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Review: Morton Subotnick updates cosmic 'Silver Apples' at REDCAT

November 13, 2013|By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
  • Morton Subotnick performs "From 'Silver Apples to the Moon' to 'A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur' IV: Lucy"
Morton Subotnick performs "From 'Silver Apples to the Moon'… (REDCAT )

Equal part handcrafted, computer-aided sensory hallucination and concert, composer Morton Subotnick and visual artist Lillevan's performance at REDCAT, "From 'Silver Apples of the Moon' to 'A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur IV: Lucy,'" offered a mesmerizing reminder of the distances that both electronic music and video art have traveled over the last half-century.  

The pair offered Subotnick's remix/reinterpretation of his influential recordings starting with "Silver Apples on the Moon," the landmark 1966-67 composition created for home stereo, and ending with "A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur" in 1978, all built with the aid of important early electronic devices, the most prominent of which was inventor Donald Buchla's "Buchla Box."

The set on Tuesday was, to be base, a total trip, featuring tones and visuals crafted for getting lost inside the head and experiencing a whole other reality. 

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For those looking for some Zen, in fact, the 70-plus-minute performance was an excellent means of gliding into a state of focused mindfulness, turning inward while letting Subotnick and Lillevan guide the senses. As loose electronic tones drifted in sonic flocks, chirping and bubbling, Lillevan generated washes of equally borderless visuals on a horizontal screen. At peaks, the combination was powerful enough to suggest that REDCAT's black box was in fact a black hole, and we'd been vacuumed in.

Subotnick helped ferry in the age of electronics with "Silver Apples." Released by Nonesuch Records in 1967 under the guidance of Teresa Sterne, the record is described in the liner notes as representing "a significant event in the related history of music and the phonograph: for the first time, an original, full-scale composition has been created expressly for the record medium." That idea alone was transformative.

Notes further stated that "Silver Apples" was "intended to be experienced by individuals or small groups of people listening in intimate surroundings ... a kind of chamber music 20th-century style."

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It worked in the 21st century, too, as the 270-odd people at REDCAT can attest. "Silver Apples" as Subotnick presented it was one part of a living, constantly evolving piece involving tones from '67-'78. To gather the strands, he funneled his work through what he described as a hybrid instrument that combined a Buchla and the music production software Ableton. 

All the while Lillevan was improvising with visuals. The German artist is best known as a founding member of the group Rechenzentrum, and since their disbanding in 2008 he's collaborated on projects including opera, installation and dance. As noted in his biography, his work is focused on "the musicality of the imagery, thus defining the moving imagery as an instrument in its own right as opposed to accompanying music." 

The pair faced each other on opposing tables on Tuesday and worked their hands across computers, sequencers, mixers and multicolor-wire devices while sound circled and animations burst from a screen. Dots of sound -- chips, washes and warbles -- seemed to seep from parts unknown, as though gathering momentum. Tones distorted, got fatter, louder and images -- ink-damaged explosions, oblong polka dots -- spread across a two-dimensional field. Coffee-colored stains melted and bled. Many of these creations seemed vaguely, surreally familiar, but just out of reach. 

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This was the most striking aspect of the evening's music: the sensory portal that the pair opened, one that through floating, oft-unstructured and barely metered tones and visions offered an untethered kind of bliss. Freed of heavy architecture or any expectation of theme-and-variation style progression, guided melodies or predictable patterns, sounds flowed through the room from all directions, more curvy than angular, drifting through the moments without regard for steady rhythm or thematic logic.

The result was something that didn't at all seem "vintage" or dated. Rather, it felt of the moment, readily adaptable for decades to come. The mind reels, in fact, at the possibilities. Imagine what would happen if Subotnick and Lillevan started working with Google Glass, or designing for a futuristic virtual chamber. If Tuesday's performance were any indication, that will also be a trip, to say the absolute least. 


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