AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Morton Subotnick – Music for the Double Life of Amphibians [Wergo 73122]

wer73122_648pixelThe literal meaning of “amphibian” is “double life” and applies to animals living part of their lives in water and part of their lives on land. In the program note to his electroacoustic classic Music for the Double Life of Amphibians, Morton Subotnick states that “amphibian” is to be taken as a metaphor for the work’s structure and programmatic content, which follow a metamorphosis of being through the stages of amphibian to beast to angel. But it also applies to the musical material, the double life of which plays itself out in its inhabiting the two environments of electronic and acoustic sound.

The electronic element, which Subotnick terms “ghost electronics,” consists of interactive live sound processing triggered by data programmed onto tape or into a computer. The programming, which Subotnick developed in collaboration with the late Don Buchla, is accomplished through gestures performed on the touch plate of a Buchla machine; these recorded gestures then serve as scores to guide a setup of live electronics—the performances here use Buchla synthesizers–which modifies the sounds of acoustic instruments or voices fed in through microphones. The “ghost” in the process is the recorded gesture—an action completed in the past and memorialized in the material trace of the tape (later, Max/MSP)—which projects itself into the present of a real-time performance, altering the sounds of the latter as it does.

Taken in sequence, the work’s three parts purport to trace an evolutionary path upward from life in water to life in air. Part I, Amphibians (1980-1981), is made up of two sections. The first, Axolotl, is named for a lake-dwelling amphibian that, though it possesses elementary lungs, never actually undergoes metamorphosis to reach an earth-dwelling, air-breathing stage. Scored for cello (Joel Krosnick) and electronic ghost score, Axolotl calls for a virtuoso performance of conventional and extended techniques: Extreme and rapid leaps of register, sometimes violent percussive gestures, tremolo bowing, energetic glissandi, and more. The electronic processing pitch-shifts the instrument’s sound to get a mildly choric effect and also serves to flatten the cello’s native resonance into a slightly brittle, unnatural timbre. The second section is Ascent into Air, for mixed chamber ensemble and electronics. Ascent begins with brooding, dense and often tense blocks of sound dominated by the cellos and the pianos’ lower registers; gradually the texture rarefies as individual instrumental voices separate out and the pitch color lightens to include higher registers for strings, piano, clarinet, percussion and electronics. Part II consists of The Last Dream of the Beast (1979, revised 1982/84), which appears here scored for soprano, two cellos, Buchla synthesizer and ghost electronics. Originally conceived as a theatrical piece, the version here is an aria-like vehicle for a bravura performance by Joan La Barbara, whose wordless, urgent voice is electronically distorted into a dreamlike, disorienting sound as it skitters over a dark ground of somnolent, low drones. Completing the work’s progression of metamorphoses is A Fluttering of Wings (1981) for string quartet and ghost electronics, energetically played by the Juilliard String Quartet. The four-section piece eschews conventional contrapuntal writing for string quartet; instead, it deals in a thickening and thinning of rapid and less rapid sequences of sounds. The ghost electronics produce a strobe-like effect on the strings that creates the audio image of beating wings or of bodies swooping and hovering in air.

Music for the Double Life of Amphibians was originally released on three LPs on the Nonesuch label in the early 1980s. This CD reissues those recordings—a most welcome development that collects this fine, once-scattered work in one place.

Daniel Barbiero


Coming to the ISSUE Project Room

From NY’s ISSUE Project Room:

07/30 @ 8pm – Dan Senn Stephen Vitiello with Molly Berg
Stephen Vitiello is an electronic musician and media artist. His sound installations have been presented internationally, including the 2002 Whitney Biennial, the 2006 Biennial of Sydney (in collaboration with Julie Mehretu) and the Marfa Sessions (in collaboration with Steve Roden) and in solo exhibitions in NY, London and Paris. CD releases include Bright and Dusty Things […]

07/31 @ 8pm – Morton Subotnick
Morton Subotnick is one of the pioneers in the development of electronic music and an innovator in works involving instruments and other media, including interactive computer music systems. The work which brought Subotnick celebrity was Silver Apples of the Moon [1966-7], was commissioned by Nonesuch Records, marking the first time an original large-scale composition had been created specifically for […]

08/04 @ 8pm – MEM (Soundart in the Basque Country today) Baseline
Lecture: “Soundart in the Basque Country today” by Txema Agiriano A short lecture explaining sound art in the Basque Country today: Artists, labels, works, festivals,… Presentation of MEM Festival Bilbao. Video MEM is an annual cultural festival celebrating local and international electronic, extreme and experimental acts. MEM festival happens in November in Bilbao (Basque Country Spain). There you can […]

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Coming Shows at Wayward Music

From Seattle’s Wayward Music:


FRI. 4/17, 8 PM – 60 x 60 – touring “tape music” concert of one-minute electro-acoustic works by 60 different composers

SAT. 4/18, 2 PM – Music of Remembrance presents Steve Reich‘s “Different Trains” + Daniel Asia‘s “Breath in a Ram’s Horn”, FREE ADMISSION!
(this concert is not part of the Wayward series, but should be of interest to our audience)


THU. 4/23 – Fragments publication event with Jeffrey Taylor (of Climax Golden Twins), Sokai Stilhed, Chet Corpt, The Cursory Design Realms of the Dreaming Mind, Apparent Movement + others TBA

FRI. 4/24 – Matt Ingalls, Bay Area clarinetist – compositions and improvisations, solo and with Jesse Canterbury and other Seattle artists TBA (note: due to visa problems, Seattle Chamber Players were forced to cancel this date)

SAT. 4/25, 8 PM – Nonsequitur presents Fred Frith, guitar improvisations

THU. 4/30 – WA Composers Forum presents electro-acoustic music by Morton Subotnick

FRI. 5/1 – Seattle Composers’ Salon, artists TBA

SAT. 5/2 – Andrew Boscardin, guitar

WED. 5/6 – Subtext Reading Series presents Beverly Dahlen & Ezra Mark

THU. 5/7 – Seattle Occultural Music Festival presents the Phonographers Union, Jason Kopec, Graham Banfield

FRI. 5/8 – Nonsequitur presents Bay Area pianist Sarah Cahill performs selections from eighteen recently commissioned works envisioning peace

SAT. 5/9 – Marcus Oldham, Seattle composer presents a retrospective of solo and chamber works from 1982 – 2008

FRI. 5/15 – Nonsequitur presents Chicago composer Olivia Block, new works for field recordings and acoustic ensemble

FRI. 5/22 – Michael Nicolella, guitar

SAT. 5/23 – Nonsequitur presents Deep Listening Band with Stuart Dempster, David Gamper, and Pauline Oliveros

SAT. 5/30 – Oana Rusu-Tomai, piano

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