Vintage Volts, Future Sound

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.“

Trying to keep track of Subotnick these days also demands a kind of virtuosity. Santa Fe is his home base; so is New York, and he has been known to look in on activities here as well. The best of his music has to do with combinations: computer-generated sounds interacting with live performers via ”intelligent“ software. His Key to Songs blends a live chamber ensemble into MIDI technology, and grabs at a Schubert melody for further leavening. His All My Hummingbirds Have Alibis, produced on a CD-ROM by the Voyager Company, surrounds one of Max Ernst‘s Surrealist collage works with a MIDI score and changes in sight and sound that the consumer can control at the computer. Two other computer programs produced for Voyager, Making Music and Making More Music, are ostensibly designed for children but have been known to enthrall certain older types as well (present company by no means excluded); you compose, you orchestrate, you mess around with harmonies, you work out convoluted counterpoints, you stay up late and miss deadlines.

You can think of these do-it-yourself programs, in fact, as a kind of return to the sense of those early LPs as a self-contained musical experience, but with a difference. Subotnick’s latest project is a software program whose working title is Gestures; the whole purpose of my words, in fact, is to get you to the bookstore at MOCA on Thursday, February 17, at 6:30 p.m., when he will be demonstrating his work-in-progress. ”Those early electronic pieces,“ he says, ”particularly Silver Apples, I see as a kind of chamber-music package for the home. Now I‘ll be getting back to that idea, but with all the extras that the computer allows. Now we can unwrap the package.

“Here’s how it works. The program will come on a DVD-ROM disc, which every computer will eventually be able to play, and which holds a fantastic amount of music, much more than a CD. You play the music, but you use your mouse to control what you‘re actually hearing. With your mouse you can change the location of the music in the space of the room. You can change the speed. You can change the relative intensity of the sounds, the way a conductor can change the emphasis of different instruments within a symphony orchestra. The computer can read your gestures, the way you’re actually using the mouse, and these gestures also affect the way the music occurs. On the screen, the animated story will also change as it relates to your own gestures. Every piece, therefore, and every image can become an infinite number of pieces and images.

”My God, I just realized,“ says Subotnick, ”the Wizard of Oz has become a mouse!“


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