What kind of music would robots make? Blips and bloops, most likely, with a whole lot of abstract tones and soundwave manipulation. You know, droning stuff that sounds like auditory binary. I mean, come on. How musical could a robot be?
Such were the early days of electronic music, whose early proponents put much more emphasis on the “electronic” than the “music.” That’s not to denigrate the incredible complexity of wave generators or tiny bits of tape spliced together on splicing blocks. It’s just to point out that what we see as electronic music today was once well and truly the sound of electronics themselves.
So who’s responsible for turning the electro tide towards real music? Why, Morton Subotnick of course.
As is often the case in music, it was a bicoastal thing: Subotnick, Ramon Sender, and Don Buchla spent the 60s in San Francisco developing what may be the world’s first analog synthesizer, the ‘electronic music easel’ BUCHLA 100, while Robert Moog was putting together his incredible keyboard on the East Coast.
BUCHLA 100 was brilliant because, instead of a keyboard, it relied on pressure sensitive touch-plates. Those controlled keys that could be individually tuned, allowing for an unlimited number of sound-producing possibilities. It freed musicians from the sine, sawtooth, and square bonds of the past, and allowed electronic music to flourish.
Subotnick himself was the first to put his creation through its creative paces. Recorded over the span of a year in New York, his album Silver Apples of the Moon stands as the first all-electronic LP, and effectively declared the era of computer music dead. The album has since been inducted into the Library of Congress.
As part of our Electric Independence series, in 2011 we paid a visit to Subotnick at his Lower East Side studio to chat about the past and future of electronic music. Remember one thing the next time you’re in a club with some cyborg DJ poking away at a booth full of weird gadgets: If it wasn’t for Subotnick, you’d be stuck listening to robot chatter.