5 Nov 2013

Interview - Morton Subotnick

From These Hopeful Machines, 12:00 pm on 5 November 2013

Subotnick Bleecker St c  Subotnick now Adam Kissick for NPR

Left: Morton Subotnick in his Bleecker St studio, c1969 (Warren Schloat Productions, used with permission);
Right: Morton Subotnick
(Adam Kissick, used with permission)

Morton Subotnick co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1962 and along with Don Buchla was instrumental in the creation of the Buchla Electronic Music System. He used the Buchla exclusively on his 'Silver Apples of The Moon'

in 1967, the first electronic work commissioned by a record company. More recently he has developed the educational Pitch Painter app and has resumed performing live using a laptop and a Buchla 200e.

Morton Subotnick's website


Morton Subotnick interviewed by James Gardner on 26 April and 17 May 2010. Revised and corrected by Morton Subotnick and James Gardner, June 2012.

James Gardner: Could you tell me about the part that electronics play in the new version of your chamber opera Jacob’s Room?

Morton Subotnick: It’s a series of things. There’s one character who doesn’t enter until about halfway through the opera and when he does come in, his voice has already been used in the piece. You’re not conscious of it but gradually it becomes more clear, and when he finally appears he’s making a sound that you’ve been hearing. It’s a combination of a colouration of the singing and the cellos. There are only cellos, an electronic keyboard—with sounds that I made—and the four voices in the piece. There’s a kind of colouration so that when someone sings, a sound that is like their voice continues with a pitch after they’re done—they’re like trails of their voice, and then there are electronic accents. The odd-numbered scenes have a lot of electronic sound, and I’m also using sound that moves out through the auditorium as well.

The vocal processing sounds like the effect you might get if you could put voices through the sostenuto pedal of a piano, picking up the resonances.

In a way. Sometimes one voice is actually melded or morphed into another character’s. There’s a dream-like sequence and one of the main characters is trying to get another character to remember his past, so she draws him in and their voices sort of overlap—sometimes you don’t know which one is singing, and the electronics help with that kind of sustained thing, moving it into the cello sound. It’s a kind of transition use that actually turns the voice into something else. You might finish your vocal sound and then this trails off and then suddenly leaps out through the auditorium into someone else’s voice as it moves through. It’s a kind of morphing from one thing to another.

And this is all real-time processing?

It’s in real time. I mean it’s being conducted—so it’s in real time—but I’m not actually altering anything. They’re going to all be pre-processed sounds that will be keyed—there’s also a computer operator who’s actually keying things on cue. I wouldn’t go into live electronics—it’s just too complicated with the singers on the stage and a set that’s on a fulcrum so their body weight is actually moving things around and there’s live video being done as well.  So I’m avoiding the interactive aspect of it, and it’ll just be triggered by the keyboard player and by a computer operator.

So it’s safer and more reliable.

Yeah...I hope so...(laughs)

And by know you should know the pitfalls of the medium.

Yeah, I tell you... maybe I’ve created some of the pitfalls. I don’t know... (laughs)

What’s it like to be working on a new piece like this, nearly 50 years after you started? Did you think you’d see computer music, electronic music, becoming so ubiquitous?

No, I absolutely did not. I knew it would happen, but I didn’t think it would happen during my lifetime. I had no idea. In fact, I had an idea that it would take 100­­–150 years from the time I started to get to this point. I really had no concept of how quickly things were going to move.

Well, this work, Jacob’s Room, actually started 25 years ago—there is a recording of an earlier version of it. I did my first full multimedia work[1] in San Francisco in 1961, and when I finished it, and after it was premiered —there were actually three of four performances—it was received incredibly well for me at that point. One critic said that this was a new art form (and maybe it was, I don’t know). But I really felt that I had found my place, that this was what I really needed to do. And I put it away—it’s never been performed again. It had lights and instruments and lighting flats. I was working in the theatre in those days, and in dance, and we didn’t really have much in the way of projection, so lighting flats were a way to get the effect that, if you lit this object in different ways, you would see different things. You could change scenes—this piece was actually abstract, but you could change from colours to fabrics to images just by the way you lit this thing. Sort of like polarized light, but it wasn’t polarized. There were four of those flats, and four musicians and two tape recorders—sound all over the place—and at the end, Michael McClure read a poem I had chosen.

After that I went back to the drawing board and I decided to find out how I could deal with each one of these languages. The thing I knew least about at the time was electronics, and actually the making of the Buchla was a direct result of that. I thought it would take me—because we had to invent a machine—maybe five or six years; that seemed reasonable. Well, I didn’t get that done until 1978, when I did A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur. At that point I finally decided what was the language I could deal with in electronics. Then I went to instruments, and that was the series of ‘ghost’ pieces[2]. That was another eight years or so, and in the meantime I was starting to experiment with images and light and see what my feelings were on that, and I did a series of large-scale multimedia pieces, and the only thing I had not done to finish the whole thing was the use of the language—which at the very beginning was Michael McClure’s poem. And so that was the work that I’m now premiering (laughs)...that’s 50 years instead of seven or eight years to get to this point. But it’s there now. It’s a long trek—I hadn’t actually thought about that for a very long time, for years. The question you asked just triggered that memory.

Let me take you back a little further, then—you mentioned that when you did Sound Blocks back in ’61 you didn’t really know that much about electronic music. I think you were known primarily as a performer, as a clarinettist.

Well, as a composer too—by then I’d gotten a couple of commissions that were OK and I had one piece[3] that I wrote around 1959/60 that was touring. It actually ended up in Tanglewood as one of the promising young composers concerts. And I actually got mentioned in a book, my first mention in a book around that time—that was in Ever Since Debussy[4] I’m a footnote in there about the future of American music along with about four or five other young composers. So I was beginning to be known as a composer as well, but primarily I was a clarinettist at that point.

And I guess you were aware of electronic music, what had been happening in Paris and Cologne.

Oh yes, I knew electronic music—Ramon [Sender], Pauline [Oliveros] and I had actually gotten a tape from Stockhausen and put on Gesang der Jünglinge. No, we knew what was going on, we knew probably most of the literature at that point. I was well-versed in the avant-garde at that time. I was writing twelve-tone music in my last year of high school, which was 1951. So I knew what was there. I just hadn’t done any electronic music myself. I did a musique concrète score for a King Lear production in San Francisco around 1960, ‘61—we’d worked on it for a couple of years.

In doing the score for King Lear I realized that this new medium could create a kind of studio art situation for me—one that would allow me to be the composer, the performer and the listener all in one swoop. You couldn’t do it with the equipment that was there, and that’s why I did the multi-media piece, because I had been working in the theatre, with dance, I had written poetry, you know, I was doing all kinds of things. So I put everything together in this piece and realized that I probably did have some kind of thing to offer, and went forward. So I didn’t discover it in that piece—that piece was just an attempt to do it.

But the existing electronic music was not what I wanted to do. First of all I didn’t think it was going in the right direction. I didn’t think that what Milton Babbitt was doing and what Stockhausen was doing was an appropriate direction. I thought it needed a new music for a new medium. I mean, Milton’s music at that time was pretty much the same as his written music, only with a computer. Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge was a step in the direction I thought things should go, but before that, his Studies were essentially pitch-based pieces. In fact he was giving a lecture tour in the US around that time, or maybe a little bit later, and he said that now we have electronics we can replace the performer: he had the notion that electronics were an extension of the existing music. But from day one I saw it as a new medium, and that we needed a new language for the new medium.

But at the time electronic music was not really a performance medium because it required long hours in the studio adjusting oscillators and splicing tape...

Exactly—vacuum tubes and cutting and splicing... I wasn’t so much looking for live performance, but live composing, like a piano would do for you or something, where rather than being this laborious thing that you wrote on paper and then realized, it was something you had direct feedback from as you were working with it.

So you wanted to be more like a sculptor with clay—working with material that you could actually get your hands on in real time.

Exactly, and I called it an Electronic Music Easel...well you see also at this time, around 1959, transistors were becoming more and more common. That meant the death of vacuum tubes and the birth of...dirt...as a way of producing electronics. Around the same time, the first credit card[5] came into being. So it was very clear that electronics were going to be cheap, and you didn’t even need money to buy them—you could use credit. It was a completely new paradigm. I had seen some manuscripts for Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media[6] and all of those things together, it was like an explosion in the brain—it was like “my God, the world’s about to change and I’m here” and I was working in the theatre and trying out this new medium and then did this piece, and I realized that I might actually be able to contribute something to this whole thing. And that’s when I thought, you know—150 years from now it’s going to be cheap and everybody will be doing it and there’ll be a new music and I’d like to be part of it...

It just happened in 40 or 50 years instead of 150.

Well, when I first started working with Don Buchla, around 1962, we had worked for about six months or so and it was clear that we were getting somewhere but it was all on paper and in our heads, and I said “you know, this is going to work; how much do you think it would cost to build this thing?”, and he did a rough calculation and said “well, somewhere around $500”. I was going back to New York to do some consulting with the Rockefeller Foundation, and after I did my consulting and everything, I mentioned that we had this studio and that I was working with Buchla and we thought we could build this thing, and I gave them this whole thing that I’ve just told you—electronics are going to be cheap, and people won’t need money, and everyone’s going to have something like this in their living room, and if we could have it we could pioneer the use of something like this, and it would cost $500...I think I actually asked for $1500 or something like that—something ‘exorbitant’. And they patted me on the back and said “oh you know there’s never going to be enough demand for something like this”—they had the Columbia-Princeton Studio that they had built and they said it would probably be cheaper to fly people from all over the world to the USA for the number of people who would be interested, than to spend whatever I was asking on a new object. We finally did get it—they actually gave us the money, but it was a year or two later—and we finally built it, I guess it was probably 1963. I’m not quite sure, but somewhere in that range.  And by the end of the ‘60s, which was only a few years later there was hardly a University in the United States that hadn’t put an order in for  some kind of electronic studio, and most already had some. That wasn’t because of us, it was mostly because of the Moog and Switched-On Bach. But I still didn’t imagine where we are now. I mean, this is amazing, where we are now.

But back then you had this idea for some kind of relatively small electronic music device, and I believe you took out an advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle for an engineer to actually build it.

Yes. Well of course, it wasn’t an ad that said “we’ll pay you” (laughs)...it never even occurred to us to offer any money, and no one asked for any. Well, for Buchla to build it he had to have money, but I’m sure that $500 was just for parts.

So you managed to come across Don Buchla who had apparently also been getting frustrated with tape splicing and was thinking along the same lines as you were.

I know he wanted to do something with music, and he did have ideas about how this would work. Ramon and I had worked out an idea for this little thing—it had to do with a wheel with a photocell and you put holes in it and depending on how fast it spun you would get different pitches, and the shape of the combination...I had read the Helmholtz book[7] on waves and things like that. Buchla actually made that device for us. We showed it to him one day and the next day he came back with a battery-operated object that actually made sound, but he said “this isn’t the right way to go”—he’d already been thinking about it and he went to the transistor. He hadn’t been making it at that point, but he’d been designing a whole different way to go about it.

Did you give him a musical or sonic brief or was it more interactive than that?

No, it was much more interactive than that. First of all, I had no desire whatsoever to make a musical instrument, so I didn’t want a black-and-white keyboard, and Don didn’t have the musical aptitude—well he may have had the aptitude, but he had no training—so a black-and-white keyboard wouldn’t have done him any good either. So he was perfectly happy to go in the other direction. And the direction was...the way I saw it, I did not see this making music—I mean in the sense that we already had music. I wanted a new sound palette. And not just sounds. When Don explained what a control voltage was and all of that stuff—I didn’t really know that stuff. I knew about the transistor and that electronics were going to be cheap, but I didn’t know what that really meant. But by reading about all this stuff and with him explaining it, I got the picture of what we were dealing with. And I realized that what we were really talking about was electrical energy. So when we made what was, I suppose, called an envelope generator, the envelope was not necessarily associated with the amplitude of a sound. That was one of the possibilities, but it could also be assigned to change pitches, and there was also the possibility that it could send the sound around in space. We had already designed—on paper—the fact that the Buchla was going to be able  to move sound in space, so an envelope could move something in space, and a single envelope could be applied to several things simultaneously. That was one of the reasons that the control voltages were separated from the audio so you could just stack them, and it was very cheap to take one control voltage and send it to five or six places.

The keyboards were not keyboards, they were called ‘touch-controlled voltage sources’. They were interfaces, finger controllers that were pressure-sensitive—it wasn’t actually pressure, it was capacitance, but it felt like pressure. One of the keyboards[8] had 12 touchplates...it didn’t look like a black and white keyboard, but it had 12 plates, because we knew that one of the possibilities had to be—in addition to everything else you might do—the ability to play a melody if that’s what you wanted to do. There was no reason not to do that, but that was only one of the possibilities. And they weren’t tuned to anything—they were completely configurable. Each plate had two control voltage outputs, and they could control anything. You could move by discrete movements or by pressing harder you could move sounds. It had all those possibilities. The second keyboard[9] had ten plates, and everybody thought it was because we had ten fingers, but it was because we were using it as a musique concrète controller. We[10] had gotten ten Viking loop machines from a store that had burned down and replaced the loops that were inside them—they were made for radio announcements—and we put our own tapes in them. And since there were ten of them we had Don make a keyboard with ten plates so that we could control the volume of any one of the loop machines, with random access. You could play them all at the same time or any combination. But the reason there were ten of them was that we had ten loop machines. I’ve read all these things about how it was for ten fingers, but that actually wasn’t true. It was just a coincidence.

So you could control the volume of these ten loop machines like a mixer.

Yeah, it was like a mixer. It was exactly like a mixer except that we had one knob that allowed for a decay so when you released your finger you could change the length of time it would take for it to decay—it had a little capacitor in it—which meant that you could move from one input source to the other and have crossfades.

With the Buchla what you were really dealing with was a kind of open-ended electronic device rather than a keyboard instrument.

That’s right, It wasn’t a keyboard instrument as such. You could perform live but you weren’t playing music as we knew it, you were...struggling to find out what that language was. It took me a long time to figure it out. The idea was to make a new music, or a new sound-art form, or whatever you wanted to call it. Ramon and I were being interviewed somewhere and we were asked “what’s the future going to hold?” and I remember saying something like “some day, this stuff will be out there and it’ll be so cheap and everybody will have the ability to do it and they won’t have had to have musical training in order to do this. Some will have, but the majority of people—like now—will not have had musical training and they’ll make an art form. Just like painting—you didn’t have to learn to draw to be a painter anymore. There was a whole different kind of art that was out there that really wasn’t related to life drawing and things so you could come to it. And I said “I’m making my music, I’m finding my way in it, but my music isn’t going to be this kind of new music of the future because I have musical training; there’s no way I can erase that from myself, and I don’t intend to—it would be limiting myself if I did, because that’s me—but a hundred years from now it’ll be everywhere and people will grow up with this stuff and come up with a language that won’t be based on a traditional musical training.”

It seems that the people who were involved in the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the early-mid ‘60s had an awareness that here was the potential for a new medium, as you put it, particularly as you were doing so much multimedia work.

Yeah, absolutely...especially between Ramon and myself. This was something we shared a lot. As I said, we had access to the early McLuhan writing, and it was an extra spark that gave us direction. It was one of the things that neither Ramon nor I had any question about—we knew this was the future. We didn’t know technically what it was going to be, and we didn’t know exactly what it was going to look like or sound like—that wasn’t really important. But we just knew that that was where it was all going.

Do you think it’s more than coincidence that you were in San Francisco at the time when this was happening?

No, it had to be coincidence. I didn’t go there—I was in the army and I was stationed there. I didn’t choose to go there. I thought about this recently because I was being interviewed in Berlin by a magazine called De:Bug[11] It was very interesting—they were very good people. But I was thinking about it the night before the interview. I was thinking “how is it that we were sitting there in our twenties in San Francisco?” I was there by total chance, because I was drafted in the army during the Korean War and that’s where I got stationed. And there was Pauline and Ramon, Terry Riley, John Chowning, who was responsible for the FM phenomenon, La Monte Young, eventually Steve Reich, and a few others—we were all a group. I literally can’t name a name that was part of that sort of inner circle who didn’t actually end up making an impact. How that happened, I can’t tell you...

You think it was just something that was in the air...or possibly the water...

Well it might have been that there was an early form of god-knows-what in the water that made us do what we did, I don’t know! (laughs) You can only surmise. It wasn’t an act of God, obviously. I can speculate that what made it a centre for poetry—painting was strong, but it wasn’t the centre for painting: New York was more the centre for painting—but it was a very vital period in San Francisco and I think one of the reasons was...look: I got out of high school in 1951 and I went for one semester to the University of Southern California—I got a scholarship to play the clarinet there, and I decided I didn’t want to be in school. As long as I was playing the clarinet I might just as well get a job playing the clarinet so that same year I left USC and got a job playing in the Denver Symphony. That was probably late 1951, the ’51-52 season—I don’t know exactly. And who do I meet there? Jim Tenney[12] and Stan Brakhage[13], who’d just gotten out of high school. And we hung out, and that was Denver, Colorado and there were some other people there as well, but those were the two closest people. They’re both dead now, but we stayed close friends all of our lives. So it wasn’t just San Francisco, I mean these things were happening all over. And I was showing Jim Tenney twelve-tone technique. I had access to twelve-tone technique because of being raised in Los Angeles.[14] It was all over the place, and I suppose in San Francisco...I don’t know! It is a mystery! (laughs)

It was an extraordinary time, and we were aware of it, but we were quite bad, as a matter of fact, about documentation. We did not have any idea that we were making history...I didn’t even know that we were involved in the creation [with Don Buchla]—if not the first it was very close to—the first synthesizer. I just wanted a machine. I didn’t know of any others, but it certainly wasn’t “oh boy, we’re going to do the first thing, we’d better keep it documented”. I don’t even know if we took a picture of it at the time. We knew history was going to be made, and from my standpoint I wanted to be part of it. Not part of it in terms of my name, but to be involved. I thought back to the Florentine Camerata of the late sixteenth century where these people sat around and invented opera. I’m sure they didn’t sit around and think “oh, my name is going to be associated with it”. It was time to do something different and they wanted to do it and they did it—they didn't wait for someone else to do it. And that’s the way we felt.

The San Francisco Tape Music Center wasn’t associated with a tertiary institution, or ‘the academy’ as such until it moved to Mills College in 1966. Do you think this helped foster a sense of independence on the part of the people you were working with?

Yes I do. I mean we had the Actors’ Workshop, and the Dancers’ Workshop that Anna Halprin set up—for which I was the composer—right there in the Tape Center. We had KPFA, which was the Pacifica station, that was dynamite during those days and still is. They were doing live performances on radio, and philosophy and poetry and—even then—very left-wing politics. A very exciting place. And they became part of the building. It was a very exciting thing to do, and the fact is nobody would have done it—nobody would have accepted what we were doing in the academic world at that time. So we didn’t really have a choice—we either did it or we didn’t. We didn’t want to be part of the academy...it was too...academic! (laughs) It didn’t represent what we were after at all.

One of the things you were trying to do was create a multimedia cross-disciplinary world, which was very difficult to achieve, given the nature of academies...

What you’re saying is true. I worked with the Actors’ Workshop and the productions were all making very heavy use of other media: slide shows, light show techniques, and from day one I was using tape instead of instruments in productions. When I worked with Anna Halprin, it was also a collaborative group and we literally were creating what we called ‘total theatre’, the theatre as an art form, as an art medium, and the pieces we did, through 1965, 1966 were extraordinary. They weren’t just media, they were using people to move as well as media. We were doing a piece called Parades and Changes...it took about three or four years to finish that; we did about four or five performances of it. The last performance that I did with Anna was in New York. I was already living in New York by then, in 1965 or ‘66. We did two performances at Hunter College. There was a warrant out for our arrest because it had nudity (laughs), and it was well-received. We had a big audience and people liked it. It was a sophisticated audience—Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage and Merce Cunningham and all those people were there. And then I put it to rest. I didn’t work with the company any more. I had sort of fulfilled—we had created a total theatre, it was like multimedia—another part of that scene that I was doing in 1961.

And lo and behold, about seven years ago some historian in France decided that the night we did it at Hunter College was the night that Postmodern Dance began, and he wanted to bring Anna. One of the things that happened with collaboration is that...since it was a dance company her name is on it, but when they asked her to do it, to re-stage it, she said “Well, I can’t come without Morton because he scored the whole thing”. That was a surprise to them—they didn’t know that, so they brought us both out, and we staged one part of the piece and it was very successful and then they formed a company[15] in France that has been touring now for a second year, and I actually went out and worked with them in France—Anna couldn’t go—for about five weeks. They gave 30 performances the first season, all over the world, and now they’re finishing their second season. I don’t know if they’ll go to a third season or not. They will have done maybe 45, 50 performances in two years—we did five in four years! (laughs)

And at the time you didn’t know you were helping to invent Postmodern Dance...

No, in fact when they said that... still to this day I’m not quite sure what Postmodern Dance is, I don’t know what that exactly means. But it was what you were talking about—it was, during that period, an attempt to to create a new art. It didn’t seem reasonable, if you were doing dance, to keep going on your toes. There were plenty of ballet companies doing it. I didn’t have anything against people doing it but it wasn’t what I wanted to do or what Anna wanted to do.

With the music it was the same thing. I played the clarinet—I’d stopped by 1965, but I was really a good clarinettist. I played chamber music on tours and I did concertos and things, as well as playing part-time with the San Francisco Symphony. I really loved playing. I played very well and I loved the music I was playing, and I thought that if I was going to be a composer—which is what I really wanted to do—then I would have to make a contribution that would be at least equal to what I could do with the clarinet. I didn’t want to write just more pieces for people to play—there are plenty of pieces out there and I didn’t really think I could compete with what was out there—that literature’s awfully good! So I began to think that I might just write music for the theatre, or...I didn’t really know. Although I was doing pretty well as a composer I didn’t feel I was bringing a new voice to it; there were so many voices, and I didn’t just want to do another thing. That’s when I saw the whole technology thing—even though I didn’t know anything about technology—I thought “whoa, here’s something!” I was also aware that many of the people who were out there playing with electronics at that time didn’t really see what I saw. They saw it as an extension of existing music rather than this other thing that was going. And I felt that I really could contribute something. That’s why I talk about music as studio art; I could bring my ability as a musician to this new studio art and contribute something special.

And the first thing you created in that way was Silver Apples Of The Moon. Tell us how that came about—it was commissioned by the record company Nonesuch, wasn’t it?

Yes. Back in 1961 or 1962 I gave lectures a lot because I was on both sides of the fence. I was one of these weird people who people would ask, when I was doing these crazy things way back then, whether I could read music. And of course when they found out that I could, it was just like this weird thing to them.  So I was asked to speak to Symphony societies and things like that about what was happening. And I used to give a lecture about what we‘ve just been talking about—about how this new technology was not going to replace orchestras, this was going to be a new medium with a new art, and that people would quickly see that it’s both immoral and unethical to do Beethoven string quartets on a long-playing record and replace what it was intended for, which was to be played by four musicians in front of other people. I argued that instead of doing that, they should commission artists, or composers to make pieces specially for this new medium. But I never thought it would happen.

And then in 1966 I was in my studio on Bleecker Street working on the beginnings of a new discotheque, the Electric Circus—I was the artistic director—as well as preparing for that performance at Hunter College with Anna Halprin. I was working on all that stuff, and I worked all night long, and a couple of people from The Velvet Underground used to show up and the guys who would come out of the Village Gate or the Café Au Go Go where the rock‘n’roll bands played. They were just a block down and when they finished, guys would come in from The Mothers of Invention and The Grateful Dead, and people would show up—I didn’t even know exactly who they were—and they would sit around in my studio at two o’clock in the morning and listen to what I was doing.  I guess they’d heard about this guy doing weird stuff with electronics. And in walks this person, one of these nights, in a double-breasted suit and gives me my lecture back to me. He was the president of this record company, Nonesuch—which I’d never heard of, it was brand new—and he tells me that it was wrong to do just regular music, that they should commission new work and they’d like me to be the first and they’d give me $500 for it. So I kicked him out, (laughs) because I thought he was kidding me. I couldn’t believe it. Then when I went back to the apartment, my kids were going to get up and I’d have to get them off to school and I had this cheap record of a Brandenburg Concerto that I used to listen to in the morning just to calm down. And I looked at it and it was a Nonesuch record, and I thought “Oh my God, I really blew it” and I couldn’t reach Nonesuch Records on the phone—there was no phone number for them. I went into the studio that night thinking that I’d really blown it and then this guy comes in again, Jac Holzman,  and he said “don’t kick me out, just listen to me—we’ve had a long talk and we’ll offer you a thousand dollars for it”. (laughs) so I accepted. So yeah, that was it.

When those musicians came to hang out at your Bleecker Street studio were they watching you improvise on the Buchla?

I wouldn’t say it was improvising. I don’t know what you’d call it. I wasn’t composing or improvising in the normal sense of either. It was really a new paradigm for creating. It was creating music as a studio art.

The process was that I sort of drew in notebooks. I can’t find the notebook for Silver Apples—I have them for everything else. I had no idea anyone would care, so I never worried about where it was. I had these notebooks and I would keep track as I went every day. I had only two tape recorders. I had one two-track tape recorder that recorded and played back, and I had one two-track tape recorder that only played back. So the basic...this is a period of 13 months it took for Silver Apples, and it was the first piece I did with a synthesizer of that sort, so there was no model for it anywhere. So the basic patch, or the basic diagram, would have been to set up the Buchla with the patchcords, and you’d get it doing what you had decided that you wanted to try to do—a matter of literally days and days and days. You know, I worked maybe eight or ten hours a day fine tuning, changing things until you got it sort of where you wanted it, and then you had to make a record of exactly what you had with every knob, and diagram it. Then I’d record it on to the one tape recorder that recorded, and then you set another patch in motion and eventually record that mixed with what you had—mix the new one—with what you had on the old one, either to do it over the top of it or to dovetail or something like that.

So you’re bouncing from tape machine to tape machine and adding new material each time, rather than using a multitrack recorder.

That’s right. I didn’t have one at that time. What I learned very quickly was that the high frequencies disappeared, so I had to re-think everything I was doing and start with the lows first—whenever I was going to use low pitches, and save high pitches for the last couple of times around. For the second piece I did, The Wild Bull, I actually put noise on the tape to mask this problem, because it was going to get noisy anyway, so I included noise in the sound.

That kind of planning is rather like the sound-on-sound planning Les Paul had to do in order to make his records with Mary Ford in the 1950s.

That was exactly right. That was the way I had to do it. So before I could do that I had to have some kind of idea about what I was trying to do because there was a lot of planning that had to be done for something that was supposed to be spontaneous. So when you ask whether I was improvising—no, I was not really improvising. It wasn’t written down, but I was playing it all the time and there was a lot of planning that went into this. Eventually it was done in gobs, in these sections, and you can actually hear that in Silver Apples. They’re almost like movements, in a way. They weren’t really movements, but big sections that were based around one idea. So the ideas that are on the record were not necessarily presented in the order that I was working on them.

I meant improvisation in the sense that unlike, say, Milton Babbitt’s electronic music—where everything would be serially composed and pre-determined and then realized electronically—you were using the Buchla patch as the starting point, interacting with that patch and then editing it together to build up the piece.

That’s right. And the composition itself, the whole thing, really grew. I started with a patch, but the patch was not a patch of electricity, it was an idea. For instance, the idea of starting high with undulating pitches, falling mostly, going up a little bit (sings) and ending with a long fall—that’s the actual opening of Silver Apples, and that happens to be the first thing I did as well.

So from that point of view what you’re describing could also be a way of starting an acoustic notated composition.

Yeah, it could be, it could be, absolutely—except what I was doing you couldn’t do with an instrument. Well maybe you could—get violins to do it or something…but I was thinking in terms of the ten-keyed keyboard where you could use finger pressure—well, both keyboards had finger pressure, but the ten-keyed keyboard had particular things on it that I had played with. I didn’t know that this was going to be the first thing in the piece, but the first thing I played with was these idea of glissandos all over the place, just floating, and then adding to them by recording some and then adding more to them and things like that. No sequencer, just gliding pitches all over the place. It was a sort of an image. Yeah, I wrote my instrumental music pretty much the same way—I’d get an idea, a kind of sound image, or sound gesture, and begin working with it on the page and then move to something else.

I guess what I’m saying is that the patch started from an aesthetic point of view rather than a technical one.

Yeah, it was an aesthetic...later I called them ‘gestural’ performances. I  thought of everything as gestures. I didn’t give it a name at the beginning, but that’s what I began to realize I was doing. By Touch, the third piece, I began to actually get a whole procedure for doing this—a kind of aesthetic set of rules that I worked with. I don’t know what you’d call it...

You developed a kind of methodology.

Yeah, a kind of approach, a process, and I’ll get to that in a moment. I would create these gestural worlds, and they could be a world that I would sing—later I used a microphone and actually sang them, and then applied it—but at the beginning I sang them and sort of did wiggly lines and played with it. I mean I worked for 13 months on that piece, so you can imagine breaking that down. Each one of those sections could be as much as six to eight weeks’ worth of playing with something until I finally thought I had something, realizing it as well as I could get it. That could be, you know, (sings melismatic gesture) just sort of singing like that, and then I’d gradually make notations and then begin to exercise that with my fingers and listen to it and play it back. When I had something I thought was good, I’d put it on tape and put it off to the side—because I’d have to re-patch to do something else—but notate the patch so that I could come back to it and continue with that work.

I thought of it as a three-person model. Remember I had gotten to this whole thing as a composer, but also as a performer—two separate people in a way. I was a performer of music in general and a composer of my own music, and I realized that the studio model that I was talking about earlier allowed me to be three people. I could be the artist, or the creator, and have a creative idea. To me, that creative idea is this gesture, this image of a world and how it works—what makes it. And then the performer is the person who actually realizes something, so I would see myself  then—in the process that most people would think of as ‘creating’—as actually being a performer of this idea that existed only in my head. And then the listener is the person who sits and listens, because I had the patch, and I could record it and play it back, but I was actually hearing it—I wasn’t just putting it on a page—and so eventually I would have these little tapes and I would audition them and sit back and think “ah, I don’t think so”, you know. Even before I’d get rid of the patch, I’d record it just to sit back and listen, and go in and play. One thing that I discovered that I didn’t expect to find is that I had this idea, like a sketch pad, and then I could take a photograph of it, which is the audio, the recording of it. And I’m listening, and I think “uh, God—what if I play against that”. So then I began to play against that and realize the process. I could really build this thing back and forth, but it meant a whole lot of overdubbing. But that’s what I did. So I began to be able to play duets with myself, and things like that.

The feedback loop is very different from the composer-performer-listener model in that you’re able to get in and sculpt.

That’s right, because you’re all three but you’re in the studio being all three people. So you’re not waiting for someone to sit in an audience and hear your string quartet and then say “oh...next time I’m gonna do this”—you’re right there doing it. Also you don’t go in there with the self-consciousness of 500 people in the audience the first time you hear it in its real form. So one thing I was totally aware of was that the studio model—the studio art model of the painter—for sound really worked. It was clear. That was the most exciting part for me, right at the beginning, having that experience of being able to edit, in real time, out of real time, be everything alternately and together in one studio.

I did reach a point, with Silver Apples, somewhere about half way through, about 6 months in, where I wasn’t sure any longer whether it was as good as I thought it was, or as I imagined. I’d got so used to what I was doing that I heard things that other people wouldn’t hear. I needed some kind of objectivity. One thing you get when you write a piece like a string quartet, say, and you hear it in its full form for the first time a year after you’ve written it, when you’re in an audience with 500 people, is that you’re very humbled by this experience, and you’re very very objective, maybe super-objective, about what you’re listening to. At least I was. With Silver Apples I had lost that objectivity—that was never gonna happen.

And you didn’t have a recording producer there to provide an alternative pair of ears or act as a sounding board.

Well I wouldn’t have used anyone else, anyway, but just sitting with an audience you get that. I wouldn’t have had anyone to give me advice. I didn’t like the idea of asking people. But one day—it had moved into the summer, and Bleecker Street is a busy street—my windows were open, and I had a little balcony and I looked out there and were these people standing there to me listening to me, because the music got louder and louder all the time, because I was so used to it. I don’t know how loud it was, but it was pretty loud. And these people, maybe four or five people, were standing down on the sidewalk listening and I said “hey, you wanna come listen?” So they came up the stairs and I got some chairs for them, and I said “look, I’m gonna play this for you but when I’m done, I just want you to go. I don’t want to talk to you and I don’t want you to tell me what you think. I’ll play it for you, but that’s it”. So I sat in a chair with them and listened, and when I was done, I had them leave. And it was such a good experience that I did it a number of times. One time I had about eight or nine people standing and when it got done they left except one guy who tried to talk to me, and I said “I don’t want to talk to you, I just want you to go”. Finally he just grabbed me by the lapels—or by the shoulders, I don’t think I had lapels—“listen”, he said to me, “I'm running the Bleecker Street Cinema downstairs, and we’ve had to close down because you’re making too much noise!” (laughs)

It was a good thing to learn because I would sort of empathize with these strangers and hear what they were hearing but without their opinions about it, so I would hear it much more objectively. It showed me a lot about the sense of timing, and things like that—how long can something last. Further down the line I stopped doing that, because I had a pretty clear picture of what I was doing by then, but at the beginning it was pretty hard because this was a brand new process. It was very easy to get self-indulgent and just go on forever with something.

( ...continued ... Go to Part 2...)


[1] Sound Blocks: an Heroic Vision.

[2] For example Two Life Histories (1977), Trembling (1983)

[3] Serenade No.1

[4] André Hodeir’s La Musique Depuis Debussy (1961)

[5] American Express and Bank Americard (which later became VISA) were introduced in 1958.

[6] McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man was published in 1964.

[7] Hermann von Helmholtz On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music, first published in English in 1870.

[8] The Model 112 Touch Controlled Voltage Source.

[9] The Model 114 Touch Controlled Voltage Source.

[10] That is, the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

[12] James Tenney (1934-2006), composer and music theorist.

[13] Stan Brakhage (1933-2003), influential experimental film-maker.

[14] Where Schoenberg lived from 1934 until his death in 1951, and where he and his pupils were influential composition teachers.

[15] Headed by Anne Collod.