Morton Subotnick

(b. 1933)

mode 97

Subotnick Volume 1 – Electronic Works 1


mode 97 Morton SUBOTNICK, Vol.1: Electronic Works-Touch (1969); A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur (1978); Gestures (1998-2001, first recording) – Joan LaBarbara, voice. Hi-resolution 24-bit mastering from original analogue master tapes. Composer supervised. Simultaneous DVD release in 5.1 Surround Sound contains the above plus: Gestures interactive DVD-ROM allowing you to explore and compose your own versions of the piece using your computer’s mouse plus  video: Subotnick interviewed by NPR’s New Sounds John Schaefer; and Subotnick in conversation with Joan LaBarbara and writer Melody Sumner Carnahan. Composer supervised. 


Subotnick Volume 1 - Electronic Works 1 - CD

Touch (1969) for 4-channel tape

Part 1 (14:55)
Part 2 (15:24)

A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur (1978) for 8-channel tape

Opening  (11:14)
Dance  (14:54)

Gestures: It Begins With Colors (1999-2001) for 5.1 Surround Sound (15:59)
Joan La Barbara, voice
First recording

Experience Multi-channel electronic works in 5.1 Surround Sound.

Immerse yourself in the classic multi-channel electronic works Touch and A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur – both remastered from their original analog tapes, and Subotnick’s latest electronic work Gestures (featuring vocalist Joan La Barbara). The DVD allows you to experience these works as they were “spatially” intended in your own home – in high-definition 48khz/24-bit sound!


The recently launched DVD Audio spec, which is part of most new DVD players, reveals the incredible fidelity of totally uncompressed high-definition sound in both surround and stereo. This special 2-sided DVD contains a dedicated DVD-Audio side of the three electronic works in addition to the standard DVD Video side. It is among the first 100 releases issued in this new format. If you do not have a DVD-Audio machine, you can play both standard Dolby Digital and the higher-fidelity DTS encoded versions on any DVD player.


  • New dedicated stereo mixes by the composer.
  • 24-bit mastering from the original analogue master tapes
    (Touch and A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur)
  • A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur is reissued for the first time since its original Nonesuch LP release. This also marks the first release of the complete 28 minutes version, now including the previously unreleased first movement.
  • Liner notes by Rob Young, editor of England’s The Wire magazine.


  • Touch and A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur were remixed to 4-channel Surround Sound under the composer’s supervision.
  • Gestures was composed specifically for the 5.1 medium.
  • Touch, originally commissioned by Columbia Records for the “Quadrophonic” LP, is released for the first time in a discreet 4-channel version.
  • DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround encoding.
  • The complete texts for the 4 Gestures stories by Melody Sumner Carnahan.
  • The DVD includes three bonus interviews:

Subotnick interviewed by John Schaeffer, host of National Public Radio’s New Sounds on the works, his biography and influences (approx. 38 minutes)

Subotnick in conversation with Joan La Barbara and author Melody Sumner Carnahan about Gestures, and collaboration (approx. 45 minutes)

Subotnick in conversation with Stephen Subotnick about the graphic elements incorporated in Gestures
(approx. 15 minutes, audio only).

As an added bonus with the DVD release:

A UNIQUE INTERACTIVE CD-ROM of Gestures with music, words and images, which allows you to reinterpret Gesture‘s musical via your “gestures” at the computer’s mouse. The speed and motion of your “gestures” change the character of the music, accompanied by stunning interlaced graphics. Upon releasing the mouse, four unique stories performed by LaBarbara to Sumner Carnahan’s texts emerge with their own visuals.


Morton Subotnick
    Música electrónica. Vol.1
    Cintas magnéticas. J. La Barbara _

  Mode 97
  California electroacústica
  _ El californiano Morton Subotnick (1933) fue pionero en la música electroacústica  americana. En el ambiente contracultural de la San Francisco de los 60,   Subotnick escogió su propio camino, bien diferente del de los grupos de rock   progresivo que también investigaban en torno a la creación electrónica. Fruto de aquel  empeño nació Touch para cuatro canales, creada en 1969. De 1978 es A Sky of Cloudless  Sulphur, más ambiciosa, para ocho canales. Finalmente, Gestures (1999-2001) está   pensada para un sistema surround moderno e incluye la voz de una cantante,  la célebre JoanLaBarbara, esposa del músico.
  — Pablo J. Vayón, Música clásica, Diario de Sevilla _ DO. 11. 4. 2004
  Morton Subotnick
    Volume 1: Electronic Works in Surround Sound (2001)

  Mode 97
  Video: 4:3, also computer interactive video animation on CD-ROM
Audio: DVD-Audio (24bit/48K surround), DTS 5.1, DD 5.1
Extras:    Over 90 min. of interviews with the composer and John Schaefer, a panel with    Joan La Barbara and Melody Sumner Carnahan, and in discussion with his son    Steven Subotnick who did the animation (first two video, third audio only);    Separate Interactive DVD-ROM of the work Gestures – allows you to reinterpret    the materials using the computer mouse as an input tool
Length: Music = about 72 min.; DVD-ROM = depends
Rating: **** (depends) [Music is also available on CD]

    It was difficult to decide just where to put this review. It was among the 100  initial DVD-Audio releases, but it also features lots of video interviews  plus interactive video animation. Plus it comes in a standard DVD video case.  Subotnick is one the country’s foremost electronic music composers and an  experimenter in the combining of various instruments with media as well as  interactive computer systems for music. This pair of discs marks a number  of firsts. It is the first recording of both the work Gestures and the Opening for A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur – for which only the second half – Dance has been previously released on a stereo CD. The first of three Subotnick works – Touch –  dates from l969 and was created on four-channel tape and then issued on a  Columbia SQ LP with its problematic loss of separation between the front  and back channels. So this is its first opportunity to be properly heard  via four discrete hi-res channels, as originally created. Lastly, the interactive  DVD ROM is a first: it combines Subotnick’s piece created for interactive  5.1 channel surround with vocalisms by his wife Joan La Barbara, animated  images created by his son, surrealist/poetic stories read by Melody Sumner  Carnahan, and ‘gestures” created by the user via moving his/her computer  mouse around.
  First, I began with the extras, feeling that would  fill me in on the music to maximize my appreciation of it. The interview  with John Schaefer of WNYC is shot with a stationary video camera as they  do an on-air interview about the music. The second video is a sort of rehearsal  for and discussion of Gestures by the participants. The last interview  is audio only with a single still photo, as Steven explains what he was trying  to accomplish in the images that accompany the work. The Schaefer interview  has some broad interest but the other two get awfully detailed and technical,  especially if you haven’t heard the works as yet.
  So let’s touch on Touch.  I had the SQ LP and recall it had some interesting effects even with the  tremendous loss of separation between the four channels. Well now for the  first time we’re hearing what Subotnick intended back in l969. You don’t  absolutely require a DVD-Audio player to experience it – the DTS 5.1 (in  the case of Touch just 4.0) is excellent and only a little less hi-res  than the MLP-encoded tracks, but the Dolby Digital versions betrays some  processing going on. Although the effect is less noticeable than if this  were real acoustic music. Very subtle low-level sound effects which would  never have been audible on the LP, can now be clearly discerned. Rather than  depending on the DVD-A player to automatically mix down the multichannel  tracks to stereo, Subotnick made two-channel mixes of all three works.
  David Ranada characterized Touch  as sounding like a chorus of R2D2s and that’s pretty apt. Your surrounds  and your entire system will get quite a workout; there’s a tremendous dynamic  range, so don’t blow out any of your tweeters! Nevertheless, to my ears it’s  all awfully electronic and a half hour of it is a bit much for me. I preferred  his first work created especially for LP – Silver Apples of the Moon. A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur was  commissioned for the launch of a new JB Lansing speaker factory and played  in the open air on the site. Electronic music composers have been working  in four channels for many years and this one is mixed to that format thought  the original was eight channels. The second half of the work was issued on  a stereo CD but this disc includes the opening half which sets up the context  for the concluding Dance section. (It was impossible to go directly to the  second half of either of the two works that had second halves, because  the programmers of this DVD-A neglected to have a chapter break for either  section. More DVD-A navigation frustration I’m getting well used to by now…)
  Subotnick  composes on the Buchla synthesizer, which has a distinctive sound, and thus  all his works seem to use similar timbres. This one has a greater variety  of effects than Touch and like most of his work has a sort of off-hand,  quizzical quality – you never know what to expect next. (I should own up  that I much prefer musique concrete to pure electronic music – I find it  can often convey emotional content, which l haven’t heard yet from electronic  music.)
  Gestures is heard in its non-interactive straight-thru  version running 16 minutes on the DVD disc. Created for 5.1 surround, it  features the vocal sounds of Joan La Barbara and four stories by Sumner Carnahan:  The Wind, The Condition, After Life, and The Dragon. They are surrealistically quirky in keeping with the music.
But  it is via the DVD-ROM that Subotnick gets to explore the interactive potential  of electronic music and images, which he had tried to do years ago but was  handicapped by the primitive technology then available. This version of Gestures requires downloading two sizeable folders to your computer desktop; then you study the page of “How To Gesture” instructions.
  The  piece starts with an image on the screen that could be either a large floating  rectangular astroid or a sheet of some sort of ancient once-crumpled-up parchment  paper. If you move your mouse over the image while holding down the button  and then release the button, you will hear a certain batch of sounds that  will supplant the pre-programmed music and story-telling. But if you move  the mouse without depressing the button, the original music will continue  but various sound groups found in different physical areas of the screen  will be superimposed over it. The sounds at the bottom of the screen are  low and rumbly in pitch while those near the top are high pitched. There  are 24 distinct Gestures, and each has five different soundtracks playing.  You re-mix these by moving the cursor around. When you hold down the button,  the different gestures selected depend on the speed of your mouse movement  and any changes in direction. For example, moving the mouse very slowly and  in a straight line gets you gesture No. 1; moving it wildly and rapidly with  jerky motions, gets you gesture No. 24. The images that appear are all very  abstract – some reminded me of the trippy visuals near the conclusion of  2001. My rating above says “depends” because techy, computer-wise new music  fans will probably go ape over this, especially with the DVD-ROM. But the  rest of us…well…beep beep beep (fade out)
  — John Sunier, Audiophile Audition, April 2003


  Morton Subotnick
    Electronic Works Vol.1


  …But the loudest effects in this and other action-movie soundtracks seemed mere whispers in comparison with the levels the receiver was able to generate with a spectacular recent DVD of synthesizer music by Morton Subotnick (Mode Records). This disc, which contains the same music in the multichannel DVD-Audio, Dolby Digital, and DTS formats, has the greatest dynamic range of any commercial multichannel recording I have heard to date.
  Parts of Subotnick’s A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur and Gestures: It Begins with Colors were almost terrifyingly massive, while others were so quiet I had to strain to hear the music – and this was with the Dolby Digital version! If you can get over the idiom – the first work, Touch, is a quadraphonic recording dating from 1969 that sounds like it was written for a chorus of R2D2 droids – the DVD will give your system a tough workout from receiver to speakers. This is especially true in the surround channels, which are comparatively underutilized in most of the multichannel music recordings I’ve heard.
  Thanks to its low noise levels and large power reserves, the VR-5900 easily met all of Subotnick’s sonic challenges, never sounding strained even when the music was going full tilt in all channels…
  — David Ranada, Sound & Vision, September, 2001 issue
  Morton Subotnick
    Electronic Works Vol.1

  Mode 97 (DVD-ROM)
  After Roger Reynolds’ “Watershed” (Mode 70), this is the second excursion of NY-based Mode Records into DVD territory, a costly venture no doubt but one well worth investing in – after all, as Rob Young is fond of reminding us in his liner notes, Mort Subotnick’s “Touch”, originally released in 1969, actually sold 40,000 copies, and if only half of the punters (clearly not just local San Francisco acid-heads) who bought theirs back then buy this too, it’ll be worthwhile both finacially and artistically. Though “Touch” has been reissued several times, it still sounds remarkably fresh. Sure, the squarewaves and squiggles are as much period giveaways as Mellotrons and Rocksichords, but there are whole passages of this work that would have many of today’s laptoppers drooling in amazement. “A Sky Of Cloudless Sulphur”, originally commissioned in 1978 by loudspeaker manufacturer JB Lansing and broadcast at the opening of a new factory (music for the workers never sounded like this before) appears here in its entirety for the first time. “Sulphur” is a more meditative work, taking its time to explore the timbral resources of the Buchla synthesizer, and it’s easy to see in retrospect why Nonesuch released only the second movement (“Dance”) at the time, mixed down from its original 8 tracks to humble stereo.
  The real technological coup here though is “Gestures: It Begins With Colors”, a brand new work specially conceived for the interactive medium, with texts by Sumner Carnahan recorded by Subotnick’s wife Joan La Barbara and computer graphics designed by his son Steven (it’s a family affair..). Though the composer has provided his own sixteen-minute version of the piece for the DVD, listeners are invited to insert the accompanying CD ROM and create – or rather mix the work themselves. The program is designed to recognise up to 24 gestures (from short straight lines to vicious wiggles) as drawn by the mouse, which switch between sections of the work – moving the cursor round the screen mixes the music differently, and leaving the mouse alone for several sections triggers the stories (which one you get depends on the last gesture you made), which can be interrupted at will by moving the mouse once more. Not only is the number of the permutations infinite, but the piece itself will apparently go on forever (each story repeating) until you choose to quit the program. Steve Subotnick’s graphics get a bit tiring after a while, but there are literally hours of fun to be had switching between the texts and creating your own journey through this rich and rewarding musical/textual landscape. Go wiggle.
  — Dan Warburton,,
       August 2001
  Morton Subotnick
    Electronic Works Vol.1

  A distinctive contributor to the electronic scene over four decades, Morton Subotnick’s reputation is founded on his multi-media work, as featured on this first volume in Mode’s intended survey of his music. Touch (1969) remains among the more cohesive such works of its time, its lucid and characterful succession of synthesized patterns well removed from the emotional overkill of the San Francisco underground bands of the period. A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur (1978) is presented with its atmospheric ‘Opening’ section for the first time on disc, crucial in setting a context for the ‘Dance’ which follows. Both works delight in a quizzical, spontaneous approach to sound far removed from the metaphysical aspiration of electronic composition as practiced in Cologne or Milan, while being richer in incident than much of the American East Coast computer music from the period.
  Gesture (2001) utilizes laptop technology in an effective harnessing of the interactive potential of electronica. The CD includes just the opening part, its atmospheric yet complex harmonic aura setting the scene for Joan La Barbara’s haunting recitation of a guardedly hedonistic text by Sumner Carnahan. Go for the DVD option and, with the interactive CD-ROM included and some deft strokes of the mouse, you can create your own Gestures to four of Carnahan’s stories. The DVD also features 90 minutes of informal interview with the composer and artists, and ‘surround-sound’ and ‘dedicated stereo’ mixes of the three works – Sulphur in particular taking on a vivid immediacy. In all formats, these are key works from a significant electronic legacy – realized to telling effect.
  — Richard Whitehouse, Gramophone



Also by Morton Subotnick on Mode Records:
  Morton Subotnick: The Electronic Works 2 (CD & DVD) (mode 132)
  Morton Subotnick: The Electronic Works 3 (CD & DVD) (mode 237)


Melody Sumner Carnahan Profile
  Joan La Barbara Profile
  Morton Subotnick Profile
  Stephen Subotnick Profile
  Joan La Barbara: Silent Scroll – (La Barbara, voice; With Newband) and works by Cage, Partch, and Drummond.  (mode 18)

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