Morton Subotnick

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Morton Subotnick playing a Buchla synthesizer at his studio, NYU (2012) Simultaneous MIDI control and Buchla touch keyboard.jpg
Morton Subotnick playing a Buchla synthesizer at his studio, NYU (2012)

Morton Subotnick (born April 14, 1933) is an American composer of electronic music, best known for his 1967 composition Silver Apples of the Moon , the first electronic work commissioned by a record company, Nonesuch. [1] He was one of the founding members of California Institute of the Arts, where he taught for many years. [2] [3] [4]


Subotnick has worked extensively with interactive electronics and multi-media, co-founding the San Francisco Tape Music Center with Pauline Oliveros and Ramon Sender, often collaborating with his wife Joan La Barbara. [5] Morton Subotnick is one of the pioneers in the development of electronic music and multi-media performance and an innovator in works involving instruments and other media, including interactive computer music systems. Most of his music calls for a computer part, or live electronic processing; his oeuvre utilizes many of the important technological breakthroughs in the history of the genre.

Early career

Buchla 100 modular synthesizer at NYU Buchla 100 series at NYU.jpg
Buchla 100 modular synthesizer at NYU

Subotnick was born in Los Angeles, California, and graduated from the University of Denver. In the early 1960s, Subotnick taught at Mills College and with Ramon Sender, he co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center. During this period he also collaborated with Anna Halprin on two works (the 3 legged stool and Parades and Changes) and acted as music director of the Actors Workshop.

In 1966 Subotnick was instrumental in getting a Rockefeller Grant to join the Tape Center with the Mills Chamber Players (a chamber group at Mills College with performers Nate Rubin (violin); Bonnie Hampton (cello); Naomi Sparrow (piano) and Subotnick on clarinet). The grant required that the Tape Center relocate to a host institution that became Mills College. Subotnick, however, did not stay with the move, but went to New York with the Actor's Workshop to become the first music director of the Lincoln Center Rep Company in the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. Along with Len Lye, he became an artist in residence at the newly formed Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. The School of the Arts provided him with a studio and a Buchla Synthesizer (now at the Library of Congress). He then helped to develop the Electric Circus and the Electric Ear, and became their artistic director. At the same time he created Silver Apples of the Moon , The Wild Bull, and Touch.

Silver Apples of the Moon

Early electronic music was made using wave generators and tape-manipulated sounds. Subotnick was among the first composers to work with electronic instrument designer Don Buchla. Buchla's modular voltage-controlled synthesizer, which he called the Electric Music Box and which was constructed partly based on suggestions by Subotnick and Sender, [6] was both more flexible and easier to use, and its sequencing ability was integral to Subotnick's music.

In the late 1960s, a time when much United States' academic "avant-gardist" electronic music was highly abstract, (largely concerned with pitch and timbre, where (metric) rhythm might be an afterthought or of no consequence, and simple patterned structures were largely avoided), Subotnick broke with this direction by including sections with metric rhythms – those based on pulses and beats. Both Silver Apples of the Moon and 1968's The Wild Bull (another Nonesuch-commissioned work for tape; they have since been combined on a Wergo CD [7] ) have been choreographed by dance companies around the world.

In 1969 Subotnick was invited to be part of a team of artists to move to Los Angeles to plan a new school. Mel Powell as Dean, Subotnick as Associate Dean, and a team of four other pairs of artists carved out a new path of music education and created the now famous California Institute of the Arts. Subotnick remained Associate Dean of the music school for 4 years and then, resigning as Associate Dean, became the head of the composition program where, a few years later, he created a new media program that introduced interactive technology and multimedia into the curriculum. In 1978 Subotnick, with Roger Reynolds and Bernard Rands, produced 5 annual internationally acclaimed new music festivals.

Approach to music

Where previous electronic music had used non-traditional structures, Subotnick's electronic compositions are structured more like the classical music for acoustic instruments with which audiences are familiar, but with nontraditional timbres and pitch manipulations no orchestra could produce. He has also written for acoustic instruments, and he has studied with Darius Milhaud and Leon Kirchner at Mills College in Oakland, California.

In addition to music in the electronic medium, Subotnick has written for symphony orchestra, chamber ensembles, theater and multimedia productions. His "staged tone poem” The Double Life of Amphibians, a collaboration with director Lee Breuer and visual artist Irving Petlin, utilizing live interaction between singers, instrumentalists and computer, was premiered at the 1984 Olympics Arts Festival in Los Angeles.

The concert version of Jacob’s Room, a mono drama commissioned by Betty Freeman for the Kronos Quartet and singer Joan La Barbara, received its premiere in San Francisco in 1985. Jacob's Room, Subotnick's multimedia opera chamber opera (directed by Herbert Blau with video imagery by Steina and Woody Vasulka, featuring Joan La Barbara), received its premiere in Philadelphia in April 1993 under the auspices of The American Music Theater Festival. The Key To Songs, for chamber orchestra and computer, was premiered at the 1985 Aspen Music Festival. Return, commissioned to celebrate the return of Haley's Comet, premiered with an accompanying sky show in the planetarium of Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles in 1986. Subotnick's recent works—among them Jacob's Room, The Key to Songs, Hunger, In Two Worlds, And the Butterflies Begin to Sing and A Desert Flowers—utilize computerized sound generation, specially designed software Interactor and "intelligent" computer controls which allow the performers to interact with the computer technology. [8]

All My Hummingbirds Have Alibis (1994) was an interactive concert work and a CD-ROM (perhaps the first of its kind), Making Music (1995), Making More Music (1998) were his first works for children, and an interactive 'Media Poem', Intimate Immensity, premiered at the Lincoln Center Festival in NY (1997). The European premiere (1998) was in Karlsruhe, Germany. A string quartet with CDROM, Echoes from the Silent Call of Girona (1998), was premiered in Los Angeles by Southwest Chamber Music.

Subotnick was commissioned to complete a larger version of the opera, Jacobs Room. This premiered in 2010 at the Bregenz Festival in Austria.

Subotnick is developing tools for young children to create music. He has authored a series of six CDROMs for children, mounted a children's website and he is developing a related school program. Subotnick's Pitch Painter for iPad and iPhone is a musical finger painting app which presents a new intuitive way for kids to create music.

Subotnick is working with the Library of Congress as they are preparing an archival presentation of his electronic works. He tours extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe as a lecturer and composer/performer. Morton Subotnick is published by Schott Music. Students of his include Ingram Marshall, Mark Coniglio, Carl Stone, Rhys Chatham, Charlemagne Palestine, Ann Millikan, Nicholas Frances Chase, Brian Evans, John King (record producer), Lois V Vierk, Betty Ann Wong, and Jeremy Zuckerman.

Personal life

Subotnick is married to Joan La Barbara, a singer and composer. Subotnick's oldest son, Steven Subotnick, is an animator; his youngest son, Jacob Subotnick, is a sound designer and his daughter, Tamara Winer, is a psychiatric social worker.



Selected works


Related Research Articles

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Ramon Sender

Ramón Sender Barayón is a composer, visual artist and writer. He was the co-founder with Morton Subotnick of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1962. He is the son of Spanish writer Ramón J. Sender.

The San Francisco Tape Music Center, or SFTMC, was founded in the summer of 1962 by composers Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick as a collaborative, "non profit corporation developed and maintained" by local composers working with tape recorders and other novel compositional technologies, which functioned both as an electronic music studio and concert venue. Composer Pauline Oliveros, artist Tony Martin and technician William Maginnis eventually joined the SFTMC.

Don Buchla Musical artist

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<i>Silver Apples of the Moon</i> (Morton Subotnick album) 1967 studio album by Morton Subotnick

Silver Apples of the Moon is the debut album by American composer and musician Morton Subotnick, released by Nonesuch Records in July 1967. It contains the titular composition which is divided into two parts. A showcase for the Buchla 100 synthesizer, an early analogue synthesizer that the composer helped develop, it was the first piece of electronic music commissioned by a record company.

<i>Silver Apples of the Moon</i> (Laika album) 1994 studio album by Laika

Silver Apples of the Moon is the debut studio album by British band Laika. It was released through Too Pure in 1994.

The Brooklyn College Center for Computer Music (BC-CCM) located at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York (CUNY) was one of the first computer music centers at a public university in the United States. The BC-CCM is a community of artists and researchers that began in the 1970s.

Jill Fraser (composer)

Jill Fraser is an American composer and electronic music pioneer based in Los Angeles, CA. She is particularly known for her longstanding work using analog modular synthesis systems. Fraser has been a prolific writer of both electronic and acoustic music for films, television and TV commercials since the 1970s. She has received Clio awards for her work with Lexus and Adidas.


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  6. "Morton Subotnick Explains His Buchla Modular Synthesizer Setup". April 16, 2014.
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