Morton Subotnick

The composer on parades & changes, replay.

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Was the controversy of Parades and Changes a surprise to you?
Well, we’re talking about 1965. I was working with the dance company for about six years, and these pieces were developed—it was the continuous development of a thing we called “theater pieces,” and so everything was controversial during that time. [Laughs] During the late ’50s and early ’60s in San Francisco, I was playing clarinet with the San Francisco Symphony, but I was also doing this electronic stuff and the stuff with Ann [Halprin]—we called her Ann; now she’s Anna—and similar things with the Actors Workshop, and people actually thought there were two of me. They didn’t think I was the same person! The kinds of things that we were doing were almost inconceivable for people at the time. Was it music, or was it dance? What was it? The controversy at any given moment was almost just part of the lifestyle; you didn’t pay a lot of attention to it. If you’re talking specifically about the production here, I never thought of it as being controversial. It was, but it wasn’t in the mind-set. And things like the nudity—the nudity wasn’t all that controversial. It was illegal, which is something I never paid attention to. If you’re acting morally and ethically and you’re not hurting anyone. You don’t spit on the street because there’s a law; you don’t spit on the street because it’s dirty. So things have changed a lot now so people are more conscious of this, but I can say for myself, I didn’t really pay much attention to controversy.

Do you live in New York now?
Yes. I actually had moved to New York the year we premiered Parades and Changes. And that was my last production with the company because they were in San Francisco and I was in New York.

What was your reaction when you found out about Anne Collod’s replays
I was astounded. I had completely forgotten about Parades and Changes over the years. It was a long time ago! And I was doing my thing, and everybody was doing their thing. When I heard about it, Ann Halprin had been invited by the French to do a part of the production several years ago. I really wasn’t involved at that point. And Ann said, “You know you should really bring Morton because this was not just a music score; it was an integrated part of the whole thing.” So they invited me as well, and I’ve been involved in this restructuring thing as it went. And as it turned out, for a number of reasons Ann couldn’t go to Paris when they did the full thing this fall, so I was actually there for about five weeks helping them get going so they could take it on tour. So I was really surprised that of all things, that that should come back like that. But that’s the way things go.

Why “of all things”?
I’ve been involved in so many things. The Library of Congress is archiving my stuff, so I’m bringing a lot of what I’ve done musically back—trying to get it in shape—and I’m working on an opera right now for Berlin, which is a finishing of something I didn’t finish 25 years ago. That surprised me. I’m surprised about the whole thing! You do it and it’s over, and you just go on to the next thing. I don’t know. I never thought about it, but part of what we were doing—many of us and certainly in the case of Parades and Changes with Ann—is that it wasn’t solid. It wasn’t fixed. It was changing all the time. It was made of resources that we were developing over time. It wasn’t a work, a single thing; it wasn’t something that was fixed. And so if someone says, “Let’s bring that back,” the first reaction is, “What? Our whole life?” [Laughs] And that’s one of the things that’s happened now—it’s fixing something and putting it in a more permanent, stable fixture so that it can live. I’m sort of used to that now because, as I said, I’m doing it with the Library of Congress and a lot of different things. I didn’t think of what I was doing in life as a fixed thing. There are some people I knew who wrote their autobiography when they were 30 years old. [Laughs] Like it’s a really important thing that I’m alive in this world and you should know about it, but most of us just live our life, and it comes and it goes—that’s all.

What did you not want to have happen in bringing back something like this?
I didn’t think that way. Partly it was a collaboration in many ways, but Ann was the head of the company, and I was the composer with the company, but we were all involved. There’s a stomp dance, and it’s a score I wrote for the dancers, and it tells them what the rhythms are and the whole structure of the thing, and they had to learn it like musicians had to learn it. And there’s a whispering dance and a shouting dance, which they’re not doing now. The paper dance comes from the sound of the paper. Now if you ask, “What music did I write? Did I write whispering? Did I write stomping?” Yes. But it’s not music; now I suppose that’s not controversial at all because we’ve had Stomp. We called it the stomping dance. The idea was that they were going to be making sound with their feet and they were rhythmic, but it wasn’t a normal rhythm. It was more like when you get angry and you stomp; it was very much like what Stomp does now, and it’s a very ordinary thing. So I remember when the French group started working on it, I said, “Now look, when we first did this, you didn’t have to work with the greatest sense of rhythm in the world because no one had ever seen anyone do anything like that. The very fact of doing it was almost enough in a way, but now you’re going to have to get really good at it because it’s going to look awful if you don’t.” And they did. They got very good at it. And at the time, we were dealing with ordinary movements like the sound of paper and the sound of stomping your feet, the sound of whispering, the sound of talking and then manipulating them into what I considered music. I wrote a piece in the ’60s, right around that time, for a record called Silver Apples. I was working on it when we did the premiere of Parades and Changes, so lot of Silver Apples was in that piece. And I was able to put it back into the piece because it exists. Some of the stuff I did, I have no idea where they are. I had to bring things back in a different way.

Is it performed live?
Yes. Everything you’re going to ask that’s related to what music is is not going to apply. It’s performed live; the dancers are dancing the stomping dance. The paper dance is live. The whispering is live, and in fact, it’s conducted. All of the sounds are not fixed. They’re not like a CD you put on and let it run. They were in the ’60s, and more so now, they were what we now think of as what DJs do in sampling. It was a bunch of little tiny snippets of tape that were on different tape recorders that I would bring in at different times, and I would change speed and run them backwards and manipulate them as I went. Now it’s done on the computer, and it’s like a big sampler. The big difference now is that it’s live, but it’s fixed. The guy who’s running the sound is doing it exactly the way I taught him to do it; if I were doing it live, I’d be changing it every night.

And the guy who’s running the sound is conducting it?
Well, he’s been conducting on tour. When they take it to Los Angeles, they’re flying me in, and I’ll conduct it there. It’s just the opening; it’s about ten minutes at the beginning.

And you’ll conduct it in New York too?
I don’t know! I haven’t talked to anyone. I mean, I can. I’ll be here. But I haven’t gotten that far. I probably will go over there and conduct it. I hadn’t really thought about it. I’ve just been dealing with L.A.

Anne Collod told me that she interviewed you repeatedly to flesh out the details of the piece. Is that true?
Oh, yeah. It was a huge amount. We met in Kentfield [California] where Anna lives. This is the second time around. I went out a couple of years ago when they did the paper dance and dressing and undressing at the Pompidou Centre. I think Anne Collod was in that production.

She was.
So that was one thing. We thought that was it, and then Anne Collod got this thing going. I had made scores that were on three-by-five cards that allowed us to look at things in a different way that was very mind-opening for the dancers. They had never seen anything quite like that before at the time; Anne, Anna and I were talking about these cards and which ones would you use, and both Anna and I said, “You’d never use this dance and that dance in the same evening, and Anne Collod comes up with this piece of paper and says, “Oh, but here is a note that you wrote to Anna, and it says, 'I think tonight we should use these’ and a note back saying, 'Yes, yes, I think that’s a good idea.’ ” [Laughs] And we both looked at it and thought, That can’t be possible. Anne had a lot of information.

It must be so bizarre to be reminded of things you don’t remember remembering. Did I get that right?
It’s spooky, I’ll tell you. Because it’s not that you don’t remember; you remember very well something else. [Laughs] I think for one reason or another some of my memories are more intact in some areas; certainly where the music and the sound is concerned. I didn’t stay with dance after that. Occasionally I would do something with a dance company, but I never got heavily involved, and Anna took all of that and moved in another direction. We’re talking about a long time ago. It was hard for Anna to go back in some ways and put that together. We had a big performance at UCLA. She said, “Gee, Morton, I don’t remember—were you with us at that point?” and I said, “Yes, Anna.” And Anne Collod brings out a video of a movie that had been done of it, and there, right in the front, is Ann Halprin with Morton Subotnick. [Laughs]

She’s like your life fact-checker.
She is. It’s very interesting. You sort of develop a mythical view of your history with your parents and all of that stuff, and to have it come back in such exact form is a little disconcerting.

So are all the scores in the dances related? A score equals a dance, right?
Well, we called everything a dance. There was the shouting dance and the stomping dance and the construction dance and the light dance—they were like scenes, and each of them was on a three-by-five card, which were the scores. The originals are not around, but I have made overview scores that were superimposed over them. For instance, things in the case of sound, whether it’s the paper or an actual piece of music—whatever the sound was during this period—would start soft and get louder. And you could apply that to anything. We would use existing music like the Beach Boys, and if you applied it, that particular aspect, like an adjective to the noun or the verb, the music would get louder. And the dancers would get faster. So these were scores that were independent of any dance that could be placed over something. And we didn’t do it by chance. It was a way to construct. So you might put it there, and it would make you say, “Hmmm. I don’t like it there, but what if it were over here?” And we would reconstruct evenings over the period of a day or two. So we would do it in another city and develop a new set of combinations with the score, which would give us new ways to look at the whole thing. It’s a scoring technique. We weren’t working from scratch each evening. Everything was well rehearsed and worked out in different ways, but the way it all linked together and even some of the individual dances were constantly being changed.

What do you think of the final product—meaning replays?
[Laughs] I don’t like anything that’s final. I haven’t seen it in a year; I was with them for the first seven performances in France, and I worked with the dancers until I felt it was all going well, and then I left. And I liked it at that point. There were things that I definitely would not have done, but it wasn’t a reconstruction; it was partially reconstructed. I don’t know what it is! It’s kind of inspired by. In the spirit of? It’s not what I would have done, but it’s not me doing it. And I thought that it worked quite well; some things left me a little uneasy, but that would be true even when I was working in the ’60s. Sometimes a lighting person would do something that I would grow to like a whole lot and I didn’t start liking right away and things like that. I thought it worked very well; I was certainly impressed by how it went. Then I saw a video in Berlin and realized they had been making changes, so I can’t tell you because I haven’t seen it in a year. I can’t tell you that what I’m saying now will apply to what you’re going to see, but I think it will probably be fine.

I think they continue to change things.
It has undergone some major shifts, which is partly in the spirit of things, too. Anne and Anna have been talking about some of the choreography, and I’ve been talking to Anne about the music. From a musical standpoint, there are certain things that really need to happen. For instance, if you have developed the idea that the thing should grow, it has to grow. You can’t just suddenly decide it’s going to be soft; that’s not in the spirit of what we did. So there are certain adjustments that we’re making, and I think Anna is making some as well. They have been making changes, and they’re making new changes now because—and it was a mistake, I think—but they have entered Anna and me back into the loop and we’ve got opinions, right? [Laughs]

Why didn’t you stay in dance? Did you decide to go in a different direction yourself, or were you sick of it?
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, I had decided I was going to give up the clarinet and all the stuff I was doing and really dedicate myself to the new media that I felt really in tune with and had strong visions of. It had to do with what is now the computer but before all of that was really going, and I wanted to develop a kind of multidimensional art. I worked with the dance and theater companies in San Francisco to broaden my instincts about all these different areas, and then I applied them to my own work. I didn’t actually leave dance, but I left dance in the way that I had worked with Anna—because my music, Silver Apples, was choreographed by Glen Tetley. Strangely, my music went to ballet, and it was the ballet choreographers who picked it up. So I never left dance in a certain way, but the idea of working with a dance company was not something I ever intended to stay with. I didn’t really leave it. I passed through.

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