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Old School Compositional Technique for Synthesizers and Tape
MUFF WIGGLER Forum Index -> Production Techniques  
Author Old School Compositional Technique for Synthesizers and Tape
Waz
I really want to know how this music was created. Music made by Morton Subotnick, Paul Lansky, Maurice Wright to name a few. They had to of had a score of some type or a method to their madness. For instance Silver Apples on the Moon has a definite rhythm and structure to it, I just don't know how it was made. I'm sure with todays technology, pieces can be made like this without taking months and months of time cutting tape. Does anyone have any insight into this music?

rlainhart
Certainly Subotnick's music was scored before he created it. I'm not familiar with Wright, so I can't say for sure about him, but since he writes instrumental music too, he likely works with scores for his electronic music. Lansky, being primarily a computer composer who started in the pre-realtime days, definitely worked from scores, because you had to back then.

In any case, Subotnick's pieces, including Silver Apples, were not primarily made with tape editing - they're based largely on setting up sequences in the Buchla's control voltage sequencers, then working with those sequences, either in realtime while recording, or by multitracking, or both. In fact, the whole reason Buchla designed his sequencers in the first place was to provide composers with a way to control synthesizers in realtime so they wouldn't have to assemble their pieces by laboriously splicing tape. No doubt there was some splicing of larger sections involved, but much of what you hear in Silver Apples was laid down in realtime, at least for the individual tracks. Subotnick also probably played tracks directly using the Buchla's keyboard controllers, and so there may have been a more improvisational aspect to those parts or layers.

But what makes it a great piece of music is that Subotnick is a great composer, who carefully organizes his sound materials according to a plan - a score, in other words. It may not be a traditional score, with notes on staff lines, but he certainly pre-conceives the sounds he's going to work with and how he's going to organize them to create the larger work.

Nowadays, with electronic music being much more a realtime process, it's possible to improvise with the hardware and software in a way that doesn't require a pre-conceived score, but in the days of Silver Apples, you still had to have a plan or structure in mind when you went into the studio to create works like this - even with sequencing and multitracking, it still took a long time to assemble this kind of music. No doubt there were happy accidents too, along with dead ends, but basically, Subotnick worked to a score, and still does.

If you're asking how to make music like this yourself, that has this same sense of form and structure, I would suggest first that you need to develop your technique - to have as complete an understanding of your tools and technologies as possible, so that you're able to realize your ideas effectively. Then, you need to develop a method for conceiving those ideas. Many composers do this through study with another composer whose work they respect and admire, who can teach not them only technique but an understanding of form and structure. Of course, many composers are self-taught, which is a valid approach, especially now that the technologies exist to allow anyone to create music on their own. But I think even self-taught composers need to listen to a lot of other people's music to develop a critical sense of their own direction. Most composers start out sounding like someone else, after all, since most start out by wanting to make music like something else they've heard and admired, but eventually, most composers want to develop their own voice, and that takes time.
sandyb
Waz wrote:
I really want to know how this music was created. Music made by Morton Subotnick, Paul Lansky, Maurice Wright to name a few. They had to of had a score of some type or a method to their madness. For instance Silver Apples on the Moon has a definite rhythm and structure to it, I just don't know how it was made. I'm sure with todays technology, pieces can be made like this without taking months and months of time cutting tape. Does anyone have any insight into this music?


i think richard is very correct talking about he fact that it is easier with today's realtime technology to improvise things without a preconceived score.
it's certainly how i work when i make noises like these. i wrote a little bit about how i approach completing things in this thread:
https://www.muffwiggler.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=14253

sandyb wrote:
all the tracks started off as modular noodles. just me messing around recording a load of sounds that i liked. the rest of the work was done on my computer which i used in place of a tape deck(s) and scalpel. when i'd got a chunk of modular sound i liked i would process it a few different ways, for example reversing, time-stretching, adding delay, eq etc...
i did these all separately and printed them to files. then i took all the processed files and worked with them. sometimes i'd process them further. then lots of listening and chopping up into small sections - sometimes individual sounds - before assembling it all back together, layering etc to get the final results. took a lot of time but i really enjoyed it. and i think using a computer probably made it a whole load easier than the "old" days of actual tape.



the composition process comes after the sounds in my case. still takes a long time though! although maybe not as long as it did in the past.
Hi5
Subotnik also used tape/vca/envelope followers in a way to record control voltages so they could be played back at a later time to have more things going on than he had modules for. I am not sure what pieces this was used on but the basic idea is that you would take a vco at a fixed freq going into a vca. Then whatever cv he wanted to record(various gestures or rhythms) would control the vca which would be recorded onto tape. When the tape was played back the output went into an envelope follower so that the cv could be extracted from the audio again. This way he could record more complex or long form control gestures to use in conjunction with sequencers and other modulators. It was essentially an early version of a CV recorder.
I think I heard this was the motivation for Buchla to make the triple envelope follower module on the 200 series.
rlainhart
I think "Touch" was the first piece that used Subotnick's envelope follower/CV recorder technique, but it might have been "Sidewinder". "Silver Apples" and "Wild Bull" were recorded more traditionally with sequencing, performance, and multitracking, as far as I know.

Someone here probably knows definitively.
xart
http://web.archive.org/web/20030225124932/www.creativesynth.com/column s/005_InSearchOf/InSearchOf_107.html

http://www.emusician.com/remixmag/artists_interviews/musicians/remix_m orton_subotnick/index.html

http://www.avantgardeproject.org/agp6/Double_Life_of_Amphibians.txt

http://www.mortonsubotnick.com/program.html


Notes from Nonesuch Records N-78012:

The Wild Beasts (1978)

Miles Anderson, trombone; Virko Baley, piano; and ghost electronics

Recorded March, 1981 at Evergreen Studios, Burbank, California

Engineer: Roger Mayer

Assistant engineers: Mike Hatcher, Steve Burger

The Wild Beasts (1978) is not a part of the Double Life series. It was commissioned by Miles Anderson and Virko Baley and premiered by them at the Contemporary Music Festival at the California Institute of the Arts in 1979.

The work was originally inspired by an exhibition of Le Fauvres paintings. I was left with the impression that each subject was portrayed as "normal", but that we were seeing this subject through a strangely prismatic atmosphere...an atmosphere comprised of rare and possibly unearthly gasses...an atmosphere in which normal expectations of color and shape would not exist. This was the visual counterpart to my ghost idea i.e...a traditional musical instrument played into an unusual and continually transforming atmosphere...an atmosphere in which the normal sound expectations would no longer exist. Take, for example, the opening trombone solo. With the whisper mute, the trombone sounds distant and dry...but this sound is caught in short bursts of amplification which zigzag in an unpredictable pattern across the proscenium space of stereo speakers. If we skip to the piano cadenza toward the end of the work, we find that the atmosphere has changed...now the piano seems to be in a dense, undulating liquid atmosphere which causes the sound to continually shift in pitch, first on one side of the space and then on the other. In fact, throughout each of the works, the environment is undergoing continuous transformation. A transformation, however, dictated by the aesthetic/compositional needs of each work. The formal/musical/emotional content of the music could speak directly to you...if not all at first...after a few listenings. The ability of these works to speak directly is enormously enhanced by the brilliant performances of Miles Anderson and Virko Baley (The Wild Beasts) and Joel Krosnick (Axolotl) to whom (all three) I owe much for their spiritual as well as practical support in the making of these works.

About the "ghost" score: The ghost score consists of two objects: a tape and a small package of electronics. The electronics consist of basic devices:

1. to locate the sound from left to right
2. to alter the frequency of the sound of the instrument up and/or down 100 cycles
3. to control the shape of the amplification

The tape contains high frequency audio signals which are not amplified and therefore not heard by the audience but, instead, are sent directly to the electonics and act as controls for the three modifying devices. The electronics have no sound of their own; they can only act upon the sound of the instrument as it plays, hence, a "ghost" score.

-Morton Subotnick


Morton Subotnick is a pioneer in the field of electronic music as well as an innovator in works involving instruments and other media. Born in Los Angeles in 1933, Subotnick, now on the faculty of California Institute of the Arts, includes among his teachers Leon Kirchner and Darius Milhaud. During his years in San Francisco he co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center (now at Mills College) and was Music Director of Ann Halprin's Dance Company and the San Francisco Actors' Workshop. He served as Music Director of the Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre during its first season and was director of electronic music at the original Electric Circus on St. Mark's Place in New York City. Subotnick's faculty appointments include Mills College and New York University and he has been visiting professor in composition at University of Maryland, University of Pittsburgh and Yale University.

Perhaps best known for his electronic works, he was the first composer to be commissioned to write an electronic composition expressly for the phonograph medium, SILVER APPLES OF THE MOON (Nonesuch H-71174, 1967) which has subsequently been choreographed by the Netherlands Ballet, Ballet Rambert of London and the Glen Tetley Dance Company. His other recordings include: THE WILD BULL (Nonesuch H-71208, 1968), SIDEWINDER (CBS, 1971) 4 BUTTERFLIES (CBS, 1974), UNTIL SPRING (CBS, 1976) and LIQUID STRATA (Town Hall Records, 1979, album title: "For Ralph Grierson") and A SKY OF CLOUDLESS SULPHUR/AFTER THE BUTTERFLY (Nonesuch N-78001,1980).

thumbs up
xart
Your local music school should have a copy of this:

“Analog Electronic Music Techniques” -In Tape, Electronic, and Voltage-Controlled Synthesizer Studios - by Joel Naumann and James D. Wagoner.
IMO This is the definitive text of classic techniques.

If you can't find it I will lend you my copy.
Waz
xart
Thank you for all of this info. My school was stuck in the 90's regarding synthesizers and electronic music. We had a polyfusion and arp 2600, but noone used them and only 2 classes were allowed to touch them. Thankfully I was in those classes.
widdly
There are some interesting ideas in the Allen Strange book. I was interested to see the amount of compositional structure that was actually generated by the modular. I think that these days a lot of people think of composition and arrangement as being handled by the sequencer software and the timbre being a function of the synthesizer.
tuj
Lansky used a early computer and later a NeXT machine. He used cmix mainly I believe, along with linear predictive coding (which is much like vocoding) on his pieces like justmoreidlechatter. My thought was that Lansky never really used tape on any of his pieces. Mr. Lansky is also a really cool guy and helped me get my NeXT cube running cmix. You could probably even email him; (its just paul@princeton.edu , how cool is that?!)

Cage used to do a lot of tape operations with a splice block and magnification.
tuj
Waz wrote:
My school was stuck in the 90's regarding synthesizers and electronic music. We had a polyfusion and arp 2600, but noone used them and only 2 classes were allowed to touch them. Thankfully I was in those classes.


We sold our ARP modular to Bjork. Seriously. Bought a whole bunch of SGX machines with the proceeds.
MindMachine
xart wrote:
Your local music school should have a copy of this:

“Analog Electronic Music Techniques” -In Tape, Electronic, and Voltage-Controlled Synthesizer Studios - by Joel Naumann and James D. Wagoner.
IMO This is the definitive text of classic techniques.

If you can't find it I will lend you my copy.


I CONCUR!!!!!! Great text (as good as Strange's to me)... Ned Lagin's 'Seastones' is as intruiging to me as 'Wild Bull' if not as early a timeline. For early stuff I like: Charles Wourinen (edit :Amirkhanian is a compser/deejay).
clarke68
I have nothing constructive to add, other than to say (a month late) that this thread is awesome.
Holy Katana
Does anyone have any idea about how Milton Babbitt got those sounds in his synth compositions?



It just sounds like there are tons of timbral variations going on there, from two-oscillator sawtooth patches to plinky FM-sounding stuff. I know the RCA Mark II had a sequencer (that you had to program with a punchcard woah ), but it sounds incredibly advanced for what was basically the first true synthesizer ever made. Did he record a few notes to tape, repatch the whole thing, and then record a few more, or what? Does anyone know much about the Mark II in terms of features?
rlainhart
Related to all this, here's a great ASCAP interview with Subotnick in which he talks about the process of creating "Silver Apples", and it's legacy. Among other things, he says that a lot of the piece was worked out improvisationally, and notated afterwards:

http://wecreatemusic.ascap.com/wecreatemusic/page/Morton-Subotnick-on- the-Creation-and-Legacy-of-Silver-Apples-of-the-Moon.aspx
Luka
great article

this bit i totally feel as i do the same thing

Quote:
Sometimes in the afternoon, people would stop on Bleecker Street and look up, because during the summer I’d have the windows open. I was getting concerned that I was getting so involved in my own piece that I would not have an objective view as to whether something was too long or too short, so one day I invited four or five people from the street right up to my studio, and borrowed some chairs from my neighbor, and put them down and said “Okay, I’m going to play this for you and you can listen, but when I’m done I want you to just leave. I don’t want you to ask questions or to say anything. I don’t want you to tell me what you think or anything. I just want you to sit and listen.” And I put a chair down for myself and sat among the four or five people, and I heard everything differently, and then ushered them out of the room.

I used that as a model for how to get objective again. To hear it through other peoples’ ears. That was a serious thing that you couldn’t do easily with any kind of improvisation, because you were inside. You couldn’t place yourself as a pure listener.
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