Morton Subotnick: Composer as Educator
from "Don't Quit Your Day Job"

By Kenneth Goldsmith
© 2000 Originally published in New Music Box / American Music Center

David Behrman | David Soldier | Joan La Barbara | Stephen Vitiello | Morton Subotnick

When Morton Subotnick's LP Silver Apples of the Moon was released in 1967, it caused a stir: it was the first electronic music album that was created expressly for the LP. Call it a medium-specific piece. And during a time in which the medium as message was all the rage, Subotnick was ahead of the curve in several ways, managing to forge a career over the next 35 years that melded music with technology. But there was deeper side to Subotnick's explorations: he was interested in creating a new kind of music, one that would be available to everyone. In the utopian spirit of the time (and following the lead of John Cage's idea that anyone could be a musician if they choose to do so) Subotnick became interested in the idea of education and has spent much of his time pursing that end. And while he has done groundbreaking work in traditional educational venues (he helped found CalArts), what really gets him excited is teaching kids music. And his vision and persistence have paid off - his two Voyager CD-ROMs which teach kids how to compose have sold hundreds of thousand copies in 12 languages and have become the standard music software used by educators around the world.

Subotnick explains the genesis of this passion: "When I did Silver Apples of the Moon I had the idea that there was a potential to make a new kind of chamber music. In the 19th century people all had pianos. Sheet music was major business and it made a lot of money due to the fact that people were literate and able to read music. In the 20th century we don't have that and one of the reasons is that we have records. Something is missing: it's the active musical aspect - getting in there and being able to read the music - that's what's missing. I've never been one to think that we should go back to the piano, rather we've moved beyond it. The question is: what needs to happen? I did some thinking about it and finally evolved a concept: let's say you have, for example, a Beethoven symphony on DVD-ROM. You have a clip of the conductor talking about the interpretation on this DVD-ROM, and then you, the viewer, can take the interpretation and alter it; in essence, you become the conductor. I've got a new string quartet that is going to be released on DVD. In addition to a recorded performance that will always be the same, just like any other recording, the DVD will also feature an additional version in which the computer will be able follow the movements of your mouse: if you make a smooth gesture, you get a quiet sound; if you make a jagged gesture, you get a louder sound, etc. What happens then is that the string quartet alters itself according to the path that you've determined for it. You're the conductor, you're the interpreter."

This is exactly the way in which Subotnick's Making Music software works. It's very intuitive stuff and kids are able to create music by simple flicks of the mouse - a tool that they're very familiar with. It's a "hands-on" approach that makes it fun to learn music. And it also gives the kids power to change pre-existing compositions and make something very much their own.

Following the success of the two CD-ROMs, Subotnick was prepared to make a third but Voyager went out of business. However, just at that time the web was taking off and Subotnick characteristically dove into it head first and taught himself several programming languages in order to translate the CD-ROMs into a web-based applications. The result is the Creating Music Website.

His first goal was to see how interactive he could make it on the web and was satisfied that he was able to recreate some of the most dynamic features using a combination of Shockwave and Java. To my eyes, he's succeeded with 6 active areas on the site including a musical sketch pad that allows the user to select different instruments and drag the sounds that they're going to make in combination with one another. When you're done "sketching" your composition, you hit a button and within seconds are able to hear the piece you've just created. If you don't like it, you can go back and edit it. Other features on the site include the ability to alter existing musical classics, an area that teaches you about rhythm by creating your own rhythmic schemes, and a graphical interface called the Cartoon Conductor which is a playground scene in which every object is associated with a musical note. These objects can be moved around to create different types of compositions. I don't know how to read music but within minutes, I found myself "creating music."

His second goal was to see if there would be any real interest in this as a Web-based tool: if he built it, would they come? The response was overwhelming. With no advertising, he reached 6000 kids by the 4th month and with each passing month, the numbers seem to increase. In fact, Subotnick is often invited to educational conferences to hold musical workshops. Recently, he went to one where there were 300 teachers in the room and when he asked how many knew the website and the Making Music CD-ROMs, just about all of them raised their hands. It's through these events that Subotnick finds out that students from 3 years of age all the way up to the college level use his software.

And finally the third goal (which he is still struggling with) is the inevitable question that everyone on the Web seems to be asking: How can I make money from this? He's working on some ideas including a registration only high-maintenance site that has advanced features on it and an online help desk. He's also toying with the idea of selling musical games and puzzles on the site for $1 a piece. And then there's the tie in with the CD-ROMs, which can be purchased through the site.

Subotnick claims that he really got into making software for kids by having three of his own. He's been teaching since 1959, but it's always been on a graduate level. His recent educational projects are just a few more instances in his string of ideas that regard music as a social responsibility. When he was working as an artist-in-residence at NYU's School of the Arts in the mid-60s, he earned $10,000. He was so freaked out by the sum of money that he decided to open up his Bleecker St. studio each Saturday to teach electronic music to underprivileged kids. One of them, it turns out, was a high school student at the time, Rhys Chatham, who went on to great success in the downtown scene of the 70s, joining the long lineage of illustrative Subotnick alumni including John King, Carl Stone, Charlemagne Palestine and Ingram Marshall. In addition to his software, Subotnick continues to teach at CalArts and next year will be awarded the college's first Mel Powell Chair.

David Behrman | David Soldier | Joan La Barbara | Stephen Vitiello | Morton Subotnick

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