Morton Subotnick at REDCAT

As a teenager in the 70's, I was fascinated upon coming across the record 'Silver Apples of the Moon', by Morton Subotnick. It was a completely electronic composition from 1967, commissioned by the classical music label Nonesuch Records. The piece, which was on each side a completely abstract and fascinating assortment of bleeps, blips and noises, sometimes sounding like tiny bells that were being rung upon another planet, seemed to conjure up a truly alien landscape. His subsequent releases 'The Wild Bull' and 'Sidewinder' were equally as fascinating.

Flash forward to the present, and the Disney REDCAT performance space was presenting Subotnick's 50th anniversary of the release of 'Silver Apples'! I had seen him do some previous performances, including one at the Griffith Park Observatory, titled 'Return' (dedicated to a comet!), but it wasn't quite as strange and compelling as 'Silver Apples'. So I was beyond excited to see the original release performed!

The room was dark, with Subotnick seated over one of his original Buchla synthesizers augmented with a laptop and many strange looking triggers and pads. Across the other side of the stage, a younger man sat controlling computer graphics on the very large screen at the back of the stage. Just like magic, the sounds of 'Silver Apples of the Moon' began to bubble and percolate into the darkened hushed and expectant room. The sounds were magic as Subotnick reworked, sliced and diced his original composition. About one-third into the performance his wife, Joan La Barbara, came out for the second piece, 'Crowds And Power', clad in black and standing in front of the screen, in the middle of a projection of the cosmos. After a bit she began to make low hooting sounds which were echoed by the synthesizer. Gradually however the sounds became more menacing and black pillars of smoke appeared on the screen on each side of her. Subotnick would make some jarring sounds to which his wife would respond with hand gestures that seemed to resemble warding off blows, to which she would make sharp, surprised vocal exclamations to.The sounds became more dissonant and, at one point, a projection of what looked like a fascist rally was shown. It was excellent music, but on the other hand at times it seemed like he was torturing his wife! After a bit the intense sequence gave way to the beginning peaceful sounds of the piece, with La Barbara making the original exploratory hooting sounds.

Being a mega fan, I in fact saw both nights and closed my eyes for some of the second go-round to experience the piece purely as a sonic presentation. It was great both ways. Congratulations to Morton Subotnick for reprising his original masterwork.

I must add that one of the most compelling parts of the entire show was the panning of the sounds.The sounds came from speakers everywhere on the stage––upper, lower, back and forth, zigzagging––to make a three-dimensional aural landscape.

A group of fans gathered around Mr. Subotnick at the end of the show, and he was happy to answer questions about the technical aspects of his equipment, but had a twinkle in his eye when I asked him about how he did the panning and would not answer that question directly. I guess a master magician has to retain the secrets to some of his tricks!