Behind the Music

New York
08.06.09

Left: Musician Morton Subotnick. Right: Issue Project Room curators Stephan Moore and Suzanne Fiol. (All photos: Michael Wilson)


“THESE SOUNDS ARE MADE by Curtis Rhodes’s granular application, which was modeled after the way I patched the Buchla Box.” “To get the ‘pingy-y’ tones, I frequency-modulated the pitch of the oscillator from zero to maximum.” If Morton Subotnick’s explanations of his innovations in computer-generated sound occasionally resembled a geeky version of Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnell’s immortal claim, “These go to eleven,” his Friday-night performance at Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room confirmed him as an altogether more serious artist than his mock-rock counterpart. That said, the cherubic seventy-six-year-old composer was far from po-faced, and he clearly relished the opportunity to reinterpret some vintage material for a younger crowd.

Subotnick’s slot was the last in Issue Project Room’s Floating Points Festival, an annual monthlong series designed around its custom-made fifteen-channel hemispherical speaker system (other performers included Hisham Bharoocha, Stephen Vitiello, harpist to the stars Zeena Parkins, and the omnipresent Tony Conrad). Manipulating (“what they nowadays call ‘remixing’”) his 1967 debut recording, Silver Apples of the Moon, and 1978’s A Sky of Cloudless Sulfur, Subotnick also made sure to provide exhaustive context for the newbies. Recalling at length his first encounter with the boss of Nonesuch Records (“I threw him out. I thought he was making fun of me!”), and the incongruous commercial success of his 1969 quadraphonic disc Touch (“It sold a lot because there was nothing else to play on that system at the time”), he radiated an amused awareness of the unpredictability of a career defined by journeys into uncharted waters.

“This is my third attempt at this,” Subotnick revealed, introducing Silver Apples. “I have a year to figure it out before I take it on tour. You’re the guinea pigs.” But after fifteen minutes of beguiling music that snaked around the room, continually splintering and reforming as its maker tweaked some sounds and interjected others, we felt like more than mere test subjects. “I sort of understand why people were writing me letters saying they saw little green men coming into their houses after hearing that,” the composer chuckled. A Sky, to these ears, was better yet, a symphony of drips, rustles, clonks, and tweets that built to a steady pulse before trailing away to enthusiastic applause. For a man once dismissed by Time magazine as “a tone-deaf mute,” it was a quiet triumph.

My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher.


Such are the pleasures of the art-world off-season: One night you’re at an intimate gathering of fifty-odd cognoscenti, the next you’re among a reported 71,500 souls packed into All Points West. And at the three-day rock binge, which reached its midway point at New Jersey’s Liberty State Park the following evening, hearing damage was a real possibility. But the danger didn’t end there. Trudging through the mire toward the main arena, my companion and I were nearly mowed down by a van containing a deadpan Adrian Grenier, then a couple of minutes later found ourselves in the path of Courtney Love, leaping from a trailer in the direction of a nearby taco stand. Once equipped with the requisite rainbow of plastic wristbands, we followed My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields self-consciously onto the stage, the guitarist joining his bandmates front and center for a characteristically immersive set as we secreted ourselves in the wings. And even with the benefit of earplugs, it was clear that they really could play “one louder” than ten.