Happy 80, Morton Subotnick!

Today — April 14 —  is the 80th birthday of one of America’s greatest musical game-changers, Morton Subotnick, the man who:mort

  • co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center;
  • envisioned and developed the electronic synthesizer as a tabletop orchestral palette;
  • created Silver Apples of the Moon, the first  composition intended specifically for the long-playing vinyl record and home listening;
  • as first director of multi-media at the Electric Circus, effected the birth of techno and electronic dance music;
  • advanced electronic audio projection/placement and improvisatory interaction to a high art;
  • has worked and re-worked Jacob’s Room, a dark opera (sometimes, mono-opera) concerning the absolute isolation of individuals in the universe;
  • produced “Making Music,” highly popular software to teach musical concepts to children, and
  • last year released Pitch Painter, a $3.99 iPAD app that lets even toddlers  compose by choosing instruments from the world over and tracing lines on a screen.

Subotnick is one of the most continuously innovative musicians on the planet, still. He performs, lectures and teaches, and has been getting up at 5 a.m. daily to write a book for M.I.T. Press. He’s candid and articulate about his remarkable 60 year career (he was a child prodigy clarinetist, soloing with symphonies while still in his teens), clear and detailed in his memories (he’s been friends and sometimes collaborator with inventors, composers and artists including Stan Brakhage, James Tenney, Ramon Sender, Donald Buchla, Allan Kaprow, and new music vocalist Joan La Barbara, with whom he’s been together for 33 years). He’s quite fit. He performed the entiretypitch painter of Silver Apples of the Moon at Moogfest 2012 (today he does that using digital files and Abelton Suite), and has installed a prototype of Pitch Painter in the Human Origins hall of the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.

I’ve been able to spend some time with Subotnick over the past year, in an attempt to produce a radio profile for NPR, which I hope will be broadcast within the next week.

Here’s what happened when Mort let me play with Pitch Painter (click to hear audio file). Besides that fun, Mort brought up two ideas in conversation that won’t make it to my radio script, yet stay with me.

One is his dictum that “The appropriate feeling to come from listening to electronic music is awe,” by which he means electronic music has the power of a force of nature, a sound that generates wonder, rather like listening to a waterfall.

The second is his speculation that in the 21st Century, time will be the new frontier. Perhaps not for manipulation — he’s not suggesting that a time machine is about to be invented — but he believes there will be an understanding that all time eras exist simultaneously . The example he gave me was that the clash between Western culture and Osama ben Laden, for instance, was a clash of epochs, and that ben Laden actually lived with a worldview akin to that of the West’s Middle Ages, which would not possibly countenance the West’s digitally-directed 21st Century. Yet both do

Subotnick’s music since Silver Apples (1967) includes many electronics works — Sidewinder, Touch, The Key To Songs, The Wild Bull, Until Spring, A Sky of Cloudless Sulpher, Gestures: It Begins With Colors (with La Barbara), Until Spring — often including live video mixes, films and dancers. His work  has never sounded like anything else, like anyone else’s. The simplest, over-arching description I can offer is it bubbles with complex, visceral joy. Exception to the joy and it’s a big one: Jacob’s Room. But take a look at the beautiful German production —

If you’ve got an iPad, download Morton Subotnick’s Pitch Painter (via the iTune store). Share it with kids — or else they’ll grab it from you. Tell them who to thank. Happy Birthday, Morton Subotnick.


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  1. Jordi Griell Barenes says

    These are really sad news, Morton’s composition were always inspiring, my children have been using his “Making Music” software package for a year now, for the cost of a single music lesson they have learned what a full year tuition would cost me.