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The Barnum of Bytes

Electronic ringmaster Morton Subotnick presents his next high-wire trick: 'Intimate Immensity,' a 'staged media poem.'

September 28, 1997|Justin Davidson | Justin Davidson is classical music critic at Newsday

NEW YORK — Morton Subotnick's eyes are pale and intense, but on this morning they are tired, which is not surprising, since he has been staring into the future for 40 years.

It is early July, two days after the world premiere at the Lincoln Center Festival of his "Intimate Immensity," an opera of sorts for two amplified voices, two pianos, one Balinese dancer and 2,000 pounds of high-tech equipment, all linked by a network of digital synapses. Subotnick calls the work a "staged media poem," by which he means a theater piece that fuses music, stylized gestures, computer images that dance across multiple screens, speech and lighting into what he hopes is an eloquent, poetically allusive 70-minute show.

Whatever you call it, it is apparently not quite right.

"I had a computer bug as of 4 a.m.," Subotnick, 65, says wearily, his elbows propped on the table of a bar near Lincoln Center, palms pressing into his eyes. "I stayed up all night working on it. There were a lot of details I couldn't take care of. By the time I get to L.A., I should be done."

That time is now, and the work is no longer in progress: After six more performances (two in New York and four in Santa Fe, N.M.), "Intimate Immensity" will have its West Coast premiere at the Japan America Theatre on Saturday and will be repeated at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Oct. 10 and 12.

"Intimate Immensity" is a creation myth for the Computer Age. Two characters, He and She, sit at bare desks, archetypal humans in a vacuous, digital Eden. A Balinese dancer, I Nyoman Wenten, moves across the stage, threading his limbs through the air. On a screen behind him, a disembodied female hand with long red fingernails dances in blackness, echoing his movements as if learning sign language. Two playerless pianos flank the stage, the action of their keys and hammers triggered by remote control.

The machines follow the humans' cues almost the way a live musician would: by making electric eye contact. The desks, the floors, Wenten's costume and the walls are fitted with sensors wired to a central computer brain. A gesture from Wenten, and one piano plays a phrase. A signal from the on-screen hand, and the other piano answers.

"My goal is to have the technology be transparent," Subotnick explains, "so the concentration is not on that. The technology should grow from the performance, rather than the other way around."

The idea is to create an experience of such seamlessness that audiences stop trying to separate foreground from background, actor from set or words from a wash of sound. "If you focus on any one thing," Subotnick acknowledges, "you're gone.

"I know I'm going to get compared to traditional theater," he continues. "But it's not a theater piece, it's a staged media poem. To me that means that there are gestures--very slow, poetically timed--that mean something, like snuffing out a light. Those gestures, the images on the screen, the music all add up to one thing, the way in a poem the words, meanings, rhythms and layout on the page are all inseparable."

So is Subotnick a composer, a poet or an author in some as-yet-unlabeled, holistic genre? What does he write on forms that give him only a one-word space for "occupation"?

"Composer," he answers firmly. "I see the media and all the imagery as an extension of pure music." Besides, he points out, his next commission is for a plain old string quartet.

Subotnick's most recent piece and the trajectory of his life tell the same fundamental story--"about our love affair with technology" is the summary he has worked out. To listen to him explain what he means by an "intimate immensity" is to hear a detailed vision of a future in which computers have gotten so small and light as to have no volume at all and so fast as to have eliminated durations altogether.

The future Subotnick has conjured with his high-definition imagination will be filled not with gadgetry but with technology so pervasive as to recede from our consciousness, becoming a substance that surrounds us like air.

"Once computers can [easily] recognize handwriting--and they already can--we'll be back to the simplest technology," he elaborates with the utter confidence of a professional visionary. "A piece of paper or even this table"--he taps the scuffed wood--"will become intelligent enough to be transparent. We're talking about something we'll see in the next 15 or 20 years."

Subotnick understands that it is not easy for a layman hopelessly stranded in the present to envision the world he describes, just as opening night has revealed to him that the narrative of "Intimate Immensity" is perhaps more cryptic and oracular than he intended it to be. "I heard comments from people who I would have expected to get it but didn't," Subotnick acknowledges.

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