Coming Soon – A Live Performance Video Of Morton Subotnick’s Pioneering Modular Synthesizer Work ‘Sidewinder’

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Synthesist and synth designer Peter Grenader shared this sneak preview of an upcoming live studio performance of Morton Subotnick‘s 1971 modular synthesizer work, Sidewinder.

Synthesist Peter Grenader, from a new live performance video of the Morton Subotnick modular work Sidewinder.

Sidewinder is one of several pioneering albums by Subotnick – along with Silver Apples of the Moon, Touch, Until Spring and others – that have influenced generations of synthesists. These works represented the cutting edge of modern synthesis when they were released and, 50 years later, they still sound aggressively avant garde to new listeners.

Arguably, it would be difficult for a modular musician to do work that is really ‘experimental’ without understanding the foundational work that Subotnick did half a century ago. Whether or not Subotnick’s style is your jam – there’s a ton that can be learned from his approach to synthesis. Subotnick has shared some of the patch details for Sidewinder at his site.

In an article at New Music USA, Bob Gluck discusses some of the techniques Subotnick explored with Sidewinder:

To create Sidewinder, Morton Subotnick continued to generate musical materials, “sound events,” by running Buchla sequences. The principle of shaping gestures using a pressure sensitive touch plate continued.

The innovation was Subotnick’s use of “control tracks,” information encoded and stored on tape, to direct the performance of these materials. The scheme was “designed to give the composer greater precision and the opportunity to add, modify, and rearrange his material without affecting the whole fabric.”

Thus, “a composition could be laid out in time, envelope, overall amplitudes and spatial position. The details could be filled in later with far more modules on hand to control each individual event.” The implementation of control tracks originated with the first envelope follower, developed by Don Buchla while Subotnick was in New York. The composer recalls: “I called Don and asked for a way to use my voice to control voltages and he built me the envelope detector.”

By using control tracks the composer could design the patches, generate sounds, and subsequently adjust the tempo, attack and decay of notes and sounds. Subotnick would sing or hum into a microphone, which would be translated into performance information (control data) by the Buchla’s envelope follower. This module tracked the changing amplitude of his voice. Those shapes could be applied to changes over time of any musical parameter—not just amplitude. Subotnick would then set the assignment of sounds to multiple channels (to be placed in different speaker locations), and mix several tracks down to stereo, allowing him to add more tracks beyond the capabilities of a tape recorder of the day.

The live performance features Jill Fraser, Shiro Fujioka, Peter Grenader and Thomas Klepper and was filmed at Tool’s studio in Hollywood CA. The performance will be released April 23, 2023, in celebration of Subotnick’s 90th birthday. See the Tool site for details.

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