Plugged in from the start, Morton Subotnick performs a classic and world premiere at Lincoln Center Festival

Fri Jul 21, 2017 at 12:08 pm
Morton Subotnick performed "Silver Apples of the Moon" and the world premiere of "Crowds and Power" Thursday night at the Lincoln Center Festival.

Morton Subotnick performed “Silver Apples of the Moon” and the world premiere of “Crowds and Power” Thursday night at the Lincoln Center Festival.

Morton Subotnick makes music with a laptop computer and a modular synthesizer, which makes him a throwback to the foundational composer-performer. That he uses electronic means does not fundamentally separate him from the classical past—an instrument is just an instrument-and he has been indispensable in bringing the past and contemporary thinking together.

Thursday night the composer sat at a table in the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse with a laptop, a Buchla Music Easel, and some control surfaces in front of him, and performed Silver Apples of the Moon and the world premiere of Crowds and Power as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. The concert was a refresher in the lasting success of Silver Apples and a testament to how Subotnick’s long and creative career continues.

The right man in the right place at the right time, Subotnick often tells the story about how he was working with tape music in the late 1950s and thinking about the possibility of turning composition into a studio art; composing music that is realized in real time. He was introduced to Don Buchla, and thus the modular synthesizer was born.

As was composition as a studio art. Subotnick was commissioned by Nonesuch records to use the synthesizer to make a piece of music that was meant solely for the home stereo. With Silver Apples, the modern era of electronic music began.

Just as Silver Apples was the fruit of new technology, so are live performances of the piece possible because of contemporary digital music making means. Though recorded, it could never be reproduced exactly—the analog technology of the modular synthesizer made it impractical to successfully preserve and repeat the settings that produced the music. Now, though, with the elements of the piece sampled as separate parts and placed into Ableton Live software, Subotnick can perform the piece and make it live, each concert a slightly different realization than all the others. This makes him a conductor as well, with the laptop as his orchestra.

This also avoids the frequent danger of electronic music concerts, the uncomfortable and boring experience of sitting with a group of people under dimmed lights, staring at the speakers. Thursday, Subotnick may not have been doing a lot, but he was always doing something— there was a connection between what the eye saw and the ear heard. And with material as rich as Silver Apples, full of singing and whistling oscillators, chattering attacks, and industrial rhythms, his performance was mesmerizing.

For Crowds and Power, a response to Elias Canetti’s book, Subotnick made and managed the music which worked together with live imagery from video artist Lillevan and the performance of vocalist Joan La Barbara.

Fading in musically and visually to overlap with the final diminuendo of Silver Apples, Crowds and Power developed with powerful effect. There was Subotnick’s typically excellent palette of timbres, the same kind of classic bleeps and bloops heard in the earlier piece, bright and lovely transformations of La Barbara’s pointillist attacks and long tones, and a mouth-watering percussive sound that combined cellophane and wood. La Barbara was silent more often than not, gesturing charismatically towards an imaged audience far in the distance. Lillevan’s visual material included gorgeous star fields and a background that looked like worn papyrus, and his images were mostly abstract.

As was the total piece, for the first and last of its three contiguous parts. Canetti’s book is an examination of mob mentality and rule, an attempt to understand something that will always be frightening and strange. And the piece worked this way for a while, it was attractive and engrossing while insinuating a disturbing and powerful sensation directly into the hindbrain, an inadvertent and ideal tribute to the late, great George Romero (who himself had plenty to say about the mob).

Then the piece moved from abstraction to representation, with La Barbara’s authoritarian, guttural vocalizations set in front of images of military parades and an enormous, angry, Big Brother-like visage. The message was clear, and that was the problem—trading an indefinable but marvelous effect for didacticism and obviousness.

The spell of art was broken, and for a time Crowds and Power became a lecture. While the magic of the first part never returned, the coda was beautiful, a gentle, warm expression of hope and inner peace.

This program repeats 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse.

One Response to “Plugged in from the start, Morton Subotnick performs a classic and world premiere at Lincoln Center Festival”

  1. Posted Jul 21, 2017 at 5:37 pm by Howard Tate

    Morton Subotnick is one of the reasons people cringe when I tell them I make synthesizer music. I try to explain, “no, I make MUSIC, with synthesizers.” But they’re still afraid and run away screaming.

    Listening to electronic “experimental” music is like being subjected to a thousand snapshots of your aunt’s and uncle’s vacation in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A few shots are accidentally interesting.

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