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Svetlana Maraš, Radio Belgrade & the EMS Synthi 100 pt.1

Updated: Dec 28, 2021

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.

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.

Composer and sound artist, Svetlana Maraš works at the intersection of experimental music and sound art. ​Born in Belgrade in 1985, Maraš is Professor of Creative Music Technology and Co-head of Electronic Studio at Hochschule für Musik FHNW, Basel. She is the winner of prestigious composition prizes and presented her work at the most important new music venues and festivals, from Ars Electronica to the New York MoMA. From 2016 to 2021, Svetlana Maraš was composer in residence and artistic director at Radio Belgrade’s Electronic studio, where she established numerous programs such as artistic residencies, educational courses and most notably, restoration of EMS Synthi 100.

J.M. - Let’s start from the beginning: how did your interest in electronic sound come about?

S. M. - I have studied music since I was very little, since I was 5 years old; it was a classical education, meaning that I studied acoustic instruments: I played piano for many years because it was the only thing that was offered where I grew up. We had primary music school, high school, then conservatory and basically these were the things that I could study… But then, when I moved to Belgrade and I was studying composition at the university, I started spreading my artistic circle also outside the academy and I met people with whom I could improvise. Actually I think there was a need for me to escape some structural constraints given by the acoustic instruments… and then I just very intuitively started learning electronics. Before that, I was knowledgeable about computer music because I worked with it at home, mainly composing but, as I said, through improvisation there was the urge for me to develop something that would be a more versatile instrument to play with… And that’s how the electronics come in.

J.M. - What were the first electronic devices you used?

S. M. - One of the first things that I experimented with was the no-input mixing world, with some additional effects… and then, I guess maybe also contact microphones, this kind of thing… But then, very quickly I tried to include computer devices and controllers that I used at home. So, for example, I was experimenting at home with tablets for writing, painting… a very cheap one… I was experimenting with the connections between drawing and sounds but through the use of the computer and somehow it was a real interface to play with. So these were one of the earliest things that I have used. Later on, when I learned a little bit of computer programming – mostly Pure Data – I would make my own patches and I just made a very simple MIDI controller to play with it. I think now I’ve reached a point where for the very first time I am very satisfied and feeling very comfortable with my setup, because the one that I use now allows me versatility working with sounds, and I use it quite instrumentally. I also played a lot with people who play acoustic instruments or instrumentalists – in the most classical sense – and I think influenced me to develop my own instrument in this way, to make it very playable. With the set up that I use now it works pretty well I guess.

J. M. - What is your current setup?

S. M. - I wanted to break through this idiom of laptop, this is why I got rid of it. I don’t have a laptop: I use a computer like a brain-operator but it’s not visible, it does not stand between me and the audience. Basically I just have in front of me one tablet with a MIDI controller that gives me the possibility to manipulate the sound in real time, and then also under my fingers I have a controller called Sensel which is a pressure based controller which allows me to sculpt the sound in real time. What helps a lot are also foot pedals… So these three things are the main parts of my instrument. It allows me to almost physically interact with sound.

J. M. Your set-up seems to be very interesting; when you go to an electronic music concert sometimes you can have the impression of something missing from the show… You see all these motionless performers in front of their synthesizers… it’s a very different feeling than the one that you get, for example, during a rock concert. I always thought that maybe this is the reason why people love to have video projections on their back while they are playing, because in this way…

True! I never used it! I got rid of all these things in front of me and the audience, like the computer… And what I think it’s really interesting, is that I also listen in a different way having a set up like this, because once you feel open towards the audience you know, also with your body… I have the feedback of what the audience hears in a certain moment, which of course reflects also to some extent when I am playing. So I have reached this very very comfortable moment playing with this set-up.

The installation "Il tempo insassato che pur scorre". Credits:

J. M. - One of your most recent works intrigued me very much: it’s the installation created for the Elephant Gallery in Berlin in January 2020 and entitled "Il Tempo Insassato che pur scorre". 3 elements caught my attention: the Italian title, its dedication to Eliane Radigue and that it was built with sounds extracted from the famous EMS Synthi 100. Can you tell us something about this sound installation?

S. M. - This installation has a couple of elements which are very important to it. So, separate elements are these two tape machines, they are custom made, and are tape reels that are attached to marble boxes. There is one on each wall of the room, left and right. In front of the entrance of the room there is something which is covered with a really heavy white cloth. Underneath there are the speakers, which are distributed unevenly… And then, all the way behind, there are floor monitors that emit the sound and fill the room… When I was writing the description of my installation, something that I said is that they fill the room like lights, they are the lights in the room. The sound is spread all over. The devices that are on the walls work continuously: the tape is pouring, that’s where the tile is coming from; the tapes are really pouring on the floor and then, after a while, just coming back. This process has been sonified in such a way that what we hear is recordings that come from me working with these tapes in the Studio, so it’s the manual sounds of the reel to reels, like pressing play, rewinding… So, in a way, I like to play with something that one of the musicologists put very nicely: the ontology of sound, and this, I guess, goes deep into it. This was a way for me to point out how these devices have a sound of their own. I find this moment of the tapes pouring on the floor and coming back as something really lyrical, and that is the most important part of the installation for me. Because of these couple of details, I guess this installation has a lot to do with some references that I find in Baroque… and maybe therefore the Italian title and many other stylistic things could lead you to make some associations. I also think this is a very sculptural element for me and the fact that tape is running from these marble boxes is in a way representing what if the stone could be as splicible as the tape… You mentioned that I used the sounds of EMS Synthi 100 and that is true: this sound is basically layered, it comes from the speakers on the floor and it fills up the room. I recorded maybe more than 100 layers of oscillators coming from the EMS Synthi but they are edited in such a way that they should just fill in the space. They just provide presence without saying too much.

J. M. - Radio Belgrade is one of the oldest radio stations in Europe. Can you tell us a little of its story, and when did you start to be interested in this historical place?

S. M. - The Electronic Music Studio that happened to be at Radio Belgrade, belonging to Radio Beograd 3, has been very famous since it was founded, so more or less, each of us who was doing electronic and experimental music in Serbia knew it for about a very long time. It had a very important historical role in the development of electronic music in Serbia and actually in Yugoslavia, so even wider. And so I was acquainted with it a long time ago. The studio kind of stopped the majority of all activities from the 90s onward. I arrived there by invitation and started working in 2016; at that moment the studio was more or less non-functional, it didn’t have any previous activity that would involve other composers in a way, except the one who was working there. So this was the state of the studio when I encountered it in 2016.

J. M. – How did the Synthi 100 arrive at the Studio? And what were the other devices and technologies that were stored inside this place?

S. M. - Well, this is a very interesting story. Radio Belgrade initiated the whole thing about buying the EMS Synthi 100 when this instrument was almost just a concept, an idea. So, at that moment EMS was producing the well known AKS Synthesizer, drastically smaller; there were two founders of our studio, one was Paul Pignon the other was the composer ​​Vladan Radovanovic. Paul was closer to computers and computer music also, he was the one who made the contact with EMS Company in London; he went there and started negotiating about acquiring the synthesizer. And then, to put the long story short, something that we found out through the documents that we have in the studio and also through the story of Paul Pignon himself, is that if Radio Belgrade at that time didn’t order such an instrument, probably EMS wouldn’t make it. It was too expensive, it was too big. So it was basically the initiative of Radio Belgrade for one of these instruments to be built for us and then they started to make them for BBC Radio, for some universities… The one that arrived to us in 1970 was the serial number 4.

J. M. - Wow, this is an amazing part of the story, I didn’t know anything about it! So, how come the idea of building this instrument, why did they feel the urge to have it?

S. M. - First of all, Vladan Radovanovic spent some time at the Polish electronic music Studio where he had the chance to see what could be used to manipulate the sound. At that time EMS were quite experimental, if you take a look from the 1950's onwards, the GRM and many other places, it was basically all grounded in some experimentation with the technology. And what is interesting about this, is that now we consider Synthi to be an instrument but at that time, what they envisioned, what they needed was a workstation, so Synthi for them was something like today’s computer, the Studio itself. In our Studio they combined it with two other tape machines so that one would be used to play the sound through the Synthi and one to record there from Synthi, and then the mastering tape. Some of the historians and musicologists like to say that the Synthi 100 was a road toward the digital, an analogue/digital synthesizer because it has a sequencer part… but I have to say, it has nothing to do with, you know, digital technology or digital sequencers: it’s analogue, it’s CV based even in the sequencer part. But just the fact that you could reproduce something was a road towards this kind of quote-on-quote digital thinking.

J. M. - I think that’s something really peculiar of EMS’ product: if you think about the famous “On the Run” part by Pink Floyd that has been made with an EMS synth, even there it’s a sequencer but to program it it’s not so easy…

S. M. - Yes, the most complicated part of the instrument is the sequencer and the funniest thing about it was that Synthi is switched on and off with a key – at least our – and once you switched off the all sequencer part goes blank. Tomorrow you have to start all over again.

J. M. - Not very comfortable, I guess…!

S. M. - Not at all!

>> Read the second part of the interview

>> Listen to the interview

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Do not miss episode #2 & #3 part of:

Brevi Storie • EMS Series: From Belgrade to Berlin

Ep. # 2 The Music of Midori Hirano

Ep. # 3 Bettina Wackernagel & Heroines of Sound Festival

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