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INTERVIEW: Morton Subotnick And Lillevan
Patrick Clarke , October 15th, 2019 13:42

As they prepare to bring 'From Silver Apples To A Sky Of Cloudless Sulphur' to Madrid's L.E.V. Matadero this week, Morton Subotnick and Lillevan speak to Patrick Clarke about the history of an astounding project.

Morton Subotnick, Lillevan and Alec Empire

At Madrid’s L.E.V. Mataderothis week, the great Morton Subotnick, one of the most pioneering figures in 20th century music, will be performing alongside Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot and long-time visual collaborator Lillevan. The three will play a piece entitled From Silver Apples To A Sky Of Cloudless Sulphur, which sees Subotnick and Empire trading improvisational sequences based on the former’s 1967 colossus Silver Apples Of The Moon, before pulsing their way through later works Sidewinder and Until Spring up to his final studio LP, 1980’s A Sky Of Cloudless Sulphur, and recent live work Crowds And Power.

It’s a performance that Subotnick and Lillevan have been working on for almost a decade, since first coming together around a production of the opera ‘Jacob’s Room’ in Austria in 2010, and with the recent addition of Empire, one that shows that Subotnick’s five-decade mission to push the boundaries of what’s possible is far from over. To find out more about the project, and what we can expect from their Madrid performance next month, tQ caught up with Subotnick via phone, and Lillevan via email.

Read on for our interview with Morton Subotnick and Lillevan, and click here for more information about L.E.V. Matadero, and what to expect from their gig.

tQ: At what point did you first decide to revisit Silver Apples Of The Moon, and why?

Lillevan: Morton and I have been performing as a duo since 2010, after I was invited to collaborate on the new production of “Jacob’s Room” at the Bregenzer Opera Festival in Austria. During rehearsals we were asked to perform a small duet, to help promote the opera. For me it was a very special moment, having admired Morton’s music for many years and finding that he was a wonderful and inspiring person to spend time with. Audience reaction to the short piece we performed was excellent, so we played an improvised encore - according to Morton the first time he had ever improvised.

Morton Subotnick: At that first performance I had the Buchla up there but I didn’t actually play on it, I had it there for demonstration purposes, but the audience kept applauding and so we decided to do an encore, which I’d never done before in my life. I had the Buchla so I improvised on it, and it was so fun! I gave up analogue equipment in 1979 or something and this was decades later. I had such a good time that I began to get interested in playing performances and working with Lillevan.

L: The very next day we started talking about joining up for improvised performances.

MS: People wanted to hear a performance of Silver Apples Of The Moon, but it was never intended to be performed. So I decided to do what I had originally wanted to do in the 1960s, which was to take my studio process and take it onto the stage and do it improvisationally. I couldn’t [in the 1960s], because the equipment was so huge, but now I can use something like Ableton on the computer along with the Buchla and do what I wanted to do. I said ‘OK’, I’ll do Silver Apples Of The Moon, but it won’t be the piece, it will be how I look at it now.

How have the performances changed in the nine years since?

MS: Each summer I’ve been working on what could be considered an instrument, using the Ableton and the Buchla together, creating an instrument for this performance. I have a lot of samples from the original Silver Apples and I’m adding new stuff all the time. It’s constantly growing and changing, though I’ve sort of settled in the last four or five years, especially the year before last, when I did a lot of touring for the 50th anniversary. It’s different each time but the process is pretty much the same.

I now have pretty much the whole of Silver Apples, broken up into samples, 10 seconds here, a minute and a half there, 15 minutes there. I use them in different ways, I use it as a source to do other things with that you wouldn’t recognise, then I can bring the original back in. It becomes a very flexible sound source, and then I have all my new material that’s linked to it and synched to the Buchla. What I always hoped for back in the late 50s and the early 60s was that I’d be a studio artist, and the results would go off on recordings that people could just buy like a painting goes on the wall, then I would have a studio where I’d be working all the time, and people could come informally once a month and would just play for them what I’m doing. That’s basically what I’m doing on stage now.

How was Silver Apples initially received in the 1960s, and how does that compare to now?

MS: When it came out in 1967, there was no expectation. I had no idea what was going to happen because there was nothing like it. I was thinking that it was a process that might become prominent 100 years in the future, but as it turned out it was hugely successful. It was on the charts, and made a lot of publicity. It was extremely well-received, some people didn’t like it, but it was a big hit! That completely surprised me but then it became clear that what I had hit on was that something that in the late 60s was taking over a lot of people’s thinking. Movies were coming out about the future; the whole electronic age had suddenly hit everything. It was 1968 that Switched On Bach came out. I had a feeling that people would make electronics to make ‘new old’ music, but I wanted to show that it was possible to do something brand new that wasn’t instrumental music at all, let alone old music. But it wasn’t 100 years in the future, it was one year!

When did Alec Empire become involved?

MS: We were coming up to the fiftieth anniversary and I said ‘it might be a nice idea for the 50th anniversary not just to do ‘Silver Apples of the Moon revisited’, but to revisit it with another musician who’s younger and who would do something with it that would be more today. I’m an old codger! It turned out that Lillevan recommended Alec.

L: 2018 was the 50th anniversary of Silver Apples Of The Moon and Morton and I thought it could be an interesting experiment to invite a third person, a musician from a younger generation who has been influenced by Morton’s work on the Buchla synthesiser and by "Silver Apples of the Moon”. I proposed Alec Empire. We’ve known each other since the early 90s, when he would DJ in squat clubs I was involved in running. We had Atari Teenage Riot’s record release party in our club Im Eimer, a legendary Berlin art squat, but I have actually always been even more interested in his other works, including the Mille Plateaux releases, and a shared admiration of, amongst others, Sun Ra’s music. I believed that his musicality & curiosity could be an interesting added ingredient for the 50th anniversary shows.

MS: We actually spent a fair amount of time sending things back and forth to work on, hours of work together, and he was really trying hard to sort of get into my mind, and I said ‘I want you to do what you would do with it’.

What are your individual roles on stage? L: Our performance is best described as an audio-visual dialogue. Music and moving imagery influence each other in constant communication and feedback. No two performances are identical, since there is a lot of room for improvisation. Music and visuals are seen as equally important.

MS: I start, and I bring it to a certain point, then I literally nod to [Alec] and he takes and inserts his own material and takes it from that point to the next point, then we go back and forth, until the ending point, what would be the ‘end of side one’; we work together at that point. We do the same thing on side 2, then when I get to the climax of the rhythm section he pops in and goes on for a long time, then we join together and play in that rhythm section, the we come out which takes us to the end where we play together. We end up with the end of my last record A Sky Of Cloudless Sulphur. I’ve been doing that in every performance, ‘A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur’, and new versions of that. For me Silver Apples was the beginning of several years of record production before I really got to the end of what I thought I could do with A Sky Of Cloudless Sulphur.

So you see Silver Apples to A Sky Of Cloudless Sulphur as one body of work?

MS: Yes, well all the records together, each one went in a different direction because I was looking for the right answer. I was looking for my version of the message of the record player, what this electronic music was. I tried all sorts of things, all sorts of directions. They don’t join as a single thing, but when at the end I got to Until Spring and finally A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur, I realised that the pulsing aspect was really critical. I had this vision of what the whole record player was, it was an amplification of impulses into the speakers that were making magnets go in different forms, it was the pulsation of the speakers that began to take over my thinking, which is what I had done on the second side of Silver Apples. That’s why I went from the end of Silver Apples to the end of A Sky Of Cloudless Sulphur, because when I did the second side of Silver Apples, it used sequencers, the first use of that kind of sequencer. I was working every day for months on that second side, I had this pulse going and instead of getting tired of it it energised me more, I was experiencing the first drum machine in a way. When I came back at the end I realised that was probably part of how I felt about it, I grew from there into a much more elegant, not better, but more elegant, sophisticated version of how I ended Silver Apples of the moon. As I was doing these revisiting things I realised they really connected well. It’s a very nice way to take the ending of that to ten years later, how it came out.

What do you think makes your creative partnership with Lillevan so strong?

MS: I don’t feel too comfortable about performing without Lillevan because we’ve got a good thing going, the best I’ve done since I originally worked with Tony Martin in the 60s. With Lillevan it’s like a jazz performance where you know the chord progressions and the tune, then you improvise with it. It was the same with Tony at the beginning. It’s two people performing apart from one doesn’t perform with sound. If you can find someone who really understands what you’re doing and makes things without being sort of Mickey Mouse, that’s not so easy, and Lillevan was that from the very beginning when I first met him.

L: Art collaborations work best when the members have similar artistic intentions, and have at least some similar interests and outlooks on life. Bringing together artists from different backgrounds and generations, yet with some shared concerns or obsessions has been pretty successful in this particular instance.

Morton Subotnick, Lillevan and Alec Empire play From Silver Apples To A Sky Of Cloudless Sulphur at Madrid’s L.E.V. Festival on October 19. For more information about the festival and their performance, click here.