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Patch cord godfather 

At 79, Morton Subotnick still sings the body electric

When Morton Subotnick comes to Colorado next week, it will be a kind of homecoming.

The electronic music legend — who will give a lecture/demonstration in Colorado Springs on April 24 and perform his groundbreaking Silver Apples of the Moon at Boulder's Communikey Festival on April 26 — spent his college years playing, of all things, the clarinet in the Denver Symphony.

That's before he commissioned what's widely considered the very first analog synthesizer, a mad-scientist contraption in which sounds are made by connecting various patch cords in a large box. It's before he turned the CD-ROM into a fine-arts medium. And it's long before he turned 79, which happened this past Saturday.

Indy: Why did you give up the clarinet?

Morton Subotnick: One of the reasons I quit was I was launching myself into, around 1959 or 1960, what I believed to be a really important time-changer, style-changer: the whole movement of technology at that point was just at the edge of starting. It hadn't really started yet. It was so exciting to me that I was living at a time when the world was changing, and I wanted to be part of it. And I didn't know anything about technology, so I plunged in. As soon as I could afford to live without the clarinet, which was another five years, I dumped it and reinvented myself.

Indy: Today you use a mix of digital software and a new version of the Buchla synthesizer — the original analog synthesizer, which you were partially responsible for creating back in 1963. How do digital and analog interact?

MS: Traditionally, music is where you're playing melody and rhythm and things like that. I've never done that. I really believed in launching into a whole different paradigm of what music can be. And doing that was highly instrument-dependent.

Making records wasn't a problem, because I could record and tear out all the patch cords and add to it. But with live performance, you end up with one patch, and that for me was a big limitation. The nice thing about analog equipment is it's physical to touch, [but] the digital realm gives me a wider palette to work with.

Indy: Does new technology help you achieve old musical ideas, or does it introduce new musical ideas?

MS: When my mother died, I got some boxes of old stuff and I found an essay I had written, I think, in high school.

It was a short story that described a time in the future when I came into a concert when they were doing a late Beethoven string quartet. The four musicians were on the stage with no instruments. They were sitting in chairs and they had bands around their arms and chests, attached to their chairs, and they had their music in front of them — and with their bodies and their minds they were playing their parts.

There was no sound in the auditorium. It was not quite like brain waves, it was more a physical thing; they were able to project the music through the electric currents in the room.

So, I'm still struggling to realize the ideas I had in 1960 and 1961. And I'm getting really close.

scene@csindy.com

  • At 79, Morton Subotnick still sings the body electric

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