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Sights and sounds made in electronic music heaven

Morton Subotnick, with help from a computer, offers a sensory-pleasing experience.

November 21, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Music Critic

String theory, that elegantly hopeful and fashionable idea in physics, suggests that the universe consists of 11 dimensions and that we are skating around it on a four-dimensional membrane. Which sounds exciting but is a little hard to visualize. Has anyone, though, ever thought of trying to "auralize" at least an extra dimension or two?

That notion came to mind Wednesday night when Morton Subotnick presented a new electronic work and spiffed-up versions of two old favorites at REDCAT.

The Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater is, at last, going full bore. That means concert-goers (and anyone else who wanders in off the deserted downtown streets) can also see an important exhibition of works by painter Emerson Woelffer, buy a beer, pick up a copy of Heidegger from the bookstore to read while drinking it and check e-mail (it's wi-fi all the way).

For ticket-holders, though, the 200-seat REDCAT black box proved electronic music heaven Wednesday.

Subotnick, as aging hippies well remember, was a phenomenon in the late '60s, the first composer to write substantial works for synthesizer that had a wide audience. On the CalArts faculty from its founding, he has also been mentor to a couple of generations of composers, and his influence is so pervasive that it would be impossible to trace completely. The electronica movement, for one, reveres him.

But Subotnick himself has been more out of than in the public eye for some time. Part of the problem is making electronic music interesting for a concert audience. And Subotnick has tried almost everything, including electrifying acoustic instruments and inventing magical wands that can be waved in the air to produce neat sounds.

Still, his heart has always been in the studio, a pure environment where he can manipulation mysterious and often danceable sound to his heart's (and his feet's) content. And when there is a sound system as spectacular as that in REDCAT, you really don't need anything more.

The latest work Wednesday came from Subotnick's "Gestures" series, in which musical phrases and sound fragments are shaped through a computer reacting to the movement of a computer mouse. For "The Wind," Subotnick operated two laptops, their glowing screens lighting the otherwise darkened space. A further component of the piece is recordings of soprano Joan La Barbara reading a fragmented text by Melody Sumner Carnahan.

Buzzy sounds circled overhead. Rumbling bass produced sonic tremors that could be felt through the seats. Poetic phrases ("The persuasion of wind/ The profusion of trees.") floated in what seemed like a separate dimension.

For another new section of "Gestures," which began four years ago with "It begins with colors" (recently issued on a surround-sound DVD by Mode), the composer was joined by Tony Martin, a new media artist who was an LSD-generation sensation with his light shows at the Fillmore in San Francisco. For Subotnick, Martin manipulated a computer to create sweetly lumpish, vaguely phallic moving lines that were projected on a large screen. Meanwhile, Subotnick created complexly textured and seriously visceral sound.

The older works on the program were "Sidewinder" and "Until Spring," which Subotnick has digitally remixed and to some extent reordered and recomposed into a single stream. In this, as in much of his music from the '70s, he sets up a slow, semimystical mood through which breaks a lively dance of the electrons, as pulses and patterns pop through space -- the effect akin to a hyper "Rite of Spring."

For his contribution, Martin returned to the projected gels he used at rock concerts in the '60s and '70s, the old period-instrument projectors humming away as they always did (not that fans ever noticed or cared while Cream or the Grateful Dead blared away). The projections were more sophisticated than in the old days, less goopy psychedelia than visions of colorful microscopic life.

As a blast from the past, it was all quite charming. But the visuals tended to yank Subotnick back in time rather than forward. I'm not sure that "Sidewinder" and "Until Spring" aren't best served stimulating the imagination on scratchy old LPs, as relics from their time.

The new music, on the other hand, is -- at its best and heard in an ideal setting like REDCAT -- dimension-shattering sonic poetry.

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