Morton Subotnick’s Touch (1969) Is The ‘West Coast’ Sound That Modern ‘Experimental’ Electronic Music Aspires To

I Dream Of Wires shared this music video for Morton Subotnick‘s 1969 synth album, Touch.

The video pairs psychedelic liquid light show visuals – contemporary to the music – with an excerpt from Part One of Subotnick’s album.

Touch is everything that a lot of modern so-called ‘experimental’ electronic music aspires to – ambient, environmental, generative, atonal and actually experimental. It’s challenging listening, at times, but once you’ve heard it, most ‘experimental’ electronic music seems pretty tame in comparison.

42 thoughts on “Morton Subotnick’s Touch (1969) Is The ‘West Coast’ Sound That Modern ‘Experimental’ Electronic Music Aspires To

  1. thanks for sharing the lovely subotnick excerpt, but the tone of this article is unusually condescending.

    no need to slag on artists who don’t know how to categorize their sound, or get lumped into a record bin with folks like stockhausen and cage.. and being ‘tame’ or not has nothing to do with experimental process and compositional exploration. there are many, many artists out there using newer technology like data visualization, AI/generative code/etc..etc.. that simply didn’t exist when this piece was recorded – they might sound similar/related, but that doesn’t mean they cannot claim to be experimenting with newer forms of composition.

    1. Here is another way to look at it.

      Morton just was not as skilled as Wendy Carlos.
      So Morton was unable to make melodic music using these synths.
      So Morton made blips n blops.

      Whereas Wendy being so skilled was able to make Bach tributes

      1. Conformity is so exciting and worthwhile. The best part of Switched On Bach was the
        2nd movement of Brandenburg Number 3. Now that was skill.

        Now remember all the switched on whatevers that followed???

        All forgetable.

        1. Rupert

          It’s tragic that Carlos’s Switched-On Brandenburgs album has been out of print for so long and isn’t available digitally.

          It’s probably the most musically satisfying of Carlos’s ‘Switched On’ work.

          1. I prefer the Well Tempered Synthesizer, the Scarlatti and Monteverdi really shined. Then I heard Orfeo on period instruments and got sucked into older music.

            But preferred the classical electronics from the 1960s . . .

      2. No, no, wrong perspective. Carlos was east coast, closer to Europe in distance and style, and the Moog synths had piano-style (Halberstadt) keyboard layouts. Subotnick was west coast, forward-looking, further from Europe, experimental in every cell and never looking back, having ditched the Old World baggage etc., and the Buchlas didn’t have traditional keyboard controllers, even those were designed anew from a blank slate. Impossible to rate these artists against each other, both are inspiring virtuosos.

  2. Is _atonal_ even a style many experimental musicians are interested in these days? I come across a hardly any contemporary experimental electronic music that’s truly atonal; just older stuff from the 1960s or before, or made by musicians who were at their height then.

    In my opinion, hardcore atonality like this piece, or other 20th century styles like serialism, doesn’t make enough connection to the emotions. It’s intellectually interesting, but music is intrinsically tied to tonality because that’s the way our brains perceive sound. We like to hear harmony and melody, not to mention rhythm. (Later composers like the Minimalists understood this.)

    I respect Subotnick’s contributions to synthesis, but I haven’t heard any of his pieces that I can actually enjoy as music.

    1. > It’s intellectually interesting, but music is intrinsically tied to tonality because that’s the way our brains perceive sound. We like to hear harmony and melody, not to mention rhythm.

      The way we hear tonality is not fixed or biologically determined though, it is influenced by history, societal norms and our personal experience and perception. I think that is what makes experimental / atonal music like this beautiful, it challenges the listener and places them outside of their comfort zone.

      What may sound dissonant, cold, and unpleasant can, overtime, become something quite pleasant and interesting if you are open to it. As perception expands, you are able to hear more nuance and detail, and you end up hearing and seeing the world in a whole new light.

    2. Untrained musicians think that wanking around is ‘experimental music’, because “I’m experimenting!”

      This stuff got pioneered before they were in diapers.

  3. Welp, guess I had better give up on my “so-called experimental electronic music”. I was wrong about the sounds I make and should have made them more like this. What a tasteless, tame fool I’ve been.

  4. I composed “Source,” “Inner Scribe,” & “Cognitive Architecture” which are hybrid atonal experimental minimalist electronic soundscapes with a lot of technical intricacies. The human mind needs to expand into these sonic spaces and constant untamed frequencies most often becomes harsh on the nerves, and the mind recoils, whereas using abrasive atonal sounds as highlights or accentuations can often assist in opening minds to more fluid soundscapes as an inner listening voyage. My focus is on results that transfer into using high fidelity headphones or speakers to transport the mind somewhere completely new, or even transforming or healing, with one’s best efforts as a precision composer. Each composer has their signature sound and listeners find their signature soundscapes or music they enjoy.

  5. Relax a bit, there were tenths if not hundreds of composers doing that kind of stuff in the 60’s. Some of them didn’t even accept the moniker “experimental” and rightfully so. Experimenting is something they did before they composed the piece.

  6. Sampling my farts and burps making music from that, the height of experimentalism right there.

    Mental that’s what it’s all about eh.

    The more Mental the more experiMental eh.

  7. I guess the ‘knock off’ editorial shtick is getting tiresome.

    while the tonalities are interesting in places, it is mostly the b-side of the Forbidden Planet sound track for the first four minutes. it really takes off at 4:40-ish. lol. some great physmod inspiration there although could do most of it with Marbles, Tides 2, and Plaits now – a bit Zappa/Studio Tan in places.

    I would say it has aged fairly well. but then, I don’t listen to much non-modern music anyway.

    the video was boring, reminds me of the inside of the Cheap Thrills album – janis joplin.

    1. Keep the butt-hurt over the term ‘knockoff’ alive, Behringer fanboys. Especially where it’s irrelevant. It’s comedy gold!

    1. Your browser and/or operating system can increase font size without having to expect others to do it for you after such a courteous request. Just some advice from someone also over sixty.

      1. yeah, did that a million times. for some reason it never works here on my iPad. or Reader Mode which I much prefer. works on my iphone though. SORRY I ASKED.

  8. I listened to some of the Early Subotnick recordings, and frankly they sound like what everyone would have made if they were the first to get their hands on similar gear. It is what any modular user makes for fun. The difference is that he was first and it was put on record.

  9. Subotnick was following in Kubrick’s and Ligeti’s footsteps, and those of Louis and Bebe Barron. It’s… interesting, but I would not make a habit of listening to it often.

  10. I acquired Touch when it came out….groundbreaking for sure. I have all or nearly all of Subotnick’s work. ….I tend to listen to it at night when the family has retired….no distractions then….the video rolled nicely with his piece here ….

        1. this is not interesting to listen to at all,
          no beat, no melody, no harmony, its just a weird sound collage,
          here is a bunch of unpleasant fm sounds,
          maybe amazing 60 ago if you never heard sounds like that before, but

          im a child of the late 70s
          when I grew up electronic sounds were all around
          and those sounds where much more sophisticated than these random atonal bleeps here …

          not impressed at all
          boring junk from yesteryear

  11. I have respect for Subotnick, but… the thing about pioneers is they tend to be surpassed by the people who come after them.

    The editorial statements here are like claiming Toyota or BMW “aspire to” build a Model T.

  12. Aspires to? I prefer surpasses. Easy enough to do with a theremin a box and a delay. I mean surpassing all of the greats of the 1950s and 1960s and doing it effortlessly.

    It is too easy. But only if one is familiar with the genre.

    Synthtopia won’t post any of it. I don’t wear an evening gown and I don’t do the Rockmore.

    1. Rupert

      We don’t post all of any artist’s videos.

      We generally feature ones that we think will be of greatest interest to Synthtopia readers, which are videos of performances that are exceptionally musical (which is admittedly partially subjective) and performances that make interesting use of gear.

      For example, we featured Rob Schwimmer’s theremin performance of Kurt Weill’s ‘Lost in the Stars’, because it was both an expressive performance and he made interesting use of a vocal formant effect to make make his theremin ‘sing’:

      We have featured several of your videos over the years, such as ‘Moonpie From Planet X”. Whether it effortlessly surpasses all the greats of the 1950s and 1960s is a question for others to decide:

      Another of your videos that we’ve shared captured a theremin performance by Amber Dunleavy that’s interesting both musically and for its immersive, 360-degree camera work:

      Regarding “wearing an evening gown and doing the Rockmore” – that sounds like you’re dissing the fact that Synthtopia has featured performances by female theremin virtuosos over the years. To perform internationally at that level, they have to be gifted musicians, technically savvy and present themselves professionally.

      Would you criticize thereminists Rob Schwimmer or Peter Pringle for wearing dress clothes or a suit jacket when they perform?

      As ever, we welcome critical feedback on our content decisions, but feedback needs to be thoughtful and constructive for it to be something that we will act on.

  13. Anyone can make a theremin sing, but can they do this?
    Leda and the Swan

    No talking machine required.

    “I am reminded of the delusional operas singer Florence Foster Jenkins . . . yada yada yada” – Peter Pringle

    Only one person in the theremin community trolls in the style you have demonstrated. I doubt anyone would copy that kind of thing, especially with the persona of Elsworth Toohey and Charlie McCarthy which young folks wouldn’t get.. I also recognize your cheap shots.

    Levnet misses you, Rob is about the only one left.

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