Friday, January 7, 2011

Morton Subotnick - The Wild Bull

Back in the 1968, I found an album of experimental synthesizer music by Morton Subotnick, called the Wild Bull (Released 1968 on Nonesuch ).
I found this album fascinating.I listened to it hundreds of times over those next years. No one else would listen to it. I played it for my older brother (seven years older) who only shook his head and said, "Its cool but I really don't know what to do with it." I was sad but continued my life long search for music out of the norm. I've always cherished this piece over that of all other avant garde music efforts.

I shared this with my kids a while back. My son doesn't remember, but it was longer back for him than my daughter who is several years younger than he is. She remembers it. The other day she called me to tell me she stopped in a record store and randomly asked the owner if he knew of Subotnick. He said yes, and he was a fan; and that he'd seen him in 2009 in Seattle, performing The Wild Bull live. I checked and he is now out of country until at least 2012, living and performing in Europe. I was both sad and excited to hear this news. She also told me that the owner has an album coming in next week that he will hold for her, for $12. She is pretty excited about it.

I have always sought out the unusual, the gems in the folds of the velvet, or the sandpaper and have tried to share these things with my kids. They knew of Eraserhead, David Lynch's monumental and bizarre film, long before any of their friends (and yes, they were by then old enough to be watching it, although I understand my son's mother let him watch Clive Barker's, Hellraiser and other such films, long before I would have which explains many of his nightmares after he started living with me again after he was five; we split when he was four). And plenty of other movies, music and art, too. It was my deepest desire to not have them stuck in any one genre of art, and I appear to have succeeded. They are both also, very artistic, in both the visual and audio mediums. I couldn't be more proud, really.

From the back of the LP sleeve:

"The first side of this record was almost complete when I came across "The Wild Bull", I was very impressed by the poem and quickly began to feel an affinity between the poem and the composition I was working on -- in fact, the first three notes of the work seemed to me a kind of human/wild-bull moan--and later I added a human breathing sound to one of the notes.

"There was never an attempt to 'portray' the poem (I don't think music is about that), but at the same time it became harder and harder to disassociate myself from the pathos and restrained cry of personal loss which spoke to me from such a distant point in time. The state of mind which the poem evoked became intimately tangled with the state of mind my own composition was evoking in me. To title the work after the poem seemed natural and to offer the poem seems equally natural." - Morton Subotnick

From Julian Cope:

"Following up Subotnick’s debut album, “Silver Apples of the Moon” was a record that was in many ways its twin partner: Titled “The Wild Bull”, it was commissioned by Nonesuch Records, executed on the newly-created Buchla synthesizer, sequenced into two parts (“Side One” and “Side Two”) totaling a length just under a half an hour and loosely inspired by poetry from the pre-technological past of humanity. But the similarities quickly end there, because whereas his previous album was based on the verse of Yeats and underlined by glittering displays of avant-garde freakouts and peaceful planetary soliloquies, on “The Wild Bull” Subotnick was touched with an inspiration far removed in both time and space and one infinitely darker than the space between the planets: namely, with a Sumerian poem cuneiformed into wet tablets sometime around 1700BC, from which “The Wild Bull” takes its title.

"A simple lament for the dead, “The Wild Bull” is a mournful indictment of mankind’s third oldest profession: soldier. And although Subotnick states in the liner notes that “there was never an attempt to ‘portray’ the poem” what was finally conceived was probably from a far deeper subconscious level. And since Subotnick was influenced by Marshall McLuhan (who stated in his 1967 book “The Medium Is The Massage” that “electric circuitry...[is] extension of the central nervous system”) it’s highly likely that to anyone with a heart and a pair of ears that “The Wild Bull” is nothing less than a harrowing statement on the experience of war and its inevitable aftermath. It is deeply evocative as it burrows and runs through the full gamut and gauntlet of sensations of human war, followed by those experienced within the folds of its eternal camp follower, death."

Here is a link to an interview with Morton Subotnick by SoundTree ( presented by Dr. Jim Franke. Subotnick to me, was always this icon, this master; like he was some kind of Mozart to me. In listening to him in this interview, it really moved him more into just a guy that is really good with form and structure. A very strange thing. I always had looked back on him and his work from when I was a kid, as this iconic kind of person and thing. And now, as we are here in the future, I see he is a man, just like anyone else. So funny.

Here is Morton talking about using surround sound software for composing.

Here is the poem the piece is based upon:


The wild bull, who has lain down, lives no more
the wild bull, who has lain down, lives no more,
Dumuzi, the wild bull, who has lain down, lives no more,
the wild bull, who has lain down, lives no more.

O you wild bull, how fast you sleep!
How fast sleep ewe and lamb!
O you wild bull, how fast you sleep!
How fast sleep goat and kid!

I will ask the hills and the valleys,
I will ask the hills of the Bison:
"Where is the young man, my husband?"
I will say,
"He whom I no longer serve food"
I will say,
"He whom I no longer give to drink"
I will say,
"And my lovely maids"
I will say,
"And my lovely young men?"

"The Bison has taken thy husband away,
up into the mountains!"

"The Bison has taken thy young man away,
up into the mountains!"

"Bison of the mountains, with the mottled eyes!
Bison of the mountains, with the crushing teeth!
Bison!-He sleeps sweetly, he sleeps sweetly,
He whom I no longer serve sleeps sweetly,
He whom I no longer give to drink sleeps sweetly,
My lovely maids sleep sweetly,
My lovely young men sleep sweetly!"

"My young man who perished from me
(at the hands of) your men,
My young Ababa who perished from me
(at the hands of) your men,
Will never more calm me (with) his loving glance
Will never more unfasten his lovely bright clasp
(at night)
On his couch you made the jackals lie down,
In my husband's fold you made the raven dwell,
His reed pipe-the wind plays it,
My husband's songs-the north wind sings them."

Sumerian, c. 1700 BC, translated by Thorkild Jacobsen.


  1. One of the greatest pieces by one of the greatest composers ever

  2. A piece very dear to my heart I have to admit.