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  • Morton Subotnick: Electronic Works, Volume 1
  • James William Sobaskie
Morton Subotnick: Electronic Works, Volume 1 DVD Video/DVD Audio/DVD ROM hybrid disc and Gestures CD ROM, mode 97, 2001; available from Mode Records, P.O. Box 1262, New York, New York 10009, USA; telephone/fax (+1) 212-979-1027; electronic mail; World Wide Web

Morton Subotnick may well be America's preeminent composer of electronic music. But his reputation does not rest solely on classics like Silver Apples on the Moon (1967), the first large-scale synthetic commission for disc, or The Wild Bull (1968), whose timely appearance reaffirmed that the medium was capable of more than cinematic sound effects and "switched-on" realizations. Instead, Mr. Subotnick's stature arises from his pursuit of innovation and his passion for fostering creativity.

From those early essays produced using the Buchla synthesizer, to "ghost" scores that merged live chamber performance with real-time sound processing, to multimedia events involving interactive sound and visuals, this tireless pioneer has pushed the technological envelope at every turn. And through his tenure at the California Institute of the Arts, lectures and residencies around the world, CD ROMs for children—Making Music (1995) and Making More Music (1997)—and the Creating Music Web site (, several generations share his personal ambition of being performer, composer, and listener all at once. So it should come as no surprise that his latest project, a state-of-the-art DVD, indulges both fascinations.

Electronic Works, Volume 1 (EW1) is a unique collection, simultaneously retrospective and prospective, that showcases pieces from three separate points in Mr. Subotnick's career. Touch (1969), a two-part work created with the Buchla synthesizer and realized on four-channel tape, was commissioned by Columbia/CBS to demonstrate the potential of their then-new, and ultimately short-lived, quadraphonic LP format. A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur (1978), also in two parts and produced using the Buchla, was created at the request of the JB Lansing Speaker Company and was originally rendered on 8-channel tape. Gestures: It Begins with Colors (1999–2001), an open-ended entity developed and played on the composer's Macintosh G3 PowerBook, exists simultaneously as a live multimedia experience and as an interactive personal computer program, in addition to the recorded performance presented here. Despite different technologies and individual expressive aims, all of these compositions bear strong stylistic continuities and exhibit a vital evolutionary flow.

Why DVD? Simply put, each of the three selections features an essential spatiality that is well served by the medium's surround-sound multi-channel capability. Touch's four discrete channels are clearly audible, rather than simulated, and A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur, even with its eight channels mixed down to four, corresponds more faithfully to the composer's conception than the original stereo LP version. In fact, A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur now finally appears in its entirety—the first part of the work was omitted from its 1978 Nonesuch release, perhaps because someone there decided that its speaker-straining sound explosion was not readily handled by the ordinary equipment of the day! As one might expect, Gestures: It Begins with Colors takes full advantage of the 5.1 surround-sound system, with its left-front, center-front, right-front, left-rear, right-rear, sub-woofer diffusion, exuding even more presence than its predecessors. Both DTS and Dolby Digital are supported here, and the opposite side of the DVD even contains high-resolution, uncompressed 48-kHz/24-bit audio for Touch, Sulphur, and Gestures formatted for DVD Audio–enabled players. Fortunately, all three works may also be heard in dedicated stereo mixes by DVD-player owners without 5.1 decoders. The DVD release also includes an interactive version of Gestures, which is accessible on a DVD-equipped Macintosh or PC, plus over ninety minutes of interviews. To accommodate those without DVD players, Mode Records has issued the recorded performances on ordinary stereo CD, and will even provide a CD ROM version of Gestures on request. Surely this generous offering represents a confident step into the world of 21st-century sound!

For those who know Mr...


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