updated 13 February 2023
© DR

Morton Subotnick

American composer born 14 April 1933 in Los Angeles.

Morton Subotnick showed talent on the clarinet at a young age. At sixteen years old, he was granted a scholarship at the University of Southern California and, passing all four years of the entrance exams for music on the first day of school, he decided to major in English literature. At seventeen, Subotnick joined the Denver Symphony where he met James Tenney. He then moved to San Francisco during his military service and decided to stay there once finished. He enrolled in Mills College, where he studied with Leon Kirchner and Darius Milhaud.

At the beginning of the 1960s, Subotnick sensed that the democratization of sound recording would rapidly change the public’s relationship with music. He sought to anticipate this shift by creating the inevitable music-making machine of the future. To find someone who might be interested in building this device, he placed an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle. The engineer Don Buchla responded. For two years they worked side by side on the Buchla modular synthesizer. To prevent users from making “old music with a new instrument or new old music,” they chose not to add keys to the synthesizer.1 In 1967, the label Nonesuch Records commissioned a record from Subotnick, which he composed entirely with the Buchla. Silver Apples of the Moon was the first large-scale composition made specifically for disc, and it is among 300 recordings held by the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress. Several other albums followed in the ensuing eight years, such as The Wild Bull (1968), Touch (1969), Sidewinder (1971), and Four Butterflies (1974).

In 1962, Subotnick founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center with Ramón Sender and Pauline Oliveros. The Center’s network extended to important actors in contemporary music such as Steve Reich, John Chowning, and Terry Riley, whose piece In C was created at the Center. Subotnick soon became the music director of the Actor’s Workshop, one of Southern California’s oldest film acting programs. He then left for New York where he became musical director of the repertory theater at the newly established Lincoln Center. Subotnick was contacted by entrepreneurs Jerry Brandt and Stanton J. Freeman to help open the Electric Circus, a multimedia nightclub. At this venue, Subotnick became artistic director of the Electric Ear Series, hosting composers such as Riley, Oliveros, John Cage, Alvin Lucier, and Robert Ashley, among others. In 1969, he became associate dean of the new California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Los Angeles. After four years in this position, he became director of the composition program, introducing multimedia and interactive technologies into the curriculum.

In 1975, the label Odyssey commissioned Until Spring, in which Subotnick used control voltages. From this technique, he developed an approach for precisely controlling processing equipment in real time. This idea led him to “ghost electronics,” a device composed of a pitch and envelope tracker on a live signal, and some voltage-controlled units: an amplifier, a frequency shifter, and a ring modulator. Once the performer’s micro signal is sent to the ghost box, it is then treated by reading the pre-recorded tape or the EPROM memory that contains the control voltages. These processes are completely silent, earning them the name “ghost score.” Two Life Histories (1977) was the first piece for which Subotnick used this device. A dozen other pieces with diverse instrumentation followed. Subotnick continued his real-time electronic processing research with Ascent into Air (1981), written for IRCAM’s 4C computer. For this piece, the performers control the computerized music in real time, acting as control voltages to change the sounds’ location, modulation, and intensity.

Subotnick also pursued work in education, creating music learning programs aimed at young children. These included a website and six CD-ROMs released by Alfred Music Publishers.

After many years of tours and performances, Subotnick performed his final stage performance, As I Live and Breathe in Montreal on 23 March 2002. This piece was designed as a metaphor of his life in music, an audiovisual work set to pictures by video artist Lillevan.

1. Kevin L. Jones, “Morton Subotnick on Growing into His Life as an Electronic Composer,” KQED, April 20, 2017. 

  • Solo (excluding voice)
  • Chamber music
  • Instrumental ensemble music
  • Concertant music
    • elec Before the Butterfly for orchestra and seven amplified instruments (1975), 20 mn
    • elec Parallel Lines for piccolo, electronic ghost score and 9 players (1978), 16 mn
    • elec After the Butterfly for trumpet, electronic ghost score, and 7 players (1979), 18 mn, Schott
    • elec Axolotl version for solo cello, an electronic ghost score, and chamber orchestra (1982), 17 mn
    • elec In Two Worlds (Saxophone Concerto) for soloist doubling on Yamaha WX7 computerized wind controller and alto saxophone, with chamber orchestra and computer (1987), 35 mn
  • Vocal music and instrument(s)
    • elec Play! No. 4 for soprano, vibraphone, cello, 4 "game players", 2 "game conductors" and two 16mm films by Tony Martin (1965), 17 mn
    • elec Two Life Histories for clarinet, male voice and electronic ghost score (1977), 24 mn
    • elec The Last Dream of the Beast an aria from The Double Life of Amphibians, for soprano, cello section, tape and ghost electronics (1979), 17 mn
    • elec stage The Double Life of Amphibians for chamber orchestra, two male singers, one female singer, dancer and electronics (1984), 1 h 30 mn
    • elec stage Hungers for keyboard, mallets, cello, voice, female Balanese dancer, video, lights, and computer (1986), 1 h 30 mn
    • elec stage Intimate Immensity A Media Poem, for two disclaviers, two singers, Balinese dancer and interactively controlled laserdiscs, computer sound and lights (1997), 1 h 20 mn
    • elec stage Jacob's Room chamber opera in one act (2010), 1 h 15 mn, Schott
    • elec Jacob's Room monodrama for voice, keyboard, string orchestra and electronics, from the opera (2012, 2013), 30 mn, Schott
  • A cappella vocal music
    • elec Breath for voice and electronics (), 15 mn
  • Electronic music / fixed media / mechanical musical instruments

Catalog sources and details

CD-ROM : programmes de composition pour enfants

  • Making Music (3-7 ans)
  • Hearing Music (7-12 ans)
  • Playing Music (7-12 ans)
  • Making More Music (8 ans et plus)

Catalog source(s)

CD-ROM : programmes de composition pour enfants

  • Making Music (3-7 ans)
  • Hearing Music (7-12 ans)
  • Playing Music (7-12 ans)
  • Making More Music (8 ans et plus)

Liens Internet

(liens vérifiés en janvier 2023).


  • David BERNSTEIN, The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s counterculture and the avant-garde, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2008.
  • Robert GLUCK, « Electric Circus, Electric Ear and the Intermedia Center in Late-1960s New York », in Leonardo Music Journal, 2012, vol. 45 Issue 1, p. 51-56.
  • Robert GLUCK, « Nurturing Young Composers: Morton Subotnick’s Late-1960s Studio in New York City », in Computer Music Journal, 2012, vol. 36 Issue 1, p. 65-80.
  • Tod MACHOVER, « Interview with Mort Subotnick », in Contemporary Music Review, vol. 13/2, 1996, p. 3-11.
  • Curtis ROADS, « Interview with Morton Subotnick », in Computer Music Journal, vol. 12/1, 1988, p. 9-18.
  • Morton SUBOTNICK, « The use of computer technology in an interactive or “Real time” performance environment », in Contemporary Music Review, vol. 18, 1999, p. 113-117.
  • Geary YELTON, « A conversation with Morton Subotnick: Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Silver Apples of the Moon », in Electronic Musician, Nov. 2017, Vol. 33 Issue 11, p. 26-30.

Discographie sélective

  • Morton SUBOTNICK, The other piano ; Falling leaves ; Liquid strata ; Preludes, SooJin Anjou : piano, dans « Vol. 4: Complete Works For Piano », 1 CD Mode, 2019, 306.
  • Morton SUBOTNICK, Axolotl ; Ascent into air ; The last dream if the beast ; A fluttering of wings, dans « Music For The Double Life Of Amphibians (Landmark Recordings) », 1 CD Wergo, 2016, WER 7312 2.
  • Morton SUBOTNICK, Atfer the butterfly ; The Wild Beasts, dans « The Wild Beasts - Landmark Recordings », 1 CD Wergo, 2015, WER 7311 2.
  • Morton SUBOTNICK, Until spring: revisited ; 4 butterflies, dans « Vol. 3: Electronic Works », 1 CD Mode, 2011.
  • Morton SUBOTNICK, Sidewinder ; Until spring, dans « Vol. 2: Electronic Works », 1 CD Mode, 2004.
  • Morton SUBOTNICK, Touch ; A sky of cloudless sulphur ; Gestures, dans « Vol. 1: Electronic Works », 1 CD Mode, 2001.
  • Morton SUBOTNICK, « Echoes From The Silent Call Of Girona / A Fluttering Of Wings », Southwest Chamber Music, 1 CD Cambria, 2000, CD 8811.
  • Morton SUBOTNICK, And The Butterflies Begin To Sing ; All My Hummingbirds Have Alibis, dans « And The Butterflies Begin To Sing », 1 CD New World Records, 1997, 80514-2.
  • Morton SUBOTNICK, « The Key To Songs ; Return », 1 CD New Albion, 1986, NA 012.
  • Morton SUBOTNICK, « Return », 1 vinyle New Albion, 1986, NA 010.
  • Morton SUBOTNICK, « Ascent Into Air / A Fluttering Of Wings », 1 vinyle Nonesuch, 1984, 78020-1.
  • Morton SUBOTNICK, « Until Spring », 1 vinyle Odyssey, 1976, Y 34158.
  • Morton SUBOTNICK, « 4 Butterflies », 1 vinyle Columbia Masterworks, 1974, M 32741.
  • Morton SUBOTNICK, « Sidewinder », 1 vinyle CBS Masterworks, 1971, M 30683.
  • Morton SUBOTNICK, « Touch », 1 vinyle Columbia, 1969, MQ 31918.
  • Morton SUBOTNICK, « The Wild Bull », 1 vinyle Nonesuch, 1968, H-71208.
  • Morton SUBOTNICK, « Silver Apples Of The Moon », 1 vinyle Nonesuch, 1967, H-71174.