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The Barnum of Bytes

Justin Davidson is classical music critic at Newsday

Morton Subotnick’s eyes are pale and intense, but on this morning they are tired, which is not surprising, since he has been staring into the future for 40 years.

It is early July, two days after the world premiere at the Lincoln Center Festival of his “Intimate Immensity,” an opera of sorts for two amplified voices, two pianos, one Balinese dancer and 2,000 pounds of high-tech equipment, all linked by a network of digital synapses. Subotnick calls the work a “staged media poem,” by which he means a theater piece that fuses music, stylized gestures, computer images that dance across multiple screens, speech and lighting into what he hopes is an eloquent, poetically allusive 70-minute show.

Whatever you call it, it is apparently not quite right.

“I had a computer bug as of 4 a.m.,” Subotnick, 65, says wearily, his elbows propped on the table of a bar near Lincoln Center, palms pressing into his eyes. “I stayed up all night working on it. There were a lot of details I couldn’t take care of. By the time I get to L.A., I should be done.”

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That time is now, and the work is no longer in progress: After six more performances (two in New York and four in Santa Fe, N.M.), “Intimate Immensity” will have its West Coast premiere at the Japan America Theatre on Saturday and will be repeated at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Oct. 10 and 12.

“Intimate Immensity” is a creation myth for the Computer Age. Two characters, He and She, sit at bare desks, archetypal humans in a vacuous, digital Eden. A Balinese dancer, I Nyoman Wenten, moves across the stage, threading his limbs through the air. On a screen behind him, a disembodied female hand with long red fingernails dances in blackness, echoing his movements as if learning sign language. Two playerless pianos flank the stage, the action of their keys and hammers triggered by remote control.

The machines follow the humans’ cues almost the way a live musician would: by making electric eye contact. The desks, the floors, Wenten’s costume and the walls are fitted with sensors wired to a central computer brain. A gesture from Wenten, and one piano plays a phrase. A signal from the on-screen hand, and the other piano answers.

“My goal is to have the technology be transparent,” Subotnick explains, “so the concentration is not on that. The technology should grow from the performance, rather than the other way around.”

The idea is to create an experience of such seamlessness that audiences stop trying to separate foreground from background, actor from set or words from a wash of sound. “If you focus on any one thing,” Subotnick acknowledges, “you’re gone.

“I know I’m going to get compared to traditional theater,” he continues. “But it’s not a theater piece, it’s a staged media poem. To me that means that there are gestures--very slow, poetically timed--that mean something, like snuffing out a light. Those gestures, the images on the screen, the music all add up to one thing, the way in a poem the words, meanings, rhythms and layout on the page are all inseparable.”

So is Subotnick a composer, a poet or an author in some as-yet-unlabeled, holistic genre? What does he write on forms that give him only a one-word space for “occupation”?

“Composer,” he answers firmly. “I see the media and all the imagery as an extension of pure music.” Besides, he points out, his next commission is for a plain old string quartet.

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Subotnick’s most recent piece and the trajectory of his life tell the same fundamental story--"about our love affair with technology” is the summary he has worked out. To listen to him explain what he means by an “intimate immensity” is to hear a detailed vision of a future in which computers have gotten so small and light as to have no volume at all and so fast as to have eliminated durations altogether.

The future Subotnick has conjured with his high-definition imagination will be filled not with gadgetry but with technology so pervasive as to recede from our consciousness, becoming a substance that surrounds us like air.

“Once computers can [easily] recognize handwriting--and they already can--we’ll be back to the simplest technology,” he elaborates with the utter confidence of a professional visionary. “A piece of paper or even this table"--he taps the scuffed wood--"will become intelligent enough to be transparent. We’re talking about something we’ll see in the next 15 or 20 years.”

Subotnick understands that it is not easy for a layman hopelessly stranded in the present to envision the world he describes, just as opening night has revealed to him that the narrative of “Intimate Immensity” is perhaps more cryptic and oracular than he intended it to be. “I heard comments from people who I would have expected to get it but didn’t,” Subotnick acknowledges.

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“It’s real clear to me,” he says with a smile, believing that others will eventually share his crystalline vision, even if only sluggishly and with a thousand detours. What is now murky and daunting will one day seem childishly simple--that is the fundamental law of tools.

“I have no doubt,” he says, “that 30 years from now, there will be a number of people doing things like this.”

It has happened to him before, and it didn’t taken 30 years. The sound-and-light extravaganzas he pioneered in the mid-'60s evolved quickly into the standard touring rock ‘n’ roll show. The eerie effects he labored to achieve with a tape recorder, a razor blade and a roll of splicing tape in the late ‘50s are now available at the touch of a key. “I’ve always been trying to do this,” Subotnick says with heat, and indeed he has.

Subotnick was born in Los Angeles and began his musical career as a professional clarinetist in his early teens. His talents won him both a scholarship to USC and enough concert engagements to prevent him from doing well academically, or even from getting to class much. Soon, he landed a job in the Denver Symphony Orchestra, moved to Colorado, began composing seriously and enrolled in the University of Denver as an English major, mostly in the hope of staying out of the Army during the Korean War.

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It didn’t work. He was drafted in 1955 and had a military career that was worthy of Laurel and Hardy. Whenever an officer walked by, Subotnick’s arm went into a state of temporary paralysis, making it impossible for him to salute. Whenever he pulled a trigger, he passed out--though not at his sharpshooting test, where instead he lost control of his rifle. The sergeant took cover, emerged when the gunfire stopped and hurriedly gave him high marks in all categories, evidently deciding that it was safer to pass him than to hand him another weapon. The result was a sharpshooting medal and a letter saying that if there were more soldiers like him, the world would be a safer place to be.

“It’s probably true,” Subotnick muses.

Uncle Sam did manage to discover that Subotnick had one useful skill--the clarinet--and placed him in a military band stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco. When the Army discharged him with a sigh of relief in 1957, Subotnick stayed in the Bay Area and headed for Mills College in Oakland, a greenhouse for artistic radicalism, where he studied composition with Darius Milhaud and Leon Kirchner and began writing music for dance and theater companies.

The tape recorder was born only four years before Subotnick, and even in the ‘50s, when the young composer first started tinkering with musical technology, it was still a cumbersome, hissing reel-to-reel significantly bigger than a breadbox. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating tool that allowed composers to treat recorded sounds like mosaics that could be disassembled and rearranged. A note played on a piccolo could be slowed so far down as to make it rumble at the pitch of thunder, a piano chord could be made to fade in backward and culminate in a shattering of glass. Anything was possible, and Subotnick spent the late ‘50s helping to chart this brave new world.

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In 1960, Subotnick and two other composers, Pauline Oliveros and Ramon Sender, formed the San Francisco Tape Music Center, installing it first in an apartment on the edge of Chinatown and moving it a year later to the former headquarters of the American Communist Party. Around the same year, Subotnick finished his first multimedia piece, “Sound Blocks,” which had its premiere at a coffeehouse in the city’s North Beach neighborhood. Behind each of four musicians stood a theatrical flat, transformed by each change of lighting. A tape recorder was part of the musical ensemble, and at the end of the piece, an actor seated in the audience stood to recite a poem. Today, the description makes it sound like crude performance art, but at the time it was, Subotnick recalls, “a sensation--nobody had seen anything like it.”

In 1966, he played his last concert as a clarinetist and decided to follow the call of the tape recorder. He was 33, and he had already acquired enough notoriety to make him attractive to the shiny new arts institutions being established in New York. That year, Subotnick moved east to become the first staff composer at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater and artist in residence at New York University’s freshly founded School of the Arts.

“The word was out that I did all this multimedia work,” Subotnick says, “so two guys with a lot of money came to see me, and I demonstrated what the state of the art was in terms of being able to control slide projectors, strobe lights, all sorts of things that could be controlled the same way we controlled music.”

They asked him to produce shows at a new club they were starting on St. Mark’s Place, in the East Village, to be called the Electric Circus.

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Opening night at the Electric Circus, Subotnick recounts, “started out in the darkness. Lights would begin slowly pulsing and the music would reach this height, and strobe light images would appear all around. It would culminate in a rock ‘n’ roll piece that people could dance to, then at a certain point you would be aware that the whole place would have turned purple, and you would look up and realize that there was a guy on a tightrope walking above you. People would appear on the sides looking at the audience so that the audience became the show for another audience.”

Subotnick’s Electric Circus music grew into the 1967 composition “Silver Apples of the Moon,” one of the earliest to be written on the Buchla synthesizer he helped designe and the first to be commissioned by a record company--Nonesuch.

“Silver Apples” and his Circus work made him a counterculture celebrity. Rock musicians and members of Andy Warhol’s entourage began making 2 a.m. pilgrimages to his studio to watch him manipulate sounds or shine a colored light through liquid in a Pyrex bowl, projecting watery motion on a screen. Subotnick was making riotous art for psychedelic times, but he swears that his mind was always lucid, even if audiences were not.

“You couldn’t have done what I did if you were on drugs,” he insists. “It was just too complicated.”

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Subotnick’s New York period did not outlast the ‘60s: The Electric Circus devolved into an ordinary dance club and the Vivian Beaumont Theater wanted its music too tame to interest him. Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, the California Institute of the Arts was being born. Subotnick was one of CalArts’ early hires, and apart from one two-year hiatus in the ‘80s, he has been teaching there ever since, leading seminars like “Integrated Media” and a practicum on designing CD-ROMs.

Through the years, he has matured along with the school, and as his tape music flowed into computer music and he traded in crude lighting flats for software-controlled consoles, Subotnick found CalArts to be a place in which to nurture his visions.

“It’s like a child I helped raise,” he says of the school, “I still feel very close to it.”

Today, Subotnick shuttles between his office at CalArts, a pied-a-terre in New York’s Greenwich Village and his home in Santa Fe, where he lives with his wife, singer Joan La Barbara (who takes the role of She in “Intimate Immensity”) and his teenage son Jacob (who inspired Subotnick’s 1985 computer piece “Jacob’s Room,” later transformed into a multimedia opera).

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In recent years, composing, teaching, technology and parenting have all funneled into the music-education CD-ROMs for children he writes between ambitious compositions: “Making Music” came out in 1995, “Making More Music” will come out shortly, and two more editions are in the works.

Subotnick did not invent technologically enamored performance art. Wagner would certainly have agreed with him that “if the theater itself could respond to the performances of the actor on the stage, you would have a breathing theater.” Alexander Scriabin theorized correspondences between particular chords and colors and by 1911 was trying to blend music and lighting. John Cage began gumming up the orderly categories of art and music with industrial products like weather stripping, paper clips and radios in the 1940s. By the mid-'60s, artist Robert Rauschenberg and choreographer-composer Meredith Monk had waded into the bubbling marsh of multimedia.

But where others adored the possibilities of chaos and overload that technology gave them, Subotnick aspired to heights of clarity: “I never thought of what I was doing as multimedia, which always meant lots of information at the same time. I’ve always seen everything very focused--all the elements speaking the same language in a number of different ways.

“The only credit I take is for having the vision that it would happen, with or without me. I feel like I have an insight into this whole media thing. My contribution is that insight. It’s not like an inventor who makes something that people use. It’s more an attitude.”

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Today, having witnessed the wildfire expansion of technology’s boundaries, he has a different insight: that technological expansion will one day be complete, having outrun people’s understanding of the tools they have forged. In the not-so-distant future, Subotnick predicts--and this is the crux of “Intimate Immensity"--"we’ll be able to get into cyberspace, and once we get there we won’t know what to do.”

Here, Subotnick’s logic shades into mysticism, and the future becomes a faith. It is this belief in a fluid boundary between the spirit and the engineered machine that explains the sacramental quality of much of “Intimate Immensity” and the otherwise puzzling presence of the Balinese dancer, I Nyoman Wenten, in traditional costume.

“I was looking for an exotic, godlike figure,” Subotnick explains. “We [in the West] have created God in our image, but I wanted something from a culture that sets its gods apart with masks and costumes.”

In the New York performances, Subotnick acknowledges, it was unclear that this divinity, theCyber-Angel, was meant to coalesce out of the human mind, and the composer has taken note. In Los Angeles, the lights will brighten on the seated figures of He and She, a hand will appear on the screen and the Angel will emerge, as if both god and hand had materialized from human dreams.

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“I think of religion as a form of technology,” Subotnick explains. “If the point of technology is to be able to extend ourselves and control the universe, then what is prayer but the earliest form of cyberspace? When the machine disappears and we have control that enters the world of magic, we won’t create gods anymore, because we ourselves will be godlike. I’m dealing with the goal of total emancipation.”

The era when people will be able to control nature with their minds, sending their e-mail as thought signals around the globe, is evidently not yet at hand. Subotnick originally intended the performance of “Intimate Immensity” to take place in three cities simultaneously. A sweep of the arm in Santa Fe would have brightened lights on a New York stage; a note sung at Lincoln Center would have triggered a computer in L.A.

So why didn’t it work out that way? Subotnick shrugs, saying: “The technology was too hard.”

*

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* “Intimate Immensity,” Japan America Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro., Little Tokyo. Saturday, 8 p.m. $9-$18. (213) 680-3700. Also at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Oct. 10, 8 p.m., and Oct. 12, 4 p.m. $25. (714) 740-7878.


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