Friday, November 22, 2013


Museum of Contemporary Art
November 14
Transformer Station
November 13

At 80, still pushing the electronic envelope.

They sing the body electric. But that doesn’t make all electronic musicians equal. Back-to-back concerts last week offered a rare opportunity to see two well-regarded practitioners in action, and to hear the difference between a technician and a true master of the form.

Morton Subotnick was mobbed by admirers after his Thursday night performance at MOCA, which packed the museum’s west lobby performance space. The enthusiastic turnout was a bit surprising, given the esoteric nature of the program, though certainly appropriate. Subotnick, 80, is one of the pioneers of American electronic music, a visionary composer who started incorporating tape-recorded sounds into his work in the late 1950s. He made history in 1967 with Silver Apples of the Moon, an album commissioned and released by Nonesuch Records that marked the first serious treatment of synthesized music.

Subotnick’s use of traditional elements like pitch, tone and rhythm helped give his work wide accessibility and applications; it’s been used in theater, dance pieces and live performances with musicians and singers. And he’s continued to pioneer new uses of technology, most recently using the iPad to teach music composition to young children.

His performance at MOCA started like the break of day, with small insect noises giving way to chirps and howls that were suddenly overwhelmed by monstrous mechanical noises, as if giant construction machinery were tearing into a forest. The noise faded to an amiable popping, and then a new set of sounds emerged – echoes bouncing around the quad speakers, bubbles, blips, low cycles, high-pitched whistling, metallic hissing and screeching. At one point a volcano of percussion erupted, like dozens of conga drums beating at once. Subotnick also used his voice – not for vocals, which showed up in occasional tape loops, but to create abstract noises that he could manipulate.

While the sheer variety and cacophony of sounds were riveting, most impressive was Subotnick’s musicality. Within the noise were clear structures, compositions built on melodies and variations. What’s different is that Subotnick uses electronic sounds instead of musical notes, which takes some getting used to. Once you’ve dialed into his vocabulary, however, distinct patterns and individual pieces become discernible. Some even sound like soloists are playing different parts.

Subotnick’s music may occupy a narrow niche, but there is no denying its intelligence and breathtaking inventiveness. Small wonder that his acolytes flooded the stage while his encore was still reverberating around the hall, drawn like iron filings to a magnet.

High-pitched pain.
By comparison, Mark Fell’s performance at the Transformer Station the previous night was one-dimensional. Fell, 47, is a British sound artist with a taste for techno who does installations as well as performances. His soundscapes are comparatively abstract, almost academic at times, and technically complex – a 2008 “generative sound piece” was composed for a 48-speaker system.

Fell sat cross-legged at a low table with a laptop, seemingly oblivious to the two dozen people sitting in front of him in scattered chairs or lying on floor mats. For the first 10 minutes or so of his 50-minute performance, only the barest buzz was audible from the six speakers surrounding the audience. Gradually the sound built to a sharp electric hum, then got louder and louder until it seemed capable of shattering eardrums. Essentially, it was one long crescendo, with only changes in volume and tone offering any variation.

Straight from this critic’s notebook, a small sampling of the time elapsed and aural impressions: 23 minutes: Layers of dysfunctional appliances; 27: A high-pitched whine like a mosquito in your ear; 29: A bathroom exhaust fan with bad bearings; 33: Airplane engines revving up; 35: The cyclotron on Forbidden Planet; 37: A freight train going 90 mph outside your bedroom window; 39: A teeth-rattling submarine engine room right next to the propellers.

Punishing stuff, though only one of the many directions electronic music has taken since Subotnick started playing with tapes. From dance clubs to conservatories, electronics have proven to be endlessly adaptable, with new possibilities opening up as the technology continues to evolve. Still, there’s nothing like hearing it from the source.

For more on Morton Subotnick:

For more on Mark Fell:

Subotnick photo: MOCA/Kory Dakin

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