Saturday, August 1, 2009

Morton Subotnick live at the Issue Project Room

I didn’t quite know what to expect as I made my way to Brooklyn to see Morton Subotnick play live. When I got there, sitting outside the room before they let us in, you could hear all sorts of bleeps and bloops coming through the closed door. Piles of synthesizers? The legendary Buchla? No way to tell from my side of the door. When we were let in, though, there was a small table with a Mac laptop and a Korg nanoKONTROL on it and not much else. Not what I expected, but then again since I didn’t know what to expect it seemed to fit.

The space was very interesting. PA speakers in four corners, seats in the center. It was small, too, maybe 50 seats if even that many. Hanging from the ceiling were 15 speaker pods, which I think had a separate computer controlling the sound going to them. We were surrounded.

Subotnick was introduced, and then still standing started to explain what he was going to play, what his near-term plans were, and several incredibly funny stories of things that happened in his career. He was very personable and very friendly, seemed quite at ease. My favorite quote, from when he was describing the record company exchanging his four-track reel-to-reel for a new, modern eight track version: “If heaven is anything like an eight-track tape recorder it’s a pretty good place.”

Then he sat down to play.

I don’t know. I was maybe expecting cacophony, maybe expecting “difficult” music. What I got was simply amazing. He started slowly, triggering sounds and bits of music, going back and forth between the nanoKONTROL and the Mac’s keyboard. He spent quite some time putting together complex rhythms and melodies, slowly building up steam, taking us along with him. It was fascinating, but more importantly it was good music. I guess I was expecting synthesized weirdness, but what he gave us was instead masterly. It was almost like an explosion of sound in reverse. It was the musical equivalent of an explosion on video played backwards. At first, all the parts are scattered and random, but over time they start to accelerate towards each other and then faster and faster they all coalesce into a recognizable whole. It was exhilarating, completely unexpected, amazing. And that was only his first piece, a bit of Silver Apples of the Moon.

His second piece was similar, but very different. He explained how he had Don Buchla build him an early envelope follower (if not the very first one). Subotnick would then sing into it, storing his voice on tape to use later to modify sounds from the Buchla. The second piece used this technique, and parts of it sounded eerily like heavenly choirs singing square waves. He also used the vocal-formed envelopes to start some long, evolving rhythmic patterns and the joint was rocking. He even took his hands off the keyboards a few times, sat back and raised his eyebrows when the rhythms turned into something interesting. Then he’d smile and reach for a knob on the nano and completely mangle it into something just as amazing but totally new, almost looking like an evil professor with a gleam in his eye as he did it. When the piece was done he got a tremendous ovation, and then it was over. It was fabulous.

It was bug music, it was slamming rhythms, it was synthesizers being thrown around among the 19 speakers above the audience. It was ethereal beauty, it was entertainment, it was mesmerizing. I saw in places where Tangerine Dream came from, where Robert Rich came from, and even where Moldover came from. And if they had been there at the end of the show, they would have eagerly joined in with the standing ovation.


Matt Mower said...

That sounded awesome. I am most envious!

Richard Lainhart said...

Nice review, Seth - it sounds like a great performance. I was intending to go, but had to deal with flooding problems at home (damn all this rain!) and ultimately couldn't make it. Now I regret it even more.