded quadrophonically. The “director’s cut” was then released in a regular stereo version, but for the DVD version of this release, the multi-channel sound is available for the first time, and this – also in the CD version – is the first time the first part of “A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur” is heard, since Nonesuch only released the second part (“Dance”) on vinyl, paired with “After the Butterfly”.

Gestures” (1999 – 2000) was generated on a Macintosh powerbook (a lap top computer) and delivered through a graphic interface written by Morton Subotnick’s son Steven.

Since some work has been done to make the originally intended sound available, and also to clean everything up, enhancing the nuances, it might be of interest to see what the booklet says about this. It is revealed that the “
Touch” tape hadn’t been out of the box since Wergo’s re-issue in 1989. The decision was made to use the original 4-track, half-inch, 15ips (15 inches per second), no noise reduction master. There was some trouble with parts being damaged by adhering glue from original splices, but a solution was found using bits of an un-spliced back-up master for these short incidents. The 4-channel diffusion was left un-altered for the DVD, whereas, obviously, a 2-track mix-down was executed for the CD re-issue.
A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur” was retrieved from the original mixed master (8-track 1-inch, 15ips, dbx-encoded), to be mixed down to 4 tracks for the DVD and the subsequent 2 tracks for the CD.

Gestures” is the sole piece herein originally digital, shaped through Macintosh G3 machines.

All the stereo mixes for the CD were achieved with
Subotnick present, making for a brilliance and presence never experienced from these pieces before.

Touch” has an amazing marimba-like percussive character in the electronic part. Of course, some of the fabric of the piece is made up of minute fractions of the spoken word “touch”. There is an overwhelmingly joyous electronic handicraft at work in “Touch”, making you really feel the enthusiasm of the composer as he finds his way through all his possibilities of sound.
The speed slows down considerably as a slower part of the first section of “
Touch” relieves the more hectic marimba-like playfulness. It doesn’t take too long, though, before the speed-freak-tempo picks up again, giving me visions of boiling hot water, perhaps in a hot spring in Iceland, where little spurts of exploding water rocket high up, only to fall back down in a gravitational curve – or it could be in a pot left on the stove, with some eggs bound to be really hard boiled!

All kinds of little sounds mix and boil, but the magic of it all is that though faint and small and many; they’re all individually clear and audible, sharply separated from each other – if you have ears that can listen that fast!

In the second part I hear some kinship with sounds produced by colleague electronic musician John Chowning, who started working with purely computer-generated sound very early, south of San Francisco at Stanford, but I’ve never heard anyone else mention this connection.

For a while there the second part tends to argue with itself in a calm and matter-of-factly manner, but don’t fool yourself; it was just gearing up for sudden loud – but not hurting! – blurts of sound exploding right in your face, relieved by a ping pong incident of brilliant stereo shadings, humorously rounding off the blurts and blasts.

The sound has really improved in these re-issues, having never been bad but now appearing in solid, shiny costumes of the most fascinating textures and nuances.
Subotnick really has his own style of electronics – you can’t mistake him for someone else. These typical sounds of his, that I’ve tried to describe as ping pong incidents or brownish bubbles popping or hot water boiling can also be sensed as the vibrations of giant rubber bands, very closely miked and amply amplified! It’s a clean sound, though it sometimes also feels chaotic and explosive, even actually exploding. It’s as if you could detect and keep track of all the individual grains in a really grainy farmer’s load on its way to the mill… It’s all so… shiny and clean – but never boring! That’s the contradiction about this music that fascinates me. I wonder how much of this manner of electronic music has to do with Donald Buchla and his early contraptions? Quite a bit, I imagine.

Morton Subotnick with the Buchla synthesizer and students
in CalArts Studio B304 around the time of"Sulphur"
Left to right: Se Harvey, Darrel Johansen,

Jill Frazer, Morton Subotnick and Peter Grenader
(Photo: Pok Chi Lau)

The first part of “A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur” – which we have never heard before - starts with these typical Subotnick sounds, but here thudding and bouncing in a new way, though still retaining the rubbery percussive manner.
A small distance into the piece a new world emerges, as the heat of the night opens up to an awareness of nocturnal animals with high-pitched peculiarities and purring secrecies…
The flickering feeling present through large portions of Subotnick’s music is like a wild bouncing between mirrors, all tilted at a somewhat different angle, causing this rapidly moving, tripping, flaky sound.
Towards the end of part 1 of “
A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur” a very loud portion almost burst my loudspeakers. I was not ready for it, and it wasn’t a very nice surprise. As by sheer luck I managed to keep my speakers (expensive suckers!) intact, or else I would have been very sour… So, everybody, take heed: towards the end of the part, with about three, four minutes left; reduce the volume drastically to prevent the state of shock I was put in…
Part 2 of the piece commences in that Subotnick style of rock n’ roll again, with the sensation of meowing cats in the hedge…
It may sound like a one-sided sound world, and indeed, Subotnick is very economical with his cache of sounds, but he uses the few sounds he likes with nuances and variations, so it never gets boring.
The recurring rubber band or ping-pong incidents can also be likened with a string of pearls rolling down marble steps, or – less romantic – down a kitchen funnel…

Gestures” (1999 – 2000) is also – as most Subotnick pieces – very spatial, moving about in a Stockhausenesque manner. I can only imagine what this would sound like with all the proper speakers mounted, but having recently returned from Stockhausen’s Summer Courses in Kürten, Germany, with a 16-channel system around the hall, I might be able to envision it…
In “
Gestures” you initially hear small, fast movements of secret origin, as if from little creatures moving about under the dry leaves of a forest floor. Infra-murmurs from a distant wind sound threatening in this forest vision. Maybe the Northern Lights are hanging its curtains across the sky, because slow, sweeping movements, like magnetic force fields around celestial bodies, are swaying to and fro in the music.
Joan LaBarbara’s permuted voice occurs in dreamy reminiscences of past lives, and after a while you hear intelligible, coherent – but mystical - words from her, allowed to surface on the music, like in some early piece by Lars-Gunnar Bodin. In the final minute an introverted cello winds everything down, and you’re left at your equipment, the dust settling in the room…

We’re certainly looking forward to the promised coming releases of Subotnick titles on the mode label.