Update: one of the photos below currently appears on Mort’s Wikipedia page. Pretty cool.
The seminar I’ve been taking with Morton Subotnick is sadly drawing to a close. As part of the end of the semester, we were invited to Professor Subotnick’s home studio, a few blocks from NYU, to get a demonstration of the setup he uses in performances.
Subotnick has an extremely friendly dog.
The studio is cluttered in the manner of a creative person with a lot of diverse interests and a disinclination to throw things out. The shelves are strewn with software manuals, thick classical scores, computer innards, Mac peripherals of many generations, video and audio tapes, Rodney Greenblat CD-ROMs, books, business papers, and even a module from a first-generation Buchla.
Professor Subotnick shares my love of Stephen Mithen’s book The Singing Neanderthals.
The centerpiece of the studio, the Mothership, is Subotnick’s Buchla 200e. He has it patched with a bewildering tangle of cables. He knows what everything does, more or less, but even after a semester of studying and practicing on a similar Buchla, I still find this patch to be fairly impenetrable.
Check out the retrofuturistic touch keyboard on the right. While the Buchla can be controlled by regular MIDI, Subotnick is much more interested in the Buchla’s continuous-touch controls, which can be mapped to any parameter on the synth. Note that the “keys” aren’t rectangular, they’re hexagons and parallelograms.
Subotnick doesn’t just generate live sounds on the Buchla. He also deploys pre-recorded samples. They’re recorded off the Buchla, but then processed much more extravagantly than is possible live. Subotnick likes to create intricate swoops and dives via simulated doppler effects. Lately he’s also taken to using looped samples of his breakout hit “Silver Apples Of The Moon,” mixing them in with everything else. He triggers his samples from a groovy handmade Livid Block. If you look closely you can see his handwritten markings.
All of the sampled sounds blend together seamlessly, since they all have that Buchla timbre. Live remixing on the fly! Pretty hip.
So here’s Subotnick in action. He’s manipulating some Buchla parameters from the touch keyboard with one hand, and has his other hand on a little bank of sliders and buttons controlling yet more parameters via MIDI. The whole scene reminds me of Doctor Who operating the TARDIS — many of Subotnck’s sounds have that BBC radiophonic workshop vibe, which adds to the impression.
Here Subotnick plays samples from the Livid Block. Some are short, punchy attacks, and others are long and trailing. He can combine any attack with any decay to produce a wider variety of different sounds than the grid of touchpads would normally make possible.
The other key piece of the setup is a Mac running Max For Live. Subotnick uses Live for a variety of purposes: he stores his samples there, records his voice on the fly to use as an envelope controller for the Buchla, deploys effects, routes signal in complex ways, and occasionally even plays “normal” software synths with a conventional MIDI keyboard.
Spatialization of sound is a major preoccupation for Subotnick, and he has a pretty sweet quadrophonic speaker array set up. He also has a mammoth subwoofer, which mercifully he didn’t switch on while we were there, as he prefers listening to stuff LOUD.
To get a sense of what this all sounds like, here’s a recent Subotnick performance:
Let me reiterate the complexity of this whole arrangement. All of the Ableton sounds (the samples, synths and effects) can be processed through the Buchla’s filters and gates. All of the Buchla sounds can be fed through Ableton’s myriad effects, and the audio channels can be endlessly duplicated with different processing on different copies. The possibilities are staggering. And as if this weren’t enough to make me want to step up my game, Subotnick also has an electronic piano in the room, that he uses to practice classical repertoire. For four hours a day. Humbling! I have a lot to learn.
Hear some of my Buchla/Ableton music: