Subotnick’s ‘Apples’ In Golden Harvest; ‘Rheingolds’ Duel

Morton Subotnick was honored at the Lincoln Center Festival, where he gave performances of his classic ‘Silver Apples
of the Moon’ and the world premiere of ‘Crowds and Power.’ (Photo by Adam Kissick)
By John Rockwell

NEW YORK — Morton Subotnick, 84, has had a multi-faceted, complicated career. He is rightly regarded as a pioneer of electronic music, yet he has never quite established himself as a major composer, recognized worldwide in either the classical or pop worlds. But to my taste, the biggest anomaly of his work as a composer is his curiously ambivalent, in-between status as a “serious” composer and an admired historical figure in the world of pop electronica.

Subotnick was a pioneer of electronic music. (Steve Gunther)

He first came to prominence in the early 1960s in the San Francisco Bay area, teaching at Mills College and co-founding the influential San Francisco Tape Music Center, with Ramon Sender and Pauline Oliveros. He collaborated with the choreographer Anna Halprin on two striking scores (especially Parades and Changes), was music director of the Actor’s Workshop in San Francisco, and worked with the pioneering engineer Don Buchla on the “Buchla Box,” which was a West Coast competitor for Robert Moog’s user-friendly, relatively inexpensive synthesizer — innovations that opened up electronic music to composers who had neither the institutional connections nor the money to make use of the giant mainframe computers previously required to generate electronic sounds.

In contrast to Sender’s increasing absorption into the hippie lifestyle – he eventually plunged into psychedelic drugs and joined a commune – Subotnick was straighter, still to some extent indebted to the modernist aesthetic from which he and academic electronic music composers emerged. And yet his instincts were more open and generous than those of the electronic mandarins at Columbia and Princeton (Milton Babbitt, Vladimir Ussachevsky, et al.).

In the mid-60s, however, Subotnick left the West Coast and relocated in New York, where he taught at New York University and became music director at the then-new Repertory Theater at Lincoln Center (now the Lincoln Center Theater). He was also, on the pop side (but the boundaries between non-academic serious music and serious popular music had become increasingly blurry by then), artistic director of the trendy Electric Circus dance club in New York.

‘Silver Apples of the Moon’ came out on the Nonesuch label in 1967.

Subotnick’s pop career, however much he professed surprise that people would actually dance to his music, led to the runaway success of his LP Silver Apples of the Moon. It was the first full-length LP of electronic music to be commissioned by a record company (Nonesuch), and was quickly followed by The Wild Bull (both are now combined on a Wergo CD). What made Silver Apples so influential was Subotnick’s foreswearing of modernist abstraction (bloops and bleeps, we used to call it) for accessible textures and driving rhythms. The music became a hit at clubs worldwide and was choreographed by innumerable dance companies.

By 1969 Subotnick was back on the West Coast, helping to found (at first as associate dean, with the composer Mel Powell as dean) the still wildly innovative California Institute for the Arts, northwest of Los Angeles. Since the late ’80s his compositions have trailed off but he has continued to teach, organize festivals of new music (not just electronic), and appear at electronica festivals, where he has attained the status of genial Grand Old Man. He moved back to New York and married the singer and composer Joan La Barbara, who played a key role in the ensembles of Steve Reich and Philip Glass  in the late ’60s and ’70s.

All this serves as a prologue to the real business of this report. In July, the Lincoln Center Festival – disclosure: I was the first director of that festival, from 1994 to 1998 – had the nice idea to honor Subotnick and the 50th anniversary of Silver Apples with three evenings of the same program in the nicely intimate Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse. The concert consisted of a version of Silver Apples of the Moon (a line from Yeats) that segued into the world premiere of Crowds and Power.

I had always found the LP version of Silver Apples a little popsy. On July 20, it had been shortened (from 31½ minutes to 24) and opened up with a fine surround-sound speaker array. Subotnick sat audience left at his command center, introducing a live element into the music; this was no mere replication of the LP. Instead, Subotnick took the various notated modules that comprised the original score and created a new version, certainly recognizable to those who had heard the LP but nicely fresh as well.

Crowds and Power was inspired by Elias Canetti’s cult book Masse und Macht (1960), which consists of mostly three- or four-page chapters adducing all manner of worldwide rituals and incidents and comments concerning crowds and packs and gangs and manipulative authority figures (dictators, religious leaders, orchestra conductors). Despite a large, hectoring, orangish face on the screen in the back, Subotnick wrote that the piece had evolved over several years; there were no crude, overt references to Donald Trump. Still…

Joan La Barbara: vocalist in ‘Crowds and Power.’ (Kevin Yatarola)

Crowds and Power involves collaborators: La Barbara, emitting all manner of hushed breathing and bestial growls and shrieks, a long way from her angelic image of 50 years ago, and a visual artist who calls himself Lillevan, seated at a mirroring console on audience right. Lillevan has created visual environments for a wide variety of events, avant-garde, classical, and pop, and has appeared at electronica festivals with Subotnick. His imagery, aside from the hectoring face, consisted of marching soldiers, war scenes, protesting crowds, and galaxies and stars. It recalled the light shows of the ’60s, in which Subotnick participated, but less trippy and more thought-provoking than the liquid blobs and squiggles of yesteryear.

Crowds and Power had a darkness and intensity that the more innocent Silver Apples lacked. But the two works from 50 years apart showed the evolving continuities of Subotnick’s style, and also made for an effective contrast – musically and in the darkening national mood since the 1960s.

A Double Dose of Rheingold

Curiously, two major Northeast American orchestras presented concert (or minimally semi-staged) performances of Das Rheingold within six weeks. More curious still, both were substitutes for something else.

Eric Owens sang Wotan in New York. (Chris Lee)

As part of his farewell concerts as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert offered Wagner’s opera on June 1, 3, and 6 (when I saw it). The “something else” in this case was Messiaen’s St. François d’Assise, still scandalously unheard in New York. That project collapsed when the Philharmonic couldn’t or wouldn’t raise the money (part of a lack of support for Gilbert’s more venturesome projects that contributed to his resignation). Eric Owens, scheduled to sing St. Francois, then slid over to Wotan.

The “something else” for Tanglewood, where Das Rheingold appeared on July 15, was Andris Nelsons’ sudden resignation from Bayreuth’s Parsifal last summer, which freed up a chunk of time for the next few summers. Nelsons is an admired Wagnerian – flimsy rumor hints he may return to Bayreuth for its new Ring in 2020. In 2013, he led a Boston Symphony concert performance of the third act of Die Walküre, and this coming season he’s programmed the second act of Tristan und Isolde in both Boston and New York, with Jonas Kaufmann.

Das Rheingold is not unfamiliar, so here are some quick comparative comments on the dueling performances. The Philharmonic version was more vividly staged (by Louisa Muller). The two orchestras played comparably well, meaning superbly, though judgments here are compromised, given the varying acoustics of the (unfairly) maligned Geffen Hall and the Shed at Tanglewood; in these circumstances, at least, Boston sounded richer and smoother than New York. Gilbert’s cast was better, even with some standouts for Nelsons. And Nelsons is the superior conductor, shaping this episodic expository prelude to the Ring with real idiomatic skill. Gilbert sounded workaday.

Stephanie Blythe, Thomas J. Mayer and Andris Nelsons at Tanglewood. (Hilary Scott)

The surprise strength of the New York cast was Owens, given his patchy singing of late. Maybe he’s been under the weather; maybe the preparation he got when he sang the Rheingold Wotan in Chicago helped. In any case, this was a major accomplishment. By contrast the German Thomas J. Mayer at Tanglewood sounded solidly provincial. There was little to choose between the excellent Jamie Barton as Fricka in New York and the magisterial Stephanie Blythe at Tanglewood (she was replacing an indisposed Sarah Connolly).

If not Owens, then it was Christopher Purves as a snarling Alberich for Gilbert who topped that cast; Jochen Schmeckenbecher was the other weak link for Nelsons. Kim Begley made a witty, dapper Loge for Nelsons, outclassing Russell Thomas in New York – a fine tenor, but miscast or under-prepared here; he needed more bite and wit. Nelsons’ Patricia Bardon surpassed the otherwise acceptable Kelley O’Connor as Erda. Morris Robinson as Fasolt was the only singer common to both productions; he was terrific in both. Otherwise, the singing was pretty equal: Stephen Milling vs. Ain Anger as Fafner, Rachel Willis-Sørensen vs. Malin Christensson as Freia, Peter Bronder vs. David Cangelosi as Mime, plus the lesser gods and the Rhine Maidens. Worthy performances both, and both, in their different ways, well worth hearing.

Arts critic John Rockwell worked at The New York Times as classical music critic, reporter and editor; chief rock critic; European cultural correspondent; editor of the Sunday Arts & Leisure section; arts columnist; and chief dance critic. He also directed the Lincoln Center Festival for its first four years. A prolific freelancer, he has published books on 20th-century American composition in all genres, Frank Sinatra and Lars von Trier, and edited a compilation of his own journalistic writing as well as a coffee-table book on the 1960s.