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Morton Subotnick at the American Academy

April 26, 2010

I was lucky enough to get a reservation for last week’s talk at the American Academy in Berlin. An amazing facility formerly housing wealthy bankers and Nazi officials, the Hans Arnhold Center lays just outside of Berlin on Wannsee lake, offering an impressive view from the back yard.

Some Dude and Wannsee Lake

The talk was called The Music-Technology “Big Bang”: A Personal History. This particular personal history belonging to Morton Subotnick, of Silver Apples on the Moon fame, and rather than a lecture it was more of an Inside-The-Actor’s Studio-esque interview, moderated by Volker Straebel (director of the Electronic Music Studio at the Technische Universität where I am taking classes this semester)

Outside of a short rant about Dr. Scholl’s shoe inserts (unfortunately not found in the the full video) there isn’t any discussion of “Big Bang” or reference to such an idea. After realizing that I wouldn’t get to hear any cool analogies between cosmology and music technology, Subotnick began talking about the idea of how music functions as a cultural artifact and how he strived to break away from this and tradtional music practices. One of these breaks from tradition being music as a “studio art”, meaning music composed and completed in the studio that is intended for release onto LP or other fixed medium; music not to be interpreted by a performer.

In order to realize this “studio art” Subotnick wanted to use what he called a “sound easel”, a controller with which an average person without musical training could, as he put it, “actually paint music”. Realizing the power and affordability of the transistor, Subotnick began working with Ramón Sender (co-founder of the San Fransico Tape Music Center along with Subotnick), in order to develop what he called “the black box for composers”. Which would be a device used to generate musical sounds, with controls not resembling tradtional musical instruments.

It was not until Subotnick and Sender met up with engineer Don Buchla that any prototypes of this “black box” were actually made, the first sounds being heard two years later. This led Buchla to the development of the Buchla Series 100 a synth commisioned by Subotnick and funded by a grant from the Rockefller Foundation. While Buchla’s synthesizers were not as commercially successful as Moog’s modular synth, Subotnick notes that the Buchla series actually predates Moog’s device, making it America’s first “modern synthesizer”.

After Morton was done going down memory lane, he was kind enough to take questions from the audience. With responses including Dr. Scholl’s orthotics as an allegory for music history and the idea for a new product called an “iTooth” (a false tooth containing all the features of an iPod and iPhone, only inside a customer’s mouth) it became apparent that Morton was ready to bring the discussion to a close.

During the reception, the guest’s were given a chance to ask questions more informally and take advantage of the free booze and salty snacks. Some of my German colleagues were not quick to call Morton a pioneer of electronic music, arguing that earlier, similar progress had been made in Cologne and in Paris. Following some persuasion in defense of my compatriot it was concluded that Subotnick’s efforts were not only useful in the development of music-technology but also influential on the public’s view of this newly emerging music form.

Due to the success of Silver Apples on the Moon, Subotnick brought electronic music into many more homes than his contemporaries. Not only was he spreading ideas through record sales, he also spent time with other influential figures involved in the ‘60s New York and San Francisco scenes. Name-dropping the likes of The Mothers of Invention, The Grateful Dead and Andy Warhol as frequent visitors of his private studio, Morton Subotnick made it clear that he was a very hip dude back in the day.

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