Electronic Music Pioneer Turns 80

Oct 14, 2013
Originally published on October 14, 2013 4:08 pm

To call Morton Subotnick a pioneer of electronic music has become commonplace.

What is not so well known about Subotnick, who celebrated his 80th birthday this year, is that he had a role in fathering electronic dance music.

His innovations involving new technologies and musical accessibility continue today.

His most recent project is an app for young children to use, with which they can compose essentially by fingerpainting on an iPad.


Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Well, from vocoders and modern synth pop, let's turn to one of the pioneers of electronic music. Morton Subotnick, who celebrated his 80th birthday this year, helped to create electronic dance music, and now he's moving into the digital age with an iPad app that let's young kids compose by fingerpainting. Howard Mandel brings us this profile of one of the masters of electronic music.


HOWARD MANDEL, BYLINE: Morton Subotnick was the first hit maker of electronic music. His 1967 album, "Silver Apples of the Moon," was an international sensation.

MORTON SUBOTNICK: It was like a bombshell.


MANDEL: It was the first piece of electronic music commissioned by a record label and created on the first synthesizer small enough to sit on a table. Subotnick's Greenwich village workspace became a dropping spot for musicians, from The Mothers of Invention to the Grateful Dead to the Velvet Underground. One night, unfamiliar visitors arrived.

SUBOTNICK: Some guys came in and said we just bought the name Electric Circus. We don't know exactly what it is, but we were told if anyone knows, you would know. So I gave them a demonstration of an electric circus. They made me the director.

MANDEL: And in that club, Subotnick gave birth to electronic dance music.


SUBOTNICK: Opening night, Seiji Ozawa came down. Members of the Kennedy family were there. It was a big event. And I played about a half-hour's worth of material, starting with a heartbeat, sort of big, down-the-floor, vibrating (makes sound). And then later it goes (makes sound). It wasn't a beat that you would usually use in rock and roll, but it was of strong pulse, and that's all they needed. And they ended up dancing to it.


MANDEL: Subotnick's interest in new sounds goes way back. As a child prodigy in 1950s Los Angeles, soloing on clarinet with symphony orchestras, he sensed that something new was brewing. The miniaturization that led to things like the transistor radio meant you no longer needed a roomful of equipment to make electronic sounds. Subotnick and Ramon Sender, his partner in the San Francisco Tape Center, a hotbed of new music, collaborated with electronics engineer Donald Buchla to develop the first compact, analog, electronic synthesizer. Their goal was to turn people's living rooms into concert halls.

SUBOTNICK: And what I loved about it was the fact that I could be in my studio and be the composer, the interpreter, the performer and the listener. It would be like being a painter. I could make my music until I really loved it, just perfect, and then I never had to leave my studio. It would become a record. And going to someone's home, for me it wasn't recording something. It was creating something new for that medium.


MANDEL: Subotnick's combinations of music and technology didn't end with the synthesizer. He's moved on naturally to digital media and its interactive possibilities. In 1995 he released a CD-ROM titled "Making Music" for kids age 5 and up to experiment with sounds on the computer. It sold in the hundreds of thousands. In spring of 2012 he released an iPad app called "Pitch Painter," allowing even very small children to compose by selecting instruments from different cultures and drawing on the screen.

SUBOTNICK: The iPad is perfect because you literally do fingerpaint, and that's what I've got here. We've got a canvass and we'll start with the clarinet.


SUBOTNICK: Now I'm going to add a little trumpet.


SUBOTNICK: OK. Now I'm going to add some piano.


SUBOTNICK: Now we'll play the whole thing together.


SUBOTNICK: And we can scrub(ph) it.


SUBOTNICK: It becomes a whole different composition. You can have a lot of fun just playing.

MANDEL: You can just play.


MANDEL: Subotnick believes the making of music can and should be easy and completely accessible. Even before "Pitch Painter" became an iPad app, a prototype was installed at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, where it still delights student groups.



MANDEL: At the age of 80, Morton Subotnick says his pursuits have always been the same.

SUBOTNICK: What we could do, what we could feel, what we could create, what we could imagine that was unimaginable before or not easily imaginable before, not just making music with technology but trying to have it deliver new ideas and new feelings and new ways to think about things.

MANDEL: When technology becomes more compact, fluid and flexible than what we've got now, he'll get to work on that too. For NPR News, I'm Howard Mandel in New York.

HOBSON: And from NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.


I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.