“i used to live across the way from 8th street records in new york city in 1967,” morton subtonick is telling the audience at the premiere for i dream of wires in berlin. he’s seated next to alec empire and the film’s director, robert fantinatto; they’ve both got the same look on their faces, a mixture of bemusement and fascination. “before i’d even gotten my own copy of silver apples of the moon, i decide to go into the record shop and buy it for myself, and i walk in there feeling as tall as a giant. i ask the guy at the counter, ‘have you got silver apples of the moon by morton subotnick? i’d like to buy it.’” subotnick pauses for a moment, setting up for the punchline, delivered with perfect self-deprecation: “‘yeah, we had it,’ he says, ‘but we’re sold out. people have been buying it up — i don’t know why though, it’s a piece of shit.’”
subotnick has, as they say, done it all. the record in question, silver apples of the moon, was the first longform electronic piece pressed on vinyl, and the first electronic album commissioned by a label, nonesuch records, in 1967. he created the album on a buchla modular synthesizer, the first piece of analog sound equipment small enough to fit on a desk, one that subotnick had a hand in designing. he’s a composer, a sound engineer, a multi-instrumentalist, a performer, a professor of music theory, and a founding member of the san francisco tape music center. he was the first ever music director at the actors workshop in new york. he helped established the california institute of the arts in 1969. his work has been immortalized in the library of congress. he’s lived, it seems, a hundred lives. he’s done “everything but the kitchen sink” — or in this case, the kitchen synth.
subotnick makes a lengthy appearance in the modular synthesizer documentary i dream of wires, alongside pioneers like ramon sender and herb deutsch, as well as contemporaries like carl craig, drumcell, and james holden. the film was five years in the making, and as fantinatto explains in his opening remarks, once subotnick was on board, they knew they had something special. “when i was a kid, i was at the library in my hometown, leafing through the record collection when i saw the sleeve for mort’s sidewinder,” fantinatto recalls, smiling, “there’s a small photo of him working on a modular synthesizer. i thought to myself, ‘man, what is that?’ and that’s where it all started. i was obsessed.”
evidently, that is where it starts for most lovers of modular and electronic music. subotnick has inspired an entire next generation of musicians, composers and producers. the day before his appearance at the wires premiere, where he would be participating in a live Q&A followed by a live performance, i sat down with mr. subotnick to talk modular, dreams, and being “the first.”