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Synth pioneer Morton Subotnick chats with the Sea and Cake's John McEntire and Sam Prekop

'I don't have a problem with the infinite possibilities'

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The invention of electronic musical instruments in the middle of the last century not only provided composers with a new and seemingly endless palette of sounds, it also provided an equally expansive new range of ways to assemble music. Morton Subotnick, best known for his 1967 composition Silver Apples of the Moon, used early synthesizers like the Buchla 100 to make heady works that still sound brilliantly experimental today, but never so much as to make them inaccessible to the average listener. John McEntire and Sam Prekop, who both count membership in the Sea and Cake among their many musical endeavors, belong to the tribe of musicians following Subotnick's lead.

Sam Prekop: I'm wondering what you're planning for Chicago?

Morton Subotnick: I've deconstructed my first recording and my last analog recording. I took the recordings literally apart, making samples out of the entire Silver Apples of the Moon and the entire Sky of Cloudless Sulfur, anywhere from a few second to large chunks. When I get to two or three days before a performance, I start to put it together in a structured way, mapping it together.

John McEntire: So by the time you get to the concert, you're not composing or improvising—you have a new piece of sorts?

Yes. And it's not completely new. It's still a lot of Silver Apples and Cloudless Sulfur.

Prekop: I'm wondering if you're still surprised by the Buchla, if you're still knocked over by accidents having worked with it for so many years and basically invented an instrument.

Yes and no. When I started working at the end of '64 with the first Buchla 100, I had helped map out what it was going to be and how it was going to work for almost two and a half years. And by the time it came, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the stuff it could do. By the time I stopped working with analog in the late 1970s, I wasn't surprised any more. I pretty much ended up with a language I'm still sticking with after all these years.

McEntire: During this time [in the 60s and 70s] were you letting the materials you were creating inform the structure of the pieces, or did you start with a road map or score?

It was a combination. When I did Silver Apples nothing like that had ever been done. I had a vision of what I wanted to end up with, but I didn't know exactly what it was. Silver Apples took 13 months. I'd maybe record 20 minutes on a two-track tape recorder. When I was ready to stop I would record it onto a tape and put it on a shelf and put on another patch. That would take three or four weeks. Halfway through [the creation of the album], I began to get a sense of how I might combine them. You can imagine what the process was. It was really tedious and slow.

Prekop: Since the process was arduous, was that useful in utilizing the limitations to their fullest—compared to now, where infinite options and choices can be a liability?

I can't answer that honestly because that's all I had. Now, I don't have a problem with the infinite possibilities. But I think there are those of us who are more aware of those possibilities. There are 18-year-olds who have never seen a tape recorder. And the options we have now are going to be nothing compared to what they're going to be. Software is more limiting right now in a certain way, more limiting than they know. Pro Tools is a tape recorder. An application like Finale or Sibelius is manuscript paper. You can use those things in different ways. Keyboards can be used for scales, but I was after something different.

Prekop: I saw a video of you somewhere using a microphone outfitted with a Buchla.

I sometimes use two mikes. It becomes an oscillator in a way, but I don't have much of a voice so I'm putting it through different processors. I use my voice as a pitch thing. My voice sounds like whatever sound I want it to sound like. I'm using my voice as a keyboard.

Prekop: I was wondering what you thought of the new sound of modular analog synthesizers?

I'm really fascinated by it. I'm using the Buchla 200E. It's interesting to see how the interest in analog synthesizers has proliferated.

Prekop: I admit I've jumped in as well.

Subotnick headlines the last night of the three-day Neon Marshmallow experimental-music festival, Sun 6/12 at the Empty Bottle. Prekop provides a live soundtrack for a silent film that afternoon at the fest, and McEntire DJs on Sat 6/11. Details on page B19.

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