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Music review: Morton Subotnick, California E.A.R. Unit at REDCAT

March 25, 2012 |  2:25 pm

A beautiful retro-futurist atmosphere hovered over REDCAT on Saturday night as iconic electronic music composer-performer Morton Subotnick’s seminal “Silver Apples of the Moon” and “A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur” were brought vividly to life, here and now, with tools spanning the ages. 

Subotnick, the conceptualist and conjurer at the center, manned his laptop and Buchla200e synthesizer as the intrepid California E.A.R. Unit lent its piano/violin/percussion forces in a guided improvisational tour de force.

Subotnick’s original 1966 recording of “Silver Apples,” commissioned by Nonesuch Records, is a veritable “greatest hit” of electronic music history, appealing to an uncommonly wide public. It broke the esoteric mold of electronic music, an artistic landmark nonetheless accessible in its rippling rhythmic pulses and harmonic shimmer. “A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur,” from 1977, was made with the same mix of Buchla synths and tape recorders. In short, claims of his being the “godfather of techno” are more than idle hype.

Subotnick and the E.A.R. Unit are allies with a layered history. They have previously collaborated and share an academic-experimental common ground at the California Institute of the Arts -- of which Subotnick was a founding faculty member. It is now a home base for current Unit members pianist Vicki Ray, violinist Eric KM Clark and percussionist Amy Knoles (here equipped with an extended “drum kit,” including jumbo bass drum and bodhran).

On Saturday, a full house showed up for the powerful one-hour performance, encountering a musical event by turns free and structured, delicate and raucous. Pop music values even slipped into the mix, from the cathartic rush of distortion to the percolating rhythmic charge – with old school “sample-and-hold” note mazes --  which could please the “house” music fan, at least until the beat was jettisoned and the rule of abstraction resumed. At work’s end, randomized major scale notes floating atop a simmering percolation of synth sounds brought the journey to a lyrical, meditative conclusion.

In all, it was a thrilling evening of then and now, also inspiring reflections of the powerful influence of Subotnick’s “then” on the now.


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Photo: Morton Subotnick (at the switchboard), Eric KM Clark (violin), Amy Knoles (percussion) and Vicki Ray (piano). Credit: Steven Gunther