Since his path-breaking “Silver Apples of the Moon” brought electronic music into the mainstream in 1967, the composer Morton Subotnick, who turns 80 in April, has grown from a pioneer of electronic music to one of its elder statesmen. But he’s still very much on the ramparts, and on Friday night Subotnick — joined by the new-music vocalist Joan La Barbara and two other stalwarts of New York’s new-music scene — took the stage at the Library of Congress for three of Subotnick’s works that probed the complex intersections between music, technology, visual arts and the composer’s remarkable imagination.
The evening opened with the seductive quiet of “Many” and “Rocking” from Subotnick’s 2007 work, “The Other Piano.” As Kathleen Supové played a repetitive, almost murmuring figure at the piano, the composer — manning an array of computers at the edge of the stage — processed the sound and added layer upon layer of complexity and depth and sheer volume to it. The result was gorgeous: a shimmering, hypnotic field of sound that swept over and around the audience, building slowly and with great subtlety into an almost physical embrace.
The tone changed when the redoubtable violinist Todd Reynolds joined them for “Trembling,” a far more aggressive, even brutal work from 1983. It’s a powerful piece, but rough pizzicati and harsh scraping on the amplified violin, made even rougher and harsher via Subotnick’s electronic processing, raised the edginess to ear-bleed levels.
The focus of the evening, though, was on the world premiere of “Lucy: Song and Dance” for female voice, live electronics and live video animation. Subotnick describes it as “an opera without words,” but it’s more of an opera before words, built from the sounds primitive humans might have made before coherent language emerged.
It’s an intriguing idea, and the always impressive La Barbara summoned a range of gentle cries, whispers, elemental squeaks and whatnot — what Subotnick blandly describes as “pitch-gestures” — while waves of video by the German artist Lillevan washed over her. It was often quite beautiful but in the end felt oddly tame and eager to please. We didn’t evolve into little bunnies, after all — there was more elemental screaming than mewing “pitch-gestures” in the evolution of human thought, and the soothing prettiness of “Lucy” left this listener, at least, grunting in disappointment.
Brookes is a freelance writer.