It’s safe to say that we never anticipated the audience rushing the stage of an 83-year-old electronic artist’s performance, but Morton Subotnick has always been a man of firsts. The electronic music pioneer played selections spanning his landmark albums Silver Apples of the Moon and A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur at Jazzhouse in low-key, minimalist style.
Minimalist in terms of presentation, that is — in terms of gear, Subotnick has enough hard drives in his set up to run a major ticket-buying operation and enough wires to be a legitimate fire hazard. But otherwise he sits behind a table, brightly lit but with no projections (though it takes at least 15 minutes before we register this point), the flashiest thing perhaps being his neon sneakers.
This is one of those rare occasions where you could conceivably hold a conversation over most of the music, yet no one is. The sounds come in whispers and the odd wave of noise, but mostly maintain a serene, therapeutic level. These are not note-perfect representations of the albums, either, which in many ways comes as a relief. Working with laptops instead of primitive synthesizers, it’s far more exciting to hear the music reinterpreted with modern technology than to hear a facsimile of what it was. From a technical perspective, this means that the higher end, for example, is far less harsh sounding, which is a favor to anyone with tinnitus if nothing else.
This modernization doesn’t take away from the intent of the original works, though. It is still clear that Subotnick’s work is unlike what we have come to know electronic music to be. Even contemporaries like Kraftwerk who embraced the machine aspect of electronic music still don’t have the Space Age quality of Subotnick’s work. It’s choppier, more robotic, and brings to mind the proto-electronic work of tape splicers like Delia Derbyshire more than any New Waver. To underscore this, and the evolution of his own compositions, Subotnick ended the evening with a newer piece that fits more comfortably with contemporary abstract electronic works than much of his catalogue.
After his set, Subotnick came out to take away his gear, but didn’t get far. People were already on stage, looking at the labyrinth of wires, and immediately cornered him into conversation. More people followed suit, filling Jazzhouse’s small stage. Maybe the fresh news of the loss of yet another music legend had made people more brazen, and the artist took it in good humor. It proves that the fascination with his weird sounds is as real now as it was nearly 50 years ago.