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.
"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."
"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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