Goats in the Machine

I have a talented cello student, a sophomore in high school, who on his own initiative found and started learning Mark Summer’s “Julie-O.” Summer is the cellist with the Turtle Island String Quartet, and “Julie-O” is his big unaccompanied solo spot. (If you’re curious, there’s a video of him playing it on YouTube.) It’s quite a fine piece, in a loose and jazzy way.

Yesterday one of my Facebook friends turned me on to the Avant-Garde Project, a downloadable collection of rare recordings (mostly from LPs, I believe) of important avant-garde music from the ’70s and ’80s. So I started grabbing a few files. They’re in .flac format, but Audacity (a free, cross-platform audio editor) loads and plays .flac files.

Right now I’m listening to Morton Subotnick’s “Axolotl,” a 17-minute piece for cello and what Subotnick terms “ghost electronics” — circuitry that makes no sound on its own, but instead processes the sound of an acoustic instrument.

Would I suggest to my student that he track down and learn “Axolotl”? Or even download and check out the recording? No, I would not. I hope he never hears it, but if he does, I’m pretty sure he’ll roll his eyes or crack up.

In 17 minutes of music, “Axolotl” has perhaps 30 seconds of sonority that are not actively obnoxious. For the rest — what on Earth could possibly possess someone to think that this repulsive mess was worth composing, much less recording or performing? I think a brain tumor would probably be needed.

There is no melody or theme. There is no harmonic movement. There is no meter. There is no formal structure. The primary contribution of the electronic “ghost score” is to add a jittery tremolo that turns the tone of the cello into a sad and annoying mess. The cellist in the recording (most likely Joel Krosnick, who commissioned “Axolotl”) flails away at his instrument, producing plenty of scrapes and squeaks. He also grunts now and again. Or perhaps that was the record producer leaning over the wastebasket.

Allen Ginsberg said, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.” He wrote that in 1955, 25 years before the composition of “Axolotl,” but he might have been talking about Subotnick.

In fairness, though, “Axolotl” was premiered in a concert hall at the Library of Congress, so I think we have to admit that Subotnick was far from alone in being starving hysterical naked. This sort of music was, and remains, highly regarded in certain circles.

I’m entirely at a loss to understand why.

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One Response to Goats in the Machine

  1. Kermit says:

    I grew up with “Silver Apples of the Moon” but all that it really had going for it was that you got to hear a half hour of the Buchla. I love the sound of that monster (I learned subtractive synthesis on the model 200) but other than that…

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