Updated: Dec 28, 2021
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J. M. - When you arrived at the EMS was the Synthi working? Was it broken? Did you restore it?
S. M. - It didn’t work for, I think maybe more than 10 years. It was out of function, basically nobody dared to use it. I think people at the radio saw it as a relic: some very precious instrument they were afraid to interact with, and that’s why it was standing there in the dust. I know that lots of people from the outside were just coming to the studio to see the instrument, even without the sound, just to see how it looked… It didn’t make one single noise for many years, poor Synthi! When I was invited there in 2016, of course I saw that was the only necessity for me to achieve: to make the synthesizer work. And it happened really quickly that I found a team of experts who are very knowledgeable about this instrument and who were able to fix it very quickly and to bring it back to full functionality… And this is how the Electronic Music Studio started working again. You asked about the other equipment: so, throughout the 80s they acquired some Yamaha synths, some MIDI equipment etcetera but somehow my idea as Head of the Studio was that I wanted to make the whole conception of the Studio only based around this instrument. But on the other hand, I wanted to use it in a more contemporary way; as mentioned in the beginning, this instrument was meant to be a workstation, somewhere you come, you play, you record, you edit… a kind of DAW, like a software… But then, with my team at the Radio, what we actually wanted to do is to use this synthesizer as a tool in live performance. So, something that is very much inherent into electronic music it’s the necessity to be live… we had the infrastructure at the radio to do so, so we were able to broadcast live from the studio to the 3rd Program of Belgrade Radio. I see this as the biggest accomplishment, and the most interesting one which I put it in a more contemporary context.
J. M. - Sometimes these important machines are considered like museum pieces, and even your attitude and your feelings toward these instruments are like “Oh, my god, I cannot touch them because they are pieces of history!”... So you don’t feel comfortable… I had the same situation when I encountered a VCS3 for the first time, I was absolutely afraid, I didn’t want to touch anything, nor a pin, because for me it was like, you know… history!
S. M. - Yes, true but it also can be that this comes from the elitist heritage of electronic music… it wasn’t really meant for everybody, unfortunately… And it’s something that we also tried to bypass in the studio at Radio Belgrade: we had a lot of students who were coming there to learn how to play with the Synthi. This was the approach that we had. We tried to break this fear of using the instrument or approaching it with some fear.
J. M. - During the period of your artistic direction of Belgrade Electronic Music Studio, you organized educational programs for local artists, and provided introductory sessions with EMS Synthi 100. You have therefore seen many people approaching this mythological music technology: what were the most common emotional reactions or frustrations in front of that complexity?
S. M. - It is not maybe easy to use but it is very rewarding, it’s amazingly rewarding: when you start to use it, the kind of effects that you can achieve by learning how to use it are immense, and I am sure anyone who worked with it loved this a lot. One of the things that was very common that I encountered was that people come with something in mind that they would do…. And I was just telling them not to do it because as you learn how the instrument works you have just to drop these ideas, because the way of working with it it’s not something that most people have experienced with… it’s a certain mindset that you have to develop by working with the instrument. You cannot anticipate many of the things. Also, one of the thing is that the Synthi is very changeable, very dynamic: you cannot count on very precise results; you can achieve them, of course, in various ways, but there is this irregularity that you have to work with. And this was the most common case.
J. M. - ...So the experience of the instrument creates in your mind a new idea of music…
S. M. - This is also very very true about the Synthi. It’s also very tangible, and physical. The fact that the Synthi is also so big, it’s a very special way of listening… you know, standing on your feet in front of it, moving around between these two speakers and, as you move to change things on the instrument, you are all the time looking for the sweet spots, where you listen. It's a very physical and tangible experience, and I have to say a very pleasant experience.
J. M. - From 2018 to 2019 you organised the digitalization of Radio Belgrade audio archive: thanks to your effort, a huge number of magnetic tapes possessed by the Electronic studio are now catalogued, labeled and saved in optimal conditions. Can you tell us something about these sound materials?
S. M. - There were two releases that are very famous on the web from the Studio, two records that came out later, in the 70s, of the works that were made in there. So we knew about majority of the works that were made there because some of these works were also broadcasted on the radio and some of them were saved by the creators themselves who some recorded version, and later on maybe they digitalized them. But there were also some of the recordings that probably couldn’t be found anywhere else. They were in tapes and the tapes were in really pretty bad shapes: when I was there they were all over the studio and there wasn’t really any order or not so many notes on what’s on them. On some of the tapes there were finished works by artists who worked there; some of them which I find particularly interesting are working versions and some excerpts, and also some incidental music that was used for radio jingles… not so many but, as being part of the radio the Studio was expected to deliver as well something like that. It’s very interesting, and also due to maybe not so perfect handling archiving conditions, all these tapes do have particular sound quality; I have to say we didn’t digitalized them so fine, in the best possible way; we did it in a quite alternative way: me bringing a soundcard and a student working there and transferring them to a computer… but still, I think that for now they are safe. You can listen to them, we can also use them… we used them in a couple of projects in the sense that the recording itself became material for some other works or inspirations for some re-performance of these works, so I think it was quite relevant to save them.
J. M. - Unfortunately many places are not taking care enough about their magnetic tapes and all these things that are still considered as wrecks… while instead they could be traces of important artists and important works. For example, many women involved in the history of electronic music have now been rediscovered but it’s a history that still has to be built… Magnetic traces are thus basic factors for historical reconstruction. During my research I didn’t have the occasion to find any names of Serbian or Jugoslavian women who pioneered in electronic or electroacoustic music, so I am asking you…
S. M. - What could be found in these tapes could be relevant and it has been relevant for us because we found recordings by Katalin Ladik, who became a very prominent artist only in the baby past – 10 or 15 years – but she was actually a pioneer of Jugoslavian sound poetry. She was doing a lot of sound poetry and vocal improvisation and I think really her contributions to initiating this whole field of art in music in Yugoslavia is incredibly important. We found one of her tapes and we got in touch with her; we asked her what it is, is it something that she recorded in our studio? It turned out it wasn't, she recorded it elsewhere, but she gave it as a present to the composer who was in charge back then for the studio. And then what we also wanted to do is invite Katalin Ladik to work in our studio and I was really lucky to work with her on a couple of pieces that we produced during her residency. I also had a little chat with her and I asked her what she did during the 70s, when she was in the studio. She said that basically there was a main composer and a couple of students around him; he was showing things on the synthesizer and she was there maybe for like 10 minutes or so behind him, just seeing what he was doing… and I think this is describing this utterly unjust situation, which is just representation of this lack of equal – so to say – accessibility for everybody, and especially for women in early electronic music. So this was the story Katalin Ladik, but as I mentioned, on one of the records that come out from the studio you can find a single piece by a woman composer: her name was Ludmila Frajt and she was working at the studio realizing this one piece called Nokturno. To pay respect to this really beautiful piece of music that she made we have done a project called Pioneers of Sounds dedicated to women pioneers in electronic music where we re-interpreted this work with an ensemble and we played it at radio Belgrade. We broadcasted and recorded this piece: Rehinard from Zeitkratzer ensemble did this edited version that we played together, all together to celebrate this work, Ludmila Frajt, Nokturno.
J. M. - Speaking about nowadays, what do you think about the gender issues in the electronic music scene, do you feel that there is still a lack of representation of women and gender minorities or do you have the feeling that now things are going to be more equal or improving?
S. M. - Well, it’s really hard to say and it’s really hard to generalize or maybe we would need a whole new podcast probably for this, you know because if you want to chase where the inequality comes from, it has to be in many social, economical issues, and I think that there is still a lot of work to do to make this field of music accessible and comfortable for everybody. We can say that some steps have been made, some really important steps, there are many actors who are contributing to this but if you just take a look at not only to people who perform live but to people who dedicate themself to this profession, I think it is significantly less, but not only significantly less women, but many minorities.
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Do not miss episode #2 and #3 of Brevi Storie • EMS Series | From Belgrade to Berlin:
Ep. # 2 The music of Midori Hirano
Ep. # 3 Bettina Wackernagel & Heroines of Sound Festival