Morton Subotnick was born in 1933, and grew up in Los Angeles, California. He began playing a wind instrument at 7 years old per recommendation of his doctor to improve a bronchial condition. Knowing nothing about wind instruments, he picked a clarinet purely based on the name, but was disappointed when the instrument that arrived was not a trombone. Despite his complete lack of musical knowledge, playing the clarinet came so naturally that he was called in as a substitute for professionals in major orchestras as a teenager. Subotnick pursued clarinet performance as a professional career, joining the Denver Symphony Orchestra at 17 years old while attending the University of Denver. He was drafted into the army where he enlisted for an extra 6 months – a negotiation with the Los Angeles Musician’s Union which allowed him to play in the Army Band instead of fighting in the Korean war. This band was stationed in San Francisco, where he decided to stay after his service. There he met young composers who sparked his interest in composing.

In the 50s, he found an interest in technology and experimentation with music. He describes himself, “I became totally obsessed with the notion that the world… was on the brink of a major, major change for civilization as a result of inexpensive technology, especially electronics.” Embracing this obsession led him to create one of the most influential albums on electronic music today.

Subotnick taught at Mills College from 1959-1965. He was involved in performance and composition for his chamber group there. His talents as a composer made him a known name during his time.

Subotnick in MC Chamber Group

1958 – Mills Chamber Players (MS, clarinet; Bonnie Hampton, cello; Naomi Sparrow, piano).

Working with Pauline Oliveros and Ramon Sender, the group founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1961 with the help of Tony Martin and Bill Maginnis. The Center had a profound influence on musical experimentation, bringing electronic music out of the dark and introducing it to a growing audience. R. Wiley describes it as “a place where experimental artists could work together and as individuals, pooling resources and knowledge in an unstructured space… a place that met the needs of a small group of artists who needed access to equipment and a venue to present concerts of experimental music.” Another explored form was that of “mixed media,” or multimedia: collaboration between forms of art and music for a unique performance. Subotnick played an important role in merging the SFTMC with the Mills Center for Contemporary Music, moving the Center to Mills College across the bay.

1963 – San Francisco Tape Music Center (SFTMC) crew (left to right): Tony Martin, Bill McGinnis, Ramon Sender, Pauline Oliveros, and MS (seated).

In 1965, Subotnick stopped playing clarinet to devote himself to electronic music, a move he does not make light of. He says, “it was not an easy thing to do,” and, “you don’t just give up something like that for no particular reason.” But his love for composing and his future work in expanding electronic music prove that it was not a talent forsaken for waste.

Subotnick spoke with Norman Lloyd at the Rockefeller Foundation for funding of a new studio for electronic music recording. Lloyd refused, so instead Subotnick spoked with Donald Buchla about making a making a synthesizer, and requested $500 from the Rockefeller Foundation for it. From there, Buchla and Subotnick worked with other composers to create a synthesizer. In its earliest form, the Buchla 100 was only a combination of certain modules, not a single unit that was in the stage of organized manufacturing.

Buchla 100

A Buchla 100.

The synthesizer “comprised several ‘modular’ boxes that generated and/or modified a musical event,” according to the Buchla Electronic Musical Instruments website.  The dials and sliders were analog voltage controls that were manipulated by the musician. The effects created by the synthesizer range from tone and timbral control to effects like velocity, oscillation, and randomization. The modules that make up the system can interact through a process called “patching,” wherein cords connect input and output. These modules allow for the creation of brand new sounds instead of synthesis from existing sounds.

Subotnick’s goal was for the Buchla to be a technology accessible to everyone, and something that would someday exist in every family’s living room. Using the Buchla, Morton Subotnick recorded Silver Apples of the Moon in 1967 for Nonesuch Records.

Silver Apples of the Moon (1967)

Album cover of Silver Apples of the Moon.

Commissioned by Nonesuch Records, Subotnick created what became the first major electronic album, inspiring the rise of techno and synth. A representative from Nonesuch provided Subotnick with a double advance and gave him thirteen months to create the album. This was an opportunity for Subotnick to pursue his interest in electronic music with freedom. The album consists of two songs: Part I and Part II. It was originally recorded on magnetic tape, but was made to be produced on an LP.

Part I is over 16 minutes long with little structure and inconsistent rhythm. The sounds in this selection can be described as robotic or alien based on the timbre of each sound. Some sounds resemble instrumental styles like pizzicato, glissando, and dynamic fluctuations while others oscillate and beep in a machine-like fashion. The first ten minutes of the piece are described by one reviewer from Julian Cope’s website as “a dense trawl through moody lagoons and… uncharted electronic corridors.” In this section, there are usually 2-3 voices heard at a time, with no more than about 5. However, past the 11 minute mark, the track slowly swells, featuring more voices and experimenting with more rhythmic consistency. The track retreats into sparse and low voices to the end.

Part II is about 15 minutes in length, and is most obviously different from the first track in its patterened beats and extended themes. After a short introduction section that imitates the unpredictability of the first song, a pitter-patter rhythm begins to pulse steadily as beeps and lyrical voices are added. The music slowly crescendos over the first nine minutes, and as new elements are brought in, the timbre of the sounds create a frenzied atmosphere. This creates an increasingly jumpy tone to the piece, sounding like clockwork machinery on the brink of disaster. The chaotic tone intensifies until all but two voices drop out slightly past 9 minutes. Following that point, only a couple voices are heard at a time, and the mood of the piece becomes more peaceful, yet still full of curiosity because of the unpredictable beeps and tones.

This album differs from many recordings of the time because it is only reproducible by playing the recording. Thus the performance is the recording. Subotnick describes making the album in relation to a sculptor’s work, “sculpting with sounds” instead of stone or clay. The expansive options of creating sounds with the Buchla opened up the possibilities for Silver Apples because of the nature of the technology. The album brought the “studio to the stage,” shedding light on the behind-the-scenes aspect of music production, and branching off from traditional musical performance.

Performances and Legacy of Silver Apples of the Moon

Silver Apples of the Moon was played alongside live artistic performances, or moving pictures – something that Subotnick had been a part of with the San Francisco Tape Music Center. It has been interpreted with live painting, dance, and video art.

Ballet Rambert dancing to Silver Apples of the Moon.

Ballet Rambert dancing to Silver Apples of the Moon.

Subotnick has also performed the album on the stage, using a synthesizer to recreate the music. He notes that its always a slightly different piece with each performance.

Video of Morton Subotnick demonstrating the synthesizer he worked with.

Video of Morton Subotnick performing an excerpt of his piece on stage.

The influence of this album has sparked new musical genres like techno, dance music, and other electronic styles, with Subotnick being called the Founding Father of Electronica. Subotnick only expected a sale of 200 albums, but was astonished at its great success, selling 10,000 copies in the first year alone.

In 2009, Silver Apples of the Moon was entered into the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress, one of only about 300 albums. It is a work recognized on the national level for its technological and musical innovation, and has made an irreversible impression on each field.

Recent Work

Currently, Morton Subotnick participates in tours, workshops, and is creating technology and programs for children. His influence is still widely recognized today, especially in his focus to enable younger generations. He has created CD ROMS, and more recently an iPad app called Pitch Painter.

Recent video of Morton Subotnick demonstrating a modern Buchla synthesizer.

He is best known for Silver Apples of the Moon, but has also composed pieces for classical instruments and synthesizers or computers. Though his work is not embraced by all as music, his influence cannot be overlooked.


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