Morton Subotnick, who at 80 looks as eager as ever to experiment with his Buchla and laptop, rolled into town recently to perform a decades-spanning program at Seattle’s Town Hall. Joining him onstage was Berlin-based video artist Lillevan. The two have been collaborating on several projects in recent years, and both are obviously so well attuned to each other’s aesthetic that they can improvise with pre-existing material. It all added up to a blissed-out gesamtkunstwerk for synth geeks and video art aficionados.
The concert’s official title – “From Silver Apples of the Moon to A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur IV: LUCY” – refers to the main sources for the prerecorded music Subotnick used to build the performance in tandem with Lillevan’s abstract imagery of fluid and fractal-like shapes in restless transformation. Subotnick describes his current process:
For each season of performances I create a new hybrid Ableton-Buchla “instrument” loaded with prepared samples from all my previous works and performances and new patches that will allow me to modify the samples while performing brand new sound gestures created especially for the new season. The work always has the same title, “From Silver Apples of the Moon to a Sky of Cloudless Sulphur IV: LUCY.” The “IV: LUCY” refers to the season number and the name given to the newest materials.
Subotnick and Lillevan in action
Subotnick’s gently processed whisperings and vocalizations – sent whirling about the surround-sound arrangement of speakers – launched this voyage of about an hour or so. Of course the act of musical performance itself tends to override ordinary clock time, to make it seem simultaneously speeded-up and in slow motion. But in this case, time seemed to become unmoored as if we were in a gravity-less environment.
The early atonalists used to worry about how to structure a piece without the old familiar signposts. Subotnick’s large-scale excursions can echo the craggy, mountainous landscapes of a Romantic tone poem, no matter how “alien” the sounds. Inevitably I found myself turning to metaphors, both from the natural world – that ubiquitous “watery” sound of electronics – and from acoustic instruments, imagining a troop of pizzing strings here, bleating woodwinds there.
Berlioz’s opium dreams, the psychedelic trips of the ’60s: why is it this intensely focused sense of isolation, of utter aloneness, much more than any Dionysian, “orgiastic” frenzy, that they so strikingly share? Above all I’m fascinated by Subotnick’s “art of transition” and his ability to steer toward heaving climaxes, only to dial the mood down within a short span, like a turntablist working the dance crowd – even though we were all passive listeners.
Just before the performance, Subotnick recollected how exciting it was to be a young composer in the late ’50s, when the introduction of the commercial transistor seemed to point the way toward a new utopian paradigm: music that could be made and performed by everyone, not limited to “the 1%” who had the training for classical music-making. Yet for all its influence on popular culture, and for all the revolutionary changes in daily life this technology has enabled, the type of electronic composition Subotnick pioneered still inhabits a rarefied world of its own.
Filed under: electronic music, new music, video art