Computers, Music And Art
His may be an unfamiliar name, but this avant-garde composer has been writing music that stretches technology to its limits for two decades. Ron Briefel talks to the man about his current passion - Yamaha's X-series equipment.
Morton Subotnick is a prominent avant-garde composer whose music makes new demands of new technology. He began by designing synths with Don Buchla; now he's using MIDI, computer control, and Yamaha's X-series gear.
IF YOU'RE AN intrepid reader of electronic music history, or even just an occasional browser, you won't need much of an introduction to Morton Subotnick. As a seminal influence on the development of the field in the late fifties and early sixties, Subotnick is still very much at the forefront of creative activity.
If, on the other hand, electronic music history is not one of your greatest passions, some facts about the man would probably come in useful.
Born in Los Angeles in 1933, Subotnick became an accomplished clarinetist at an early age. He studied composition with Darius Milhaud, and by 1958 started writing music for the theatre. It was at this time that he started getting involved with tape machines, and began to use them for his productions. He then co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Centre in 1959.
However, Subotnick was soon finding the laborious process of splicing, editing and manipulating recorded sound increasingly cumbersome. By the early sixties, he'd started looking toward the possibilities of the transistor and voltage control techniques.
He began to work closely with the engineer Donald Buchla, and soon a series of synthesiser modules appeared that led to the emergence of one of the first integrated synthesisers, the Buchla 100, in 1966.
Subotnick was to use this system on the first electronic music to be commissioned for an LP. Called Silver Apples of the Moon (Nonesuch, 1967) it gained much critical acclaim with its intricate interplay between timbre changes and pitch/duration events.
The rich sound imagery of Subotnick's music was already giving it a strong theatrical element (still very much alive today), and to develop this, Buchla designed further circuitry that resulted in sonic thing called the Ghost Box. The ideas for this grew out of earlier experiments in voice-activated control and manipulation of sound in live performance. Originally, Subotnick's voice was recorded on tape, and would act as a control track to bring about various modulations and spacialisations of the live sound.
Buchla then designed the Ghost Box as a programmable control system which used an EPROM chip instead of a voice tape. So each piece of music had its own control chip. The word "ghost" is used to indicate the presence of a phantom composer controlling the sound.
At the end of September this year, Subotnick appeared in London to present some of his latest works, performed by himself and the Metanoia Ensemble. The appearance kicked off a new EMAS concert series, and one of the pieces played, 'After the Butterfly', used the Ghost Box system to good effect.
Schedules in London were tight, rehearsals hectic, but somehow the composer found time to talk at some length, as it turned out — about music technology and where it's likely to go in the future.
If Don Buchla was the man behind much of Subotnick's past music technology, there's no doubt about who's behind him now — Yamaha.
Subotnick has composed his most recent pieces on the QX1 and TX816 system, and is full of praise for its capabilities. However, he's about to embark on a period of development to extend the system further. How does he go about adapting mass-market music systems, made by big companies with few goals beyond selling as much product as possible, to suit personal requirements? Or to put it another way, how well does he get on with Yamaha? Subotnick detects a new, refreshing attitude.
"Most mass-market companies are now intelligent enough to understand that they can't just look for existing markets. They've got to create new markets, something earlier commercial makers of instruments never really saw."
"I think most companies now are intelligent enough to understand the potential. They realise that they've got to not just look for existing markets, but to create new markets, and that's something that the earlier commercial makers of instruments never really saw."
The composer sees an increasing emphasis on open-ended systems which (with the help of MIDI) will continue to encourage the growing software and small-scale hardware "cottage industry", as he puts it.
"The real problem now is for us to tell them what's possible. They'll do it - well, maybe not everything - and they'll listen because they know that they're going to survive by listening."
An exciting prospect for Subotnick is the new hardware-based sequencer due out from Yamaha shortly.
"It will be twice as powerful as the QX1 and half the price", he says. "And it will be able to communicate more directly with microcomputers and other devices like printers, for example."
THEN THERE'S the support now being offered by the advanced facilities and expertise of academic computer music establishments, such as MIT, Stanford and IRCAM. Subotnick is about to spend two months at MIT where he will be working on a Yamaha QX and Macintosh-based MIDI composing and performing environment system. The system will also incorporate something called the "MIDI Baton", an intelligent, interactive timekeeper for performing musician and "live" QX sequencer. Subotnick has visions of a performing situation where a number of MIDI'd mallet-type instruments, as well as sampling keyboards, are feeding information to the MIDI Baton, which immediately processes their performance data and instructs the QX to start, stop or slow down according to a preprogrammed score. All this would be done via the Macintosh. If one or other of the musicians happens to make a mistake, then within certain boundaries, the baton will detect it and compensate for it, just waiting for the musicians to correct themselves.
On the composition side, it seems the Macintosh-QX link up would greatly facilitate editing, voicing and control procedures via the advanced graphics capabilities of the Mac. You could also dump entire programs from the QX, and in general terms give the sequencer much more freedom to do what it's best at — driving the TX816 or other MIDI instruments via its powerful parallel processing architecture.
So in view of the rapid advances in sequencer procedure and the possibilities of intelligent timekeepers and controllers, what future does Subotnick see for traditional music notation?
"I think this is probably a delicate area right now. There is software around at the moment that deals with traditional notation via MIDI, but it can be quite limiting, especially at the lower end of the market. But there is a terrific advantage, depending on your background, of still using traditional notation.
"For myself, I can't really imagine reading a sort of sequencer grid or bar code notation, and being able to hear the music in my head like you can with traditional notation.
"For myself, I can't really imagine reading a sort of sequencer grid or bar code notation, and being able to hear the music in my head like I can with traditional notation."
"What I think is going to happen is that software for traditional notation will continue to improve, and it will become incorporated with sequencer notation which will give control, editing, processing and assignment information. So there will be two parallel notation systems.
"There is already a good program out in the States called Switcher, where you can nest, say, four sequencer programs and load them simultaneously with a manuscript program. Both are then available so that you can be writing music in traditional notation, and immediately switch to its sequencer counterpart for editing and introducing control data and so on.
"So I think this sort of merge software is ideal. I don't think a totally new notation will come about. However, I do recognise that there are a number of composers doing good work without using traditional notation at all - Laurie Anderson, for example.
"My guess is that the long-term future of technology will be pencil and paper and voice. By this I mean we'll be writing music on a graphics tablet with a graphic pen. The system will also accept voice input, either as a verbal command or as a purely musical construction or control mechanism.
"The computer would be able to address itself to any notation system that you chose to use, including spatial and graphics notations. Conversion programs could then transfer one notation into another to assist the compositional process, or simply as a means of communication with others — musicians, for example.
"My guess is that this is really around the corner — within a decade certainly — and it will mean a lot when it happens. The programming capabilities are already there; it's really just a matter of speed and memory."
AND SO TO the music itself. At Subotnick's London concert, there were two pieces that employed the QX1/TX816 system as it's currently operating (ie. in its standard performance role). Subotnick "performed" mainly by switching the system on and off and controlling tempo — functions that will eventually be carried out by the MIDI Baton.
The first piece was QX1/TX816 on its own. Called 'Return' the piece was commissioned as a public work to commemorate the return of Halley's Comet. It incorporates music from different periods of history, sometimes invented and sometimes direct quotes. It comes over as a sort of gigantic "harpsichord concerto", the TX816 alternating between enormous timbral clusters of sound and 18th and 19th Century and Bach-type tonal melody layering.
It was certainly an invigorating piece to hear, especially in the large, resonant Union Chapel venue. There was also an accompanying — and rather effective — slide/light show.
The second piece, 'Key to Songs', had the TX816/QX1 performing with the Metanoia Ensemble. Once again there was an interesting interplay between timbral masses and rhythmic/tonal events. This time, though, there was the added dimension of the musicians at times appearing to be playing what was in fact being produced by the QX1 - the sequencer system acting as a dramatic foil for the musicians and, ultimately, the audience.
A complete performance of 'Key to Songs' - will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on November 29. More information on the EMAS concert series can be had from (Contact Details)
Interview by Ron Briefel
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