Morton Subotnick


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Silver Apples Of The Moon (Nonesuch, 1967) ***
Wild Bull (Nonesuch, 1968) ****
Touch (Columbia, 1969) ****
Sidewinder (Columbia, 1971) **
Four Butterflies (Columbia, 1974) **
It's Until Spring (Odyssey, 1975) *
A Sky Of Cloudless Sulphur; After The Butterfly (Nonesuch, 1978) *
Parallel Lines (CRI, 1979) *
Liquid Strata (Town Hall, 1979) *
Axolotl; Wild Beasts (Nonesuch, 1982) **
Ascent Into Air; Fluttering Of Wings (Nonesuch N9-78020, 1982) *
Key to Songs; Return (New Albion, 1986) ***
The Key To Songs (New Albion, 1987) ***
Laminations (Turnabout, 1988)
The First Dream of Light (Crystal, 1988)
Passages of the Beast (Owl, 1992)
In Two Worlds (Neuma, 1992) **
Prelude No.4 (Fiction, 1993)
Jacob's Room; Touch (Wergo, 1993) ***
Silver Apples of the Moon; The Wild Bull (Wergo, 1994) ****
All My Hummingbirds Have Alibis; And The Butterflies Begin to Sing (New World, 1997) **
Echoes from the Silent Call of Girona; A Fluttering Of Wings (Cambria, 2000) **
Touch; A Sky of Cloudless Sulfur; Gestures (Mode, 2001)
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Morton Subotnick's chaotic tornadoes, such as Silver Apples Of The Moon (1967), The Wild Bull (1967) and Touch (1968), no matter how naive, took Edgar Varese's "electronic poem" to another dimension, a dimension that blurred the distance between primitivism and futurism, between tribal and binary percussion, between ancestral sound and alien noise. Their dense textures and hectic counterpoint, approaching the intensity and cacophony of rock'n'roll, completely redesigned the landscape of western music. His "chamber music", such as the harsh and stormy The Key To Songs (1985), created even more surreal and nightmarish soundscapes, this time directly related to the human condition.

Touch (1969) is a massive experiment in disorienting music. From the beginning, it displays its axiomatic structure: a set of discrete noises that compose a liquid whole. The components (including a vivisected female voice that pronounces the three syllables "t-ou-ch") are unmusical, but the whole is cohesive and logical. When the noises increase in frequency and pitch, they sound like a pack of rodents. The noises implode briefly in a shapeless gurgle, but then resume their frantic conversation in the fluent vernacular of musique concrete. This is music that continuously redefines itself, challenges itself, alters itself. The electronic machine produces a hammering percussive hailstorm rich in both timbres and rhythms. Subotnick's primitivist and futurist chaos transcends the post-Webernian avantgarde, and coins a ludic music inspired to the human condition, occasionally tribal and wild, but also lyrical and joyful. The second part of the piece is the mirror image of the first part: first diffused sound, then frantic babbling (the human voice is now easier to perceive) and then an almost silent conclusion.

The Key To Songs (1985) is a monumental ballet for chamber ensemble (two pianos, xylophone, marimbas, vibes, viola, cello) and computer. It opens with contrasting patterns by the keyboards and the strings, the former played in a loud percussive manner, the latter strummed in an equally violent manner (casually following two Schubert arias). The tension between these two stormy sections of the orchestra creates a deep sense of tragedy. Here Subotnick uses electronics in subtle ways, mainly to emphasize acoustic sounds by deforming their color or duration. By the end of the first part (tenth minute), it is hard to tell which instrument is playing what. The second part has a dreamy, magical, at times gothic, quality. It sounds more like chamber music (in that it is less percussive and less harsh) but it is also subject to more abrupt changes of mood.

Return (1986), dedicated to the Halley comet, evokes the journey of the astral body over the centuries through Subotnick's loose interpretation of several different musical ages (from Scarlatti's partitas to ragtime). This is cosmic music of a kind that relates to human civilization. On one hand, Subotnick is busy depicting cosmic life, while on the other hand he "mimicks" (in his own distorted and violent way) human life. The resulting score is the usual stream of percussive noises (often achieved by hammering on the keyboards) and eerie pauses and sudden hailstorms of highly-charged tones (particularly at the "Scarlattian" end of the first part, a masterpiece of quotation). The second part, which bridges the last two centuries and the future, continues the reconfiguration of classical-music style, while bombarding them with all sorts of cacophony, with a new peak of melodrama at 12:30 minutes. The piece ends in glory with A fluttering crescendo of looping chords (again inspired by baroque music).


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Morton Subotnick (Los Angeles, 1933), studente del Mills College, clarinettista nella San Francisco Symphony, e padre fondatore del Tape Music Center, e` uno dei massimi pionieri della musica elettronica.

Negli anni Sessanta concepisce lavori per il teatro, come Mandolin e Play (da eseguirsi con strumenti musicali, spettacoli di luci e proiezioni di pellicole). Piu' tardi scopre il sintetizzatore e Stockhausen, realizzando nel 1967 e 1968 due lunghe suite improvvisate e totalmente dissonanti (Silver Apples Of The Moon, la prima al mondo composta specificamente per il supporto fonografico, e The Wild Bull), che sono balletti futuristi al di fuori di qualunque regola armonica. Tutta la musica e' generata da un solo strumento, un diabolico marchingegno elettro-meccanico costruito da lui personalmente e da Donald Buchla. I blip-blop-blup non hanno alcun senso, e valgono tanto quanto la sequenza di rumori prodotti ruotando rapidamente la manopola della sintonia di una radio. L'intenso contrappunto e il vasto spettro cromatico di questi lavori rimarranno costanti della sua opera.

Touch (1969) e' il tornado che meglio realizza le ambizioni di Subotnick: la macchina produce una percussione elettronica martellante di grande varieta' ritmica e timbrica, un caos primitivista e futurista al tempo stesso, una detonazione pirotecnica che dilania ogni canone musicale. Subotnick improvvisa liberamente allo strumento senza alcuno spartito o canovaccio, con il solo obiettivo di ottenere effetti suggestivi. E' un'opera che riesce ad evitare tanto il gioco dadaista quanto il cerebralismo tecnologico, e ripropone, dopo i fasti post-weberniani, una musica ludica che si ispira all'uomo, magari tribale e selvaggia, ma anche lirica e gioiosa.

Il suo mondo di fantasmi elettronici in agitazione perpetua ritorna nei lavori successivi (Sidewinder, A Sky Of Cloudness Sulphur, Four Butterflies, originariamente una performance multimediale del 1973, e It's Until Spring del 1975, la sua quarta "butterfly suite") che si ispirano spesso al volo delle farfalle (come Messiaen si ispira al canto degli uccelli) e che talvolta escono dal tracciato per provare nuove combinazioni in un contesto armonico piu' rarefatto e al limite dadaista (After The Butterfly, per "ghost electronics", tromba e piccolo ensemble; Wild Beasts, per trombone, pianoforte ed elettronica; Axolotl (1982), per violoncello e "ghost electronics"). Ma l'ingegneria ha spesso il sopravvento sulla fantasia, come in Parallel Lines, per un piccolo e la sua "ombra" elettronica.

The Key To Songs (1985) e' un balletto monumentale per ensemble da camera (due pianoforti, xilofono, marimba, vibrafono, viola, violoncello) e computer.

Return (1986), dedicato alla cometa Halley, rievoca il viaggio della cometa negli ultimi due secoli attraverso citazioni da diverse epoche musicali, ed e' anche il suo lavoro piu' accessibile di sempre.

Fra le altre opere di Subotnick vanno ricordati il concerto per quintetto di fiati, elettronica, cinema e luci; la musica per dodici ascensori; Tarot per dieci strumenti e nastro; Lamination per orchestra ed elettronica; il dramma musicale The Double Life Of Amphibians; Ascent Into Air per dieci strumenti e computer (1981) e Fluttering Of Wings per quartetto d'archi ed elettronica (1981).

Le opere naif degli anni '60 rimangono il prodotto piu' autentico di una civilta' musicale, anarchica e anti-realista, che nasceva dall'incontro fra dadaismo "cageano" e civilta` psichedelica.

Subotnick also composed for the orchestra: Before the Butterfly (1975) for orchestra and seven amplified instruments, Laminations (Turnabout, 1988) for orchestra and electronics, and A Desert Flower (1989) for orchestra and computer.

He also ventured into live computer interaction and multimedia art with the "staged tone poem" The Double Life of Amphibians (1984), a form that he perfected with the interactive "media poem" Intimate Immensity (1997), whose opening music is titled It Begins.

The "ghost pieces" are chamber works for instruments and interactive electronics, each driven by a "ghost" score which is a piece of software to modify the sounds produced by instruments as they are played according to a traditionally notated score. This method was debuted in Two Life Histories (1977) for clarinet and voice, each being "scored" for performer/s and electronic ghost score. Then came: Liquid Strata (1977) for piano, Parallel Lines for piccolo accompanied by nine players, The Wild Beasts (1978) for trombone and piano, Axolotl (1982) for cello, The Fluttering of Wings for string quartet, Passages of the Beast (1978) for clarinet, The Last Dream of the Beast (1979) for voice, The First Dream of Light (1980) for tuba, An Arsenal Of Defense (1982) for viola, Tremblings (1983) for violin and piano, Echoes from the Silent Call of Girona (1998) for string quartet with CDROM; etc. Some of these works are documented on Parallel Lines (CRI, 1979), Liquid Strata (Town Hall, 1979), The First Dream of Light (Crystal, 1988), Echoes from the Silent Call of Girona; A Fluttering Of Wings (Cambria, 2000), Passages of the Beast (Owl, 1992), etc.

The situation was somewhat inverted in his most ambitious work for live electronics, the quadraphonic Ascent Into Air (1981), in which it's the live performers who influence the decisions made by the computer (in particular, where to locate the sound in the acoustic space).

The monodrama for string quartet and vocalist Joan La Barbara Jacob's Room also became a concert in 1985 and a multimedia opera in 1993, as documented on Jacob's Room; Touch (Wergo, 1993), further expanded in 2012. Joan LaBarbara's acrobatic vocal sounds duet with a strummed cello (when she doesn't simply recite the text of the opera). The interaction between the two instruments (voice and cello) reaches peaks of surreal clangor. The second part adds more synthesizer, and thus more contrast.

All My Hummingbirds Have Alibis; And the Butterflies Begin to Sing (New World, 1997) contains the ballet scores (both inspired by Max Ernst's paintings) All My Hummingbirds Have Alibis (New World, 1994), for voices, flute, cello, keyboards, percussion and computer, and And the Butterflies Begin to Sing (1988), for string quartet and computer.

In Two Worlds (Neuma, 1992) contains the 1987 saxophone (and electronics) concerto.

The multimedia opera Intimate Immensity (1997) was based on David Rothenberg's book "Hand's End" (1993), about how tools have changed the meaning of nature through history.

Other recordings include: Prelude No.4 (Fiction, 1993), etc.

(Translation by/ Tradotto da Nicola Mecca)

Subotnick compose anche per orchestra: Before the Butterfly (1975) per orchestra e sette strumenti amplificati, Laminations (Turnabout, 1988) per orchestra e strumenti elettronici, e A Desert Flower (1989) per orchestra e computer.

Si avventurò anche nelle performance live con il computer e l’arte multimediale inscenando il poema “timbrico” The Double Life of Amphibians (1984), una forma che arrivò a perfezionare con il poema multimediale interattivo Intimate Immensity (1997), la cui musica d’apertura è intitolata It Begins (“Comincia”).

I “ghost pieces” (“pezzi fantasma”) sono musica da camera per strumenti ed apparecchi elettronici interattivi, ognuno dei quali segue uno spartito “fantasma”, ovvero un software che modifica i suoni prodotti dagli strumenti, che seguono invece delle partiture tradizionali. A cominciare da Two Life Histories (1977) per voce e clarinetto, ogni lavoro è orchestrato per uno o più musicisti ed una partitura “fantasma”: Liquid Strata (1977) per pianoforte, Parallel Lines per ottavino accompagnato da nove esecutori, The Wild Beasts (1978) per trombone e pianoforte, Axolotl (1982) per violoncello, The Fluttering of Wings per quartetto d’archi, Passages of the Beast (1978) per clarinetto, The Last Dream of the Beast (1979) per voce, The First Dream of Light (1980) per tuba, An Arsenal Of Defense (1982) per viola, Tremblings (1983) per violino e pianoforte, Echoes from the Silent Call of Girona (1998) per quartetto d’archi; etc. Alcuni di questi lavori sono presenti su Parallel Lines (CRI, 1979), Liquid Strata (Town Hall, 1979), The First Dream of Light (Crystal, 1988), Echoes from the Silent Call of Girona; A Fluttering Of Wings (Cambria, 2000), Passages of the Beast (Owl, 1992), etc.

La situazione è in qualche modo rovesciata nel suo più ambizioso lavoro elettronico live, Ascent Into Air (1981), in cui sono i musicisti ad influenzare le decisioni del computer (in particolare, dove “posizionare” il suono nello spazio).

Il dramma per quartetto d’archi e voce (Joan La Barbara) Jacob's Room divenne anche un concerto nel 1985 ed un’opera multimediale nel 1993, come documenta Jacob's Room; Touch (Wergo, 1993). I vocalizzi acrobatici di Joan LaBarbara duettano con un violoncello strimpellato (quando la voce non recita semplicemente il testo dell’opera). L’interazione tra i due strumenti (voce e violoncello) raggiunge picchi di clangore surreale. La seconda parte aggiunge più sintetizzatori, aumentando così il contrasto.

All My Hummingbirds Have Alibis; And the Butterflies Begin to Sing (New World, 1997) contiene i balletti (entrambi ispirati da dipinti di Max Ernst) All My Hummingbirds Have Alibis (New World, 1994), per voci, flauto, violoncello, tastiere, percussione e computer, e And the Butterflies Begin to Sing (1988), per computer e quartetto d’archi.

In Two Worlds (Neuma, 1992) contiene il concerto del 1987 per sassofono e strumenti elettronici.

Altre registrazioni includono: Prelude No.4 (Fiction, 1993), etc.

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