AXOLOTL by Morton Subotnick
Axolotl (for cello and electronic ghost score) was commissioned by Joel Krosnick and first performed by him at the Library of congress on February 13, 1981. It is the first of two works in Part I of a series entitled The Double Life of Amphibians (Part I, Amphibians; Part II, Beasts; Part III; Angels). The other work in Part I is called Ascent Into Air.
The Axolotl is a Mexican salamander; it is transparent and delicate with two filigree wing-like appendages extending from either side and floating above the creature. These are its lungs for its future ascent onto land but the Axolotl never goes through the final stage of its potential development ‹it never reaches air‹it remains forever in water.
(description of "ghost" score technology)
ECHOES FROM THE SILENT CALL OF GIRONA by Morton Subotnick
About the Music:
The instrumental music is based on a symmetrical motif comprised of a rising and falling melodic figure over a pizzicato repeated note rhythm, like an isosceles triangle unfolding in time. Most of the material of the work is based on this motif. Rhythms, melodies and even dynamic patterns evolve from it although its original form is not heard until the opening of the 2nd movement. The motif and its derivations are paired against a texture of non symetrical patterns made of fast moving note which only rise, only fall, or weave around a single note. The music based on the motif weaves its way through the texture of patterns and acts as a kind of inner musical narrative.
Just as the music is made of two kinds of material, all the instrumental music is paired with a sound environment. The quartet music speaks from the inner world of musical gesture while the sound environment springs from this inner musical narrative like abstract 'echoes' from the objective world.
About the Title:
The district where the Jews lived in the town of Girona (in NE Catalonia) was known as the Call. The Jews were there for centuries before the Spanish inquisition. The Call, as many communities of its kind, was prosperous and a center of learning and intellectual inquiry. Among other things, it was one of the seats of development of the Kabala. As time went on, persecution came and went and finally came and didn't go. Some of the details of the persecution are tragically mirrored in the methods of persecution leading to the holocaust in Germany. In the last years, the people were actually 'sealed', walled into their district. They were only allowed out with armed guards and were forced to wear special clothing so that they could be identified and not confused with the rest of the population. The once prosperous and self-contained community became a prison even to the extent that food had to be brought in. And, finally came the Inquisition and the end of the life of the Call.
When my family and I visited Spain last summer (1998) we were struck by the emptiness and the silence of the Call. It, for me, resonated with the inner feeling of the dark and brooding quality of my string quartet. On returning home I reworked the computer accompaniment to include 'echoes' of human sounds.
Echoes from the Silent Call of Girona is in three movements played without pause.
The melodic and harmonic material comes from a series of invented seven note scales. The source for all the sound accompanying the quartet is from recorded cello sounds played by Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick and spoken and intoned phrases recorded by Joan La Barbara and I Nyoman Wenten.
Morton Subotnick - September 1998
A FLUTTERING OF WINGS by Morton Subotnick
A Fluttering of Wings is the third part of as a larger work entitled The Double Life of Amphibians. The entire work is conceived as staged tone poem. A Fluttering of Wings is for string quartet and an electronic ghost score and is in four parts played without pause:
A Fluttering of Wings
Dance: one angel dancing
two angels dancing
three angels dancing
Song of the Angel
The opening is fast music of continues 16th notes. The fluttering is created by the ghost, which gently weaves the amplified quartet sound through the proscenium space. The dance is also quick and continuous, but the ghost here acts as pulsating support to the rhythm and tempo of the dance. In the third section, the music pauses for the first time. Here individual plucked notes and chords are altered by frequency changes produced by the electronics, which help to create a halo like sound. The music of this section continually develops, both the old material of the work and the new material, which is particular to this section. This continual evolution as well as the lullaby form The Last Dream of the Beast, which has been heard throughout the quartet, slowly subsides only after the "song" begins. This ending song, "the song of the angel" (a final articulation and fulfillment of the implications of the chorale at the end of part I), hovers quietly while the landscape gradually evolves into its final ecstatic form.
A Fluttering of Wings was composed in Berlin in 1981 and was written for the Juilliard String Quartet with the aid of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Juilliard School of Music.
(description of "ghost" score technology)
THE KEY TO SONGS by Morton Subotnick
The Key to Songs, which had its premiere at the 1985 Aspen Festival, is an imaginary ballet inspired by Max Ernst's novel in the form of a collage, A Week of kindness, or the Seven Deadly Elements. The "novel" is something peculiar: it is a novel in melodramatic, and often erotic, illustrations, which were culled from French popular fiction and then modified by Ernst, a Surrealist painter.
Each of the seven chapters represents a day of the week and each day has a "deadly element" associated with it. Beginning with Sunday, the elements are: Mud, Water, Fire, Blood, Blackness, sight and Unknown. A motto and Dadaist or Surrealist epigraph prefaces each chapter, and the motto becomes an enigmatic visual motif. Sunday's Epigraph, for instance, is a quote by Alfred Jarry that describes the ermine as "a very dirty animal" who "does its laundry with its tongue," and many of the figures in the lascivious and sometimes brutal illustrations of the chapter are lion-headed. The final chapter, Saturday, is the most mysterious; Ernst labeled it "The Key to Songs".
Morton Subotnick's score, which calls for two pianos, three mallet instruments (marimba, xylophone and vibraphone) shared by two players, viola, cello and computer, provides a musical counterpart to Ernst's enigmatic collage in several ways. The phantasmagorical ambiguity between reality and fantasy found in the Ernst-enhanced illustrations, and in the surreal groupings of images, has its equivalent in Subotnick's applications of electronics. Subotnick uses the computer to create "instruments" parallel to the real ones on stage. Sometimes the electronic element will sound so close to the real instrument that it is impossible to tell which is playing without watching the performers on stage. And there are times when Subotnick writes passages so fantastical for the instruments that he actually specifies in the score that the musicians exaggerate their physical movements so the audience will not mistake the musical effects for electronic ones.
But the greatest, and most fascinating, degree of ambiguity occurs when Subotnick blends electronic instruments with acoustic ones to create new hybrids. One example of this is the way, gradually as the piece progresses, the mallet instruments change tone color and wind up sounding like a gigantic plucked instrument. Another such hybrid occurs about two-thirds into the piece, when a big piano chord delays longer than a natural piano can, and that fading sound subtly turns cello-like. There is another mystifying point where a cello sounds like a cross between itself and a human voice, which perfectly evokes the mixed-up, unsettling imagery of Ernst's illustrations.
At the heart of Subotnick's score are two Schubert songs. Just as Ernst utilized existing 19th-century illustrations for a 20th-century Surrealist product, Subotnick reinterprets Erklönig and Wohin. The first was chosen, the composer says, because it captures the melodramatic quality of the book's illustrations; the second‹which is heard only in the final section of the work, the section that represents Ernst's "the Key to Songs"‹because the tune is from perhaps the most famous 19th-century song cycle, Die schöne Mullerin, and it is, to Subotnick the key to all lieder.
Strikingly jazzy, motoric repeated chords in mallets and piano, descendents of the piano introduction to Erlkönig, begin The Key to Songs, while fragments of the song are developed in the viola and cello. Subotnick has labelled this "Power," and it corresponds to Ernst's opening chapter, "Mud." The ordering of Ernst's chapters is somewhat altered, and the more raucous rhythms and descending lines that follow are the music of "Blood." "Fire" is represented by glissandi, and "Water," with its marimba solos, flows through, eventually dousing it. A short coda, unrelated to Ernst, concludes Part I of the score.
The second part begins with a long, atmospheric, spooky night-music adagio. This is, appropriately, "Black," and it is composed of earlier material, radically slowed down. "Light" (Ernst's "Sight" chapter, which contains three abstract visual poems) briefly recapitulates Part I and prepares for "The Key to Songs." This is the only section of the score that doesn't use electronics, yet ironically it is the most surreal, especially in the way Subotnick treats the piano accompaniment as if it were an out-of-whack music box. A jaunty coda, with all the instruments in their full glory, like the full company of a ballet on stage for the finale, concludes the work; and it ends with a musical flip, a representation of the final acrobatic Ernst plate.
The Rambert Dance Company of London premiered a dance version of The Key to Songs during the 1989-90 season in London. The National Ballet of Canada premiered a ballet version in May 1991 in Toronto which was choreographed by John Alleyne under the title, Time Out for Lola.
An orchestral version of The Key to songs will be premiered at the Los Angeles Philharmonic in April 1992.
MANDOLIN by Morton Subotnick
Mandolin is an abstract chamber opera based on a romantic concept of love. The title is a verbal symbol of a serenade or love song.
The work opens with tape and viola. The viola plays an intense musical prologue against a sound tapestry of strange events. The second part, the world of Franz Liszt and Sonnet #47 of Petrarch, is played against a visual tapestry. The work progresses through a climax of "pain and suffering" . . . releases for a brief moment and returns to the opening viola music, which this time acts as a musical epilogue.
Mandolin was composed in close collaboration with Anthony Martin who did the original visual projections and later made a film of the projections so that the work could be more easily presented.
PASSAGES OF THE BEAST by Morton Subotnick
Passages of the Beast represents the first major clarinet composition commissioned by the International Clarinet Society. It is a solo clarinet work for an amplified clarinet, and like the other "ghost pieces", the amplification is done through a processing device called the ghost electronics. These ghost electronics are controlled by an audio tape, which is composed and prepared especially for the work. The result is a constantly changing acoustical environment within which the clarinet plays, which bends the pitches of the clarinet sound, moves it across the proscenium, and amplifies it in the form of clicks, sighs, etc.
The title, Passages of the Beast, refers to the recent version of the Butterfly metaphor Mr. Subotnick has been working with for several years. In the case of the beast pieces, the emergence of the butterfly is seen as the struggle of emergence of "beastness" and "humaness." The emergence of "beastness" is the emergence of passion, pain, and joy. Movements are titled "Before Dawn," "Awakening," "Night Song," and "Dance of Emergence."
The clarinet solo itself is in two parts: Part one is the awakening of the beast . . .starting with clicking sounds and distant echoes of calls and wails . . .this moves into a faster section which results in a loud 'moan-cry.' Part two starts softly, again with a more melodic and more 'musical' material than the start of the first part . . .this also moves into a fast section ending with a dance of staccato notes. . .almost mid-eastern in quality.
New Music Review
(description of "ghost" score technology)
RELEASE (2003) by Morton Subotnick
I began thinking of this work in 2001. At that time I was beginning to try to understand what it meant to me to become 70 years old. I decided to create a work for this combination of instruments to meld my early career as a clarinetist with my later career as a composer using technology. For me, those two worlds were always parallel but distinctly different and, perhaps, opposing realities.
I stopped being a professional clarinetist in 1965. Prior to that, maybe in the late 1950's, I frequently performed Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. This work had a profound and lasting effect on the evolution of my aesthetic sensibility. Having decided to create a work that would somehow tie my early career with now, the Quartet for the End of Time combination of the quartet and the electronics seemed natural.
Around the same time , the death of a young man very close to our family altered my life and all of those close to me. I remember then, and still now, feeling that the moment of dying is a release of life from the body. That sense of release became the first notion for the new work and eventually became the title. The sense of release seemed to relate to a creation myth I once read. In this myth, god is infinite, god is perfect, and god is lonely. Therefore, god is imperfect. God decides to create a finite world, and, being all things and everywhere, has to withdraw to a place within himself to create this finite world. Having done that, the imperfection causes this world to be destroyed. The impossible tension to withdraw to a space within itself and the resulting, perhaps explosive, destruction of that within the space seemed very much like what I called release.
Now, having said all thisand it is much easier to write the above than to talk about the musicthe music itself is not intended to deal with any of this in a programmatic way. In fact, once starting the work, I rarely thought to use any of these ideas as anything more than "inspiration" or, perhaps, starting points.
The work is continuous, but there are four main sections, which I call Without End, Judgment, Ice, and Alone. The surround sound is triggered on the computer. The person triggering the computer part reads the score and performs the trigger functions as a player in the ensemble. It would be more correct to consider the work a quintet rather than a quartet. And, perhaps, the next time it is performed it will be called a "quintet".
TREMBLING by Morton Subotnick
The word 'tremble' was spoken by Joan La Barbara, recorded, synthesized and transformed with the assistance of Richard Karpen at The Center for Computer Music at Brooklyn College. The materials of the work come from two invented scales, which are fixed in register . . . one scale for each of the two instruments. The instruments were treated as if only these notes were possible on the instruments.
The work is in several short sections without pause. The opening section of quick 16th notes comes back several times throughout the work . . . each time varied . . . almost like a refrain. Throughout the work, the ghost acts to heighten the shimmering . . . 'trembling' quality of the music.
The work 'tremble' (on tape) occurs at the end. Each of the four statements contains four simultaneous utterances of the word . . . and each utterance, though starting at the same time, unfolds at a different rate . . . resulting in a 'rose petal' effect.
Trembling, for violin, piano, tape and an electronic ghost score was commissioned by the Library of Congress. It was first performed at the Library of Congress, on October 29, 1983 with Ben Hudson, violin and Alan Feinberg, piano.
(description of "ghost" score technology)
The Wild Beasts (1978)
The Wild Beasts was originally inspired by an exhibition of Les Fauves paintings. I was left with the impression that each subject was portrayed as "normal", but that we were seeing this subject through a strangely prismatic atmosphere...an atmosphere comprised of rare and possibly "unearthly" gases...an atmosphere in which normal expectations of color and shape would not exist. This was the visual counterpart of my "ghost" idea, i.e. a traditional musical instrument played into an unusual and continually transforming atmosphere...an atmosphere in which the normal sound expectations would no longer exist.
Take, for example, the opening trombone solo. With the whisper mute, the trombone is distant and dry...but the sound is caught in short bursts of amplification that zigzag in an unpredictable pattern across the proscenium space of stereo speakers. If we skip to the piano cadenza toward the end of the work, we find that the atmosphere has changed...now the piano seems to be in a dense, undulating liquid atmosphere which causes the sound to continually shift in pitch, first on one side of the space and then on the other. In fact, throughout each of the ghost pieces, the environment is undergoing continuous transformation. A transformation, however, dictated by the aesthetic/compositional needs of each work.
The Wild Beasts was commissioned and premiered by trombonist Miles Anderson and pianist Virko Baley for the Contemporary Music Festival at the California Institute of the Arts in 1979.
(description of "ghost" score technology)
Original description of "ghost" score technology
About the "ghost" score: The ghost score consists of two objects: a tape and a small package of electronics. The electronics consist of basic devises:
1. To locate the sound from left to right
2. To alter the frequency of the sound of the instrument up and/or down 100 cycles
3. To control the shape of the amplification
The tape contains high frequency audio signals which are not amplified and therefore not heard by the audience, but instead are sent directly to the electronics and act as controls for the three modifying devises. The electronics have no sound of their own; they can only act upon the sound of the instrument as it plays. Hence a "ghost" score.
Note: The electronics in Subotnick's "ghost" score pieces are currently being transferred to the MAX/MSP format. Available upon rental.
The Key to Songs
Special software (INTERACTOR) was written and developed by Marc Coniglio under Morton Subotnick's supervision.
The software resides in the Mac II computer and contains:
1. its own music part
2. the musicians' part
3. instructions for the mixer
4. instructions for the digital sound modules (Yamaha tx802 and the emaxII sampler).
Based on the performance of the musician(s) it is listening to, the computer controls the mixer and the sound modules while playing its own part.
Release (2003) technology notes coming soon.