Electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick coming to San Antonio – San Antonio Express-News

Experimental composer Morton Subotnick, regarded as the grandfather as electronic music, likes sharing his work but doesn’t particularly care for performing.

“I’ve never enjoyed performing,” Subotnick said in a telephone interview. “I get terribly nervous. It never went away.”

Nonetheless, he will be in San Antonio this weekend for a series of performances at the URBAN-15 Studio. The 90-year-old composer will be performing “As I Live and Breathe,” which he has described as one of his last performance pieces. 

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It was inspired by this particular time in his life.

“As I turned 90, I began to realize I’m old,” he said. “And I’d get up in the morning, and I’d say, ‘As I live and breathe. I’m alive.’ And I thought, ‘That’s a good title,’ and that kicked the whole thing off.”

San Antonio is one of six cities in which he will be performing the piece. The others are New York, Berlin, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Venice, where he opened the Venice Biennale earlier this year with it.

“The performance opens with the sounds of my breathing into a microphone: a single inhale, followed by silence, followed by an exhalation,” he wrote in his program notes. “Music and image develop in long phrases, simply at first and gradually transforming. The phrases grow more complex and animated as my breath becomes the trigger for new sounds, rhythms and electronic pitches, with and without my breath.

“I think of ‘As I Live and Breathe’ as a musical metaphor for my life in music.”

His appearance in Venice came 60 years after Subotnick first performed at the famed festival. Back then, he appeared as a more traditional musician.

“I was staring to work on the electronics,” he said. “I was playing the clarinet still at that point. … There were no electronics.”

This weekend’s performances mark the third time that Urban-15 co-founder and music and media director George Cisneros has brought Subotnick to the city. The last time, it was for his 80th birthday. The first time was in 1986 for a performance with his wife, composer and vocalist Joan La Barbara, at San Fernando Cathedral as part of the San Antonio Festival.

Subotnick is known as a pioneer in the development of electronic music, an effort that began 60 years ago.

“At the beginning, there wasn’t anything. When I started, there were maybe 20 people, to be generous with the number, worldwide at that time (working on it) — everything was just starting,” he said. “I was working in the theater and with dancers and writing music with instruments and things and I began to realize it was going to be a whole new genre.”

What: Electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick will perform “As I Live and Breathe” with ultra-wide projections by German artist Lillevan.

Concerts: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. $15 to $40, urban15.org.

Conversation: Subotnick will talk about his work at 1 p.m. Saturday. Free. 

Where: URBAN-15 Studio, 2500 S. Presa.

Contact: 210-736-1500; urban15.org.


He and fellow composers Ramon Sender and Pauline Oliveros founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center, a recording studio and performance venue for experimental music, in 1962.

Sender and Subotnick also commissioned Donald Buchla, who had an electronic music equipment company, to develop what became the Buchla 100.

“It turned out to be one of the very first analog synthesizers,” Subotnick said. “I didn’t call it a synthesizer. I thought of it more like a computer to make music.”

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He used it to make “Silver Apples on the Moon,” the composition for which he is best-known. The synthesizer is in the Library of Congress along with his papers.

The URBAN-15 performances will be intimate — he has asked for the audience size to be capped at 80 — and has generated a lot of interest among the hip-hop and electronic music communities across the region, Cisneros said

Cisneros places Subotnick on the continuum of experimental composers going back to the 1930s and including Julián Carrillo, Harry Partch and John Cage.

“There were certain composers that shaped a lot of the aesthetics that we’re living today,” said Cisneros, who also is an electronic musician and composer. “And it is a pan-American phenomena. In the ’30s and the ’40s, there were all sorts of composers that were trying to deal with new sounds — not new arrangements of notes, but trying to create new sounds themselves.”

Subotnick came to electronic music from classical music. When he first started working with the form, he was playing with the San Francisco Symphony and for the orchestras for the San Francisco Ballet and San Francisco Opera.

“He toured as a solo clarinet with symphonies, the Mozart concertos and stuff, and he started getting interested in manipulating the sound of the clarinet and other things with tape,” Cisneros said. “that’s how he got into creating the San Francisco Tape Center.”

Subotnick has said that this year’s tour will be his last, but Cisneros has doubts about that.

“I told him, ‘I’m going to put it in my calendar to book your 100th birthday,’ ” he said.

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