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Getting Kids to Play

Electronic music: In a 2-day Orange County visit, composer Morton Subotnick will focus on tapping into youngsters' creativity.


After a lifetime of trying to reach adults with his electronic music, composer Morton Subotnick is now making children a priority.

The reason?

"I've had several," Subotnick, 62, said with a chuckle during a phone interview from his home in Santa Fe, N.M., where he's lived with his family since 1984.

"What I'm doing on this planet is not only trying to do as much as I can to fulfill my own abilities . . . but finding ways to help other people to fulfill their abilities."

Subotnick will show his own abilities Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa as part of a new series, Young Person's Chamber Music Concerts.

On the agenda are selections from his first CD-ROM, "All My Hummingbirds Have Alibis," and a work-in-progress, "The Poetics of Space." Los Angeles Philharmonic pianist Zita Carno will assist.

Earlier Saturday, he'll give a preview talk in the center's Founders Hall geared for families who plan to attend the concert; he'll focus on how he composes and on the instruments, including two Yamaha Disklaviers, that he uses.

He hopes to further help others through a workshop for music educators today at UC Irvine. The workshop is called "Making Music: The Challenge of Interactive Media on Music Performance, Composition and Education," and is based on the first of four interactive musical CD-ROMs planned for children.

Subotnick gave an overview of the educational CD-ROMs, three of which are still in the works.

"The first ['Making Music,' Voyager Co., about $40] is metaphorically at a finger-painting level," he said. "Everything is pitch-oriented. It essentially says play--play with making music. Create.

" 'Making More Music' is similar but introduces concepts of scores and traditional notation, and the idea of theme and variations. There's also a rhythm band."

The third installment, "Playing Music," is possibly most exciting of all: It will allow kids to interpret music the way that conductors do.

Some people question the wisdom of that, wondering whether kids will take up an instrument if they already have an orchestra at their fingertips.

Subotnick points out that most people don't play an instrument anyway, and that the software will help those who do to understand and appreciate music better. He also believes it will increase concert-going.

This is how children learn in other areas, he said, so why not music?

"Kids play with blocks and build skyscrapers without any knowledge of structural engineering," he said. "We don't give them training in structural engineering before giving them a set of blocks. When kids want to get involved with music, we give them piano lessons, then seven years later we say to get creative again."

Building musical skyscrapers, so to speak, without formal training may soon be a possibility.

The fourth in the series, "Make Your Own Sounds," will have more to do with Subotnick's own niche, electronic music. Children can compose in several different musical "worlds," each corresponding to a particular 20th century composer; everything they produce will be according to that composer's style.

Sound fairly advanced?

"I'm trying to keep everything [geared toward kids] from 5 to 11 years old," he responded. "Having said that, older kids and adults seem to like it a whole lot."

Subotnick knows when it doesn't work for 11-year-olds, because he and his wife, singer Joan La Barbara, have one of their own--Jacob. (He also has two grown children by a previous marriage.)

Subotnick continues to co-direct both the composition program and the Center for Experiments in Art, Information and Technology at CalArts in Santa Clarita.

His "Silver Apples of the Moon" (1967), a commission by Nonesuch Records, is considered a landmark of electronic music. It was the first large-scale piece composed expressly for the LP medium--in two parts, for example, to correspond with the LP's two sides--and a conscious nod to the home stereo system as a present-day incarnation of chamber music.

"Ascent into Air" (1981) marked a high point for Subotnick's use of live performers to control computer music. Since 1985, he's favored commercial MIDI devices (which allow instruments to employ computer-generated sounds and effects) in such works as his first CD-ROM, "All My Hummingbirds Have Alibis" in 1991. His more recent compositions feature diatonic melodies and harmonies.

Subotnick believes interactive CD-ROMs will have a huge impact on education, and on society in general.

"Or ought to," he said. "They have the potential. With new technologies, we have a tendency to think that we can do away with something else. The CD-ROM is not going to substitute--it's a terrific addition to the palate of educational possibilities. But not just an addition. It's opening doors that have not been there before."

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