Electronic Music's Godfather Isn't Done Innovating

Oct 12, 2013
Originally published on October 12, 2013 6:05 am

Morton Subotnick could fairly be called electronic music's first hitmaker. His 1967 album Silver Apples of the Moon was an international sensation. Or, in his words, "It was like a bombshell."

Silver Apples was the first piece of electronic music commissioned by a record label and was created on the first synthesizer small enough to sit on a table. Subotnick's Greenwich Village workspace became a drop-in spot for musicians from The Mothers of Invention to The Grateful Dead to The Velvet Underground. One night, unfamiliar visitors arrived.

"Some [club owners] came in and said, 'We just bought the name Electric Circus. We don't know exactly what it is, but we were told if anyone knows, you would know.' So I gave them a demonstration of an electric circus. They made me the director," Subotnick says.

As that Manhattan nightclub's artistic director, Subotnick gave birth to electronic dance music. He says opening night at the Electric Circus was a big event.

"[Japanese conductor] Seiji Ozawa came down; members of the Kennedy family were there," Subotnick says. "I played about a half-hour's worth of material starting with a heartbeat. ... It wasn't a beat that you would usually use in rock 'n' roll, but it was a strong pulse, and that's all they needed. And they ended up dancing to it."

Subotnick's interest in new sounds goes back a long way. As a child prodigy in 1950s Los Angeles, playing clarinet with symphony orchestras, he sensed that something new was brewing. The miniaturization that led to things like the transistor radio meant you no longer needed a room full of equipment to make electronic sounds. Subotnick and Ramon Sender, his partner in the San Francisco Tape Center (a nonprofit dedicated to tape music), collaborated with electronics engineer Donald Buchla to develop the first compact analog electronic synthesizer. Their goal was to turn people's living rooms into concert halls.

"What I loved about it was I could be in my studio and be the composer, the interpreter, the performer and the listener," Subotnick says. "It would be like being a painter. I could make my music until I really loved it, just perfect — and then it would become a record and go into someone's home. For me, it wasn't recording something; it was creating something new for that medium."

Subotnick's interests in music and technology didn't end with the synthesizer: He's moved on into digital media and its interactive possibilities. In 1995, he released a CD-ROM titled Making Music for kids, ages 5 and up, to experiment with sounds on the computer. It sold in the hundreds of thousands.

Early last year, he released an iPad app called Pitch Painter, which allows even very small children to "compose" by selecting instruments from different cultures and drawing on the screen.

Subotnick says he believes the making of music can and should be easy and accessible. Even before Pitch Painter became an iPad app, a prototype was installed at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, where it still delights student groups.

Now 80, Subotnick says his goal has always been the same.

"What we could do, what we could feel, what we could create, what we could imagine that was unimaginable before, or not easily imaginable before," he says. "Not just making music with technology, but trying to have it deliver new ideas and new feelings and new ways to think about things."

When we have access to technology more compact, fluid and flexible than what we've got now, he'll get to work on that, too.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

One of the earliest composers to use computers to manipulate sound was Morton Subotnick. He celebrated his 80th birthday this year. He is one of the fathers of electronic dance music, and now he dedicates himself to projects making music and technology more accessible. Howard Mandel reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOWARD MANDEL, BYLINE: Morton Subotnick was the first hit-maker of electronic music - his 1967 album, "Silver Apples of the Moon," was an international sensation.

MORTON SUBOTNICK: It was like a bombshell.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANDEL: It was the first piece of electronic music commissioned by a record label and created on the first synthesizer small enough to sit on a table. Subotnick's Greenwich Village workspace became a drop-in spot for musicians from the Mothers of Invention to the Grateful Dead to the Velvet Underground. One night, unfamiliar visitors arrived.

SUBOTNICK: Some guys came in and said we just bought the name Electric Circus. We don't know exactly what it is but we were told if anyone knows, you would know. So I gave them a demonstration of an electric circus. They made me the director.

MANDEL: And in the club, Subotnick gave birth to electronic dance music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SUBOTNICK: Opening night Seiji Ozawa came down, members of the Kennedy family were there. It was a big event. And I played about half hour's worth of material starting with a heartbeat - sort of big, down the floor vibrating. And then later it goes. It wasn't a beat that you would usually use in rock 'n' roll but it was a strong pulse and that's all they needed, and they ended up dancing to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Subotnick's interest in new sounds goes back a long way. As a child prodigy in 1950s Los Angeles, soloing on clarinet with symphony orchestras, he sensed that something new was brewing. The miniaturization that led to things like the transistor radio meant you no longer needed a room full of equipment to make electronic sounds. Subotnick and Ramon Sender, his partner in the San Francisco Tape Center, a hotbed of new music, collaborated with electronics engineer Donald Buchla, to develop that first compact analog electronic synthesizer. Their goal was to turn people's living rooms into concert halls.

SUBOTNICK: And what I loved about it was I could be in my studio and be the composer, the interpreter, the performer and the listener. It would be like being a painter. I could make my music until I really loved it, just perfect. And then I never had to leave my studio. It would become a record and go into someone's home. And for me it wasn't recording something, it was creating something new for that medium.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANDEL: Subotnick's combinations of music and technology didn't end with the synthesizer. He's moved on, naturally, to digital media and its interactive possibilities. In 1995, he released a CD-ROM titled "Making Music for Kids Ages 5 and Up" to experiment with sounds on the computer. It sold in the hundreds of thousands. In spring of 2012, he released an iPad app called Pitch Painter, allowing even very small children to compose by selecting instruments from different cultures, and drawing on the screen.

SUBOTNICK: The iPad is perfect because you literally do finger-paint. And that's what I've got here. We've got a canvas. And let's start with clarinet...

(SOUNDBITE OF CLARINET)

SUBOTNICK: Now, I'm going to add a little trumpet.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUMPET)

SUBOTNICK: OK. Now, I'm going to add some piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO)

SUBOTNICK: Now, I'll play the whole thing together.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SUBOTNICK: And we can scrub it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SUBOTNICK: Becomes a whole different composition. You can have a whole lot of fun just playing.

MANDEL: You can just play it.

SUBOTNICK: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANDEL: Subotnick believes the making of music can and should be easy and completely accessible. Even before Pitch Painter became an iPad app, a prototype was installed at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, where it still delights student groups.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANDEL: At the age of 80, Morton Subotnick says his pursuits has always been the same.

SUBOTNICK: What we could do, what we could feel, what we could create, what we could imagine that was unimaginable before or not easily imaginable before, not just making music with technology but trying to have it deliver new ideas and new feelings and new ways to think about things.

MANDEL: When technology more compact, fluid and flexible than what we've got now, he'll get to work on that, too. For NPR News, I'm Howard Mandel in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.