Updated: Dec 28, 2021
Done in December 2021, this interview is the full transcription of my conversation with Midori Hirano, Kyoto-born composer and producer now based in Berlin.
This interview is part of "Brevi Storie • The EMS Series", a podcast hosted by USMARADIO and dedicated to the past, present and future of Electronic Music Studios: are EMS still active? Who works there and how? The podcast series includes a collection of interviews, sounds and music to discover EMS’ legacies and new talents. Starting from January 2022, it will be accompanied by in-depth articles to be read on musicaelettonica.it.
This new series starts with 3 episodes named "From Belgrade to Berlin": in cooperation with Heroines of Sound Festival, the episodes are dedicated to Radio Belgrade's EMS and its Synthi 100: restored thanks to Svetlana Maraš, the musical device has been used by Midori Hirano for her latest composition commissioned by Heroines Of Sound, Berlin festival directed by Bettina Wackernagel.
The music of Midori Hirano combines acoustic instrumentation with a broad spectrum of electronic sounds, field recordings and digital processing.
In July 2021 she presented one of her latest compositions – Distant Symphony – at Berlin’s Heroines of Sound Festival: the piece of music has been created by using an EMS Synthi 100 during her residency at Radio Belgrade, an initiative promoted by Heroines of Sound and Radio Belgrade.
J. M. - Let’s speak first about your involvement with Heroines of Sound: how did you get to know this musical institution, and how did your involvement in the Belgrade residence happen?
M. H. - It all started when I was asked by Bettina Wackernagel from Heroines of Sound Festival if I would be interested in composing a piece by using the Synthi 100 at Radio Belgrade, since Svetlana Maras – who was at the time in charge of the Electronic Music Studio – got in contact with her to look for an artist to invite for a residency in Belgrade… And so Bettina asked me about it and I said “Yes, why not”, as I was of course interested in this machine and I thought it should have been exciting: I knew that is not easy to have an access to use the Synthi 100 since there are only around 30 units in the world. So it was a very good opportunity for me to explore this vintage machine
J. M. - The EMS Synthi 100 seems like a very intimidating device: 12 voltage controlled oscillators, 8 voltage controlled filters, two monophonic keyboards and a sequencer… What was your starting point and how did you approach this mythical music instrument?
M. H. - It was of course not easy to get and understand everything, because that machine is massive, as you saw it… But Svetlana gave me a wonderful and clear introduction about how it works; I stood there for one week but the first two days were almost about learning things. At some point I realised that the whole machine works pretty simply, if you understand how the routing on the circuit board works. Of course, I did some mistakes but that is how you learn this kind of instruments, it’s a trial and error thing. I had fun playing with oscillators and filters at most, since I always could get response to what I did in the sounds I got by operating on those filters and oscillators, sounds that are very unexpected but in a good way: you never know how they escaped from. So it was very exciting. Since my time there was limited, I didn’t have time to learn how to use the sequencer part so I didn’t use it, but oscillators and filters and some other functions like the noise or randomisers were already inspiring enough to play with and spend the rest of the few days… So I just tried to record all the single sound layers which I found interesting as much as possible and then I brought all the audio files back to home and picked up many different kinds of samples to mix everything in a long piece of music. That’s how I made my Distant Symphony, and I am quite very happy with it.
J. M. - In the process of creating music, did you experience compositional challenges or technical difficulties directly linked to the peculiarity of the machines?
M. H. - Sometimes yes, I did, especially when I used an unusual machine like Synthi 100 that I never used. So in the beginning, when using those machines or softwares I always have to struggle to understand how they work and this is pretty frustrating… But I think it’s also a good thing because sometimes I feel I can make something richer if there are some restrictions on what I can do and I think Distant Symphony is an example of this kind of experience: I am sure I didn’t learn everything about Synthi 100 – I didn’t use any sequencer part – but still, I am very happy about what I made with it, because I was pretty much focussed on what I was doing within my knowledge and what I was playing so. I think sometimes limitations help to get inspiration or to make some artistic works.
J. M. - In the realm of electronic music, it’s nice when you see that limits can be transformed into powerful tools for inspiration and creation: accidents and mistakes sometimes can fix compositional issues…
M. H. - Yes, sometimes miracles happen when you don’t know everything… Of course, if you learn more about all the functions you have more possibilities and more choices, so it can make the difference… but sometimes you get lost and you don’t know anymore what you want to do, so there is always a bad side and positive side.
J. M. - At Heroines of Sound you also introduced a composition written for Synthesiser Trio Lange / Berweck / Lorenz: Forests and Tides… What is the methodology you adopt to write scores for electronic music? I have always found this aspect very intriguing and fascinating… it’s difficult to find a way to fit new media into traditional ways of writing scores…
M. H. - It was quite challenging in the beginning, because it was the very first time for me to compose for someone else, so it took me sometime to get the proper idea of how I could do it. I mostly record everything of my music by myself, except when I do a collaboration with someone, and even when I do a collaboration I just share audio files in most cases and I don’t really need to write scores… I think most of the composers who are usually working with the synthesizer trio, are coming from rather the academic contemporary music world… but I am not really coming from there - so it took me sometime to think about the scoring of the piece; what I did was just to play the keyboard on the software, it’s like a normal method of electronic music: you play the keyboard and make sound layers, harmonies, melodies, and all the sound structure… then I recorded all the layers with midi. With the midi signal you can get the midi score from the software, so I printed out the midi scores but… I don’t know if you ever did this experience: once you get the midi scores it all looks mixed up! So I had to sort out everything, the whole 15 pages of the scores, to let it make more sense and I added some more texts, like dimensions, which kind of sounds I want them to use on each part, like bass or something like space sounds… I put all the tips in each part. So maybe the score still looks like a classical score but with more improvisational elements. It’s challenging but it worked out.
J. M. - So it’s a score that is written for every synthesizer, I mean, if I want to play your score I can do it with a Moog or a Korg…
M. H. - Yes, you can do it. I talked with Sebastian, who said it would be better not to specify the synthesizer models because some synths sometimes will not be produced anymore and sometimes you don’t have these models anymore so… it’s better to generalize the models. I tried to focus more on the type of the sounds so that musicians can have more freedom to choose the sounds, and I think it’s more interesting for them too.
J. M. - So the musician has got more freedom and can decide what is more in his/her cup of tea, what kind of device or sound is more resonating with his own identity, while interpreting your music…
M. H. - Yes, and also it makes some differences from time to time, because maybe when they play this piece in 10 years it can be different. So I think this is also very interesting.
J. M. - You had the opportunity to work in another famous Electronic Music Studio: the one in Stockholm, where you had the occasion to master a Buchla system with your solo project MimiCof. Can you tell us a little about that experience?
M. H. - I got to know about this EMS Studio in Stockholm because many other artist-friends already experienced staying there and everyone told me how amazing it was… So, of course, I’ve got interested and I applied to stay there for one week or two and experience the studio. I went there in 2015, so already 6 years ago, and at the time I didn’t really set myself to make an album by all means… I was just curious about how a Buchla synth works as I never used any analogue synthesizer at that time. The EMS studio has got 6 or 7 kind of studios with different settings: one has this Buchla synthesizer, another one has a Serge Modular System which I didn’t use, one has multi channels and a surround system for artists who wants to make sound art installations, another has different channels and sound systems, another one is stereo but has got very good speakers and you can get more dense sounds… so you can get focussed on the sound that you can make… I tried different kinds of studios, as much as possible, so it was very inspiring and the people there are very supportive and pretty much competent. It has been a very fruitful experience and I got the chance to use the studio which has this Buchla synthesizer so I just get inspired by using this. But of course it’s complicated, it’s more complicated than the Synthi 100, because you have to learn how to cable all the systems. I didn’t learn everything but still, it’s quite inspiring and I felt I was really playing an instrument: till then, I was always using only the computer which was pretty boring, you know the feeling… Since I was classically trained – I studied the piano – sometimes I felt lacking the physical touch on the instrument so I felt I was going back with this feeling, not with the piano but with this modular synthesizer.
J. M. - So you experienced two of the most dreamed synthesizers, as I think every electronic musician dreams to someday play a wonderful Buchla system or a EMS device…
M. H. - Yes, I felt much benefit and I am really very thankful that I could get a chance to have this experience.
J. M. - You were born in Japan, a country renowned for its NHK Electronic Music Studio. What is the narrative of the pioneering women of electronic music in your hometown? Are they studied, celebrated, remembered?
M. H. - Unfortunately, I am not very familiar with pioneering women of electronic music in Japan. There are still some electronic women composers like Phew, she is playing modular synthesizer with voice performance as well, she’s amazing: I saw her playing a couple of times before the pandemic, when she played in Berlin a couple of years ago, at Ausland… it was very packed, it was just before the corona time, and I really enjoyed her performance; she’s very known in the noise music scene but also in the contemporary music, and she just released her new album on Mute records this year that was also amazing.
J. M. - Wow, I will check it out for sure!
M. H. - Yeah, and there is also another musician, she’s called Ikue Mori, she plays very avant-garde music.. She's also from the 70s or the 80s. And then Sachiko M, she’s very focussed on sine-waves, it’s pretty minimalistic but has a beautiful sound, I like her music… So there are still some pioneering women.
J. M. - And what about today? What do you think about gender issues in electronic music? Do you think we still have a problem with gender representation?
M. H. - Yes, yes, I think there are still problems but I think it is still developing in a way… and I feel that many people keep on bringing awareness to this issue. I feel it’s getting better but it could be…better further! We should go this way, just keep this way.
J. M. - Well, we hope to keep improving! And about you: how did you get involved in the production of electronic music?
M. H. - It was already a long time ago, around 2001, when I finished my studies. Like I said, I studied classical music which I found a bit boring in the end, and I wanted to do something else but still music… I got hired by the Music Studio which was working for advertisement music in Tokyo, so I moved from Kyoto to Tokyo to work at this Studio and actually there it was where I learned how to make music with equipments and also softwares… I was working as a Studio Assistant for recording and composing stuff and I sometimes made some ringtones for mobile phones… But it was still before the smartphone times, so ringtones were quite simple: you need to make 3 layers or 16 layers, it depends on the model… I always had to copy Japanese pop music, in the melodies, in the bass lines, harmonic stuff… and then to combine everything in 16 layers. I mean, it was not interesting, but still good to learn how everything works, especially the midi functions and also the recording audio… So I learned pretty much about electronic music at the time but in the end, of course, it was tiring working there because everything we did was for advertisement music so I had to make music for someone else, just to make money; I still make advertisement music now but I don’t do it that often and it’s ok. But at that time I was pretty young and I fed up with that work… So I just left working there. And then I wanted to search for making my own music, for my artistic road… that’s how I started to make my music.
J. M. - So now you are enjoying your creativity!
M. H. - Yes, it was 20 years ago when I started, so quite a long way to go!
J. M. - What are your future plans?
M. H. - Next month I still really don’t know, you know, at the moment things here in Germany are getting darker again, so I don’t have any show at the moment… But I have plans to release my Distant Symphony as an album, an LP, which is going to be out in May next year on a Berlin based label Karlrecords. The vinyl is now ready and in production, the label and I are preparing for this, which is very exciting and I am looking forward to presenting this record. I actually composed two more tracks for Distant Symphony: after the first had premiered at Heroines of Sounds I wanted to release this track somehow… but it was still too short to make an album, so I composed two more tracks with the same method: everything is made with the Synthi 100.