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September 22, 1987|DANIEL CARIAGA | Times Music Writer

Morton Subotnick is talking about his newest major piece, "Hungers," an evening-long video and electronic work commissioned by the Los Angeles Festival. The collaboration between veteran electronic composer Subotnick and film maker / video artist Ed Emshwiller is, in a technological way, Subotnick says, "immensely complicated."

How complicated?

So complicated, claims the bearded, laid-back composer, that it makes "The Double Life of Amphibians"--his much-heralded, multimedia, major project of 1984, which was given its premiere performance at the Olympic Arts Festival--"seem like a dinosaur."

It's not the number of participants. "Amphibians" used 14 live musicians, electronics and stagecraft. "Hungers" will employ only three live players, a singer and a dancer at its four performances (Thursday through Sunday at the Japan America Theatre). What makes it complicated is its electronic and visual paraphernalia.

In addition to the protagonist (solo singer Joan La Barbara), the three instrumentalists (playing electrified percussion, keyboards and cello) and the dancer, the JAT stage will also hold 14 television screens. Three of them are of extra-large size.

At the same time, in the pit below the stage, two giant electronic control panels (unmanned and automatic) will run the piece from a master computer program submitted by the creators.

Technologically, Emshwiller and Subotnick have built the production apparatus "from scratch," the composer says, as a result of monthly meetings over the past 2 1/2 years. Subotnick developed the technical means with a Macintosh computer masterminding the workings of Yamaha equipment.

"Once the piece begins, no one will be in control except Joan, on the stage," Subotnick specifies. "And her control will consist only in cuing the computer to activate the separate components of the already-established program."

La Barbara--the extended-vocal-techniques specialist, a composer herself, and Subotnick's wife--will hold the control points for the entire piece in her hands. They are devices that look like microphones, or maracas, or gray plastic balls; they are called air drums .

Each air drum responds to six signals available to the handler / operator, enabling the operator to give any of 12 different cues at any moment. And the cues can and do change, over time, through the medium of the computer.

"We had always wanted to work together," Subotnick continues, "ever since Ed came to Valencia to teach at CalArts in 1979. Finally, with this piece, a joint commission from the Ars Electronica Festival in Austria and the 1987 Los Angeles Festival, it came about." In Austria, in 1988, a European counterpart to "Hungers," made by another set of creators, is scheduled to be presented side by side with the Subotnick / Emshwiller work.

The colleagues toyed with a number of ideas before settling on "Hungers."

"Because the Austrian contingent will deal with political aspects of hunger, we chose the internal, emotional side. And, immediately, we decided that the kinds of hunger we are exploring--which are more than desires, more than needs--have complementary sides. Famine is one, feast the other.

"Famine epitomizes being deprived and the subject of loneliness and alienation is dealt with right at the beginning of the work.

"Feast produces, obviously, a social situation and is manifested in dance and food."

At the beginning of their meetings, the composer says, a "hierarchy of focus" was the first thing the collaborators had to establish. He explains:

"Any time there is a simultaneity of sound with sight, the creators had to choose which should dominate. Musical scores and films, being strong mediums, tend to clash or conflict with each other. In any moment when they are working together, one tends to dominate the other."

In the finished work, then, "there are stretches when the visual image is most important, and the accompanying sound only vamps, or is silent.

"There are also stretches when the music has no visuals behind it, when it is alone. And there are parts in which the dancer has the audience's undivided attention, when the other elements only support, or drop out."

Though "Hungers" is a full-length, intermission-less work, occupying more than 75 minutes of playing time, its structure is tight, Subotnick says, and "analogous to the Liszt Sonata--a work so tightly constructed that when it is over, no time seems to have passed."

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