Morton Subotnick, the pioneer of synthesizer, on what keeps him engaged in electronic music
Photo courtesy Morton Subotnick
Morton Subtonick (due Thursday, April 26, at ATLAS Institute as part of the annual Communikey Festival) is the pioneer of synthesizer music. Before he commissioned engineer Don Buchla to build a device that didn't yet have a name, the synthesizer did not exist. Electronic music existed, but not to the degree of development possible after the creation of the synthesizer. Subotnick benefited from his lifelong curiosity and applied intelligence. That and a little good fortune put him in a circle of people that included a good deal of the American avant-garde of the '60s and '70s, including filmmaker Stan Brakhage.
Subotnick's landmark 1967 album, Silver Apples on the Moon, is a classic of experimental music and a pioneering work in electronic composition. Since its release, Subotnick has continued to push the envelope of the medium and even today is working on developments that will impact anyone working in electronic music for decades to come. We had the rare opportunity to chat with Subtonick at length about his life, his work, his views on "noise" and what keeps him engaged in working in electronic music today.
Westword: What first got you interested in making the kind of sound and visual art you aimed for after you got out of the Army?
Morton Subotnick: That didn't really have anything to do with anything. I was drafted into the Korean War at the end of the war. I had been playing in the Denver Symphony in Denver. When I got out of high school, I was there for a couple of years, two or three years, playing clarinet. From there, I ended up in the Army band at the end of the Korean War. I was stationed in San Francisco, so that's how I got to San Francisco.
Obviously, you're not from Denver.
No, I grew up in Los Angeles. I did one semester at the University of Southern California. I graduated mid-year, and you could start any time of the year when I was little. I had started in the second semester. I got out of high school in January of '51, I think it was. Then I went to USC for one semester, then auditioned for the Denver Symphony and played Red Rocks that summer. I played a couple, three years before I got drafted.
What was Denver like when you were living here?
Quiet. Small. I was trying to stay out of the Army, so I actually went to Denver University and majored in English literature and anthropology, but I didn't get a degree. I went back after the Army and finished up one summer and finished up my degree, so I eventually did get a bachelor's degree at Denver University and came back to San Francisco and stayed on.
In the Army, what was your job?
I was in the Army band. It's long story, it's a funny story, but it's not very pleasant. But I managed to get through. What happened was... I don't know your background, but do you know who Stan Brakhage is?
Oh, of course.
Stan and I were very close friends. When I got to Denver, I met Stan. He was just out of high school. And Jim Tenney, also. The three of us hung out together along with a couple of other people. I was playing in the orchestra, but we were hanging out together, so I was connected to avant-garde film right off the bat. I was composing, but I made my living with the clarinet. So it was a very fabulous time for me. Those two or three years was one of the most important, formative periods of my life. We stayed friends all through until he died, obviously.
It was an exciting time, and when I got to San Francisco, of course, I was in the Army, but while there, I had met Harry Partch, because he was across in Sausalito. The Army was made up of a bunch of interesting musicians form the L.A. musicians' union. It was basically a daytime job. I had an apartment off base, which was not legal, but I managed to get in and never got into trouble. I was living in the Marina in San Francisco and had a pretty full bunch of activities at night. I even played in the New Music concerts and things like that in San Francisco and got to know the musicians and the artists and poets and so forth.
So I got accepted as a graduate student in music. When I went to USC out of high school, I had passed my entrance exams, my placement exams, and the music I needed to take for four years. When I went to Denver, I was playing in the symphony, and the courses I could take were whatever happened to be available at whatever time I could manage to take a course. So I didn't have a really thorough education.
I majored in English literature because I had never done anything but music in my life up until I got out of high school. I played clarinet very well, and I was writing music, and I studied music, obviously, because I could pass all the music-theory tests, but I had never really read much. I read philosophy and a bunch of stuff, but my grasp of literature was very weak.
So I flunked the entrance exam in English at USC and took that semester with the football team in remedial English. So when I got to Denver, I realized to stay out of the Army, I had to be in college, so I majored in English because of that. So I became rather prolific in reading and proficient in the language. Altogether, it added up to a happy ending.
When I got to San Francisco I was offered a fellowship at Mills College to study with Darius Milhaud. But in order to do that, I had to get my bachelor's degree, so I went back to Denver for the summer after I got out of the Army and took a huge number of courses and worked at Piggly Wiggly to make a living. Then I came back and worked with Milhaud in San Francisco.
Why did you form the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1960 with Ramon Sender?
We actually didn't intend to form a center. It was 1959/1960. By 1961, I was sure I wanted to be involved in electronic music -- with technology, basically, not just electronic music. I was going to give up the clarinet, which I was playing with the San Francisco Symphony at the time. It was a major decision, because I could easily make a living with the clarinet, but I didn't feel like I could do both because this was so pioneering at that moment.
I didn't know much about technology, and I was learning, and I had created a piece in 1960/1961 to just get a feel as to whether or not I had an aptitude for it, and I did. So Ramon was a very close friend, and so was Pauline [Oliveros] and several other people -- Terry Riley and so forth.
But Ramon and I were the ones involved with the technology. So in 1961, I discovered I really did have the ability to do it. He had some real electronic stuff, and I had a tape recorder and a bunch of sound sources. We pooled the equipment to make a studio together, and we found a house in San Francisco that was going to be torn down at some point; they didn't know when.
They said we could use the house on Jones Street. It was an old Victorian house with a huge living room. We ended up doing concerts there because it could seat up to eighty people. It had a dining room that was used as a stage and our studio.
Ramon and I had heard about this woman, I forget her name, who was from the family that owned the Wells Fargo Bank. She had just bought a Stradivarius quartet of instruments for one of the famous string quartets. So we thought maybe she would help us with some equipment. We wrote her a note, I guess; I don't remember how we did it. Anyway, we met her, and she said, "Oh, I'd be happy to help." But we had to become a nonprofit.
We got a lawyer friend and paid him $125, I think it was, to become a nonprofit. We had to have a name, so we called it the San Francisco Tape Music Center. We called it that because at that moment in time, Europeans and a little bit of New York dominated the electronic-music scene that had been going on for about five years at that point.
There was a battle between musique concrète and purely electronic sounds. We decided, the hell with that, we'll call it the Tape Music Center. Any sound you can put on a tape is good enough for us. We didn't want to be a party to an aesthetic brawl. So that was how it got named that, and that was the reason we did it.
We called her once we got the non-profit status and told her, and she said, "Oh, fine, I'll send you a check." So she did. She sent us a check for $25. Which we put on the wall, because it didn't even pay for becoming a non-profit corporation -- so, so much for that.