Morton Subotnick—
Silver Apples Of The Moon

Released 1967 on Nonesuch
The Seth Man, February 2005ce
Upon discharge from the U.S. Army at the end of the Korean War, the young experimental composer Morton Subotnick attended graduate school in Oakland at Mills College alongside fellow students Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros and other young music students striving to break with conventional means in their art by incorporating into their works elements of dance, theatre and visuals. During Subotnick’s tenure as Music Director of the Ann Halprin Dance Company, one of these ‘mixed media happenings’ found Subotnick in live performance accompanied by a modern dance ensemble and back-projected films while on another occasion, he manually edited tape recordings in his garage/studio from the sounds he fashioning from playing close-miked streetcar coils, water-filled gas tanks, automotive parts and other junkyard items.

A collaboration between Subotnick, electronic music equipment designer Don Buchla and composer Ramon Sender yielded the first major compact synthesizer module in 1961, which Subotnick dubbed the ‘Buchla,’ and it was on this first finished Buchla 100 prototype he began work at the aforementioned San Francisco Tape Music Center at the San Francisco Conservatory, established by Subotnick and Sender to meet the needs of a small group of composers attending nearby Mills College. Industriously splitting his time between duties at the Tape Center, teaching at Mills College as well as writing electronic scores for the Actors’ Workshop, Subotnick’s career was about to take a quantum leap forward when The Actors’ Workshop established a Repertory Theater at the newly opened Lincoln Center in New York City, offering him the position of musical director. He accepted and upon his relocation to New York City in 1966, gained a residency at New York University’s School of the Arts. And it was here at NYU that he would create the Intermedia Program, a music curriculum within the confines of a small studio located on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village.

It was around this time that Subotnick received a visit by a representative from Nonesuch Records (a recently formed offshoot label of Elektra specialising in classical and ethnic field recordings) who offered him a record contract and advance. Having no previous knowledge of either him or the label he claimed to represent, Subotnick was wary and refused; only to discover later that day a Bach album in his own collection on the very same label. Fortunately, the representative returned the following day with the advance doubled and a thirteen-month deadline for a finished album. This time Subotnick accepted, and set about working on compositions that would soon coalesce into his debut album, “Silver Apples of the Moon.” It would wind up reflecting Subotnick’s interests in both music and technology, as well as a chance to realise his own McLuhan-informed dream of twentieth century chamber music or audio environment that people could experience within their own four walls. He envisioned one day that every living room would possess a synthesizer but in 1967, they’d have the next best thing and available on the far more affordable medium of a pre-programmed long playing 33 1/3 rpm stereophonic phonographic record containing one composition per side, performed exclusively on the Buchla and housed in a tantalising psychedelic light show sleeve.

The album runs a range of random interference, grouped clusters of modulated sounds, primitive sequenced rhythms and intermittent clicks and hisses. Side one’s opening “Part I” is about 16 and a half minutes in length and contains about as many months’ worth of ideas as it’s a dense trawl through moody lagoons and as yet uncharted electronic corridors. Opening mid-comet shower with treated flute trills against a backdrop of electronic ricochets, hisses and burbles, the pace established at once is unhurried and about as sparse and keenly balanced as a Calder mobile. It continues its slow evolution until the first huge whoosh sweeps upwards, promptly zapping out into a tape-spliced linkage that always brings to mind both the aural equivalent of the collage work of Zappa’s graphic artist-in-residence Cal Schenkel (with its composite source material turn-of-the-century machinery and gears assembled into yet another Mother of All Dynamos) as well as Frank’s own cut and paste techniques of the late sixties (specifically, the beginning of side 2 of “We’re Only In It For The Money” but minus the surf 45 and Clapton’s blathering.) After the electro-lurch imbroglio clears the bubbling continues with quick, intermittent hisses and a profusion of other alien soup sounds. A rhythm emerges, as do a brace of high-pitched melodies as the underlying noise continues its eccentric paces against a shimmering, high-pitched twinkling and chirping that minimally and patiently starts gaining ground even though all elements are content to merely burble at random. After ten minutes or so of roaming exploration and electronic conversations, a reprise of the previous huge whoosh upwards shoots geyser-like amid a wild explosion of hisses, sustained bell tones with an approximation of tape-splicing thrown in for good measure -- here rendered by The Buchla’s pre-programmable sequencers that send off sparks and alight to every corner. This massive power surges sends all the tiny tone denizens scurrying off under cover of the muddied ocean bed caused by Big Daddy Whoosh’s undertow cause dammit he’s had it with all their aleatory chatter, so he roars out: SILENCE and by the way can you PLEASE make yourself useful and get down to the task at hand and establish at LEAST a rhythm, for cryin’ out loud? The now red-faced tiny particulars hurriedly sweep together a loose rhythm and adorn it with quickly buffed ornamentals accenting and even trim it with fragments of melody that hang unconnected in the background. Quick edits and stabbing rhythm wander in, commingle and then tear apart like a single cell splitting into two nuclei in some microscopic rite of spring as in the moist air above, fireflies with wetted down wings spiral in echoed coves. Clusters reemerge, but hanging onto the edges of silence while ghostly echoes rebound in the background against a simmering, high-pitched twinkling. You could use this as the perfect soundtrack for watching a tankful of tropical fish and it would never be anything less than in total sync. The coda of “Part I” reduces itself to quietude reduced to a pair of low and slow bass tones that sheepishly converse to each other under the covers in hushed tones, winding up trailing off to sleep mid-sentence.

“Part II” is far more action packed, containing an ever building and crazy-making crescendo that is probably comparable to listening to an exploded view of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on acid. It all starts simply enough building with two separate, pre-programmed rhythms and a miscellany of crosstalk patterning that starts building and connecting like crazy. A measured bass rhythm sequence akin to oil derricks bobbing up and down enters with a consistent, pre-determined rhythmic pressure against the tapestry of abstractions that jump cut into the fray to rend the fabric of the rhythmic pulsations by the slightest of degrees. And set behind all this is an ever-rising whirring that increases subtly in pitch and amplitude against a flurry of tiny sound storms that flash subliminally in and out of the sonic picture. The pitter-pattering and a continuing series of blips, whooshes and electronic dingbats all assemble and sound off, only appearing to be random but in reality are a carefully constructed polyrhythmic mosaic multi-dimensionally pulsating in its diagrammatic placements. The whirring has now grown into a darkening swarm that hovers behind the din, frozen to the distant horizon as the electronic pistons below pump and glide like a universal dynamo all firing up into a ring of sequenced events dancing impishly on the very brink of shuddering apart into molecular components and exploding into space. The rhythm, once the centre held by the fixed counterpoint of the sequenced rhythms, cannot hold any longer, cuts out and soon all is swallowed up by momentary stillness.

Within the weightless fissures of silence, all has now become silvery and glistens -- jiggling quietly like splitting pools of quicksilver in spoons’ curving beaming under moonlight. The becalmed come down is simmering and soothing and twinkling in the darkness like distant supernovas transmitting their final moments light years after the fact before folding quietly back into the void. But it gently takes its time before sliding off into silence as signals still rise to the surface of the now deepening calm that has been threatening to envelop it all along. And yet, as the twittering of cosmic crickets diminishes, it gives rise to a signal of rare contentment within that huge, sightless universe -- at once unfixed and ultimately, unmoving in eternal silence.