19 February 2017

Sidewinder and Flies


M
orton Subotnick’s Touch first shows up in the Billboard Classical chart on 14 March 1970, and that fits reasonably well with my memory of when I first heard it, but I don’t seem to have a specific note of the event. I do know, however, the date that I first heard Sidewinder, at a concert on 19 February 1971, forty-six years ago today. It “was one hell of a trip,” I wrote, “gut-wrenching and exhilarating at the same time.” Held at the Reed College College Commons, the experience was marred somewhat by some pretentious and boring bearded asshole sitting at the next table who insisted on giving his views of the piece while it was in progress in a booming voice clearly intended to be heard by everyone in the room. Thanks to the presence of multiple speakers front and back the sounds of the piece seemed to be all around us, undulating from side to side and front to back like some sinister mechanical serpent.
But the reason I went to hear Sidewinder in the first place was hearing Touch, a favorite of mine to the present day. I must have got it in early 1970, I guess, though if I were relying solely on my memory I would have placed it in late 1969. In any case I definitely had it on 3 April of 1970 when I ran into a guy I’d known back in high school, who’d transferred from San Francisco in 1968 and regaled us with stories of Haight-Ashbury and the summer of love. He wanted to listen to albums, so I threw on my copy of Touch. As the opening crystalline crackling introduction came on he stared at me in horror. Is it all like that? he wanted to know. All like what? I wondered, staring at the eye from a broken chocolate rabbit it a bowl. Broken and abstract, he said, or words to that effect. I guess, I replied, puzzled. Take it off—it’s hurting my head, he moaned, and started rummaging through my brother’s records. This is more like it, he said, picking up a copy of After Bathing at Baxter’s, and he played it, singing along to it as we listened. He had been there when one of the tracks was recorded, he insisted, and claimed you could hear him singing in the background on it. Well, life is strange, as John Wyndham might have observed, and certainly differs from the rocks.
Subotnick, however, remained in my memory, and when I was taking an electronic music class in Claremont—not all that long after A Sky of Cloudless Sulfur came out—I did a short piece intended as a kind of Subotnick homage. I was using an ARP 2600 rather than a Buchla, but the soundscape I carved was sufficiently evocative of the original that at least my teacher got it. It was called simply “Flies” and I “performed” it (my performance consisted of turning on a tape recorder, letting it play, turning it off, and stalking off stage) at Lyman Hall on the evening of 19 February 1980, nine years to the day after I had heard Sidewinder. I never actually noticed the coincidence of date until recently, but it does have a pleasing symmetry to it. It may not be much, but sometimes that’s all you can ask for.

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