At 80, composer Morton Subotnick is tying up the loose ends of his philosophy of music creation.
In 1966, his iconic all-electronic piece “Silver Apples of the Moon” was written specifically to be recorded and listened to alone at home rather than in live performance: The experience of hearing it was devoid of anything communal, visual or spontaneous. However, technology and his thinking evolved. By 1978, when he wrote “A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur,” he had joined forces with visual artists whose projections complemented the music, and his synthesizers had interfaces that made on-the-fly improvisation possible. In short, he had reconceived his notion of live performance so that there was something more to it than just a group of people sitting in a room listening to a recording.
Subotnick is in residence at the University of Maryland this season, and on Wednesday, he and his current collaborator, the video and media artist Lillevan, performed/presented on-the-spot re-sequencings of “Silver Apples” and “A Sky” at the university’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. The two faced each other on a dark stage, sitting at small tables that were gently lit and spaced far apart. Lillevan sat before his computer as Subotnick stroked the interface of a contraption with a tangle of wires in a wooden box: his old Buchla synthesizer. Above them was a triptych of huge screens and, around the hall, a number of speakers. As the performance evolved, the two looked like a pair of seers conjuring up a world of phantasm.
Although manipulating oscillations offers limitless sonic possibilities, Subotnick is remarkably restrained in his choices. His music is transparent, often delicate and rarely static; it creates tension but doesn’t exploit it. In Dekelboum Concert Hall and with those speakers, the spatial dimension was particularly effective. Lillevan’s fluidly evolving projections reflected that restraint. Although they amplified the sense of the music, they avoided the obvious, using color sparingly and rhythmic effects only occasionally.
In a talk before the concert, Subotnick said that what drove him was a desire to “embrace a new technology and to find a new humanity in it.” If the reaction of the evening’s large audience is anything to go by, he has been successful.
Reinthaler is a freelancer writer. Subotnick’s residency performances continue Saturday at 8 p.m., when Washington’s VERGE ensemble will perform a selection of his 1980s work at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s Gildenhorn Recital Hall.