“i used to live across the way from 8th street records in new york city in 1967,” morton subtonick is telling the audience at the premiere for i dream of wires in berlin. he’s seated next to alec empire and the film’s director, robert fantinatto; they’ve both got the same look on their faces, a mixture of bemusement and fascination. “before i’d even gotten my own copy of silver apples of the moon, i decide to go into the record shop and buy it for myself, and i walk in there feeling as tall as a giant. i ask the guy at the counter, ‘have you got silver apples of the moon by morton subotnick? i’d like to buy it.’” subotnick pauses for a moment, setting up for the punchline, delivered with perfect self-deprecation: “‘yeah, we had it,’ he says, ‘but we’re sold out. people have been buying it up — i don’t know why though, it’s a piece of shit.’”
subotnick has, as they say, done it all. the record in question, silver apples of the moon, was the first longform electronic piece pressed on vinyl, and the first electronic album commissioned by a label, nonesuch records, in 1967. he created the album on a buchla modular synthesizer, the first piece of analog sound equipment small enough to fit on a desk, one that subotnick had a hand in designing. he’s a composer, a sound engineer, a multi-instrumentalist, a performer, a professor of music theory, and a founding member of the san francisco tape music center. he was the first ever music director at the actors workshop in new york. he helped established the california institute of the arts in 1969. his work has been immortalized in the library of congress. he’s lived, it seems, a hundred lives. he’s done “everything but the kitchen sink” — or in this case, the kitchen synth.
subotnick makes a lengthy appearance in the modular synthesizer documentary i dream of wires, alongside pioneers like ramon sender and herb deutsch, as well as contemporaries like carl craig, drumcell, and james holden. the film was five years in the making, and as fantinatto explains in his opening remarks, once subotnick was on board, they knew they had something special. “when i was a kid, i was at the library in my hometown, leafing through the record collection when i saw the sleeve for mort’s sidewinder,” fantinatto recalls, smiling, “there’s a small photo of him working on a modular synthesizer. i thought to myself, ‘man, what is that?’ and that’s where it all started. i was obsessed.”
evidently, that is where it starts for most lovers of modular and electronic music. subotnick has inspired an entire next generation of musicians, composers and producers. the day before his appearance at the wires premiere, where he would be participating in a live Q&A followed by a live performance, i sat down with mr. subotnick to talk modular, dreams, and being “the first.”
the film you’re appearing in is called i dream of wires. do dreams play a role in your waking life?
(laughs) well, i don’t dream of wires! definitely not. i don’t look for signs in dreams. i do look for interpretations of dreams. they’re coming from you, of course, so i wonder why i might be dreaming that particular thing, but i don’t look for a reason why i should or shouldn’t do something. it’s more like, “why am i dreaming that?” it tells me something about myself.
does it feel strange to look back on your life the way you did in the film?
no. (laughs) they just came to my studio and sat down with me, asked me questions. it wasn’t weird.
what about when you’re performing, for example, the silver apples show? is that an easier way to look back at your life’s work?
i’m always looking back. in some ways i’ve never left it, i’ve been at the same thing for a long time, trying to perfect it, and to do as best i can… as for silver apples, it’s not a performance of the album as such. it can’t be performed like that. there are pieces of it and the spirit of it is there, but…
it’s more about the spontaneity of live performance?
exactly. putting it together in different ways, adding new things to it before and after… i end with the very last record i made, the ending of that record. it’s integrated into the whole fabric. you’ll hear bits and pieces of these records but the opening ten minutes you probably won’t recognize at all.
how does the concept of storytelling change when you’re playing so spontaneously?
i don’t know. i don’t know about storytelling, i’m not telling stories. part of what people say is that with analog, you get something unexpected. that’s not wrong, but it’s not something that i think about. i’m not after absolute perfection, but i’m also not looking for surprises. what i like is this feedback of what i wanted, and then hearing it. that very moment of making it and then listening to it… it brings you to a different place. i’m not after surprises. i’m not opposed to them, but i’m not searching for them either. the beauty of this live kind of live performance is that it grows, and that’s my whole point: to somehow bring silver apples out into a whole different space.
at the time that you released silver apples, what was the reaction like? was there an electronic music industry, so to speak?
no, there wasn’t an industry. the interest in electronics, though, that was great. that was huge. switched on bach came out the year after and that really sold a lot! you were mixing the great adventure of the future of electronic technology with the music of johann sebastian bach. it was great music and it was a big hit. silver apples was a hit as well, but i didn’t sell as many records, but it made news all over the place. and i was very surprised by that.
i’m interested to know what it was like to be a part of pioneering the modular synth movement. what was it like to be “the first”?
i knew. i knew we were the first at something. i saw the new technology that was just coming into being and the implications of it were… huge. i dedicated myself to this new technology, because i knew it was an exciting moment. it was like being conscious… at a prime time in my creativity when the equivalent to the printing press was being developed for music… it’s a pretty exciting moment. not everybody knew that, you know.
what has it been like watching the technology that you helped develop grow in such a way? the buchla was the first analog synth small enough to fit on a desk and now…
it’s something i expected. actually, i’m surprised that there is so much equipment today that does look like it! i didn’t start the buchla until 1962 or 63, but when i conceptualized the whole notion in 1961, i imagined that it would be almost 100 years before we really saw what that new technology would mean. and it’s moved faster than that. technology moves fast, like you said.
are you satisfied with how things have turned out?
i’m seeing changes each year. i’m seeing a more sophisticated and complex view of what new music can be. like at unsound in toronto… i think what atom was doing, what he does shows a really major shift in the way we can work with music. you can actually see it. his work is very different than other people’s work. that’s what i’m talking about. this idea of assimilating a more complex view of emotions, thoughts, content, all of these things, putting them together and expressing them musically… it’s starting to evolve into something. i don’t think anyone can say what it’s going to be, whether it’s good or bad. does that even matter? you can’t qualify things that way.
you’ve said that your goal has always been not only to make music with new technology, but to deliver ideas and new ways to think about things. are you the kind of person that ideas come naturally to?
we all are, aren’t we? i don’t know about good or bad, but we’re all people with ideas. and that’s what makes us. if you have a strong feeling about something, as humans, we have an obligation to express it and not just to think it! with live performance, i’ve got about a season or two left, and then i’ll stop because i’ll have done the best i can. no sense in repeating it. i have a mantra about being alive, which is: “understand yourself, and then to take it as far as you can.” (laughs) we don’t have to but we should. that’s why i keep doing what i’m doing, because i want to get as far as i can with every idea.
++ top photo via rbma daily