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Riff Raff, "Silver Apples," and Morton Subotnick

Wednesday, Feb 16 2000
Apple Cobbler is one of those so-called "edutainment" Web sites. Kids can use it to learn a thing or two about how music works; adults can use it as a pleasant time-suck when the boss isn't looking. Employing a host of multimedia plug-in gewgaws, users can turn shapes and animations into sounds, tinker with the tones of different instruments, and learn a little bit about scales. On the bottom of the page, those with questions and comments are encouraged to e-mail the site's creator, caricatured as a kindly, gray-bearded gent: Morton Subotnick.

There's no suggestion on the site that Subotnick happens to be one of the great mavericks of 20th-century experimental electronic music. His most famous composition, 1967's "Silver Apples of the Moon," utilized what was then cutting-edge synthesizer technology, and was the first work explicitly designed for distribution on an LP. Arguably, it's also techno's ur-text: Karlheinz Stockahausen and John Cage were fiddling with electronically produced sounds before the '60s, but "Silver Apples" was and remains a more giving creation that's steeped in melody, though nobody listening to its panoply of fugitive warbling noises would dare call it a pop song. But now that dance, techno, and drum 'n' bass artists regularly take advantage of the odd blurt of noise -- the what-the-fuck-was-that moment on a Kruder & Dorfmeister or Andrea Parker track -- "Silver Apples" sounds like the ultimate break album, a lush and engaging work that suggests a million musical possibilities. Curtis Roads, in the liner notes of the composition's CD reissue, uses a remarkably beautiful turn of phrase to describe it, calling it "a sound garden under the regime of voltage control."

"Silver Apples" had its genesis in the Bay Area. In 1961, Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros, and Ramon Sender -- then all graduate students at Mills College in Oakland -- formed the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which was devoted to avant-garde composition and taking advantage of the new opportunities that technology was offering. In time, the center would launch the careers of minimalist legends like Terry Riley and Steve Reich, and then mutate into Mills' Center for Contemporary Music, but in those early days the members of the small group weren't very different from beatniks or '60s radicals. They got access to a Russian Hill house near Jones and Pacific in which the main dining room doubled as a performance space. "There really wasn't much in the way of electronic music," Subotnick recalls of the performances, speaking from his home in Santa Fe. "It was really quite an extensive thing -- poetry, art, theater." The Russian Hill building burned down, but they found a new space at 321 Divisadero quickly enough, and it was there that Subotnick began working on electronic composition in earnest. In 1963, local instrument builder Don Buchla was designing a device that looked like a switchboard operator's worst nightmare -- a daunting thing that was a riot of wires and inputs and touch plates. But it was also clever: All the tools were there to manipulate pitch, volume, voltage, and rhythm. The mechanism was reliable enough to lend itself to composition, but unwieldy enough to allow for happy accidents.

Buchla originally called the device itself the San Francisco Tape Music Center, and originally wanted to call his company San Francisco Tape Music Center Inc., "but we didn't want to be in a business," says Subotnick. Still, he happily devoted himself to what was now the Buchla Associates 100 Modular Synthesizer, figuring out its internal logic and idiosyncrasies. "I had a vision that if I worked hard enough I would have a clear vision," as he puts it. When he moved to New York City in 1965, he was balancing two lives: As a clarinetist who'd played with the San Francisco Symphony, he'd lecture occasionally about the possibilities the LP held for modern composers, while also hanging out with Andy Warhol's Factory crowd and doing music for the Electric Circus club. In 1967, with $1,000 in his pocket as a commission from Nonesuch Records to make a piece of electronic music for an LP, he collaborated with Sender and Buchla, culling his Electric Circus works and mixing them into a piece that would become "Silver Apples" (the title was taken from a Yeats poem). "When I got twice 15 minutes of music [the amount of music that generally fits on an LP's side], I just started playing with it," he says. "My process has always been ... I just work. And eventually you just let it go."

Breaking new ground in composition invokes new questions about the process, so when was "Silver Apples" actually finished? Subotnick's answer is a mundane one: "The due date was 13 months after I started working on it. I brought it in [to Nonesuch] that day." And that would've been the end of it -- Subotnick moved on to work on new electronic compositions with new devices, quietly respected and not very well-known. But in the past few years, Subotnick started getting more e-mails from people who wanted to talk about "Silver Apples"; more journalists were asking for a moment of his time, and more institutions were inviting him to lecture at events. A clueless Subotnick didn't see what the big deal was. "I'm so involved in what I do that I didn't know what was happening," he explains. A colleague set him straight -- electronic music was seeing a resurgence, particularly in the pop and dance worlds. The more obsessed fans had started to research the music's history -- and found "Silver Apples." Post-rockers Laika titled their 1994 debut album Silver Apples of the Moon in Subotnick's honor, and Caipirinha Music, a spinoff of Iara Lee's electronica documentary Modulations, has just released a compilation titled Early Modulations: Vintage Volts, which collects pioneering electronic music tracks, excerpting "Silver Apples."

So when Subotnick was invited to speak at Manhattan's trendsetting record outlet Other Music last year, he entered a store crammed to capacity with twentysomething hipsters eager to meet a man in his mid-60s. He got a similar surprise speaking and performing at a festival at the Knitting Factory last month. "What strikes me is that these people, young as they are, are serious about what they're listening to," he says. "In the '60s, you were never quite sure. People were so whacked out you could never quite tell. I'd figured I had lost contact with the younger generation, and to come back to them ... I think these people are -- from what I can see -- more informed and a lot more focused. They know what they're listening to.

"I was talking to Pauline [Oliveros] about it, and both of us were impressed with the kind of quality of the audience. In the '60s, people would come up to me and say, 'I saw little green men when I was listening to your music -- was that what you meant to do?' People would seriously ask questions like that. The thing was what it was -- a thing all unto itself."

Subotnick will speak on "Silver Apples" and his more recent work right back where he started: Mills College. The lecture will be held on Saturday, Feb. 19, at 8 p.m. at Mills' Art Center's Deanforth Lecture Hall in Oakland. Admission is free; call (510) 430-2331. He'll also appear at Aquarius Records on Friday, Feb. 18, at 7 p.m. Call 647-2272.

Send Bay Area music news, band stories, or petty gripes to, or mail them to Riff Raff, c/o SF Weekly.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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