Morton Subotnick’s ‘Silver Apples’ rings again

When Morton Subotnick programmed the Electric Circus to open on St. Mark’s Place in July 1967 with the heartbeat sequence from his Buchla Electric Music Box composition “Silver Apples of the Moon,” the 3,000 beautiful people in attendance included Seiji Ozawa, George Plimpton, Mary McCarthy, Truman Capote and various Kennedys. The men wore tuxedos. Alcohol was served. But as the Village Voice observed at the time, the mob of hippies was stoned. Subotnick’s music—which morphed from something like bees buzzing to steam venting percussively, mice scurrying over taut harp strings, accordions groaning in slow motion and fields of mist turning into shattering crystal—led to a night of trapeze and escape artists, strobe lights, heavy rock disco and the live band Circus Maximus.

Subotnick revisits “Silver Apples,” a seminal work of analogue electronic music, at the David Rubinstein Atrium of Lincoln Center April 7, in collaboration with video artist Lillevan, his recent partner in gigs at German nightclubs. It’s part of an 11-day Unsound Festival organized by Krakow-based Fundacja Tone with the Polish Cultural Institute in New York and Germany’s Goethe Institute cultural mission. Yes, it’s fallen to European art agencies to restore New York-born experimental multi-media extravaganzas to public prominence. But the high tech, radically immediate, wildly unconventional improvisations Subotnick pioneered more than 40 years ago are as cutting edge now as in any time since their inception.

Somehow the era has returned for the “new art for a new medium” Morton Subotnick, once a virtuoso symphony clarinetist, determined to create even before there were instruments with which to create it. Many of the concepts he dreamed up—the use of steadily pulsing sequencers for repeated rhythmic patterns; the prominence of figures not so much “atonal” as simply unrelated to traditional Western do-re-me scale and harmony; the nearly physical tangibility of sounds projected as if by magic to specific spots and trajectories across a performance space; the juxtaposition of independent, often outlandish performances or visual stimuli against unpredictable journeys launched through sheer sound—are taken nearly for granted. It wasn’t always so.

“It was in the late ’50s, early ’60s that I thought about a new approach that involved all sorts of thing,” Subotnick, youthful at 77, said during a recent phone interview, not boasting, but a little awed at what a long, strange trip it’s been. “What I was doing sounds like what young people are doing now. I predicted what kinds of things people would look at and want once they moved into direct contact with the media instead of going to hear concert music that was coming at them from the stage. That’s why people are picking up a record I did in ’67 and say, ‘Wow, here’s a fresh look at what we’re up to.’ I think I had a vision that was clear.”

Prior to “Silver Apples of the Moon”—the first electronic composition commissioned specifically for record release—and Subotnick’s prototypes for it, electronic music was an ungainly duckling, requiring room-sized banks of wave form generators, controllers and filters. There was little agreement about esthetic direction, though Stockhausen expressed a prevailing concept in his writings: electronic synthesizers and computers would replace musicians to extend the 12-tone serialism initiated by Arnold Schoenberg which had won a privileged place in academic discourse on music. Milton Babbitt and others adapted pieces they’d written for conventional instruments to electronics.

“I thought that was dumb,” Subotnick said. “I could play Milton’s music on clarinet and it would sound better, so why do that? I wanted to commission someone to invent a new instrument. I didn’t want a traditional instrument. I wanted a music easel, with all the possibilities. I had in mind a new paradigm where you would be the conductor and composer, electronic equipment would be your orchestra, you’d produce an environment you could improvise within, but not by playing notes. Instead, you’d choose what to make happen and how to make it happen, what kind of attack and decay to use, how to move the sound in space to play the room.” Don Buchla invented the instrument as a modular unit—with Subotnick’s consultation. “I’m still doing what I started then, and getting better at it now that there’s more equipment.”

Subotnick and Buchla anticipated the DIY movement of contemporary composers able to concoct orchestra-sized compound-complex pieces anywhere using nothing bigger than a laptop. The Buchla, now back in production, is touch-sensitive and has no keyboard. It can process and can be processed by sounds from software. This expands the electronic musical vocabulary Subotnick came up decades ago, which is maximally rich and fascinatingly varied though it veers far from “melody.”

Well, who needs melody? At the Electric Circus in the ’60s, people danced to “Silver Apples.” At Lincoln Center in 2011? I guess we’ll have to experience to find out.