Morton Subotnick


By Ray Sawhill

Writers have by now been comfortable on word processors for years, and a designer without a knowledge of Quark and Photoshop would have a hard time finding a job. Still, there seems to be a basic antagonism between the world of computer technology and the world of the humanities. Techies find liberal-arts values squishy and indefinite. (You get the impression that one reason they love the electronic universe so much is that they feel set free of any concern for such values there.) Liberal arts people turn their nose up at any contemplation of what the machines imply for their art and lives. They seem delighted to take any excuse not to give electronics serious thought.

Morton Subotnick, the éminence grise of American electronic music, has been bridging the worlds of technology and art for years. He had a hand in the development of the earliest synthesizers, worked out the music-composition program Interactor, did stints at MIT and IRCAM, and has had a long association with Cal Arts; he’s now chairman of the Composition and New Media program, and co-director of the Center for Experiments in Art, Information and Technology. His compositions include multimedia extravaganzas, a CD-ROM, and the 1967 “Silver Apples of the Moon” — the first electronic work made specifically for “performance” on record. Next up is “The Poetics of Space,” a CD-ROM inspired by Gaston Bachelard’s book on esthetics.

Now he has brought out “Making Music” (Voyager), volume one of a projected four-part music education series for children. It’s a landmark disc. Most music-instruction discs are amazingly short of imagination; they simply provide the electronic equivalent of a conventional music education. Subotnick takes advantage of what the electronic medium makes possible to present a new vision of, and a new approach to, music. His disc for young beginners includes not one mention of staffs, or even of middle C; there isn’t a finger drill to be found. (Notation will be introduced in disc 2.)

What Subotnick, working with programmer Mark Coniglio, presents is sound in its most basic dimensions — pitch, duration, tone, volume — and simple tools that enable a child to manipulate them as easily as she can paint in “KidPix.” Although it’s meant for young kids, and is full of cheerful faces and cartoon animals, “Making Music” is likely to make the head of even an adult with a decent music background buzz. What Subotnick’s program can do for an adult is move you past the jerry-built mess that is, for most of us, what we call our “music knowledge.” “Making Music” is a reminder of the fact that music is first and foremost sound organized in time. Everything else — the whole apparatus of key signatures, counterpoint, the circle of fifths, etc. — is simply tools. Experiencing this from a composer’s point of view — which is what the program enables you to do — is very different than simply reading about it.

All this makes Subotnick one of the few people so far who have used the medium to express and approach a subject, and to do that while bringing a personal point of view to bear. Conceived of in a classically humanistic way, “Making Music” delivers in a new medium the classic humanistic satisfactions.


Ray Sawhill: When did you first start using electronics?

Morton Subotnick: I started with technology back in around ’57-’58. I was writing music for a theater production of “King Lear” in San Francisco. I wanted to develop the storm scene out of Lear’s voice. It seemed reasonable; I knew about the experiments happening in Europe and the U.S. I used one of the early tape recorders, and did recordings of Lear’s voice. And then I recorded instruments. I’d splice a cello pizzicato to the head of a horn note. In those days to make a tape cross-fade, you had to use a steel ruler and make a diagonal and use pieces of tape. It took me months and months, close to a year, to finish the score.

Did you say, This is for me?

That was it. By the time I finished it, I was totally hooked. And I didn’t expect that to happen, because I was playing clarinet with the San Francisco Symphony at the time, and I was composing. But what I discovered was that I had found a way to be both a composer and a performer. So my two worlds, which were very split apart at the time, I could bring together.

So the computer really turns music into a studio art.

That’s right. That’s what we saw in the earliest days, back in the late ’50s — the potential of music being a studio art. That ability to be both a performer and a composer, and then to be able to stand back and listen to the results. I think “Making Music” may be the first instance for children where that happens.

Is that still what attracts you to using the computer?

Basically, yeah. And that’s why, in the early ’60s, I got involved in helping develop the first synthesizers. I had a clear notion of what I wanted from the medium, which was to be able to interact with it. And it was the performer/composer relationship that was why I got involved with all the interactive media from the beginning. It’s also why these four kids’ programs will be about composing and performing. You’re the sole creator of a piece of music.

Did “Making Music” come out of your experience as a teacher?

As a composer, and as a father. A kid can fingerpaint, or play with boxes, building forts. Or draw. Sure, they can’t draw perspective, but they can make an image, and they can know what they don’t know. They can say, How do you do that? And then go and learn it. Music was never that way. You had to learn notation and technique. If you said to a kid who wanted to play with cardboard boxes, you can’t do this until you go to architecture school, it would be insanity.

Have you done any composing or creating in recent years that didn’t involve electronics?

Once, for the Oregon Symphony. But it was so boring for me. Starting from scratch and doing everything is really the instinct of a studio artist. The studio artist in music is composer, performer, and audience. That’s why I got bored writing the orchestra piece, because I was only composing.

Have computers gotten to where you want them to be?

I’m using MIDI and laser discs in conjunction with the computer, and what I’d like to do is be able to do everything on the computer. It’s still a question of needing more storage and more speed.

Some people think computers will just go on changing forever, that we’ll always have to junk our equipment every five years. Do you?

No. The first people who flew airplanes probably knew that at a certain point it would get fast enough to change the whole world. But the Concorde has never really caught on. It seems as though five hours to cross the Atlantic is fast enough for most people. I think computers will get to a point where they’re good enough for most of the things most people want to do with them.

What did you get out of your stays at IRCAM and MIT?

Well, when I went in 1979, I had just sold all my analog equipment. I had used it up. There was nowhere I could go with it. See, I didn’t want to just make computer music, I wanted to explore the interactive aspect I’d already developed with analog. But there was nothing around that could do it at the time. When I got the commission and went in ’79, my main point was to find out if I could actually do it in digital or not, and whether I had the aptitude to do it or not, because I’d worked so long with analog. And it turned out it was just second nature to me. I didn’t have any problems at all. Right after that I went to MIT to see if I could get this program going that eventually became Interactor. And that came real easy to me as well. It was a very important period — from ’79 to ’81 — in terms of turning my stuff around.

What’s “The Poetics of Space” going to be like?

The chapter that’s most worked out is called “Corners.” It starts at a high level of purity. You go down corridors which are geometric and architectural. And let’s say there’s an imperfection in a wall, and you respond to that. So things begin to change subtly. The next time you come on, it could go all the way from the geometric version to people hiding behind a wall during the Holocaust.

It sounds like “Myst” moved into a more abstract realm.

The main difference is that it’s interactive at a different level.

I hope there aren’t any puzzles. I hate puzzles.

There are no puzzles at all. You just experience the thing and respond. I have the idea that in this intimate world — this relationship between the individual and the machine — there’s no reason why the machine can’t mirror your response rather than always being this object that you act on.

I’m so dismayed by programs that insist you solve something in order to move to the next level. Even with a mystery novel, you don’t have to solve a puzzle in order to be able to read the next chapter.

I liken the art experience to surfing. If you have to suddenly stop and think, the next thing you know, you’re drowning. I don’t want to sit there and pick things. To me, that’s contrary to the aesthetic experience — to start making conscious choices. You have to stay unconscious, or preconscious. When you’re dealing with art, and an art experience, you get carried along by it. You ride the crest of a wave, even when you read a mystery novel. You can’t stop and sort of left-brain the thing.


What are the challenges of working in a medium that’s infinite in the possibilities it offers?

But it’s not infinite. I think what we’re really talking about at this point is, To what extent does the medium drive the content, and to what extent does the content drive the medium? If you have content in mind, you find a medium that works for that content — and you also then find out what the medium’s limitations are.

Can you give an example?

A program like Macromedia Director is extremely biased. It was invented as a multimedia presentational too, not as an art tool — and if an artist has a multimedia piece in mind, he’ll find Director terribly binding. It’s just like a vise. But if you don’t have content in mind, you don’t realize you’re being controlled by the bias. It’s as if a mathematician and a scientist invented the English language in six months. Would we have poetry? Yeah, but it wouldn’t be Shakespeare. It’s the content-driven quality of the use of technology that I’m interested in. And in my work with young artists I try to get them to approach it from that standpoint.

You sound like you want more artists to get more involved in the digital world.

Absolutely. Putting demands on it. I think it’s a responsibility on the part of the artists. The bulk of what most people are going to do with a technology will always be technology-driven. But the people who bother me the most are the people who put down the technology and sit around and say, Oh, books are so great. These are the people who should be putting demands on the technology, not saying, let’s get rid of it. They should be saying, Look, if we accept the fact that this is the way the world is going to be, these are the kinds of things that should be included. It would spark the imagination of programmers, and get them going. I think the technology is vital and fabulous. But I think it’s a mistake to think of the computer or the digital world as a driving force. It’s people who have to drive it.

©1995 by Ray Sawhill

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Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.

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