Electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick is a bit of a talker. In an phone interview before his September 2016 lecture at the Oakland Museum of California, the now 84-year-old Subotnick spoke with KQED Arts for over an hour while answering about five questions. In that time Subotnick told several stories about his early start as a professional musician, how he ended up in the Bay Area, and how he helped design the first modular synthesizer with Don Buchla, who died just days before this interview.
Here, in advance of Subotnick’s headlining slot at the Don Buchla Memorial Concerts running April 22–23 at Gray Area Theater, we run those stories in his own words. Interview by Kevin L. Jones; edited for length and clarity.
I didn’t do much as a kid except music. It was what I did. I practiced the clarinet and I learned music, and started composing at 16 years old while living in Los Angeles, where I grew up.
I hated Los Angeles. I mean, I actually didn’t know I hated Los Angeles, I just didn’t fit in anywhere. I was in three or four grammar schools, two junior highs, and two high schools. Since we moved all the time, there were no neighbors that I knew, and after a while, I realized I was never going to have any friends.
My friends were Charles Ives and the music.
Getting access to modern music was very difficult. At that time, Bartók, who seems very traditional at this point — 20th century but traditional music — wasn’t allowed to even be played. The most avant-garde thing was 12-tone music from Arnold Schoenberg, and there were so few records around you couldn’t really hear anything. Schoenberg was not considered a composer, but a mathematician. John Cage was almost unheard of.
I was mostly learning traditional music, and even in high school I knew that they were leaving everything out. If you took a course in music history, modern music would start and end with Debussy and Ravel. That was it. At this point, it’s hard to even think they’re 20th century composers.
I discovered John Cage in 1951, and when I was in high school I discovered Charles Ives. That was a big influence, but there were very few pieces and almost no recordings.
Writing music, learning harmony and counterpoint and orchestration and all the things you would traditionally learn, I was learning out of books and occasionally taking a lesson with someone. There were no places to go except to college and I was too young.
I didn’t know where I was going with it, I just knew that that’s what I wanted to do. I really wanted to compose. Playing the clarinet was really easy for me and I was very good at it from a young age, so I had opportunities that I wasn’t going to throw away.
In high school, I played as a substitute for a couple of clarinetists who would need someone to go to a rehearsal when they’d get called in for studio work. The other musicians would put a group together to perform my music so I could hear it, because those were my peers at the point. Maybe I wasn’t a peer; I was a mascot.
I was playing the Mozart clarinet concerto and things like that. I was playing traditional music. New music too, like Stravinsky — that was the new music at the time. What I was writing was sort of in those veins: little bit from Bartok, but mostly from Schoenberg and Charles Ives. A kind of cross between those things. I was learning twelve-tone. Schoenberg lived in Los Angeles and so did Stravinsky, so I went to their concerts when I was in high school.
I auditioned for Juilliard the year before I graduated from high school and I was offered a scholarship. Then I was offered a scholarship at the University of Southern California. I went to USC. On the first day of the entrance exams I passed all four years of music, so I majored in English Literature.
The school had me playing all the time. They actually paid a little bit of money and I got a scholarship and free housing. I took courses that year, and I discovered a whole world that I hadn’t paid attention to, like literature, and science, and math, and everything that I had never even touched as a kid.
I was known by all the musicians, especially the wind players in Los Angeles, and they said “what are you doing at USC? Why don’t you go play in a symphony orchestra?” There was an audition for the Denver Symphony and the conductor was in town. I auditioned and I got a job as a second clarinet, or something, at the Denver Symphony. I was seventeen.
I went there and I met Stan Brakhage, who was just getting out of high school. Jim Tenney, who is a composer, experimental composer, he was just getting out of high school too. We ganged up together as a team, I mean, just as friends, and the whole world of avant-garde was opening like mad. Stan ended up doing with film what I would end up doing with electronics and things.
I got there to Denver and I was still in undergraduate because I had to go to college to stay out of the war. But I couldn’t matriculate because I was in rehearsals and everything. I took courses but they didn’t add up to a degree. I did a huge amount of literature and poetry. I was getting a huge education but it wasn’t a major in anything, so they finally got me in the army.
The next thing I knew, I was drafted into the Korean War and stationed in San Francisco, at the Presidio. We could stay out of battle if we played in a band, the Six Army Band from Los Angeles. Herb Alpert was in the band. It was all young musicians from Los Angeles.
I loved San Francisco, so I wanted to stay when I got out. I didn’t have a Bachelor’s degree because I had not finished up anything, but Mills College offered me a fellowship to go there. I would be studying with Darius Milhaud and Leon Kirchner. I can’t tell you how many courses I took. I doubled up on everything. I finished about a year and a half of work in a little more than two quarters of school.
By 1963, I knew what I wanted. I wanted a new instrument.
That was the vision I had in 1959, ’60, ’61, that we’re going to have a new … We’re entering a new period. My analogy was what the printing press was to language and ideas, the new transistor and the new technology would be to music because it was the first time everybody was going to be able to hear music.
You couldn’t hear music, which is really hard to understand today. You had to go to a concert to hear music. You had to have someone play. If you wanted to hear an opera on the radio, you could hear the Met and whatever it is that they were doing every Saturday morning. Recordings were not the main thing yet, and they didn’t really become cheap enough. At that point it was clear that everybody would be hearing music and it would be cheap.
Most of the people I knew were afraid that music was going to disappear, symphony orchestras would go down the drain, there would be nothing but machines making music. I didn’t see it that way at all. I wanted to be involved, so I began to think of how to do it. I came up with a plan, put an ad in the paper, and one of the people who came to build it was [Don] Buchla. He and I worked for close to two years on paper, because we didn’t have any money to even buy any parts. I was feeding him music information and saying “what we need is this, what we need is that.” Then he would say, “I think a way to do it would be this. I said “Oh god, that makes me think maybe we could do this, too. Yeah, we could do that.” It was almost two years of this.
When it arrived, I was ready to go. I knew what I was going to do with it, and I did it. Literally, I started Silver Apples of the Moon within a year of starting to work with the instrument. That isn’t to say the [synthesizer] didn’t have a big influence on me at that time, but it wasn’t like “Oh my gosh, look at this? What am I going to do with it?”
In 1966 I started working on what would become Silver Apples of the Moon. I was trying to make something with this machine that you couldn’t make with anything else. A new expression as best I could. I knew it was not going to be that new because there’s no way for me to get there, but to start with, I would go beyond anything I’d ever done before without any means, except electronic, but without the keyboards and things.
Silver Apples was made without a black and white keyboard. When I kept being asked, for years after, “What’s wrong with the keyboard?” I said that a keyboard is going to force you to make either old music with a new instrument or new old music. By avoiding the keyboard and all traditional instruments, to work only with the electronics, it would give you more opportunity to create a new music.
You have Silver Apples coming out in the fall of 1967, and Switched-On Bach, I think, is 1968. A Bach Brandenburg Concerto. That is exactly what one would have expected if you started off with a black and white keyboard.
Morton Subotnick performs as part of the Don Buchla Memorial Concerts, which begin Saturday, April 22 and end on Sunday, April 23. Specific performance times, tickets ($25 and up) and more info here.