A Heart Full of Oscillators. Past and Future of Radio Belgrade Electronic Music Studio

The desire for innovation prompted Radio Belgrade to commission the setting up of an electronic music studio to be embedded in the operations of the 3rd Program: in the second half of 1969, Paul Pignon, Vladan Radovanović and the engineers Momčilo Ivanišević and Velimir Žugić were commissioned to design the Electronic Music Studio of Radio Belgrade...

English Revision by BBL Translation

Illustration by eeviac

Inaugurated in 1961, the Zagreb Music Biennale welcomed among its guests some of the most famous innovators of contemporary sound – among the others: Cage (1963), Stockhausen, Maderna, Schaeffer and Messiaen (1965) – demonstrating a cultural attitude not completely obvious; since its first editions, the festival line-up revealed the desire to update the artistic languages ​​of a Nation that, until then, had only had timid impulses towards the future, allowing the birth of a quiet revolution, often defined as Moderate Modernism [1]. In those years, even in Yugoslavia – as in many other countries of the world – those who wished to start an adventure into electronic experimentation had no choice but to go abroad to find centers equipped with the necessary instrumentation. It was this gap, combined with the desire for innovation, that prompted Radio Belgrade to commission the setting up of an electronic music studio to be embedded in the operations of the 3rd Program: in the second half of 1969, Paul Pignon, Vladan Radovanović and the engineers Momčilo Ivanišević and Velimir Žugić were commissioned to design the Electronic Music Studio of Radio Belgrade.

Pignon had lived in the Serbian city since he abandoned his studies in physics at Oxford University (1961) to focus on his musical career devoted to improvisation; in town he had met Radovanović, a multifaceted artist who had been dealing with random operations, flexible scores and music for magnetic tape since the 1950s [2].

Following their respective artistic visions and sharing the same love for new technologies, in the design phases of the Studio, Pignon and Radovanović decided to abandon the path of the classic analogue lutherie in favor of cutting-edge devices capable of guaranteeing less dispersive work processes.

Pignon had already had the opportunity to work with what was then defined as the first portable Studio [3], the VCS3 synthesizer produced by Peter Zinovieff's EMS. The passion for informatic music cultivated by Zinovieff – who was one of the very few owners of a computer, the PDP-8, with which he had started some first musical experiments – convinced Pignon to visit EMS in London in September 1969 [4] to commission the British brand for a synthesizer that could become the essence of the Belgrade Studio and fulfill its tasks: starting from the functionality of the VCS3, EMS worked on the development of a new device – the Synthi 100 – created in close synergy with Žugic and Pignon throughout 1970 [5], as well documented by the dense correspondence [6] and by the memories of Pignon [7].

Designed to meet the specific needs of the new Belgrade Studio and born from the shared enthusiasm for the practical, aesthetic and conceptual possibilities of computer controlled music [8], the Synthi 100 did not go unnoticed and was also ordered by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and the Cardiff University while still in production.

Despite the vital impulse of Radio Belgrade, the priorities and urges demonstrated by the British institutions meant that the first example of Synthi in the world was brought not to Serbia but to the BBC, in Delaware Street, in April 1971 while the second was delivered in Cardiff. A third example remained in the EMS Studios while the Synthi 100 with serial number 004 was installed, in July 1971, at the Belgrade Studio [9] which was able to open its doors in 1972 concentrating its activities around the new English instrument [10 ]. Here, the first working team included the aforementioned Radovanović (head of the Studio), Pignon (associate), Milan Orlic and Zorana Haršovec (electronic engineers). Haršovec was not the only working woman at the Studio: Ludmila Frajt (1919 - 1999), Serbian pioneer and Music Editor of Radio Belgrade between 1952 and 1958, composed the piece Nokturno at the Studio in 1975.

Over the years, the Electronic Music Workshop direction tried to develop its main objectives set out and summarized in the presentation pamphlet of Radio Belgrade 3: to create mainly composition of autonomic electronic music and synthetic music in which tape sounds are combined with live performers; to give birth to works in the domain of sound drama in which the initial material is speech or transformed speech; to produce incidental music and non-imitative sound effects for radio, TV, and film; to experiment acoustic phenomena and verify laws of sound perception; to combine electroacoustic medium with visual, kinesthetic and other to create multi-media entities [11].

A Well Known institution across the Country, the Studio was fully operational until the 1990s and welcomed the work of numerous invited composers, before ceasing its activities. Fallen into a state of neglect, until 2018 the Studio is transformed into a dusty relic; the now voiceless Synthi 100 remains the main attraction, drawing curious visitors content just to have a look at the silent beating heart of the Studio.

In 2016, thanks to the idea of ​​Ksenija Stevanović and Irena Neimarević - musicologists and producers employed at Radio Belgrade 3 - the Studio begins its resurrection: the hiring of Svetlana Maraš - director of the Studio from 2016 to 2021 - will lead to the restoration of the Synthi 100 (2017) and the launch of a series of programs intended to give back the instrument its pivotal role.

By broadcasting live radio concerts, the Synthi 100 assumes a live dimension, and the accessibility to this technology - protected by the Museum of Science and Technology as cultural heritage - becomes one of the cornerstones of the Studio activities: in addition to guided tours for students, seminars and intensive workshops are offered to artists in residence invited to work with the old Synthi, in an attempt to break down that reverential fear that only a certain rare - and precious - technology can arouse [12].

Thanks to the efforts of Maraš and her team, the sound archive of the Studio is now digitized; this operation rescues the numerous magnetic tapes that were in a dangerous state of abandonment and gives life to the creation of new works or tributes dedicated to the rediscovery of pieces of music such as Nokturno, rearranged and proposed on the radio with the care of Reinhold Friedl and the participation of Ensemble Studio6. Partnerships and connections are designed to expand the reception possibilities of the Studio: in 2021, through the professional intertwining with the Berlin Heroines of Sound Festival - an annual event founded by Bettina Wackernagel and dedicated to the activity of women of the past and future of music electronics - a period of residency is assigned to the Japanese composer and producer Midori Hirano who updates the sounds of the Synthi 100 in a new work - Distant Symphony - and in an Lp that will be distributed by the Karlrecords label starting this spring.


• Listen to the interviews with Svetlana Maraš, Midori Hirano and Bettina Wackernagel, part of the podcast “Brevi Storie - The EMS Series” welcomed by USMARADIO:


​​[1] Ivana Medic, “The Ideology of Moderate Modernism in Serbian Music and Musicology” in Muzikologija, 2007, 10.2298/MUZ0707279Mi

[2] Frances Morgan, Electronic Music Studios London Ltd (EMS), the Synthi 100 synthesizer and the construction of electronic music histories, thesis represents for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the Royal College of Art, 2020, p. 186.

[3] Electronic Music Studio, Third Program, Radio Belgrade, p. 3.

[4] F. Morgan, op. cit., p. 188.

[5] To learn more about the commission and the co-creation processes of the Synthi 100, see the accurate archival work carried out by Frances Morgan, Electronic Music Studios London Ltd (EMS), op. cit.; Radio Belgrade presentation pamphlet, op. cit.; Paul Pignon memories: Paul Pignon, The radio Belgrade electronic studio: Equipment, procedures, other information, Interface, (1974) 3:2, 177-186, DOI: 10.1080/09298217408570195

[6] F. Morgan, op. cit., pp. 189 - 190.

[7] “I had experience with the VCS3 a bit, so I knew the principle, and I’d been at Peter’s studio in London and I saw this stuff, and I thought, well, can’t you build us something really powerful, along the same lines, without the rather embarrassing weaknesses of the VCS3 [...] There were things about [the VCS3], like the power supplies weren’t powerful enough, so if you connected too many things the oscillators would start to slide because they weren’t getting enough power, and stupid stuff like that. But the principle is great – I love the patch system – so something along those lines but really big. And then David Cockerell, who was the electronics genius there, said that we could also have a digital sequencer, which he had the idea for, so we said, ‘Yes, OK’ – we signed a contract, you know: ‘For this much money, you will build us some huge synthesizer’, and that’s how it started”. Paul Pignon, da un’intervista con Frances Morgan, op. cit., p. 187.

[8] F. Morgan, p. 188.

[9] It is Morgan who accurately reconstructs the troubled history of the instrument through archival sources; op. cit., pp. 187 - 190.

[10] View here the complete list of the Studio equipment.

[11] Electronic Music Studio, Thrid Program, Radio Belgrade, p. 3.

[12] Only 30 models of Synthi 100 have been produced.

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