Morton Subotnick is a living legend in the development of electronic music. A leading innovator in works involving instruments and other media, his oeuvre utilizes many of the important technological breakthroughs in the history of the genre.
His groundbreaking work Silver Apples of the Moon, commissioned by Nonesuch Records in 1967, was the first original large-scale composition to be composed specifically for the disc medium; a conscious acknowledgment that the home stereo system constituted a present-day form of chamber music. Written using the Buchla modular synthesizer (an electronic instrument built by Donald Buchla utilizing suggestions from Subotnick and Ramon Sender), this work contains synthesized tone colors, striking for its day, and a control over pitch that many other contemporary electronic composers had relinquished. There is a rich counterpoint of gestures, in marked contrast to the simple surfaces of much contemporary electronic music. The next eight years saw the production of several more important compositions for LP realized on the Buchla synthesizer: The Wild Bull, Touch, Sidewinder and Four Butterflies. All of these pieces are marked by sophisticated timbres, contrapuntal rich textures, and sections of continuous pulse, suggesting dance. Subotnick played an important role in developing the “ghost” box: an electronic device consisting of a pitch and envelope follower for a live signal with an amplifier, frequency shifter and ring modulator.
Subotnick’s notable works for ghost and live instruments include Liquid Strata for piano, The Wild Beasts for trombone and piano, Axolotl for solo cello, and A Fluttering of Wings for string quartet. The subtlety, sophistication and control over real-time electronic processing that Subotnick demonstrated in these innovative works secured his reputation as one of the world’s most important electronic music composers.
In addition to music in the electronic medium, Subotnick has written for symphony orchestra, chamber ensembles, theater and multimedia productions. His “staged tone poem” The Double Life of Amphibians, a collaboration with director Lee Breuer and visual artist Irving Petlin, utilizes live interaction between singers, instrumentalists and computer and was premiered at the 1984 Olympics Arts Festival in Los Angeles. The concert version of Jacob's Room, a monodrama commissioned by Betty Freeman for the Kronos Quartet and singer Joan La Barbara, received its premiere in San Francisco in 1985. This version of Jacob's Room was then staged by Herbert Blau with video imagery by Steina and Woody Vasulka, in Philadelphia in April, 1993 under the auspices of The American Music Theater Festival.
Subotnick completed transforming this work into a complete one-act chamber opera in 2010 thanks to the commission by the Bregenz Festival’s Kunst aus der Zeit in cooperation with soniq performing arts in Berlin. The complete Jacob’s Room, directed by Mirella Weingarten with live video imagery by Lillevan, had its world premiere at the Bregenz Festival in August, 2010. The opera’s German premiere in Berlin followed in October, 2010.
Morton Subotnick was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1980 for his work, "After the Butterfly."