Morton Subotnick’s landmark electronic music composition Silver Apples of the Moon was composed fifty years ago in 1967. 1967 was, of course, a year of many milestones (the Summer of Love, the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). Mort’s work is remarkable for how it not only embodies that time, but for the way in which it embraces and prefigures the future, indeed has shaped the way we live now. The technical breakthroughs of the work still influence music production, but more important is the musical impact.
The first thing to notice is that Silver Apples was commissioned by Nonesuch records for distribution as a two-sided vinyl disc. Second, it was composed when Subotnick was one of the founding faculty members of the nascent Tisch School of the Arts, in a studio built by NYU on Bleecker Street. As Subotnick notes in an interview: “I thought three things about the piece. One, it had to be conceived for the medium, without instruments. Two, it had to be something that I really loved, that I’d want to hear again. And three, that the experience had to be a kind of trip, because it was in the living room. What a trip meant to me was that suddenly you’d be experiencing one kind of world, then suddenly another, as if in the desert, and around the bend you’re in a jungle, or on the moon, without knowing how you got there, so there’s no linearity” [Chadabe 1997 p. 148]. Check, check, and check.
Listening to it now, I’m struck by the raw beauty and musical flow of the work. The genre Silver Apples helped to spawn is sometimes referred to by what I think is a misnomer: “experimental” music. There’s nothing experimental about it. This is a fully-fledged musical vision by a gifted composer who knows exactly what he wants to say. I also hear the elemental velocity of a Subotnick composition – in particular the rhythmic propulsion that often takes over stands in stark contrast to the portentous avoidance of pulse one notices in “concert” works of the period. Mort wanted to a make a piece he would love and want to hear again. In constructing it he composed a work of elegance, vitality, and power that we all want to hear again, and will listen to for another fifty years.
Robert Rowe, Ph.D. is Professor of Music and Music Education and Director of Music Technology at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. A scholar and composer, he is the author of “Interactive Music Systems” and “Machine Musicianship.”