Monday, March 12, 2012

an evening with Morton Subotnick

Morton Subotnick got out of the car in the bitter cold, having just driven the last few miles to Colgate University, where he was giving a concert that evening, in reverse because the car's forward gears had conked out from the temperature, and he began to laugh. Tears were running down his cheeks, and the friends he'd come with started to laugh in response, and so did the garage attendant. Finally someone managed to ask why he was laughing. I've finally figured out what I want to do with my life, he said. I want to go this way while everybody else is going that way.

That was one of the stories he told at his guest lecture/demonstration this evening at Stanford's electronic music center. I was there because I wanted to see a legend. When I was being introduced to music, forty-mumble-odd years ago, Morton Subotnick was one of the hottest names at the cutting edge of contemporary composition. He created electronic music. He was said to be the first composer to have written a composition directly for a recording, rather than to be played in concert first. (This was at just about the time the Beatles were inventing the same thing in pop music.) Frankly, I didn't care for the bleeps and pops he called music, but the sheer magnitude and pervasiveness of his renown made it hard to deny that he was important, and interesting.

Judging from the look of the audience, there weren't very many people there who weren't old enough to have heard of him then. But if Subotnick's fame has receded, he's kept busy. His talk - it was more that than a concert - ran through his whole professional life. When he started out, things were so different that credit cards did not exist. (As someone who could have used some credit lines in his early days, he seems particularly obsessed with that.) He told various anecdotes, and dived into techy detail about electronics setups. He discussed using analog electronics for what they're good for, and digital electronics for what they're good for, and what the difference is.

And he played clips of his music from computer files. Some of those bleeps and pops sound strangely attractive now.

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