At 81, the Godfather of the Synth Is Still Shaping Sound

Morton Subotnick is touring again, and I recently had the chance to catch up with him when he visited his former home of San Francisco.

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May 13 2014, 7:00pm
Subotnick peforming in San Francisco. Images: Max Cherney

One of the innovators of the first synthesizer, and often called the father of modern electronic music, Morton Subotnick was a leader of the West Coast synth movement in the late 60s. Now 81, Subotnick is still touring, and I recently had the chance to catch up with him when he visited his former home of San Francisco.

In the early 60s, Subotnick, Ramon Sender and Don Buchla combined to build the Buchla 100, a granddaddy of analog synths. Unlike Robert Moog, who at the time was building keyboard-based synths on the East Coast, the BUCHLA 100 uses pressure sensitive touchpads that allow for essentially limitless tuning of complex waveforms.

That landmark synth has been followed by a legendary career of electronic music composition and instrument development, along with regular forays into multimedia art and teaching. Subotnick is currently on a world tour for his most recent work, titled "From Silver Apples of the Moon to a Sky of Cloudless Sulphur IV: LUCY," the fourth season in a series of performances showcasing his body of work on new hybrid Ableton-Buchla systems built specifically for each season. The next concert on the tour is September 19 in Vancouver.

Motherboard: Can you tell us about what you’re performing on this season’s tour?
Morton Subotnick: I’m taking materials from over 15 years; from Silver Apples of the Moon to A Sky of Cloudless Sulfur Revisited. I’m just finishing up Lucy, and it’s taken me four years.

Lucy has to do with pitch—the ability to gesture with pitches, as an empathic meeting ground. Pitch is intimate, it draws you in, it has to do with direct communication.

But Rhythm draws people into becoming one, you loose yourself, rather than finding yourself, and rhythm turns you into a large group. The large group becomes a single entity.  

The tension between those two things is essentially the tension between large cultural entities. Nations fighting nations. When they all march together like a machine, we’re like bees or ants, we’re drawn in. But we wouldn’t be where we are without the two of them.

See Motherboard's video about Subotnick, which (trivia alert!) was one of the first videos we produced.

Can you talk about the extent to which technology has shaped your work over the years?
What’s happened to me with all the newer technology is that it makes the dream of a studio artist, and the journey I began in 1959, much easier.

Sometimes it’ll alter what I’m doing too, because sometimes a technology will be very good at doing something that I haven’t thought of. But, it’s not like I’m coming at it as most people would—I know what I want to do today, so the question I have always had is what do you have that will allow me to do it?

It’s been a wonderful time to see these things happen.

That’s what I thought about the technological big bang, that the transistor was going to be cheap, that technology was going to be cheap.

What’s happened to me with all the newer technology is that it makes the dream of a studio artist, and the journey I began in 1959, much easier.

Incidentally, when we were getting going in the 60s, Bank of America issued its first credit card at the time, so you didn’t even need money to buy technology, you could put it on credit.

Have faster and efficient processors, RAM, etc. made it easier for you to achieve the goals you set out to achieve?
The vision I had was of an invisible technology, that it would be so straightforward that one would just sing and it would work. I did eventually get there, but it took a lot of work, a lot of wires.

I went on the stage earlier, and did a lot of performances with Don Buchla, but I wasn’t thrilled with what I was doing. It wasn’t my ideal, because my ideal was to have my studio there, and at the time it meant you had to do a lot of overdubbing, which you can’t do on stage because there’s no time. I ended up with a lot of loops and things I didn’t want, so I stopped.

When the technology got better, I brought that type of performance back in about eight or nine years ago, and started performing live. Because the idea was to bring my material to the stage, so I put the materials that I’ve been working on in the studio—I’m always working in the studio, always have—and I put them together in such a way that I have random access, like a conductor, and this becomes my orchestra.

Subotnick's performance setup.

To what extent has technology allowed you to supersede the instrumental limitations of the past?
The black and white keyboard—even if I say “play anything you want,” you can only play what the instrument is capable of. A chromatic scale for example, and so on and so forth.

The instrument evolved, and in hand with the music. The relationship between a normal instrument and sheet music is one to one, it’s as the Buchla [the machine, not the man] is to me. And so the music you write that does belong to the instrument. The role of electronics meant something else. It took a good 15 years to even understand what that might mean.

What do you think about the continue reverence for analog in the digital age?
I don’t have a fetish about analog versus digital. I mean, we didn’t have digital, so everything was analog. One of the things that focused me at the time was that I realized I was alive at a moment like when the printing press was invented, or writing, or language. Everything would be different.

The point here is that I had an image of what I thought I wanted at that point—I started thinking about it in 1959, but I got very serious in the fall of 1961. Just really focused on a a particular idea of what a composer could be in what I call the “technological big bang.”

Through a recording you would have something like a painting.

It sounds so obvious at this point but the new paradigm then allowed the composer to act, in effect, like a studio artist—a painter, for example. The composer wouldn’t have to write, and take it out to musicians to perform it for audience in order to hear his work. Through a recording you would have something like a painting.

The concept then was to find some kind of machine to do it on. But at the time there wasn’t anything. We tried and tried with everything, putting things together, and working with engineers. But nothing worked. So it seemed like we were going to have to start from scratch and make something.

Subotnick at his San Francisco hotel.

What did happen, was that I really unloaded a vision of this machine that would be—which I called at the time the electronic music easel—at the time I was using the studio artist as a metaphor. The reason it was good for me was that it was like a blank slate, just an empty canvas, just paint.

The way in this evolved, that led to sound, and you do things with sound. The controllers were the brush.

So the I had this idea of the sound being the paint, and the low-voltage controllers were the brush. The one thing I didn’t want for the brush—I didn’t want it to be like the printing press where it stamps pictures, I wanted it to be like paint, so I would be able to paint. The idea of being able to use finger pressure, moving your finger back and forth.

In some ways, analog always suited it, but digital technology has caught up. It’s only recently that envelope followers have become fast enough and cheap enough so that we’re able to capture that kind of analog structure.