A pioneer of modern electronic music, Morton Subotnick initiated technical innovations and created new sonic paradigms with his groundbreaking 1967 album Silver Apples of the Moon. Now in his 90th year, Subotnick is still as energized and dynamic as ever. As a tech geek and extreme music fan during my high school years in the late 1960s, I liked the idea of electronic music more than the actuality of what I was hearing from such places as the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Listening to Subotnick's Silver Apples... (around the same time that I also came upon the equally visionary work of Iannis Xenakis and Harry Partch) exploded everything for me in the best way. Silver Apples… made it clear that Subotnick understood pulse and physicality in a way that the academics rarely did. His follow-up album, The Wild Bull, was a powerful anti-war statement inspired by Pablo Picasso's Guernica; brutal and exciting. I continued to follow Morton's music, and our paths crossed many times over the years, whether in NYC or at European festivals. In March 2022, Mort performed a monumental concert "As I Live and Breathe" with German video artist Lillevan (Lillevan Recherche) at the Abrons Art Center in New York's Lower East Side. Afterwards, I suggested an interview, which he graciously agreed to.

How was the recent tour in Europe?

It was hard, but I'm doing fine. I'm getting a little confused about things, but luckily the music is not giving me any problems, just all the details. I'd never done this before at this age, and, in addition, the COVID tests made everything more complicated.

What are your recollections of your early days in New York City?

The first time in New York for me was the summer of 1965, when they gave me a studio on Bleecker Street. I had been working at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, and we were given a $200,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. We didn't apply for it; we were handed it, but in order to do what we wanted to it had to be under the auspices of what they called "fiscally responsible people," and we were not considered that! We ended up in Mills College, and the grant was coming in around 1965 or '66. In the meantime, I got invited to work with the Actor's Workshop in San Francisco – Herb Blau and that group – on a production of [William Shakespeare's] King Lear. I created a score using tape manipulations, and that started me in electronics. That production created a huge stir nationwide. I had been mostly a clarinetist before that. As a result of that production, the main people of the company were invited to present the piece at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York.

Do you have a copy of that score?

There's an archive somewhere, but almost everyone's dead now so I don't know where anything is. I made all the sound effects and the trumpet calls. The big event was the storm scene, in which I made the sounds by manipulating the actor's voice on tape. We worked for a year on it, recording and so forth. I didn't have filters, so I had to make it faster or slower to allow the voice to come through. All of the sound was horrendously loud! Herb let me direct part of the scene. The idea was that the storm was in the actor's brain, and so at one point I had him go down and touch his knee to the ground, at which time the sound turned off and then turned on again when he stood up. It was just a sudden thing, but it was really powerful, at least at that time, anyway. I don't think it's in the script, but at the end we added a part where he went down, laid down on the ground, and began breathing – I had the breath recorded with a repeat following the rhythm of his breathing. It was dynamite, so we got invited to open the show in NYC in 1966. Also at that time, I got an invitation from the beginnings of the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU to be an artist-in-residence. I met with Robert W. Corrigan, the dean. He ended up president at CalArts [California Institute of the Arts] later. He flew me out to go over my contract. I had told him that I hated to be in a university, telling him, "I didn't know you were in the middle of New York. I don't want to be on a campus. I don't want to be anywhere near a campus!" I needed a studio, plus he had to buy me a Buchla [synthesizer], because the Buchla 100 was just coming out. I made it hard for him! He took me to dinner at a famous steakhouse in [Greenwich] Village, and he brought the Ertegun brothers [Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, founders of Atlantic Records] because he wanted to make sure I understood this was not just academics as usual. I had a wonderful meal with them. Before we were done, with the Erteguns sitting there, and I said, "What about the contract?" He said, "Yeah, here!" This paper, which was signed at the bottom by him, had the logo of NYU, the date, and everything, but it was blank. He said, "I can't remember everything. Just write it! You have to give a lecture once a week, so please put that in there." So, I did! I gave a lecture to the whole student body once a week, and that was it. I ended up on Bleecker Street, since they owned the building. No teaching, but students who were artists could make appointments and come on in. We would talk, and it was wonderful. I had one 2-track tape recorder that recorded and played back, and one 2-track tape [deck] that only played back. No mixers or filters except what was in the Buchla. Nothing else. It wasn't musique concrète; it was all electronic. No cutting and pasting [tape].

Had you been performing live with the Buchla before the release of Silver Apples…?

No. My whole idea of the Buchla, to start with, was that it was not a musical instrument, but a conglomerate of modules that I could put together in some way to create. I could play on to tape and then overdub. What I did was to make a whole pass with one patch. I would make as many passes as I could, and then the only cutting I did was to separate them with paper leader [tape] and label them. I would play back one from the tape recorder that only played back, then have a new patch and play against it, which was recorded onto the second tape recorder. I had a stereo mix at the end. I still use the same process when I play in public, except that instead of recording it I have a huge number of samples and then I play against the samples. I can control the samples, what part of the sample, and all of that. It's the same process that I used then, but it's much more sophisticated now. That was only for Silver Apples… and The Wild Bull.

And on the album Touch?

No. Just those two records. Then Columbia Records gave me a contract, because both Silver Apples… and The Wild Bull had been big successes. They gave me, and Terry Riley, contracts for seven years to do a record every year. The first was to be for their quadraphonic vinyl player that they had sold 10,000 of. Touch sold 40,000 records that year because people didn't have anything to play on their machines! They gave me two Ampex 4-track tape recorders. I had a multitrack. Back to when I arrived in New York: I had been lecturing. I used to be good at lecturing, and I did a lot of them. I'd lecture about how my idea with the Buchla was that the new genre of music would be "composer as studio artist." It all seems so silly now, but, at that time, it was a brand-new idea. My idea was that I would make a machine for the studio artist, and it could also be for live performance, but only in bits and pieces. You could put it together live, but you would have the fine tuning of it in advance, and it would end up with the machine playing at someone's home. Because vinyl records began to be long-playing and high fidelity, the medium for the message of the studio artist was now the record player. I had been lecturing on the idea that, since this was the case, record companies would realize that it was wrong to take a Beethoven string quartet and record it, because it was meant to be played and interpreted on the spot in front of an audience. They would realize this, people would realize it, and everyone would stand up and say, "No more of this. We're going to create a new way."

How did Jac Holzman end up commissioning you to compose for Nonesuch Records?

I was working all night back in those days, and people sitting on my used sofa in the studio didn't introduce themselves. There was Viva, the actress from [Andy] Warhol [films]. I happened to know who she was. They all would be sitting there, talking among themselves, and listening to what I was doing. It was after midnight; the shows had all closed. In walks this guy at 2 o'clock in the morning with starched Levis, and I knew he was a fake. He had to be a fake. He says that he's the president of Nonesuch Records, which sounded like a phony name to me.

He talked about my lecture, and he'd decided that I was the one who could do the first new electronic album. I said, "Leave my studio now before I throw you out!" I pushed him, and he went out. I got back home about five in the morning, I had to get the kids up to get them to school, and I decided to listen to my [copy of Johann Sebastian] Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto." It was on Nonesuch Records! All day I tried to call, but there was no phone number for Nonesuch because it was part of some other company. I thought, "This is the way I'm starting my life. I throw everything away!" I went back to the studio that night to work, and at 2 in the morning he shows up again. I opened my arms and he said, "Don't hit me." I said, "I won't!" He said, "Just listen," and I listened. He began with, "We'll offer $500. Well... we'll offer you $1000." I said, "I'll take it!" After that, I didn't see him again until about three years later, when they were filming me for my own documentary in Los Angeles. He was living in Los Angeles, so they arranged to film me with him. I sat next to him, and it was wonderful. I said, "Do you remember that night? He said, "I'll never forget it. You almost pushed me down the stairs!"


What was important for you about the Buchla?

The whole notion for the Buchla was that it was this machine – as someone suggested at the time – that was more like a musical analog computer than a musical instrument. The big change was, after I did The Wild Bull, I realized that with all the ability to move your fingers and do all that, I had left a very important control voltage out, and it was my voice. I called Don [Buchla], I was just starting Touch, in 1968 or '69, and told him that I needed a control voltage from my voice. He said, "Oh, I can do that." It was less than two weeks after, and I had an envelope follower. I've looked on the web and I didn't find one made before that, but there could have been. I'd been turning the output into a control voltage, and I could then do real-time control of files. That changed everything for me, because then I started to build control tracks. CBS eventually gave me an 8-track tape recorder, which made everything better when I was doing quadrophonic audio. I could make a control track and use it for affecting anything that was on the tapes. Then all I needed to do was to press a button and I could make a thing that was going "ooo uh ooo a" and it would then go "tr-tr-dd-tr-de." It was amazing! I'm still doing that stuff that way. The only use of my voice live was to generate what you were hearing. That is, what you were hearing of my voice "live" was an imitation of what I had done on the tape. There was a groove created by the envelope follower controlling the electronic sounds that you were hearing. The samples were doing the same thing as my voice, and I could go back and forth between them. I had my voice in it, because my voice was recorded, but it was also controlling the speed of the modulation of my voice. That's what I wanted. I've been working on the opening segment now for our piece "As I Live and Breathe." I'm including pre-existing software and can now move the sound to different parts of the room on the spot. I'm not using joysticks, I'm using a Korg XYZ [Pad Kontrol], because with it I can trigger something and then move my finger at the same time – you can't do that so easily with a joystick. I can access any control at any time I want, in any way I want. It's safer and more foolproof, because when I get started with a thing on my finger, or anything physical, my whole body is activated by that and it's only doing one thing. My metaphor for the live performance is the conductor. I'm the conductor, the composer, the orchestra, and the orchestra is already playing. I don't play the orchestra, I conduct them, so I play at the highest level of who is going to play what, when, and how. I can do that and think about it and process it all, but if I'm doing this or this with a button, my brain is now located at the end of my finger, not on the whole score. It's taken me a while to figure that out, to get that metaphor straight. And it's very clear now, so I prepare my scores and my work that way.

Are you using pre-programmed sequences?

I don't use sequences at all. They're all performed, then I sample what was played in a loop form – a long loop, like eight-minutes. Then, when I go to key X, it goes to that huge sample. I may only take this much of it, or I may take it only from the starting point, or at a different point, and then go all the way around. I'm documenting all of that because it's taken me years to get to this point where the whole process is defined. Soon, it'll all be available; all of that. In fact, I have a meeting with my publisher: We're going to try to make it available on a free website that they're putting together for me featuring more technologies, including how to make the Ghost Score pieces, and how they work. Some of that's already there. [see sidebar]

How was Silver Apples of the Moon created and constructed?

First, we're talking 1959 to 1961. At that time, all of us, including myself, imagined music as marching on, so all the way back to [Arnold] Schoenberg and the first part of the 20th century, with him saying, "Now that I've made the 12-tone technique, I'm assuring the grandeur of the Austrian composer for 100 years." [Pierre] Boulez, [Luciano] Berio, and all, they started with Schoenberg and then they discovered [Anton] Webern. Boulez wrote an article that started "Schoenberg is dead," the king was Webern, and that was the beginning of the post-Webern movement. So, when we get to the beginnings of electronics, even [Karlheinz] Stockhausen and his earliest electronic works, Electronic Studies, were all basically post-Webern technique. The only thing he did is that he did it with oscillators and made fresh tunings. But they're all really dull.

There was no concept of rhythm or meter, either.

That was because they got rid of the name! I don't use meters either, but they got rid of the concept of a meter and instead said "duration." Time was duration, not beats. I don't use meters because I don't like dance music, but I do use pulse, and the beats from that have more wildly disturbing meters than Stravinsky. They're not really disturbing; they're just regenerating new beats and accents all the time. When I did Silver Apples…, I was after a new era with a new "new music," not a new "old music." You can't do a "new new music" with an instrument that already exists. You can say, "Play whatever you want," on a piano, but the tuning, its sound, and the way it operates belongs to an old paradigm. You need a new instrument for it. The only way to do that was to create something where we could make new instruments for every piece, and then make the music. When I got started with Silver Apples… it was "shit or get off the pot." I had my commission from Nonesuch, and I had to do something. I never thought that I could actually do it! I was trying to figure out what the fuck "new new music" was, and I realized I didn't know. [laughter] Now I've got a part of it, which is what I know now that I didn't know then: It's not possible! We're not geared for it. Music is part of us, but we get it so early in life that we're not geared to the "new," whether we get it later in life or we get it from pop music. Whatever we do, it's almost impossible to understand it in the same way. What I did, looking back on it, I began to make new metaphors for music. I said, "A piece of music is not a piece of music. It's a record." There's side one and side two, and one could start with either side. Side one will be about pitch and side two will be about time. The very opening of Silver Apples… is an excellent example of this, where there's scat singing. That's where you get the jazz; it was bebop. [scat sings] I'm all over the place! That was called "pitches which are disjointed" – they're not connected to each other. I had another take which was "pitches which are close to each other" – scalar, but they weren't in scales.

Since I had nothing then that could make a scale with, I ended up doing it all by ear. I didn't even think of the second side until I finished the first side! The second side, I said, "Well, where do I go? This would be a good place for a sequencer. I'll get a groove going." I got it set up and I played it. It took me, on average, from two weeks to a month and a half for each section, and 13 months [total] to make Silver Apples... In each of these little recording sessions I would have a patch that I worked on, depending on what it was, from a week to two weeks to a month. When we set up in the studio, it would be going continually, because if I turned it off, I didn't know what would happen. I'd get a little groove pattern going that was a little different to start with, and I didn't have an absolute meter until it was running for about two or three days. It blew my mind. I couldn't get my body off of it. It was not just a beat and not just a groove. I grooved on it. It was just the right tempo, so I played with it, and it was all there. I had another sequencer that would bring in another beat, a low note, which eventually went to a subwoofer. There were probably six or seven positions on the sequencer control knob that one could go to, with the time being that of the length of each beat. Then I added another sequencer with 11 positions and another with one of 15 positions, always an odd number with one note as a starting point. Every time that note would come in, it would be in sync with one of the notes on the other sequencer. The whole set of sequences were growing, so I didn't know when each new one was going to come in. I could then go back and forth until I got one cycle that came often enough that I hadn't forgotten it, and if I then pressed the button, I could turn 11 into 7 or into 3. I could move the point back and forth to go more in one direction or another, and I was recording all this as I went. The other stuff that's the "high jazz" was another take. This was all going on and I could then overdub that. What I discovered at that point was that for me, even if this wasn't really dance music, it still caused your body to groove. It draws you in. I'd never been drawn into a beat or a meter before when I was a clarinetist playing symphonic music. I'd played in a dance band, so I did have that in high school, but I hated it! So that's how Silver Apples… was made, and that changed everything for me about rhythm and time.


Was Steve Reich [Tape Op #15] around this scene?

Not at the Tape Center, but a few years before we premiered "It's Gonna Rain" or "Come Out," whichever one it was. Steve wasn't doing beats at that time. At that same time, Terry Riley first did "In C" and Steve played the pulse part in it. He introduced that to Terry, evidently, and played with them at the performance in November 1964. But the beats didn't come in a steady way. Steve was phasing, and the phasing didn't cause you to do a dance. It wasn't until Philip Glass had the beat going all the time, and he just nodded his head when the beat would go from three to five or whatever, and that was a big thing. After that, Steve stopped the phasing; that is, he phased, but in time. I never talked with him about it. Phasing was out of time, it was just speeding up and slowing down, and that doesn't give you much of a beat. I don't think Steve started that until the success of [Philip Glass'] Einstein on the Beach. All of that was influenced by Morton Feldman's "Piece for Four Pianos." We were all totally knocked out by that. The single page of music and the way in which he organized it was just dynamite! It didn't influence me, but it sure affected me deeply, and I've always thought that it was a big influence on those guys, but maybe not!

What made you begin to think about touring Silver Apples…?

This is how I got on the road: They discovered Silver Apples of the Moon 50 years later! When I was coming out and gigging, I did a radio show at Columbia University, and the DJ said, "You know how I got Silver Apples…? I found it in this box, I began playing it, and I thought, 'That's really fresh.' I looked at it, and it was made in 1967. I couldn't believe it! I had to interview you!" It was a re-finding, you could say.

Are you performing other new works on tour? Have you thought to revive The Wild Bull due to the current state of the world?

No, the only reason I do Silver Apples... is that it was the beginning. The way I play it now is because there's no other way to do it, it wouldn't be possible. I sample the entire piece. Side one and side two; each is a sample. Then I take the opening, and I make a loop from the opening. It's in Ableton [Live], so it's looping and that's the background. I can bring that into the foreground in various ways; I can modulate it, and I can play parts against it that I have prepared. There's a very good Buchla 200 oscillator emulation that I can use. It's a plug-in, so I can have five or six of them in my patch, which keeps me closer to the original Buchla. The side one part of the set is only four or five minutes of raw material. I use pretty much the whole range of side two so that it can build up. I have these sounds that I fly around the room, and I can add to them. I do another version of the bass now, with the subwoofer, because on the vinyl it doesn't get far enough down to have a good sub bass. I filtered out the bass on the samples, put a new version that's heavy, and now I can do it well. I can bring them in when I want, or I can loop it all. That's the process, and the whole thing runs 10 minutes. When I come down in the end, sometimes I take it into the next piece ["As I Live and Breathe," with visuals by Lillevan.] It's just a document of the beginning, and then I have to figure out how to get Lillevan on the stage. I try to do it without a pause in between: The light comes on, I breathe, and we start. I'm not interested in reinventing Silver Apples... It's a lot of work and I'm not really interested in that. That work was made for a record which is the real form for it, and that's where it belongs.

What were some of your earliest inspirations?

Theoretically, one of the things that I've tried really hard to do started when I was eight or nine years old. I read stoic philosophy by accident. There were a bunch of books in the garage that were neatly stacked, and none of them had been opened. They were the classics! My parents had the Book of the Month Club, but they ended up putting them in the garage! I was attracted to Marcus Aurelius and his teacher, Apollonius of Chalcedon, but I never discussed it. It affected the rest of my life. I was already fairly existential, in the sense that I didn't believe in God. This stoic philosophy attracted my thoughts, and I decided to be a human meant to do the best you can do at whatever you can do, perfect it to the utmost as you have an obligation in life, and to share it. When I say this – I've said this in several interviews – my eyes well up because that has been my life. I really have done it, and it's the one thing I'm proud about – that I have stuck with it. The idea of those pieces that went on record was not for me to play, as I never thought anyone would listen to them. I didn't care. I was doing my best and sharing. What a pleasure to come back 40 years later, have people discovering it, and saying, "Wow, this is one way to go with it." If it made contact with someone, that was great. I'm really getting to this stuff, and I didn't want to take the time to indulge in anything else. Joan [La Barbera, Morton's wife, also a composer and vocalist] can tell you that I have a routine and I just do it! That's the truth. I have other things I'm still trying to get done, and when I get them done, maybe – if I could still stand and whatever – I could do it with another piece. Because Silver Apples... is doing it. We are who we invent. That idea worked out well, though it wasn't what I originally wanted it to be. What I originally wanted was a mistake, but that's what we ended up with. What I wanted now was to play Silver Apples..., or perhaps a new piece, and have someone from a more recent generation do their own version of Silver Apples...

Is that why the collaboration with Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot came about?

I had met Alec in Berlin – he was a friend of Lillevan's. We got on, and I decided he could do it. What he did was to make a kind of groove out of Silver Apples of the Moon, and he was going to have it control other things. I thought, "This is not what I had in mind." I thought it was going to be very academic. It was funny for him to come to me, and I say, "It's academic," but I hate the academic world anyway. So instead, I said, "Why don't we just play together?" I made places for him to do solos, where he could do whatever he wanted. I opened up the second part with a cadenza, where I added an underpinning that I could manipulate, and he could play over the top. It was really fun, and he did very nicely, though that’s not what I had in mind. I was thinking someone would come up with a new version that I would be interested to hear. I didn’t want to hear my version with someone else’s timbres or something. That doesn’t make sense to me.

Are you working with any other visual artists?

No, not another visual artist, but I did a performance at REDCAT in Los Angeles with the [California] E.A.R. Unit – the three of them and I played. It was wonderful. We’d spent two days rehearsing. It was a violinist, a percussionist, and [percussionist] Amy Knoles – a wonderful performance. We did two evenings. I had hesitated, but I knew that I was their godfather. I had gotten them together at CalArts when they were students and got them scholarships to make a new musical ensemble. They came out of that as the [California] E.A.R. Unit and have been playing together ever since.

How did you develop “As I Live and Breathe" with Lillevan?

We never had a strategy, because the whole idea we do on this piece, "As I Live and Breathe," was very brief. At the very top of this page is the strategy, and it's simple: I start out with a breath with the light on me. As I breathe the first sound, there's silence and darkness, and then Lillevan makes an image. More silence, darkness, and then I do it again, and then we begin to collapse the time until there's no time at all between our entrances. It's that open. He takes cues from me, then I interrupt him as I'm beginning to do more. I've added more material now so I can develop the piece further, because it was rather crude the first time we did it. But still, that's the only strategy: I give him what I'm doing, and when I think about what I'm doing, I give him another. He developed all of his visuals separately, and then we both come together with our gestures.

Any final thoughts today?

My original idea was to stay in the studio and never leave, and once a month people could come in and listen to what I was doing. But I also thought that it probably was not such a good idea! In fact, I might have ended up doing that – staying at home – if Jac [Holzman] hadn't come in and given me that commission. I didn't believe it was happening, and I couldn't believe it was a success either. I was so excited that not only did the record come out, but that it was successful. I wanted to buy a record, so I went into 8th Street Records, a big, big record store in the Village. I went in and said to the clerk, "I hear there's this record, Silver Apples of the Moon." He said, "Yeah, but it's shit. We've sold it out. I don't know why they're buying it. I can show you some really good LPs." He brings out the Columbia-Princeton [Electronic Music Center] LP. I said, "No, no! I really want Silver Apples of the Moon." He said, "Maybe we have one more copy," and I bought it. I walked in a giant; I walked out a midget. It really put me in my place. I walked down the stairs feeling so big, but I could barely make it back up the stairs, they were so big. I thanked him for that. That was great to do. I don't think he did it on purpose, but it was good!

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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