Das Gespräch mit Morton Subotnick wurde am 7. Juni 2010 per Telefon zwischen New York und Berlin geführt. Gegenstand des Gesprächs ist Subotnicks elektronische Musik und die Oper Jacob's Room.


Interview & Abschrift: Björn Gottstein



When you first started working with the Buchla, was this a very playfull time for you with this machine?


Well, there wasn't a machine when I started working with the machine. I put an ad in the paper in 1961, to find someone who could build a machine that I was looking to make. There were no machines. And several people came and Don Buchla came along and of course there was no money in the commission, but he built it. It took us two years to build the first one. So I didn't play with anything, it was just on paper. I was creating music with it before it existed.


And did you end up making that music?


Oh, I didn't create a piece in my mind. I created concepts about how you would do it. No, I didn't make a piece in my mind that I made when the machine came. But it was an approach in my mind, how to make sound and how to compose music in a completely different way than I had been doing with instruments.


People who came to the Cologne studio in the 50s often had sketches and scores with them, but had to throw everything away, because nothing worked the way they thought it would.


That was a whole different approach. Stockhausen at the very beginning, I don't know about the other people, but Stockhausen I know because he made it clear. At first he thought that electronics would replace the performers that we had and the instruments that they were using. I never thought that. That was never my idea in the first place. I imagined that we would be coming into a period where there would be the potential for entirely new avenue, a new direction for sound as art and communication, that there would be the possibilty for to be people like a painter, like a studio artist, where you have very inexpensive devices in your home. This was the time 1959, 60, 61, that period the transistor first started to be used in commercial products. The transistor, as you know, is literally dirt. It's cheap right from the very beginning. And it is also the time that the first credit cards came into being. I was aware of both of those things at that time. A number of people, I among them, felt that electronics would revolutionize, because of the fact that it was so cheap, that you would be able to build things and buy things for practically nothing, that would have cost in 1959 terms, one oscillator in 1959 would cost 400 dollars and that would be like 4.000 dollars today. When I first met with Buchla we determined that one could make an oscillator that would cost 20 dollars. I was a clarinettist and I was writing music for instruments and performing and was in fact at that time part-time with the San Francisco Symphony, and I had no intention of expanding the use of technology to do what one could do on an instrument. That was never my intention to do that. So there was no writing of music in my mind. I couldn't imagine, yeah, what one would do with a new medium, that would not be the music that we had been doing. And so it was a different approach altogether. I never thought that the idea of making an electronic instrument that would play music that we were writing for instruments was a meaningful thing to do. It is still not very meaningful, I don't think.


The first Buchla was in 1963? 64?


I believe it was 1964 or 65. It is hard to say because we worked on it so long. There are several dates. I know from Bob Moog that – at that point I didn't know if there was anything else, I had never heard of anything else, but I knew Bob had made a few modules with voltage control. I had used those actually, I had seen them in New York. And it wasn't that I thought that he probably made something like a synthesizer – we didn't call it a synthesizer by the way – but he had probably made something. And when I met him later it turned out that he made his first one about one year after this one. So you can find out when his first one was and ours was one year before that. Nobody seems to know exactly. I came to New York in the 65/66 season, and it was already made and I got one made for me, for New York at that point.


I saw the one at Mills College.


That is the first one. The San Francisco Tape Music Center moved to Mills College when I came to New York. And along with it went that first synthesizer that I worked with Don on. In fact, it wasn't called the Buchla. It was called the San Francisco Tape Music Center. On the modules, that's what it says.


This is the synthesizer you made Silver Apples of the Moon on?


Not the one that is at Mills, but on the second one that came to New York.


When you made these first pieces, where you very planful in making them or was this rather playful?


No, as I said, I wanted to make music that was dependent on the medium. Not that the machine would make it but that it was something particular not only to the medium of the machine but also to the medium of the record. I believed that the correct medium at the time was one's living room, that that was the new concert hall. I say that on the record jacket to Silver Apples of the Moon. But I didn't know what that was. I didn't think what anyone else was doing was it, but I didn't know what it was. So I decided the way to work would be just to go in and, as you say, play. But it was structured play, but it was playful. And I worked an average of 10-12 hours a day, six to seven days a week for the rest of my life. (lacht) When Silver Apples was commissioned I was already working my 10-12 hours a day making things. And I didn't know what they would become. But taking things whatever direction it would take me, and the initial set of work that ended up as Silver Apples of the Moon was done for Parades & Changes, which has been travelling around the world in its third season. And I had started the Electric Circus, a big multimedia discotheque, in 1966, I think. And used the rhythmic section of what became Silver Apples of the Moon for the opening night of the discotheque where the Kennedys and Seiji Ozawa and all of those people where there dancing to this music under strobe light. And then when the commission came I just continued working and all of that music ended up as Silver Apples of the Moon.


I see.


And from the time it was commissioned to the time I delivered it, it was 13 month. And I had already been working the better part of 8 month to 10 month for that. And I still work that way. I work every day. With enough commissions you know sort of where you are going. I always allow enough time at the beginning of working on something not to know for sure what I am going to be doing in the beginning, to make sure I get enough feedback from my creative energy at that time, and then gradually take shape as it goes.


These early pieces have a great deal of freedom in them. It has this feeling of that you don't know what you are doing. I don't want it to sound negative. It is something very beautiful. There is a vast space of creativity and newness to it that you seldom have – especially in electronic music. I don't know if you can relate to what I am saying.


It is true. It has always been that way. Not with the instrumental music, but always with the electronic music. That to me became part of the medium that was important, because you are in your own studio and you hear what you are doing and you are the performer and you are the composer and you are the audience. It is a studio art like painting. And so you are free. It is a different approach altogether for me. I developed a technique, not by Silver Apples but by Touch, which was 1969, and in fact I was just with Don Buchla over in San Francisco this weekend and we were talking about it, and he made for me at that time an envelope detector, maybe it was the first one, I don't really know. But it allowed me to sing into a microphone and record what I sang, but it wasn't singing like music. I was singing energy like ggrrww, it was like drawing with my voice. And then I could play that back. I would do something, an improvisation that would last a minute maybe, two minutes or twenty seconds or whatever, and then it was on tape. And I could take the sound from the tape now and bring it back to this envelope detector, transform it into control voltage and then run the entire Buchla, put a patch together and isolate maybe the first three seconds, which would be "wop", and spend three weeks with those three seconds and make the most wonderful things I want to make with that. By then I had a four track tape recorder. So the top track would have this on it and then I would record on track two and three a stereo field that would be made from the little bit and then have a leader, so it would be there forever and then take all the patch chords out and take the next three seconds and I would spend the next month on the fourty seconds I had sung. And I would keep doing this and add things and change it and redo it and then that is how I ended up making all the rest of the pieces I did.


Is this modification of the voice a first step toward the ghost scores?


No, that was next. At first, my voice wasn't in the piece. It was only a control module, that didn't exist except as an envelope generator, only it was much more complex, because it was my voice. The amplitude of my voice. The envelope of my voice. But my voice was never heard in the piece. And then years later, when I finally, it was with A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur in 1976, something like that, I had the feeling I had finally fulfilled my promise, making music for the record. I couldn't do anything more than what I had done in that ten year period. And went on to start working with instruments with electronics. And there I took the idea of my voice controlling it and decided that I would write a series of pieces in which instruments were playing a piece of music that I written but my voice would be modfying that in this way like as if they were sound modules in the Buchla. So I would create an object that had its own life and then I would repaint it in the steroe and quadrophonic space depending on what I was doing. And my voice would be on tape. And that is why I called them ghost pieces because I was there modifying the instruments, but only my voice. In every performance my ghost was there, not the real person.


Was there some form of necessity in the 70s to start working with live electronics.


Yes, and that is a propos Jacob's Room. Because in 1961, right in the beginning, just before I started working with Buchla, before I made the decision to put the ad in the paper, I was a very good clarinettist, I toured with a chamber group of Columbia artists, doing chamber music. We did everything from Messiean's Quartet for the End of Time to Brahms and Beethoven. I was also playing part time with the San Francisco Symphony. So I had a career as a clarinettist, if that's what I chose to keep doing. And I was a composer, and for a young man I was doing pretty well with commissions and everything. But I didn't feel compelled to add more literature to the music literature, just another string quartet or another piano piece. I enjoyed playing and I didn't want to give up the playing in some sense of the work. So I decided I needed to find my own voice in this whole thing. And I got that in the electronics with the vision I had, with cheap electronics, because I realized the whole world, the whole culture was on the edge of something. That would be really exciting if I could part of that in some way. But I didn't know anything about technology, so I had to learn. And over a period of a couple of years I put together a piece that was performed in 1961, which used visual elements, lights, a person who spoke, four musicians and two stereo tape recorders of sounds that I had made out of real sound, but modified, that I worked with over a period of two years, piece called Sound Blocks. An Heroic Vision was the name of it. Actually, it was received extremely well. It was performed several times. And I felt that this is what I wanted to do, that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to some time in my life to find a way to incorporate all the elements that I was working with and produce a new kind of performance piece, theatre piece. That is how I started working with Anna Halprin and the actor's workshop and the with Buchla we had this first machine done. And with my first job what I had set out to do, what I thought would take me several years, was to learn the language of new electronics. But it took me ten years to do that. And then I began to add the instruments. That were the ghost pieces. And by the 80s I begann to add lights and film. And even though I played with them it was mostly in the 80s, and do this group of theatre pieces, large theatre pieces, large works, three or four very big-scaled pieces. One was for Ars Electronica and another one for a Los Angeles festival and one for the Olympics, the cultural Olympics that happened in Los Angeles. And the only thing I had not done then was to add language, and to add all the elements of what you see, what you hear, movement, and including something that was strong in terms of language. Not stories, but ideas. And that's where Jacob's Room started in 1984. And that is the long history of Jacob's Room, when we premiere it in Bregenz, it finishes what I started in 1961. So it's been a long road.


I see. An interesting story. When you look back at the history of technology and electronics, are you sometimes frustrated with the way things went? Did you sometimes wish things had gone another way? Are there things you miss, still today?


Well, no, actually, when I started there was nothing. You couldn't do anything. All you could do was cut and splice. And so right that moment, well, I am not going to be able to do what I want this way, so I put an ad in the paper and got someone to build what I needed. And I did that. And as time has gone on – I don't start with the technology. I start with a strong image of what it is, not the piece that I am going to make, but the way I would like to work. And I have managed to stay with that all this time. I have been very lucky in that way. So no. I would be frustrated if I had to wait for everybody to make things that I needed. So the only thing I cannot do with the digital technology was something I could do in 1969 and did all the way through those ten years is that direct singing qualitity. I have found ways around that. I would be frustrated if I were living off of the commercial technology that exists. There is no question about that. The commercial technology is all based on the piano. And even from the very beginning, I didn't want anything that had any similarity to a keyboard or anything like that. As I began to work with instruments, with the ghost pieces, I went back to keyboards because I was using keyboards. I was using piano and instruments. They weren't making the electronics but they were triggering the electronics. They were interactive with another kind of sound, but within the electronic sound I never imitated instruments or anything like that.


There are two sides to the commercialisation of electronics. Now it is available for everyone and its affordable. That is of course good.


That is a problem. But I am not frustrated. It is not my problem. When Yamaha made their DX-7 they actually sent some people out, several years before. They sent various people out to people who were working in the field, and they sent someone to me. And he worked with me for almost a year. And they got all this information from all these different poeple, and they created the DX-7. And the DX-7 was totally programmable, and you could change anything in it. It was quite an instrument for the very first one they made. It had a black and white keyboard, and as I suspected would happen the metaphor of the keyboard was so strong that nobody was able to understand this thing that I was able to do. In fact today people still don't get a picture of it, most people. All they could think of was what they were already doing, so they used the black and white keyboard, and by the second version of the DX-7, they took all that stuff out. It was too expensive and nobody used it. And it went in that direction. It was driven by the demand of the people. It's like a dog chasing its tail. And so that's what we ended up with. It is very much like the type of typewriter keyboard, you know the story of that. You know that story?


No.


Well, typewriter keyboard originally was designed, when the first typewriters came along, they had these huge things, the letters were on long metal rods and would all point to one place. And they keyboard was designed so that you would be able to type very quickly. It wasn't like the keyboard we have now. You had letters that you used together all the time close together and was vey rational from that standpoint. And what happened was that people typed so fast that the mechanism got stuck. So they designed a keyboard was randomized, which is the one we have got, that would slow us down, so those things would get stuck so much. Years later, when IBM or whoever made the first electric keyboard they didn't have those mechanisms anymore, and they tried to come back with the first keyboard and nobody would use it. So now we have it at the front of every computer, we have taken it into spaceships out into the air, a keyboard, that is simply because people didn't want to change. They got used to one thing, and they just kept doing it even though it had no purpose anymore. And that's what's happening with the keyboard. It's in everything we do with music. If you use a composing programme like Sibelius or Finale, for writing for instruments, and you can beautiful sounding sounding strings in it or clarinets and it sounds real. And then you program it and then it doesn't sound real, because everything in it is keyboard-based. You don't have crescendos, you don't get vibrato, and you don't get any diminuendos. It can't be expressive because it doesn't work like a wind instrument. It works attack and decay. All the plug-ins you have to buy and people spend hours and days and days to try to get a string instrument that sounds anything like a string. That's because the technology is still keyboard technology. I don't get frustrated by that because I don't use it.


Laura Berman told me, that at the very end of the new version of Jacob's Room the electronics stop. Is that correct?


That is correct.


Does that have a symbolic meaning?


Not for my life. (lacht) It has to do with the opera. The communication of the voice, the person, the live instruments, the cellos, these are carrying, not always but more or less, traditional musical values, that is pitches and rhythms and similar things. The underlying use of electronics is dealing with the psychological, not psychological, that is the wrong word, but the preconscious level, the dream level of communication. And the opera itself, the subject matter, is the young man, I guess he is young, I don't really know, we will call him the young man, whose family, especially his mother and his grandfather were killed in some holocaust. And he has spent his life very hard not to remember it. To block it from his memory. It is too painful for him. Too make a long story short, the guide, the woman who plays the role of the guide, it's nebulous. You don't know who it is. But she is telling us and him the story. She is trying to get him to remember. She is a guide, a psychological guide of some sort. The mother is tied to her in a way. The mother is connected also to this boy, trying to get him to remember. And the grandfather is alluded to, but he doesn't actually show up until 2/3 through the opera, and as he arrives, when he first sings, he doesn't have words. He is coming out of the unconscious of us all. Underneath this whole thing, what is really going on is that I have treated the concept of the fact of these horrendous holocaust episodes that we have gone through and minor ones as well, just these catastrophes, at a local level, that is the time and place local level of the horror of millions of people being killed and treated badly, badly, there is no word for the treatment, the sadistic, I will avoid the words evil and all that stuff, the sadistic brutality of this. It is bad enough. And we block them out. There are people who say it didn't happen. Whole groups of people who don't except that fact that this has happened. And they function much like trauma in the individual life where the body actually blocks the information because it is too painful. And yet you can't really progress until you uncover it. So it becomes a paradox. But also what one of the results of these social traumas, these huge episodes of very heavy trauma is that humanity, that the very nature of us, being able to live together and have civilisation and live a life that you pass things on to other people, I mean it is remarkable what we have done. We have cities. We have books. They don't happen for us in our lifetime. If that were the case we would be sitting under a tree eating toads. We actually are working for a kind of civilisation of growth and potential of life and meaning. And these moments of trauma are so huge that they destroy the fabric that allows us to continue. So we as a culture as well as individuals has to break these things down and forget them. But the irony there is, if you do forget them, then you are going to have them again and eventually it will break down anyway if we keep doing that all the time. The issue is then, we have to remember that we don't remember in order to solve the problem. The idea is: "If you remember everything will be OK." No. It's not OK. In fact, many people late in life, who have gone through these traumas and do remember and write about them and so fort, many of these people end up committing suicide. It is very difficult to continue in a world where you remember that it is an existential world that we have created, that we have created meaning. It didn't come from anywhere else. And to realize that and still continue is going to be more and more a trial of our civilisation. We eventually can't forget it. We are forcing ourselves into watching it as it goes. So the elctronic world is a dark abyss that is under this thing that we are all aware of and don't want to face. And so right from the first scene you get a kind of strange world that is without empathy. And I use for the image things that are insect-like and water-sounds and various kinds of things that have no ... you know one of the things about the human and the mammal is the gestural quality like "oh", these qualities that eventually become music. "Oh". They eventually get formed into musical sounds but they are there with our dogs and cats. The fuzzies all do this. As far as I am informed insects are all more digital-like. They go wa-wa-wa. And at least from my standpoint they are the other side of life in which the cockroaches, which don't sing lullabies or anything. So that is the world that you get in the beginning. A kind of strange world where there is no humanity, no ampathy. And you get little bits of pieces of the mother and a little song here and there that are placed in and out of there. But basically it is that. And you hear sounds in there that are actually made from the grandfather's voice even though you don't realize it at the time. And every once and a while a sound will fly through the auditorium, in three dimensions, and then as the music goes the sounds pop in and out. You have a dream scene and you haveanother scene which is a dream also but at the human level with people singing and things like that. But gradually, about 2/3 of the way you finally get the grandfather. And he clearly comes out of that world you have been hearing already, and his own voice is actually without words. He does an extended vocal technique where he is vocalizing the various kinds you were hearing at the beginning. And they eventually end up to be words. And he takes us, his presence eventually takes us where we are forced into, and Jacob the character is forced into recognizing where we really are in this whole thing. And where we are is not a pleasent place. It is not like we will all be happy once we remember it. There is a point were we can live with both. Jacob comes out of it, and all of the people disappear, the guide disappears. And as he gets this this world disappears. And the electronics finally at the very end are gone. Because we are left just with the people. So it is symbolic. And real. You will experience the fact that you are now left with a person at the end. And it just ends at that point.


Is the last scene still Jacob looking out of the window, finding back into the world.


He is looking out. She says, Virginia Wolff, she says, after reading the Plato he gets up and gets to the window, it is the window of his room, and sees clearly for the first time that it has been raining, that a woman came home drunk yelling "let me in", people standing under a lamppost arguing. This is from Virginia Wolff. I used that as a metaphor for all these things hidden dark. And now he sees clearly at the end. The guide sings this and then sings a little thing and then disappears. And he is finally looking out. There won't be a window, but he is looking out. And everything stops, even the music at that point. And my idea, I don't know, because I am not directing it, but it says in the score that he is looking out and finally it is in silence and he just goes off.


OK. I have a short question for the end of this interview. Do you still have a Buchla synthesizer in your studio?


I will. I don't. I haven't had one for probably about 25 years, but now the Library of Congress has gotten the original one that I made Silver Apples on and they are fixing it up right as we speak, and I will be able to bring a little bit of it to Berlin at the end of June, and Don gave me a set of modules from his latest version of that, and I will combine the two and I will actually perform with both that and the computer, eventually touring. I will do one performance in Bregenz with Lillevan doing video and lights, much as I used to do in the 70s and late 60s. I will do a new version of Silver Apples and the latest record, A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur, cooperating the old and the new Buchla.