By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Down in the depths of Lower Manhattan there stands the Knitting Factory, a dilapidated four-story walkup where Avon Products once stored its lipsticks and bubble baths, and, since 1987, a shrine where aficionados of multimedia now keep tabs on the arts of tomorrow and the day after. Affectionately and accurately thought of as ”the backstage of cyberspace,“ the Knitting Factory is where you go to hear music whose ink is not quite dry, and to marvel at the purposeful blur of the video image not quite in focus. A West Coast outpost is slated for a Hollywood opening come May.
On one night last month, however, the Knitting Factory‘s premises turned positively retro, with what was announced as a festival of ”classic“ electronic music. Composers on hand included such wired-music pioneers as Pauline Oliveros and Morton Subotnick, along with minimalist Tony Conrad -- whose place in the experimental-music firmament has already been secure for three decades and more.
”It was amazing,“ said Subotnick into his telephone a day or two after the concert. ”The crowd was the usual gathering of 20- and 30-year-olds, and I expected to be greeted with a little quiet respect as one of the new-music gray eminences. Instead, there were cheers. Dozens of people had brought some of my oldest music for me to autograph -- Silver Apples of the Moon, for example -- and not just the CD reissues. Most of them had the original Nonesuch LPs, in what looked like brand-new copies. Talking to some of them, I got the impression that lots of people these days are actually listening to this pristine electronic music for its content: not for drugs, not for Madison Avenue chic -- just sober listening, the way we might listen to Brahms. This concert made me realize that electronic music has, in fact, been around long enough that we can talk about there being a history, a lore, a repertory of ’classics.‘“
A recent anthology disc, Early Modulations: Vintage Volts on the New York--based Caipirinha label, offers a quick sweep though the wonderfully varied early years of the medium: from 1953 (a spray of bloops and bleeps from the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, whose equipment took up a whole warehouse on Manhattan’s West Side) through the musique concrete experiments in Paris, a John Cage ”Imaginary Landscape,“ past a delicious bit of the sampled voice of Max Mathews (clear progenitor of the creature on the phone who gives you the menu of push buttons), and ending in 1967 with an extended excerpt from Subotnick‘s Silver Apples of the Moon, an authentic 20th-century milestone.
By the time of Silver Apples, Subotnick was already an eager player in the fast-evolving electronic language. In 1961, he had joined hands with composers (Oliveros and Ramon Sender), dancers, filmmakers and beat poets to found the San Francisco Tape Music Center, the prototype of latter-day experimental beehives like Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM in Paris and anti-establishment performance spaces like the Knitting Factory. Programs at the Tape Music Center‘s cramped quarters on Divisadero Street became hot-ticket events. ”We had to swear everybody to secrecy,“ Subotnick remembers, ”so that the police would never know our address. We were sure they suspected us of doing drugs, which, by the way, we weren’t.“
The toy of choice at the Tape Music Center was Donald Buchla‘s ”Electric Music Box,“ an amazing package of circuitry that managed to squeeze the potential of the old monster synthesizer into a portable apparatus not much larger than a suitcase, that could be played live on the stage and could sit on a table in a composer’s lab. In 1966, Subotnick was commissioned by Nonesuch Records -- then as now a model of enlightened programming and marketing -- to create on the Buchla box music of symphonic scope. Silver Apples was the first result, followed soon after by The Wild Bull, both among the world‘s most acclaimed ear-openers. (Both works have been reissued complete on Germany’s Wergo label. True believers, however, prefer the Nonesuch LPs.)
To Subotnick, the fact that each LP disc of these works represented the totality of a musical composition, with no piano soloist or symphony orchestra acting as intermediary, demanded a drastic redefinition of the nature of music. ”If you picked up a recording of one of my pieces,“ he says, ”what you‘d have isn’t a recording of someone‘s performance; it’s the work itself, unadulterated, untouched by human hands until you tear off the wrapper.“ The next step for Subotnick, however, was to reverse direction and blend some kind of human element into this self-contained musical unity. The mechanism that made this both possible and practical was another miracle of space-squeezing: Apple‘s Macintosh, which came onto the scene in the early 1980s, replaced the room-filling mainframe computer now deemed prehistoric, and remains the handiest musical tool since the invention of middle C.
At California Institute of the Arts, where he had founded one of the world’s first electronic-music teaching facilities, Subotnick set the Mac to work to humanize the splendid spectrum of new electronic sounds he had fashioned. Among his colleagues at CalArts was the new generation of fearless performers -- people like cellist Erika Duke, flutist Dorothy Stone and percussionist Amy Knoles, who still perform together as part of the California EAR Unit; with them he worked out a series of elaborate, throbbing ”ghost“ pieces in which live performance and taped electronic sounds would interact in relationships controlled by a computerized program. ”I used to think of myself as the Wizard of Oz,“ Subotnick says. ”There‘d be all this musical activity out in front, lines of counterpoint, tremendous virtuosity, but if anybody looked behind the curtain, there I’d be, alone with my computer, making it all take shape.“