One of the first recordings to make use of analog synthesizers, Morton Subotnick’s 1967 album From Silver Apples of the Moon broke new ground when it was originally released. It doesn’t sound particularly dated, as its percolating synthesizers have a sparse, metallic sound that almost sound contemporary. We spoke to Subotnick recently by phone to find out exactly what he has planned for tomorrow’s concert at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The show starts at 7 p.m. and tickets range from $15 to $25.
Talk about the show you’ll present here at MOCA.
It’s a live performance with synthesizer and computer. It’s surround sound. I call it From Silver Apples in the Moon to A Sky of Cloudless Sulfur: Lucy. My first record in 1967 was Silver Apples. When I finally got to a Sky Cloud Filled with Sulfur, I felt like I had done it. Then, I went on to work with instruments and I kept trying to do it live as improvisations. You have to have so much equipment on stage to do that. I stopped doing that about 20 years ago and then four years ago, I was in Europe preparing for an opera and they asked if I would do some performances to help generate interest. I hadn’t done it in a long time and I took some equipment with me. We went to a modern art museum and started to play and I really enjoyed it. The computer enabled me to do many things I couldn’t do all those years. The audience went nuts and we did encores. I have 15 to 20 performances this season all over the world. I take the materials from Silver Apples and A Sky of Cloudless Sulfur and I have them available in many shapes and forms. It’s like a jazz performance.
It sounds like each show is radically different from the previous one.
Yes. I always start with Silver Apples because that’s the most different from anything I did. That was really ancient times. It was the first time that anyone ever used a sequencer. I had two two-track tape recorders. The sound quality of the samples aren’t as sophisticated, but it’s interesting because the music still works.
What originally drew you to electronic music?
That’s a long story. I’m writing a book for MIT Press and I’m only on chapter 10 an still have finished. It was around 1958 or 1959. I was a very good clarinetist with the San Francisco symphony. I was writing music for instruments. I began to sense there was something happening and the world was going to change electronically. We were at a crossroads and I wanted to move my art into that area. I began to experiment and I found a whole sense of what I could contribute in some way. I gave up the clarinet and writing for instruments and decided to dedicate myself to this and I thought I would have something to say that could be interesting to other people and that I should try it. I couldn’t find equipment to do what I wanted to do, and I put an ad in the paper and commissioned some engineers and mapped out this instrument that became the first analog synthesizer. I don’t know if that’s really true but that’s what the historians say.
Were you surprised at the impact that Silver Apples had?
I had no idea. I was shocked and delighted. When the Library of Congress put into the American Registry of Records, which is like a time capsule with only 300 other recordings, that was moving to me. I wasn’t looking to make a million dollars or be famous or make a masterpiece. I just wanted to make a contribution and I clearly did and that’s very meaningful.
Do you listen to contemporary electronic music?
I don’t. I’m really busy. I get up at 5 a.m. I’m writing a book. I have new commissions. I prepare for performances. I"m working on music curriculum for children from K through 6th grade. I work 12 hours a day. I don’t have a lot of time. I have an agenda. I’m doing it and I’m 80. I don’t want to stop. I don’t know how many more years I have but I would sure like to finish what I started. I do listen but it’s not an active thing.
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