Electronic  Composer  Morton  Subotnick

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


subotnick MORTON SUBOTNICK (born in Los Angeles, California, April 14, 1933) is one of the acknowledged pioneers in the field of electronic music and an innovator in works involving instruments and other media. He was the first composer to be commissioned to write an electronic composition expressly for the phonograph medium, Silver Apples of the Moon (Nonesuch, 1967). [Photo of LP jacket is shown farther down on this webpage.] This now classic work and The Wild Bull (also an electronic commission for Nonesuch, 1968, shown at right) have been choreographed by leading dance companies throughout the world and remain in permanent repertory.

He was one of the founding members of California Institute of the Arts, where he taught for many years.

Subotnick has worked extensively with interactive electronics and multi-media, co-founding the San Francisco Tape Music Center with Pauline Oliveros and Ramon Sender, often collaborating with his wife Joan La Barbara. Most of his music calls for a computer part, or live electronic processing; his oeuvre utilizes many of the important technological breakthroughs in the history of the genre.

In addition to composing numerous works in the electronic medium, Subotnick has written eight works for orchestra (including a Bicentennial commission played by the six major U.S. orchestras); chamber and ensemble works (including The Fluttering of Wings premiered by the Juilliard String Quartet); and music for the theatre and multi-media events. The Double Life of Amphibians was a collaboration between director Lee Breuer, visual artist Irving Petlin and composer Subotnick utilizing live interaction between singers, instrumentalists and computer in a staged tone poem, premiered at the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival; a chamber version of that piece was premiered in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Jacob's Room is a monodrama composed for the Kronos Quartet and Joan La Barbara, which received its premiere in San Francisco. A Key To Songs (based on Max Ernst's surrealistic novel in collage entitled Une Semaine de Bonte) for chamber orchestra and synthesizer was premiered at the Aspen Music Festival. Hungers, for Joan La Barbara, computers, video, instrumental ensemble and dancer, was completed in collaboration with video artist Ed Emshwiller and commissioned by and premiered at the Los Angeles Festival.

Subotnick's interest in inspiring children to learn music led him to develop several CD-ROMs and the "creatingmusic.com" web site. Subotnick tours extensively as a lecturer and composer/performer, and is published by Theodore Presser, Universal Editions and Editions Jobert.

==  A more detailed biography is in the box at the bottom of this webpage.  
==  Names which are links throughout this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

Presented here is a conversation I had with electronic composer Morton Subotnick.  It was held in August of 1994, following a performance of some of his works at the Ravinia Festival.  A review of the evenings production can be seen farther down on this webpage.

I had met and interviewed his wife, soprano Joan La Barbara, three years previously
, and she had said good things to her husband about that encounter.

Subotnick was thoughtful in his responses, and was careful to be clear in what he said about the intricacies of sounds which emanate from electronics . . . . .

subotnick Bruce Duffie:   We’ll start with a really easy question.  Where’s music going these days?  [Both laugh]

Morton Subotnick:   It is an interesting time.  I’m not sure any more than anyone else, but it would appear that truly the modern twentieth century ideals are over.  This means the whole movement, from the beginning of the twentieth century, from 1915-1920 on up, where there was a vision about what the future would be of this.  To most people, it was either going to be a continuity, like with Schoenberg, or a discontinuity, perhaps with someone like Cage and a new world, and none of that has happened.  I know it will happen because we have a common music, a common language now, but that language is all of the music we’ve ever known.  I don’t think it’s a new music.  It’s here for a long time.  Because of recording, we’re reaching a plateau.  It’ll be another several years before we see it, but it won’t be that different from when you consider India or China.  By our standards, their music didn’t change very much for centuries, and in the case of China, thousands of years.  We may very well move into something new because the recording media is picking up the body of literature that we’ve had for a long, long, long time, and we’re going to add to it.  But it’s piece-meal.  I don’t think we’re going to add major movements.  We’ll add pieces to it
an experience here and an experience therebut I don’t think we’re changing the language, or anything we thought we were going to be doing in this century.

BD:   Are we going to come up with something new for the twenty-first century, or is it just going to continue to evolve very slowly?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Lukas Foss, John Eaton, and William Bergsma.]

Subotnick:   I don’t think it’s going to evolve.

BD:   [Mildly worried]  It’s not going to stagnate, is it???

Subotnick:   I believe it’s going to stagnate.  Individuals won’t stagnate.  That’s what I meant by the individual experiences.  There will be individual things that will pop out which will then become part of this whole thing, but it won’t be a movement.  It won’t be like music is going to evolve.  It’s hard for us to accept, because we in the Western world, think of evolution as the metaphor for everything.  First of all, evolution is not even the metaphor for the human being as a species.  We’re not evolving, and there’s no indication that we ever will evolve any further.  Evolution wasn’t a gradual process.  Evolutionists will tell you that it doesn’t go step by step.  It comes in leaps and bounds, so it isn’t this thing we’ve been believing where everything moves constantly, and in one direction.  I don’t think it has, or it ever will.  In the last four or five hundred years, we’ve been in a true evolutionary stage, but the whole world is collapsing culturally.  There’s not going to be big differences and big oceans between us.  We’re all going to be living on the same Earth finally.   One of the reasons we had a big cultural evolution was because of things like the Camel routes
one culture meeting another cultureand that exploded things.  If you think of that as the reason for cultural change, and if you didn’t have that... you could look at the Aborigines, or any other group that didn’t have interaction with other cultures.  They just didn’t change that much.  They didn’t evolve constantly, and wouldn’t ever make airplanes, not in a thousand years.  [Both laugh]  It just wasn’t in the cards, and I think we’re reaching the point that there will be no more cultural explosions.  We’re going to know everybody within the next fifty to a hundred years, so it’s not like we’re going to have new ideas from another culture, other than individuals.  All other cultures have had individuals who will pop up and maybe change things, but it won’t be an evolution.  I’m saying all this as if I know, but I don’t really know.  That’s just what I think.

BD:   Has your music changed over the last twenty, thirty, forty years?

Subotnick:   Yes.

BD:   So, you have evolved a bit?

Subotnick:   I have.  Part of that is because I started writing music when I was about thirteen, but I got really heavily into it towards the last years of high school, 1949, ’50, ’51.  That was when I discovered Arnold Schoenberg.  I was living in Los Angeles, and I was very lucky to have a teacher in high school who took me to the Monday Evening Concerts.  I got to hear Stravinsky and Schoenberg when they were at the concerts.  It was very lively and very exciting.  I moved to the Schoenberg camp immediately, and discovered Webern in 1950 or
51, and became an ardent twelve-tone composer at age seventeen.  Back then, only maybe two works had been published, and there was only one recording of Webern and a couple of Schoenberg.  It was considered so far out that nobody would accept it.  In those same years, I had discovered the Concord Sonata of Charles Ives, so it was like I really was part of this whole thing.  I saw the vision of a new language that some day would come into being, and I looked for my voice in this new language.  I struggled and I struggled, and by around 1965 or ’66, which was a number of years into it, I decided that it was wrong.  This was not going to happen.  This was not what I really loved, and what I really felt, and the only thing I could look for was a personal language.  That evolutionary metaphor was wrong.  The metaphor of our time was an existential revivalistic metaphor, and the only thing that made any sense was individual, and something you could believe in for yourself without having it happen to be for everyone else in the world.  There wasn’t one language, there were only individuals.  I felt that then, and I still feel that way now.  What we needed to do was find what was most meaningful to us as individuals.  There’s going to be plenty of music around, so they didn’t need my music.  The only reason for me to do anything was to find a personal voice and a personal language, not to change the future, but just to make my own statement.

BD:   Is this music by isolationism?

Subotnick:   If I had grown up in a culture that had a language, I wouldn’t have had to worry about it.  In that situation, you would be writing music that was meaningful to you.  You wouldn’t worry about the language.  You would only make a piece that was the most meaningful.  You wouldn’t consider that isolationism because the language was common, and since the language was common, you would say,
I’m going to write.  This piece means a lot to me, and I’m going to make this piece.  I don’t have to invent a language to do it.  The real problem we’ve had in the twentieth century is that we thought we were inventing a language that would become a common language.  Everybody felt that way.  Schoenberg did, and everybody thought they were doing that.   That’s what neo-classicism was about.  Everything defined the language.

subotnick BD:   But it never caught on!

Subotnick:   You can’t create a language.  It’s not possible.  Remember Esperanto?

BD:   Oh, yes!  [Both laugh]  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Donald Grantham, and Michael Tilson Thomas.]

Subotnick:   Well, we couldn’t do it.  It’s just not possible.  You can’t create a language.  What you have to do is to somehow find something that’s meaningful to you as a human being.  It’s taken me a long time, but I have found a personal language.  At the moment, to other people it sounds more or less Middle-Eastern when they hear it.  Some people think it’s modal, and for other people it’s this or that.  It’s actually worked out, but for about fifteen years I’ve been struggling at finding this way in which I can write.  I had to think about it.  I needed to have all the structure underneath it as if it were a common language, and I didn’t have to worry about it.

BD:   So, you’re not thinking about technique, but rather you’re just thinking about the artistry?

Subotnick:   Right, and I’ve actually reached that point now.  It’s taken me a long, long time
since the mid-60sbut I consciously began to work on a language in 1972 or 1973, and I’m there now.  I have four pieces.  There’s Jacob’s Room, and the three imaginary balletsThe Key to Songs, and the butterflies begin to sing, and All My Hummingbirds Have Alibis.  These now complete my work in that.  Strangely, I don’t know how many more pieces I’ll write.  I probably would write others, but I don’t know how many more.  That burning desire to get to that point is over now.  Jacob’s Room is a very strong statement, and it’s just a little over a year since the premiere.  It meant a lot of years I’ve been aiming at this, and I actually have gotten there.  I never thought that I would get there, but I actually feel like I have accomplished it.

BD:   Now the piece is right?

Subotnick:   Yes, the language it there.  I have no problem with it.  It feels very natural, and most people who listen to it feel that it’s centered somewhere.  People who don’t know much about music seem to get it.  In fact, one person tonight asked me what I did, and I said that I wrote the piece.  She said,
“You mean someone wrote it???  [Both laugh]  It’s like it was their music on the stage, and they were singing and playing.  They had no scores in front of them.  It was like a folk concert to her.  I don’t know what she thought it was, but that was a very high compliment to me.  She felt that this thing seemed so natural to the performance and to the language that there was no thought that there had been a composer.  For me, the best of music has always been that it’s hard to imagine someone actually wrote it.  It’s hard to imagine that Beethoven labored over anything, because it seems to just sing right out.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You say you may not write any more pieces, but I assume that people clamor to give you commissions all the time.

Subotnick:   Yes, I have a number.  I’m very picky and choosey.  I have been all my life about commissions.  At one point I was depending on it for a living.  I’d given up teaching, and I didn’t like the dependency on writing a piece because I needed the money.  So, I went back to teaching, and I’m doing a lot of different kinds of projects right now.  I have two or three pieces that I’m working on, so it’s not as if I’m not doing anything.

BD:   When you were teaching, did you get enough time to compose?

Subotnick:   I didn’t teach full-time until I went to CalArts in 1969, and for a few years my output was really small.  It was very hard, and it was just too time-consuming, and so I backed off all the way to not teaching.  I had been able to create fifteen weeks a year, then ten week a year, then four weeks a year, and finally I did nothing at all.  But by not teaching, I had to produce a lot of music, and I wasn’t happy with the feeling that I had to produce it because of the money.  So, gradually I have moved back into teaching, and my situation is such that I can pretty much call my own shots.  Now I have enough time to do what I need to do.

BD:   If, in those early years, you had hit the California Lottery, would that have affected the music that came from your pen, and from your electronics?

Subotnick:   That’s a big hypothetical, but I don’t think so.  I would have done just fine.  [Laughs]  I have thought about that, and if I had been born with money, I don’t know what that would have meant.  That’s different.  But if I had gotten money after I already had my vision and my direction, I would have just done things better and faster than the way I’ve done it until now.  It would have been gotten there quicker, and it would have been a good thing.  I don’t see any problem with having money.

BD:   You wouldn’t chuck it all and just travel for the rest of your life?

Subotnick:   No, no, I don’t think there’s any question about that in my life.

BD:   When you did you come to electronics?

Subotnick:   About 1957, or ’58.

BD:   That’s only a few years after Luening and Ussachevsky did their concerts.


Subotnick:   Right.  I was in graduate school.  I had just gotten out of the army.  I was stationed in San Francisco during the Korean War, and stayed on in San Francisco.  I studied with Darius Milhaud and Leon Kirchner in Mills College as an undergraduate.  I was playing in the Denver Symphony when I got out of high school, and had to go to college to get out of the army, which finally caught up with me.  At USC, I passed four years of music the first day.  I didn’t need theory and all that stuff, so it seemed silly to major in music.  I had a weak background in literature and almost anything else except music, so I majored in English and Anthropology, and got interested in poetry and the theater, and at one point, even considered becoming a poet.  I had some early stuff they wanted to publish.

BD:   I’m glad it didn’t dissuade you from the music!

Subotnick:   [Laughs]  I stayed with the music.  It was my first love.  But when I was in graduate school in San Francisco, at that point I was very well read, knew the theater very well, and was asked to do the music for a production of King Lear.  It must have been around ’58, and Herbert Blau was directing.

Herbert Blau (May 3, 1926 - May 3, 2013) earned his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from New York University (1947). Later, he earned his master of arts in drama (1949) and doctorate in English and American literature (1954), both from Stanford University.

blau As co-founder (with Jules Irving) of The Actor's Workshop in San Francisco (1952–1965) and co-director of the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center in New York City (1965–67), Blau introduced American audiences to avant garde drama in some of the country's first productions of Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Harold Pinter including the 1957 performance of Beckett's Waiting for Godot at California's San Quentin State Prison.   [Photo at right was taken during rehearsals for a production of Jacob's Room at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, early in 1994.]

In 1968, Blau was named founding provost and dean of the School of Theatre and Dance of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where he led the way in designing its educational model. With president Robert W. Corrigan, Blau recruited faculty including artists Allan Kaprow, John Baldessari, and Nam June Paik, composers Mel Powell and Morton Subotnick, musician Ravi Shankar, ethnomusicologist Nicholas England, designers Peter de Bretteville and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, choreographer Bella Lewitzky, director Alexander Mackendrick, film scholar Gene Youngblood, filmmaker Pat O'Neill, and animation artist Jules Engel.

In 1971, after three years at CalArts, Blau formed the experimental group KRAKEN, where he continued presenting challenging productions for another decade. In addition to the theater, Blau has taken up the subjects of literature, visual arts, fashion, postmodern culture, and politics.

CalArts conferred an honorary doctor of arts degree to Blau in May 2008.

So, I took this on.  It was a two-year project, and we were very serious with this production.  I knew about the experimental and electronic music in Cologne and in the United States.  I didn’t know a lot, but I knew something was going, and the idea excited me.  It seemed that the theater was a natural place to do this.  So, instead of writing incidental music, I made a lot of the music out of the sound of the voice of the guy who was going to play Lear.  For instance, he recited the Storm Scene, which I recorded and manipulated in the only ways you could do then.  It was a tedious job when I made the score, but the production was a very big success.  It ran for over a year, and is still written up in some history books, and not just because of the music.  The whole production was this way, and that experience of working just tilted me at that point.  I was really taken with the idea of this new medium, and by 1960 I had a very, very clear vision of what it was I wanted to do.  During that period, I was also writing music for public television, specifically a series of six films called The Computer and the Mind of Man.  I wrote the computer score, but the first music I did was with an automobile, a gas tank filled with water.  I hit it in various places, and made the first score with that.  I was paid for that, and then I got my first oscillators, and began to work.  When I brought the real electronic music to them, they said no, they wanted that *real* electronic music, which meant I had to go back to the gas tank, because that sounded more like electronic to them.  [Both laugh]

BD:   That was more of what they were expecting?

subotnick Subotnick:   That was more of what they were expecting.  I finally felt that I had clearly seen my vision, and knew what I needed to do.  For me, that was a personal vision of merging language, image, and music together into one thing.  I did a theater piece in San Francisco, about a forty or forty-five-minute work that just had four lighting flats and four musicians, two tape recorders, and a person who spoke.  I used a Michael McClure poem called The Flower of Politics, and it was extremely well-received.  The audience loved it.  It was performed four times, and the San Francisco paper sent their two critics, so each performance had a review.  It was a real smash, and I felt this was clearly what I needed to do.  But I didn’t have a handle on each of these things.  The electronics were crude.  Lighting flats are really a crude way to do it, and so I decided I would take the next several years and separate all the media, and do some film work.  Later it was video, and I tried to get the electronics more under control.  I wanted to see what instruments meant to me in the context of the theater, rather than just a straight instrumental route and language.  Jacob’s Room is the culmination of those efforts.  It’s taken a long time, but I also did a number of theater pieces that were very good.  There were two big ones that included images, but they didn’t include language.  I felt that I wasn’t completing this gestalt [an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts] until I actually said something verbally.  You can see that in the 5 Scenes [a slide show presented on the same Ravinia concert earlier that evening].  There’s verbal content that has been the most difficult for me to introduce into it, and still keep the integrity of the musical experience.  The visuals with Jacob’s Room are the language of memory for me.  When he says at the beginning,
When perfect and fully winged, and the soul soars upward and puts order to the whole world, it took us four hours to get the word ‘order’ recorded right.  When he says the word ‘order’, there’s a strange cloud in the sky at that moment in the theater.  It’s all black and white, but it hangs behind this black scrim.  It’s just sitting there, and he says the word ‘order’.  The cloud turns, and you see it’s a cloud from a bomb.  Then you see people running underneath.  Its about a five-second thing, and that sets up the whole imagery for the piece.  Then he’s trying to block this out, but there are certain images you cannot block out.  The memory keeps coming no matter what the words say.  It’s stuff that keeps coming back, and I used the image as the language of memory throughout the entire piece.  The integration between all the stuff is really complete, and I finally did it.  Except for the lullaby at the beginning, she never sings a word.  She only speaks words, and when she sings a lot of people don’t realize that that’s the truth because when it’s done, it all melts together.  In fact, she only speaks the stories, and she sings for emotion.  It’s this constant thing, and that was my way of treating the words with a kind of dignity that they needed, and still having the musical experience.  You have the words, and you have the musicwhich is almost the original concept in opera, where all the important things were done over a recitative.  Then you sang your aria, in which you didn’t care what the words were.  It was the emotion that was going.  Instead of breaking my work up into arias and recitative, it’s all one fabric, but it’s back-and-forth all the time.  I can’t tell you how many people don’t realize it until after they’ve seen the production, and I tell them.  They say, “It’s not true!, which is good.

BD:   This is all organized around the unique talents of Joan La Barbara.

Subotnick:   That’s true.

BD:   Will there be a time when there’ll be others who can duplicate that, or do you want it duplicated?

Subotnick:   I don’t particularly want it duplicated, but Joan will tell you that it could be done by someone else... probably not the particular vocal things that she does, but something that would be similar in their own style, and the piece would still be strong.  It still would carry.

BD:   Would that different interpretation make you happy?

Subotnick:   It would not matter to me anymore, as long as they don’t destroy it.  There’s a certain point when a piece is no longer yours.  I haven’t reached that with this piece yet, but I will in a few years... maybe two to three years.  I have a manager now who will book it for ’95, ‘96 and ’97.  Beyond that, I don’t have a lot of interest in it.  Given my own feelings about myself, and what I know about myself, that’s about as long as I can live with the piece.

BD:   Then it belongs to the world?

Subotnick:   Then it really belongs to anyone who wants to do it.  I just had a performance of The Key to Songs, which is almost about ten years old now.  It was at Aspen, and the musicians did very well, but the computer operator got completely off.  He got stage-fright and didn’t know what he was doing.  I was on the stage controlling sound.  I could have stopped the performance, and there was this moment when I said to myself,
“If I stop the performance and we start again, then all the audience will know that something went wrong, and there’s no guarantee that this guy’s going to do it right the second time, and we may go and destroy everything.  This all happened in just one second in my mind.  I had warned them we needed more time with the computer operator.  But they couldn’t do it because they had not prepared themselves for this.  I figured this is their piece now.  It’s not my piece.  This is what they’re going to have to live with.  So, if they want to stop it, it’s fine, but I’m not going to stop it.  I’m no longer the person who has to say, “You’re not doing my piece right.  No one’s going to hear it right!  The piece has been recorded, and it has been performed thirty or forty times.  It’s not really mine, it’s theirs.

BD:   But I would think it would be a tremendously intimidating for someone else to stop it when the composer is involved.

Subotnick:   Probably.

BD:   If you were a thousand miles away, maybe they would stop it.

Subotnick:   Maybe, or maybe not.  The truth of the matter is that the audience loved it, and the people who knew it was wrong didn’t care because they already knew they liked the piece.

BD:   Is the audience always, right?

Subotnick:   No!  But if I’d stopped it, what would I have served?  If I felt like I needed to hear it, and someone in the audience need to hear it played right, there’s a recording out, and it’s wonderful.  I supervised the recording.  So, my feeling was at that point that this is one experience.  I happen to be here, but what if I weren’t here?  It’s not my piece to do anymore.  I do what I can, and I don’t get this opportunity all the time.  When I do, and when I can, if someone asks me if they can play a piece, I ask how much time they are going to rehearse it.  I’ve turned down and the butterflies begin to sing at least three or four major performances because it didn’t seem to me they were going to provide enough rehearsal time.  On the other hand, they may have done it very well if they finally did it.  I don’t know!  [Laughs]  I asked Aspen, and they had plenty of rehearsal time.  They just didn’t have the technical facility, and I didn’t think to ask about that.  I didn’t realize they were going to be rehearsing in a separate space from the concert hall, and that meant that we couldn’t use the proper amplification and all the electronic sounds the way they were supposed to sound.  So, the operator really never got a feel for what the piece was.

BD:   Another two rehearsals in that space would have done it?

Subotnick:   That’s right. We only had very little time in the space, and everything sounded different.  He didn’t know where he was, and all he had to do was hit the space bar on the computer at the right time.  But he got stage-fright.  That happens... it could happen to anyone.

*     *     *     *     *

subotnick BD:   Let me ask another easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

Subotnick:   I think a lot about it.  Some people do and some people don’t, but I do think a lot about it, and I don’t know the purpose.  Purpose supposes something, and I’ll take it at a certain level.  These are very important issues.  I would word the question a little differently, but, in general, that kind of a question is especially important right now.  Maybe it always has been, but it’s especially important, partly because the relationship of music to such things as religion and other kinds of functions that the arts have had throughout the history of the human being, are broken down.  We don’t really have the same clear social demarcations any longer.  We’ve made a very, very big mistake by blurring the difference between entertainment and the Fine Art experience by not understanding what the Fine Art experience is, and what the purpose is, if you want to use that word.  For me, the purpose of Fine Art in general, not just music, is that of the heightened aesthetic experience.  Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) felt that the highest level of the aesthetic experience was probably the closest thing to the feeling of death
not dying, but that the fear of death was a frightening experience when you get to the highest level.  It was so moving in whatever way it was, that it’s so rarefied and actually even frightening.  Fine Art is certainly not an entertainment.  This is the same for certain aspects of religion.  There are few, but you can separate ritual from the religious experiencedoing things every day because you’re supposed to do them, as opposed to having an enlightened religious experience.  Art at the Fine Art level, at this very highest level, is that.  Then there’s a blur as it begins to move down from that peak.  Entertainment, on the other hand, is that which is what a circus does.  At its highest level of a fantastic performance, it can merge up to the point of bringing you to that peak from the other door.  It  comes from  another side, so it isn’t to say that entertainment, when it’s intended to be entertainment, can’t also do that, nor is it to say that something was intended to bring one to this high point, couldn’t also be entertaining.  But the distinction between them is that with the Fine Art experience, the creation of it is intended to bring you to a high plain of aesthetic experience.  The function, or the purpose, of entertainment is not to have you go there, but to escape, and feel happy, and be part of this whole thing.  Today, we have not made a distinction between those.  We’re making less and less of the distinctionmaybe not you and not me, but within our society, and in most of the Western world, we’re blurring that distinction.  People will often argue, “What’s wrong with commercial art?  It can be just as beautiful as the other.  If that’s calling it beautiful because it has interesting colors, and excites you in some say, sure!  It can be artfully done.  It can be even more artfully done than a Fine Art piece, but its intention was to sell a product.  Its intention is to entertain, and that’s where technique doesn’t matter at all, because if the Fine Artist is trying to reach a certain level, it doesn’t matter whether he can draw, but it matters what he’s trying to say.  Then, if he says it in spite of the fact that he didn’t go to school to learn X Y or Z that a commercial artist learned, and if in fact he succeeds at doing it, that’s all that really matters in this area.

BD:   So
does it work is the bottom line?

Subotnick:   One can never know if it works, because it may not work for you today, and then tomorrow you understand what was trying to be said.  You wonder how come you didn’t see that yesterday, because the bottom line is not the audience reaction.  The bottom line for Fine Art is that the artist is trying to communicate something.  He may or may not do it ever.  He may do it, and only one person out of a five hundred in the audience will get it.  Or, no one may get it, and maybe some other audience down the line will.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is what the artist is trying to do.  The audience and the society will eventually decide whether they’re going to keep it, and whether in fact it works or not.  It’s not for us to judge.  It’s up for anyone who wants to judge, or
doesn’t want to judge, but the bottom line there is the intention.  When the intention is Fine Art, it should be stated clearly that that’s what the intention is, and the audience should try to find out what mountain this person is trying to climb, or trying to get us to climb.  They can say they don’t get it, but they can’t say it didn’t entertain, because that’s not the point!  [Both laugh]  That’s where we’re losing the distinction, and that’s why the society at large is failing itself by not making the distinction.  They are assuming that everything points to making a lot of money, and that everything ought to reach a lot of people.  If you’re really trying to do that, the chances of reaching large numbers of people immediately are very slim.  On the other hand, if you’re out to entertain, and no one likes it, you’ve failed.  That’s really clear! [Both laugh again]  It’s cut-and-dried!

BD:   You mentioned showing people the mountain and scaling that mountain.  Are you always scaling the same mountain and showing different facets, or are you constantly finding new mountains to scale?

Subotnick:   I have a group of pieces that I’m working on now, but I don’t have that long-range vision I’ve had for so many years.  That’s because I had a particular mountain... actually there were two mountains which I needed to scale, or to create, and I did do that for myself.  I don’t have a direct single-minded image right now.  I’m in this kind of play-period, where I’m playing with ideas and feelings.

BD:   Is that partly because you’re playing with new electronic gear?

Subotnick:   It might be.  There’s a third thing that I’ve been involved in.  In 1959, ’60, and ’61, I had not only a clear image for myself as a artist, but I also had a clear image about the direction of technology, and it turned out that it was just right about where everything was going.  The result of that is that I developed an idea for a way young children could get a ‘composerly’ experience.  Up until now that’s totally been impossible.  You can bang on cans, and bang at the piano, but you can’t do what you can do with finger painting, for instance.  You can
t stand back and look at it like a painter would.  You can’t get that as a composer.  Mozart could do it, but he’s about the only one.  So, I outlined a way in which that might work, and the technology is now here.  I outlined the kind of technology that would be necessary to do it, and I didn’t know what it was called.  Now it can be done, and my first kids program will be published on CD-ROM in January.  This new technology, with the conducting and everything, is part of that.  It’s part of an ideal of home chamber music.  When I did Silver Apples of the Moon, I was trying to do a piece, but the original version of that wasn’t the piece that I did.  It was going to be called The New Chamber Music, and it was going to use the left-right channels.  You’d be able to get one kind of music here and one kind there, and in between you would mix in a different way.  If you’ve played it at one of the three speeds, you’d get something else, and if you put the treble up and the bass down it was too funky.  It didn’t do anything.  But the idea was you that you’d be able to interact with this thing, and mold it, and it would be a new kind of inter-activity.  People might be asked if they played something, and they would say, “No, I only play the radio, or, I play the record player.  I would say to those people, This is playing something, because you’re making choices.  It’s like being a composer because they’re making choices about which piece to play, and how loud should it be, and when they are going to do it.  It’s minimal, but it is the beginning of choice-making at home, and that’s a creative act.
BD:   Now we have much more interactivity?

Subotnick:   Now we can do it, and that’s what I’ve been working with.  It’s really not so much for personal composition, although it may lead me to a piece.  I’ve been developing it more.  It’s this other thing that I’ve had a vision about that is beginning to take place now.

BD:   Once you get the piece done, you leave it and let anybody else do with it what they want?  They can interact with it in a way they want?

Subotnick:   Eventually, yes.  I’m just beginning with this, so I don’t know what it all means yet exactly.

BD:   I’m trying to find a line when it is no longer Morton Subotnick.

Subotnick:   It’s always Morton Subotnick, but so are your children.  Your child is always your child, but at a certain point you want your child to be their own person.  You don’t want to always have to add one or other thing to them.  There are a number of different kinds of pieces for me.  The electronic pieces are always Morton Subotnick because I’m everything in it from beginning to end, and people identify me with those pieces.  They are really me.  A piece like Jacob’s Room ceases to be me because it’s so much the performers on the stage.  You think of Joan, but if someone else were doing it, the piece would be for that person, and it wouldn’t matter.  It’ll be slightly different.  I would tailor it.  I would change it for that person, or that person would change it for themself, but when it’s done, the thing I’ve achieved, which is special, is that you don’t think of it as a compositional style.  You think of it as those people on the stage, and that’s where my background of the theater comes from.  A playwright doesn’t write a play so that everyone says,
“Wow, what a great playwright.  They write it so you say, “What a great Ophelia!  That’s what the musicians are.  The musicians are to the composer what the actors are to the playwright.  We must create it in such a way that it doesn’t make much sense until they produce it, and it becomes so much them that they feel that music is theirs.  Then they can portray that to the audience.  It’s that relationship of the performer to the audience that’s the most critical nature in a public performance.

BD:   Where does this fit into a completely interactive experience that you’ll do at home to an unknown audience?

Subotnick:   That’s another thing again.  That’s why I said there are a number of different avenues.  It’s not all one thing, and this is a new kind of thing.  I’m not entirely clear about this, but I’ve been working at it.  I see it not just as one kind, but one of the directions that make up the multiplicity of possibilities in this interaction.  Some people feel you give them all these things, and they become theirs.  I don’t see it that way because the electronic medium for me is me, because I can do everything.  I’m it, and you’ve taken it home like a painting.  But in this case, it’s a malleable painting.  It’s constantly changing, so what does that mean to me?  I’ve written a number of pieces in which the decisions were made one way in one piece, and another way in another piece, because there isn’t just one way.  There are thousands of ways
or maybe only five waysthat this thing can work itself out.  But I can only choose one for a piece a music.  But now, let’s say you have a work which is a certain combination which is visual, word and sound, and each moment has five directions that it might have gone.  I can only choose one, but with this medium, the viewer can do all five.  He can see one on one day, another on another day, and still another on yet another day.  The way in which they do it in the piece I’m working on now is they simply respond.  So, when one of the directions goes more towards the literary, the piece develops words and they respond, and it’s going towards words.  But in the middle of the words, an image pops on, and you respond to that.  Then it goes more towards the image than the words.  Where it goes more to the music, it could be almost pure music.  At the end of Jacob’s Room, I had originally brought back some of the music from the beginning in the electronics, and two days before the premiere I took it out.  Erica [Duke-Kirkpatrick, the cellist in the performance we had heard earlier that evening at Ravinia] nearly cried because she loved the music.  I told her that once the prayer is over, you are alone in the world, and to bring back the electronic music is like bringing music in a sound track over a movie.  You are that music!  You and Joan have to hold the stage because there’s nobody else in the world.  There’s no overseer.  I’m gone, the world has gone, and you’re alone on the stage.  It was so clear to me at that moment that there were no other directions for it, even though I had originally had other music.  There was only one direction because I had all these different things.  Most pieces have a number of directions that can happen, and that’s the way I see this mediumnot as something you can do anything you want with, but now we can have a way that we can have the multiplicity that we never had before.  Painters do a series, and in that medium it would be a painting.  The next day they’d come in, and the painting would remold itself and become the second painting.


CHICAGO TRIBUNE  August 23, 1994

A concert showcasing the multimedia works of composer Morton Subotnick is bound to be part-art and part-Consumer Electronics Show. Such was the case at Ravinia's Bennett Hall Monday night when the pioneer of electronic music unveiled for the first time in the Chicago area three of his latest computer-aided chamber events.

The first half was really a brief introduction to the newest tools of the trade for fellow travelers on the infobahn, with the 60-year-old Subotnick serving as Mr. Wizard cum salesman. His "Angel Concerto," a work-in-progress, called for a Macintosh Powerbook, a Yamaha Disclavier and lots of wires.

Subotnick, using sensors in his hands connected to the laptop computer, was able to manipulate the Yamaha's motorized keyboard. By waving his arms and clenching his fists, he electronically triggered the keystrokes without touching the Yamaha at all. The piano music he "conducted" and "played" sounded like a Bach partita filtered through the sensibility of an European serialist; the effect was controlled improvisation-and transparent gimmickery.

The same can be said of "5 Scenes from an Imaginary Ballet," a '60s slide show presented with '90s technology. Subotnick slid a CD-ROM into his computer console; out came images and sounds.

Flashed on the back-projection monitor was a montage of cryptic words and sentences juxtaposed with surrealist engravings by Max Ernst. Correspondingly, broadcast on the speakers was a series of bouncy synthesized musical passages interspersed with barely comprehensible utterances.

In the second half the concert presentation of Subotnick's 1985 chamber opera "Jacob's Room" showed how electronic gadgets could be pressed into the service of art. The title, taken from Virginia Woolf's novel, refers to the mind of a young man coming to grips with the brutality of the Holocaust and with the guilt over his own survival. In the course of the 45-minute monodrama, which contains obvious autobiographical elements, Jacob's mother (and conscience) describes in harrowing details the horrors of war yet cajoles him into accepting spiritual conciliation in the end.

Only two characters appear on the stage: the mother (sung by a soprano) and Jacob's alter ego (a cellist); Jacob is heard but not seen. The musical score is processed through a computer. But standing center stage was Joan La Barbara in the role of the mother; nearby was cellist Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick.

La Barbara was phenomenal. Duke-Kirkpatrick's morose and soulful cello playing, for the most part, counterpointed the emotional larcerations, as it should. The only thing missing was the images.

BD:   You say there may only be five possibilities at each turn.  It’s not an infinite set of possibilities?

Subotnick:   I don’t see it as infinite, no.  It might be to someone else, but to the artist I don’t think it’s infinite.  The artist just doesn’t know what they’re doing if it’s infinite!  [Laughs]  When someone’s playing a jazz solo, you say,
“Yeah!  It’s the ‘yeah’ affirmation.  You write something and you say, “Yes, that’s right.  There’s a certain point at which it’s no longer right, but there are usually a number of rights.  With Jacob’s Room, it became absolutely clear there was only one right, but it’s very rare when that happens.

BD:   In something that’s interactive, are you going to make it so that any of the choices which are made are right, and all of the wrong choices have been eliminated?

Subotnick:   That’s right.  Technically, in the computer there are only the number of choices that I approve to come at any given moment.  So, when you respond, the response would go to one of those which are possible.  If you’re in words, there may be only two places that it can go, or maybe even just one.  There will always be at least one, so it will go to that place.  It’s not like it will go anywhere.  There are only three distinct areas
visual, music and wordsbut between the combinations, where you can say the music is more dominant, so visual is the second dominant, and the word is third dominant, then you keep expanding it until there is only music, or there’s only words at the other end.  There’s lots of leg-room in there where there is waiting of one area and another.  It would take a long time in five short pieces, or with ten short pieces the way this is going to be.  Each of the pieces is between two to three minutes long, but it would take a long time before a person actually plumbed the depths of what the meaningful possibilities were.  Some changes would occur and they probably wouldn’t even notice from one time to the other.  But other changes would be very dramatic, and the only thing I think about this whole medium is that it ought to last a long time.  It ought to be something that has lasting value, and not just a game that once you’ve conquered it you don’t play it anymore.


BD:   So, you don’t want people to figure out what they think is the best at this turn and at that turn, and make a little chart so that every time they play it, it’s exactly the same?

Subotnick:   Right!  The other thing
and we’re not quite ready for this yet, as I’m having to go with clicking the mouse and things like thatthe only thing that’s disturbing about the medium is that the Kantian aesthetic experience is at a very intense non-verbal/pre-verbal level.  It’s not a conscious level where you’re making conscious decisions of, “Now I’m going to do this, and now I’m going to do that.  Its carrying everything together, and if you’ve got the mouse and you’re going around saying, “Now I think I’m going to do this, and now I think I’m going that, you’re actually destroying that experience.  So, I’m trying to reach the point with a medium which really, at that moment, doesn’t allow for much of that to go to the ability to be able to simply respond, and not think about your response, and make clear choices, but to simply say, “Yeah!  Eventually we’ll have cameras on the computers as well as microphones.  We already have them, but I mean in the home.  It’ll be able to be programmed so that you could train the computer to respond correctly.  It will learn that this is a response, but this is not a response.  Then it can look at you, and you don’t even have to think about it anymore.

BD:   You will be able to respond generally rather than specifically?

Subotnick:   Yes, that’s right.  You’ll be able to program it against my 3 x 5 card.  The program I’ve got worked out would be a CD-ROM, or something like that, which would have a little test thing in it at the beginning where you teach the computer what your responses are.

BD:   You will be able to give it the vocabulary?

Subotnick:   Yes, you give it the vocabulary, and by having it give …

BD:   So, scratching your head will not be a response, but the wink of an eye will?

Subotnick:   Yes.  You’ll scratch your head, and it’ll say you responded.  But you say,
“No, that was not a response.  Then it goes back, and when you scratch your head it doesn’t respond to it.  It will be able to learn what is a negative response, and what was a positive response.  It may take a couple of days to program the computer, and then you just watch this piece and listen to it.
BD:   Are you making sure there’s enough humanism in each piece, rather than just all mechanics and digits?

Subotnick:   The Five Scenes that you saw tonight are quite human.  There are no digits in them.  One of the pieces I’d like to do is The Songs of Innocence by Blake.  It would be a CD-ROM, so the images change very slowly, or quickly sometimes.  There is music, and there are words, and they are separate.  In that case it wouldn’t be an original work.  I would be adapting it, because the other one I’m planning to do is an original work.  But I can see lots of different pieces that are part of literature, that have the potential of existing in this other medium.  I don’t see it as an Electronic Art.  I see it as Art with an electronic medium.  We could say writing a piece for the piano would be mechanical, because there are hammers, and some people do look at it that way.  But one can see it very differently than that.  When Silver Apples of the Moon was released [LP jacket shown at left], a lady called me, and asked about this electronic music.  She said, I don’t like electronic music.  I like music, and I love music that’s made with electronics, but I don’t like electronic music!  [Both laugh]

BD:   That’s just arguing semantics.

Subotnick:   Yes, but it’s an important point, because she heard Silver Apples of the Moon as electronic.  She didn’t hear it as music, or at least that’s what she was thinking.  She might not have even listened to it...

BD:   [Being optimistic]  She was trying to understand because it was new at that point.

Subotnick:   Yes, it was new.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Is there anybody else working in this field besides you these days?

Subotnick:   Which field are we talking about?

BD:   With the computers and the other things you’ve done.  [Allow me (in 2021) to suggest James Dashow, and Jean Eichelberger Ivey.]

Subotnick:   Oh, sure, but not very many.  My CD-ROM was the first Art CD-ROM
which is nice, and really was true.  So, I’m among the first, that’s for sure.

BD:   Do you like leading the way?

Subotnick:   I don’t mind.  I like it.  But the fact is the reason I’m leading the way
if I’m leading, and I’m sure I’m among the leadersis that the direction I took in 1960, ’61, was this direction.  I remember having discussions with Mario Davidovsky.  He just could not understand why I was doing what I was doing.  It didn’t make any sense to him, and probably still doesn’t today.

BD:   I was going to ask if you finally won him over.

Subotnick:   No, no!  A lot of people simply did not see where this direction was going.  The cutting and splicing, and the making of electronic music meant a particular thing to them.  To me it was a much larger issue.  It had to do with a technological change in society that I really did not know was going to happen so fast.  I didn’t know I would see it in my lifetime.

BD:   Are you pleased that you have seen it?

Subotnick:   Oh yes, I am excited about it.  Partly why I am in this position is because I was there before it happened, and it just happened.

BD:   Were you waiting for technology to catch up to you?

subotnick Subotnick:   Right, and I didn’t ever expect it really to happen.  I have a piece, which I wrote for orchestra, which uses the recording studio as a metaphor.  It’s a very pretty piece, and very difficult to perform.  The Los Angeles Philharmonic did it, and Zubin Mehta conducted it.  It divides the orchestra into small groups.  They’re on the stage in the usual way, but microphones are placed between three to four people all the way through the orchestra.  There are twelve violins with practice mutes who are controlling their stations.  Each of them is controlling the amplification, so, at a certain moment, when the conductor gives a down-beat, you can get the attack of a flute and the after-effect and the decay of a harp.  This is because this violinist plucks at the same time the flautist plays, so you hear the flute for the duration of a pluck, and then a crescendo on the harp in another part.  You never hear the violinists because they’ve got these practice mutes on, but they’re literally controlling the electronics.  [Musing on the future]  It won’t happen gradually... it will happen suddenly, in probably ten or fifteen years, but when the electronics are there, a lot of composers will say they have this idea.  It’s a perfectly logical idea, but the reason we haven’t thought about it now is because people haven’t made the connection of where the technology is going.  It was clear to me at that time.  I figured out these pieces when I wrote them.  They were all done.  They were commissioned, and I got them done, but they didn’t get played very much because of the complication of trying to produce them.  I figured once the technology was there, fine.  When I would go into an auditorium, I used to have to fight the technology.  I don’t do that anymore.  The sound is beautiful.  I used to be killing people to get the right speakers, and now every auditorium has them.
BD:   Just as we train a flute player, or a theorist, or a composer, should we be training a musical electrician?

Subotnick:   [Thinks a moment]  I don’t know.

BD:   This will be someone who understands all of the technology, and stays up to date with it, and has a musical ear.

Subotnick:   Yes, it’s already happening.  I’ve been doing it.

BD:   Yes, but you’re the composer.  I mean, should we have technician-performers?

Subotnick:   I personally don’t do these things.  I have someone else make them.  These people are out there.  If you’re talking about evolution, I don’t think things change gradually.

BD:   Should someone be able to go to Juilliard and come out with a degree in that?

Subotnick:   When it happens, when the technology is there, it will become apparent, whether you train someone or whether you don’t.  Right now is the wrong time, because I don’t know what technology to teach them.  Germany does have Tonmeisters.  I have a kid studying with me right now who is from Germany.  He came to learn more about the composing of music, but he’s going to be a sound engineer.  However, the technology of the sound engineer is changing radically.  Music isn’t changing that radically, but the technology is changing very radically.  So, I would say you could train the person.  That’s not the problem.  The problem isn’t in the music, the problem is in the other technology.

BD:   This brings up a very interesting question.  You say the music is not changing, but the technology is changing.  Since you are combining music and technology, if the technology is changing, how can the music not change?

Subotnick:   The language of music isn’t changing, but it’s very important that composers should know the new technology
not because it’ll change their music, but because the new technology will be an advantage to them.  It will open all kinds of doors for them, providing an ability to write pieces for X, Y, and Z that they hadn’t done before, and to find ways to record things, or even create new ideas.  The language may not change, but the kinds of pieces they might write would be different.  Whatever language they’re writing in would be the language of that piece, so the technique of composing the notes wouldn’t be different, but the scope of the piece might be.  Say they never saw an opera before, and wanted to write an opera.  That doesn’t mean they have a new language, but they’d have a new medium to write in.  This is all happening so fast that it’s a real shame for young composers not to be fluent in what’s going on.  If they’re twenty years old, by the time they’re thirty or forty, if they didn’t get fluent with the technology as it’s going, they’re going to be intimidated by it.  A lot of composers of my generation can’t touch this stuff because they’re scared to death of it!

BD:   [With mock horror]  Is it no longer feasible to just write an orchestral piece, or a string quartet???

Subotnick:   [Laughs]  Oh, I think it’s feasible to write a string quartet and an orchestra piece.  It’s actually more feasible than it was for a long time.  If I train fifty people in five years so they know how to write a string quartet, and they know this new technology, maybe only three of them will use the new technology.  Maybe the rest of them will just do string quartets, but they’ll have an option, and that option is going to be very, very important to those three people who, if they didn’t get that option, would find something missing that they could have had.  Likely, it’s going to be more than three out of the fifty.

BD:   Sure, exactly.

Subotnick:   The new technology is not necessarily going to replace the older styles.  For some people it will replace, as it has for me.  I’ve worked less and less on straight instrumental music to the point that I am only interested in doing one more piece.  I have a particular idea for a piece, but basically I’m just not interested in a piece that doesn’t use the technology.  It’s not an interesting thing for me to do anymore
not because I think that instruments are gone, and we shouldn’t use them anymore.  Its just my own personal thing, and I’m sure people are the other way.  Jacob Druckman started off like I did, working with all these different mediums.  Now he never touches this stuff.  He’s only into writing orchestra pieces, and that’s what he wants to do.

BD:   You’ve gone in the other direction?

Subotnick:   I went the other direction.

BD:   Are there just two sides of the coin?

Subotnick:   [Thinks a moment]  I hate to say there are only two sides to a coin, but we’re part of the same coin.

BD:   Is every composer in the world part of that coin?

Subotnick:   [Thinks again]  You’re going to push me into a corner!  [Both laugh]  Yes, to a certain extent I think that’s true.  One of the reasons I said earlier that we’re going to reach a plateau is that there really is a relatively small number of meaningful differences that one can deal with in our languages.  Those differences are fairly vast, not in quality but in quantity.  We have a few kinds of verbal languages.  We have millions of people in the world, but we don’t have millions of verbal languages.  The structure is relatively the same, and there are some striking differences between three to four different families of languages.  After all, people have grown up totally isolated, and yet we only have a limited variety of meaningful differences that we can deal with in terms of how we do it.  They can be strikingly different, but there are not lots and lots of them, and music is no different than that.  Some of us could get attracted more towards one than to another, so, in a sense, I don’t see it as a coin.  I see it as a kind of sphere in which there are lots of facets, but it’s not a huge sphere.  I think it’s limited.  It’s not infinite, it’s finite.

BD:   Is this sphere growing?

Subotnick:   I think it’s growing.  What’s growing is that we’re taking into consideration more things that are relevant than we used to.  We used to consider a gamelan not relevant to our music, and now we understand the relevance of it.  So, there are lots more facets than there were, but it’s finite.  John Cage thought it’s all learned, so noise probably is part of the species.  I love John Cage and I love what he did.  I think it’s really important, and the same with Arnold Schoenberg with the twelve-tone technique.  It wasn’t so much him, as it was people after that.  It’s all learned, but probably the species has something based onto it.  When you make a loud noise it makes you scared, and when you make this thing that’s got harmonic resonance, we think it’s beautiful.  I don’t know for sure, but there may be some limits to what we can accept as what we call music.  Context can place noise and beautiful things, counting on experience, but there are limits to where we can probably go.  Beauty is what some individual will take.  Whatever it is that we’ve considered noise, it can be turned into something that will surprise us at some moment, but it won’t become a language.  It’ll be that person’s ability in repeating this over and over again.  El Greco elongated the body, but that didn’t mean everybody elongated the body.  It meant that he found a way to do it that nobody else did, and we look at those as unique instances of art.

BD:   Thank you for all of your creations, and for spending this time with me.

Subotnick:   Oh, thank you.  Joan said it would be a good interview, and it was!


Morton Subotnick is one of the pioneers in the development of electronic music and multi-media performance and an innovator in works involving instruments and other media, including interactive computer music systems. Most of his music calls for a computer part, or live electronic processing; his oeuvre utilizes many of the important technological breakthroughs in the history of the genre. His work Silver Apples of the Moon has become a modern classic and was recently entered into the National Registry of Recorded works at the Library of Congress. Only 300 recordings throughout the entire history of recordings have been chosen.

buchla In the early 60s, Subotnick taught at Mills College and with Ramon Sender, co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center. During this period he collaborated with Anna Halprin in two works (the 3 legged stool and Parades and changes) and was music director of the Actors Workshop.  It was also during this period that Subotnick worked with Buchla on what may have been the first analog synthesizer (now at the Library of Congress, and shown at right).

In 1966 Subotnick was instrumental in getting a Rockefeller Grant to join the Tape Center with the Mills Chamber Players (a chamber at Mills College with performers Nate Rubin, violin; Bonnie Hampton, cello; Naomi Sparrow, piano and Subotnick, clarinet). The grant required that the Tape Center relocate to a host institution that became Mills College.  Subotnick, however, did not stay with the move, but went to NY with the Actor’s Workshop to become the first music director of the Lincoln Center Rep Company in the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. He also, along with Len Lye, became an artist in residence at the newly formed Tisch School of the Arts at NYU.  The School of the Arts provided him with a studio and a Buchla Synthesizer. During this period he helped develop and became artistic director of the Electric Circus and the Electric Ear. This was also the time of the creation of Silver Apples of the Moon, The Wild Bull and Touch.

[The following is by Christian Hertzog from Contemporary Composers] “The work which brought Subotnick celebrity was Silver Apples of the Moon. Written in 1967 using the Buchla modular synthesizer (an electronic instrument built by Donald Buchla utilizing suggestions from Subotnick and Ramon Sender), this work contains synthesized tone colors, striking for its day, and a control over pitch that many other contemporary electronic composers had relinquished. There is a rich counterpoint of gestures, in marked contrast to the simple surfaces of much contemporary electronic music. There are sections marked by very clear pulses, another unusual trait for its time; Silver Apples of the Moon was commissioned by Nonesuch Records, marking the first time an original large-scale composition had been created specifically for the disc medium - a conscious acknowledgment that the home stereo system constituted a present-day form of chamber music. Subotnick wrote this piece (and subsequent record company commissions) in two parts to correspond to the two sides of an LP. The exciting, exotic timbres and the dance inspiring rhythms caught the ear of the public -- the record was an American bestseller in the classical music category, an extremely unusual occurrence for any contemporary concert music at the time. It has been re-released on Wergo cd with The Wild Bull.

The next eight years saw the production of several more important compositions for LP, realized on the Buchla synthesizer: The Wild Bull, Touch, Sidewinder and Four Butterflies. All of these pieces are marked by sophisticated timbres, contrapuntal rich textures, and sections of continuous pulse suggesting dance. In fact, Silver Apples of the Moon was used as dance music by several companies including the Stuttgart Ballet and Ballet Rambert and The Wild Bull, A Sky of Cloudless Sulfur and The Key to Songs, have been choreographed by leading dance companies throughout the world.”

In 1969 Subotnick was invited be part of a team of artists to move to Los Angeles to plan a new school.  Mel Powell as Dean and Subotnick as Associate Dean and the team of four other pairs of artists carved out a new path of music education and created the now famous California Institute of the Arts.  Subotnick remained Associate Dean of the music school for 4 years and then, resigning as Associate Dean, became the head of the composition program where, a few years later, he created a new media program that introduced interactive technology and multi-media into the curriculum.  In 1978 Subotnick, with Roger Reynolds and Bernard Rands, produced 5 annual internationally acclaimed new music festivals.

“In 1975, fulfilling another record company commission, (this time, Odyssey) Subotnick composed Until Spring, a work for solo synthesizer. In this work, changes in settings which Subotnick made in real time on the synthesizer were stored as control voltages on a separate tape, enabling him to duplicate any of his performance controls, and to subsequently modify them if he felt the desire to do so. While the use of control voltages was nothing new, it suggested to Subotnick a means to gain exact control over real-time electronic processing equipment.The next step in Subotnick's use of control voltages was the development of the "ghost" box. This is a fairly simple electronic device, consisting of a pitch and envelope follower for a live signal, and the following voltage-controlled units: an amplifier, a frequency shifter, and a ring modulator. The control voltages for the ghost box were originally stored on a tape, updated now to E-PROM. A performer, whose miced signal is sent into the ghost box, can then be processed by playing back the pre-recorded tape or E-PROM, containing the control voltages. As neither the tape nor E-PROM produce sound, Subotnick refers to their sound modification as a "ghost score". By providing the performer with exact timings, co-ordination between performer and the ghost score is controlled.

Two Life Histories (1977) was the first piece involving an electronic ghost score; the bulk of Subotnick's output for the next six years was devoted to compositions involving performers and ghost scores. Some of the more notable works in this series include Liquid Strata (piano), Parallel Lines (piccolo accompanied by nine players), The Wild Beasts (trombone and piano), Axolotl (solo cello), The Last Dream of the Beast (solo voice) and The Fluttering of Wings (string quartet). The subtlety, sophistication and control over real-time electronic processing that Subotnick demonstrated in these innovative works secured his reputation as one of the world's most important electronic music composers.


Subotnick reached the apex of live electronic processing in his work Ascent Into Air (1981). Written for the powerful 4C computer at IRCAM, this piece involved many of the techniques which Subotnick had developed in his ghost scores. In addition to the processing normally available to him with his ghost boxes, Subotnick was able to spatially locate sounds in a quadraphonic field and to modulate the timbres of the instruments. But perhaps the most significant aspect of this work is its use of live performers to control the computer music; the live performers, in effect, serve as "control voltages" to influence where a sound is placed, how it is modulated and by how much, etc. -- the reverse situation of the ghost score compositions. Even more remarkable is the ability of traditional musical instruments to control computer generated sounds.”

In addition to music in the electronic medium, Subotnick has written for symphony orchestra, chamber ensembles, theater and multimedia productions. His "staged tone poem"The Double Life of Amphibians, a collaboration with director Lee Breuer and visual artist Irving Petlin, utilizing live interaction between singers, instrumentalists and computer, was premiered at the 1984 Olympics Arts Festival in Los Angeles. 

The concert version of Jacob's Room, a mono drama commissioned by Betty Freeman for the Kronos Quartet and singer Joan La Barbara, received its premiere in San Francisco in 1985. Jacob's Room, Subotnick's multimedia opera chamber opera (directed by Herbert Blau with video imagery by Steina and Woody Vasulka, featuring Joan La Barbara), received its premiere in Philadelphia in April 1993 under the auspices of The American Music Theater Festival. The Key to Songs, for chamber orchestra and computer, was premiered at the 1985 Aspen Music Festival. Return, commissioned to celebrate the return of Haley's Comet, premiered with an accompanying sky show in the planetarium of Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles in 1986. Subotnick's recent works utilize computerized sound generation, specially designed software Interactor and "intelligent" computer controls which allow the performers to interact with the computer technology.

All My Hummingbirds Have Alibis (1994) was an interactive concert work and a CDROM (perhaps the first of its kind), Making Music (1995), Making More Music (1998) were his first works for children, and an interactive 'Media Poem', Intimate Immensity, premiered at the Lincoln Center Festival in NY (1997). The European premiere (1998) was in Karlsrhue, Germany.  A string quartet with CDROM, "Echoes from the Silent Call of Girona" (1998), was premiered in Los Angeles by Southwest Chamber Music.

Subotnick is also doing pioneering work to offer musical creative tools to young children. He has authored a series of six CDROMs for children, a children's website [creatingmusic.com] and developing a program for classroom and after school programs that will soon become available internationally.   These works are available from Alfred Music Publishers.


At present (2010) he is developing a music curriculum for young children. The curriculum centers around the creating music. The child will learn from creating original music.  He has been commissioned to complete the larger version of the opera, Jacob’s Room.  This will be premiered in 2010 at the Begenz Festival in Austria. He is also working closely with the Library of Congress as they are preparing an archival presentation of his electronic works.  He tours extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe as a lecturer and composer/performer.  Morton Subotnick is published by Schott Music.

==  Text (only) slightly edited from the composer's official website; photos added for this presentation  

© 1994 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in suburban Chicago on August 22, 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1998; on WNUR in 2005, 2010, and 2018; and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2006 and 2008.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.