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John Cage and the Twenty-six Pianos of Mills College. Forces in American Music from 1940 to 1990. Nathan Rubin. 1994. Copyright 1994 by Sarah's Books, 101 Devin Drive, Moraga, California 94556. 917w

Morton Subotnick

Along the way, he received a Mills master's degree in music in 1960, three grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim Fellowship and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Composer Award. After teaching at Mills from 1959-66, he became musical director of the Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre. He taught in the intermedia arts program established at New York University, became director of electronic music at the Electric Circus in New York and co-chairman of the composition department at California Institute of the Arts. He was a visiting professor at the University of Maryland, the University of Pittsburgh and Yale University, and a resident composer to the city of Berlin.

(When Roads asked him whether he had to "fight for legitimacy" during the late fifties, Subotnick replied that his tape music had been accepted because of what had already gone on at the RFI and Columbia-Princeton electronic studios. What caused a furor, he said, was his use of visual elements like films and abstract body movements. But, along with the furor, the extra-musical events created a poetic theatricality which made his works impactful to a unique degree: the hand gestures in his early mixed-media works did more than divert the eye--they gave the music itself hands, embodying it, enhancing its ability to grasp the audience.

That was the start. Thereafter, even on recordings, his work remained theatrical, raising invisible hands. Fulfilling Cage's dictum, Subotnick obliged the sounds to "be themselves" (rather than cogs in grammatical wheels). Then, going a step further, he got them to be interesting in themselves (by making them unpredictable--by making them sounds people had, in fact, never heard before).

Subotnick's dependence on poetry and drama was evident from the start: in 1956 he subtitled two Preludes for piano "The Blind Owl" (after a hashish-spiked novel by Hedayat) and "The Feast." In 1958 he composed a work called Mr. and Mrs. Discobolos, a theatrical event for clarinet, violin, cello, narrator, mime, and tape. During the next decade, fifteen of his seventeen pieces were scores for plays or multi-media displays using narrations, films and lights.

Four separate works were given the title Play! followed by a chronological number--Play!1, Play! 2, and so on. The serial names thickened identity, hinted at continuity, and linked Subotnick to Cage, who had called a succession of pieces Imaginary Landscape(s) and Berio, who had named his compositions for single instruments Sequenza.

The title Play! had a poetic role as well, obliging audiences to sort out the word's multiple meanings and functions (as a noun, verb, purposeless act or, in the case of Shakespeare's Hamlet, a psychological ploy).

Nor was it only Return and Liquid Strata that celebrated reason. So did Subotnick's career as a whole. He used tape (despite his reputation as a virtuoso instrumentalist) because it was a reasonable thing to do, enlarging conception, perfecting execution, and allowing him to perform anywhere at any time. Because the sounds were novel, it drew attention. Because it forfeited tradition, it was freed from having to resemble the past. Exempted from writing about Tristan, Subotnick wrote about an axolotl (a salamander characterized by neoteny--the attainment of adult sexuality at a larval stage) instead, or lunar agriculture, making his music as up-to-date as science-fiction.

It placed a bet on the future that not even Cage (who said that electronic music lacked concert-hall ambience) and Reich (who said it was inexpressive) had been willing to make.

To lend exoticism to the Tape Center's lack of chairs, he and Sender obliged the audience to sit on the floor. Repeat performances were scheduled after a day's hiatus, permitting the supportive reviews in the Chronicle (a morning paper which published its commentaries on the second day after the event) to appear in between, swelling interest.

The policy worked admirably, establishing the reputations of minimalist and telepathic music, their inventors Riley, Reich and Oliveros, and Subotnick himself, whose chief interest remained multimedia, a genre he had first essayed in a student work called Theater Piece after Petrarch's Sonnet Number 47, written for two dancers, a child, and a grand piano which didn't play. Projecting images of swirling liquid dye onto a wall, it offered an early example of the light shows which, a few years later, would multiply the mediums used by rock.

When he wasn't teaching at Mills, composing, or sharing duties at the Tape Center, he wrote scores for the Actor's Workshop and Ann Halprin's Dance Company. When New York City opened its Lincoln Center in 1965, the Actors' Workshop started a Repertory Theater there. Offered the theater's musical directorship along with a residency at New York University School of the Arts, Subotnick, resigning from Mills, accepted both.

Not long thereafter, New York's Electric Circus, discovering it was dispensing multimedia concepts current in the Bay Area five years earlier, hired Subotnick to move things along. He began by importing inventor/composer Don Buchla and light artist Anthony Martin from the Tape Center. (Buchla had joined the San Francisco studio operation in 1962 at a time when electronic music was produced, to a large extent, by the manipulation of tape speeds. When the evolution of transistors in the late fifties made cheaper and smaller circuitry possible, Buchla built a so-called "black box"--the world's first synthesizer--containing a sixteen-event sequencer.)


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