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Long at the vanguard of American electronic music, composer Morton Subnotnick also pioneered the rise of multimedia performance through his extensive work in connection with interactive computer systems. Born in Los Angeles on April 14, 1933, he attended the University of Denver before earning his Master's at Mills College in Oakland, CA, where he studied composition under Darius Milhaud and Leon Kirchner. (From 1959 to 1966, Subotnick himself taught at Mills as well.) His earliest major work was 1959's Sound Blocks, the first of his compositions to focus on the relationship between musical, visual, and verbal components; much of Subnotnick's subsequent oeuvre pursued the same ideas, with later pieces like the multi-part Play! and 1965's Lamination I including films, lighting effects, pre-taped material, and other media elements.
In 1967, Subnotnick released the landmark Silver Apples of the Moon, the first electronic work commissioned by a recording company (Nonesuch). Realized via the Buchla modular synthesizer, which he helped design and develop, the album sold remarkably well, its success widely perceived as recognition of the home stereo system as a legitimate medium for present-day chamber music. Now composing specifically for the vinyl format, with works consisting of two halves to fit their respective sides of each LP, Subnotnick returned with The Wild Bull a year later, shortly followed by the two-part Reality. Touch, completed in 1969, was his first piece recorded on four-track technology; it was followed in 1970 by Sidewinder. All shared sophisticated timbres, contrapuntal textures, and pulsing undercurrents — in fact, many were so rhythmic they were adapted for modern dance performances.
Subnotnick's next major plunge into multi-media was 1973's Four Butterflies, a piece for four-track tape and three films; a pair of orchestral compositions, Before the Butterfly and Two Butterflies, followed in 1975. Concurrent was his work on the "ghost box," a modification device designed to control real-time sound processing by means of a pitch and envelope follower in addition to taped, voltage-controlled components including an amplifier, a frequency shifter, and a ring modulator. As neither the tape with the control voltages nor the ghost box itself contained any actual sounds, Subnotnick dubbed the end result a "ghost score," introducing the concept in 1977's Two Life Histories; much of the work which immediately followed expanded upon the idea by bringing together live performers and ghost scores, resulting in pieces including Liquid Strata, The Wild Beasts, and The Fluttering of Wings.
With 1981's Ascent into Air, written for live performers and a 4C computer, Subnotnick's innovations in real-time sound processing reached their peak; not only did he spatially locate and modulate the timbres of live instruments in a quadraphonic field, but he employed his players to serve as "control voltages," determining where the computer-generated sounds were placed, how they were modulated and so forth. Computer technology assumed greater and greater importance in Subnotnick's later work, with pieces like The Key to Songs, Return, and all my hummingbirds have alibis taking full advantage of MIDI technology. Latter-day compositions — among them Jacob's Room, a multimedia opera premiered in 1993 — also regularly made full use of computerized sound generation, specially designed software and "intelligent" interactive computer controls.