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With electricity charging the air

Laptop, soundboard and capable players enable Morton Subotnick, rarely heard in L.A., to generate a current.

May 23, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Morton Subotnick's music wiggles. If it were architecture, it would be all sinuous curves, like a Frank Gehry building, like nature. It is also electronic. And even though electronic music promised at its inception a half-century ago that it could finally allow sound to break out of the box, it has more often accomplished just the opposite effect. The ears feel somehow confined in space when listening to crazy noises bounce between speakers.

But Subotnick's music doesn't create that impression. It is unpredictable, mysterious, physical, sensuous, ecstatic. In it, I always sense dance, with dancers free of the stage, tracing the contours of the natural world.

Subotnick turned 70 in April. It has been 36 years since his most famous work, "Silver Apples of the Moon," was a bestselling LP, as essential to any hip late-1960s record collection as "The White Album," "Highway 61 Revisited," Ravi Shankar improvising ragas or Aldo Ciccolini playing Satie. "Silver Apples" still holds up as well as those others do, and so does the best music Subotnick has continued to write.

For some reason, though, Subotnick, who has taught at the California Institute of Arts for three decades, is rarely heard hereabouts. Many of his most important works are unavailable on CD. His name is not always included in discussions of the distinctive West Coast style, but he is one of its most influential composers.

Wednesday night at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a birthday retrospective of captivating works from the '70s and '80s, along with a small hint of what Subotnick is up to these days, provided a vivid reminder of what we have been missing.

The concert was the last of this year's California EAR Unit series in the Museum's Leo S. Bing Theater. Formed at CalArts in 1981, about the time the Subotnick started inventing machines that could electronically modify and enhance live music, the EAR Unit has been twitching to the composer's pulsing rhythms from the start.

The main part of the program included three works from the first half of the '80s that use a computer hookup that Subotnick calls a "ghost score," allowing him to modify instruments as they are played.

Seated on stage at his laptop and soundboard, he is like an avuncular, benevolent Dr. Frankenstein sending his vibrating musical current through the players' willing veins.

In "Trembling," violinist Robin Lorentz's and pianist Vicki Ray's bouncing rhythms were given another dimension of bounce by Subotnick's "ghost" electronics. If bounding players could jump on their instruments and make music, this is what it would sound like.

In "Axolotl," a virtuosic piece for solo cello, a weird creature, half fish, half mammal, is evoked, the electronics adding aqueous atmosphere and tremendous excitement as the creature nearly makes it out of the sea to land. Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick was the astonishing soloist.

"Key to Songs" -- for viola, cello, two pianos and three mallet instruments -- is Schubert in the fourth dimension. Taking as his inspiration a graphic novel by the surrealist painter Max Ernst, Subotnick transforms Ernst's illustrations into palpitating music that is haunted by references to Schubert songs. The result is something even more surreal than the original, and powerfully moving.

With the constant evolution of technology, electronic music dates quickly, but an excerpt from a tape piece, "Until Spring," seemed the head trip it did when it was released on LP in 1975. And clarinetist Marty Walker, offering a small sketch from a new chamber piece, "Release" (which will have its premiere at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival this summer), showed that Subotnick has haunting new electronic tricks up his sleeve.

Happily, this wonderful concert heralds the beginning of a Subotnick revival. "Release" will be given its local premiere next season by the Southwest Chamber Music, and Subotnick also will be presenting new work at REDCAT, the black box theater run by CalArts at Walt Disney Concert Hall, when it opens in November.

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