Electro-acoustic composition: Svetlana Maraš in conversation with Boris Magrini
Boris Magrini: You are a prolific producer of music compositions, works of sound art and audio-visual performances. What inspires you to be active on so many fronts and what makes you decide to choose one medium over another?
Svetlana Maraš: Right after I graduated from Helsinki Media Lab (Aalto University), I had various opportunities to develop works and show them at concerts, festivals and exhibitions. Each invitation to create a new work provided a chance to delve into something new, to leap into the completely unknown, giving me a small feeling of discovery, adventure – a breakthrough in my personal way of thinking and working which, alongside all the other aspects, required a strategic approach to bring the work to a successful conclusion so it could be presented in public. I prefer going through this process every time from scratch rather than repeating the same steps again and again. This means that the material I choose to work with can differ from work to work. I either have to acquire the necessary skills to make it happen or I need to collaborate with people who possess these skills, often with a team of various professionals…. But in order to achieve my goal in the end, one thing always has to be constant and clear, from start to finish, from one work to another – a concept. My concept is always a musical one. Inside each work, however dispersed, fragmented and variable the process and the representation, what holds it together is a musical idea that comes before all this. I am interested in exploring the musical being in many of its forms and the elasticity it possesses that enables certain works, regardless of how non-musical the materials they are made from, to be musical works. This somehow brings me closer to an understanding and appreciation of some of the subtle qualities that the music gives us if we don’t consume it unconsciously. For me, active composing is similar to active listening, which many have written about – involvement of the mind (in the conceptualization of the work), body (in the process of making, realization) and ear (in the perception of the work). It fascinates me that last month, for example, while I worked on two different pieces simultaneously, I spent part of the day in a welding workshop watching parts of the installation being built, and the other half in my studio in front of Ableton Live making sounds for a new electro-acoustic composition. I see all of this as the work of a composer and I find it inspiring and amusing.
BM: Since 2016 you have been composer-in-residence and artistic director of the Electronic Studio at Radio Belgrade. The studio is a rare place in Serbia allowing for research and production of electro-acoustic music and radiophonic art. You are responsible for its programme, including courses, residencies for artists and the digitalization of the audio archive. Can you tell us more about how you want to shape the future identity of this institution and how it can impact the music production of future generations?
SM: Electronic Studio of Radio Belgrade is part of a large national institution – Radio Television of Serbia. It has an immensely rich history and importance in the development of Serbian electro-acoustic music. In its beginnings, it was one of the most advanced places for the exploration and production of electronic music in the region and beyond. Most notably, the studio is equipped with an EMS Synthi 100, a rare and exquisite piece of equipment. Belonging to Radio Belgrade III, this studio also offers the unique opportunity to use the radio infrastructure for professional and high-quality broadcasts of pieces made in the studio. In the studio’s most recent phase (since 2016), I have tried to encourage live broadcasts – artists performing on Synthi and other equipment they use, live on air. When it was built, Synthi was imagined to be a workstation rather than a concert instrument, so this way of using it (alone or in combination with computers or other modular synths) means exploring the not-so-common territory of the instrument itself, but also represents a challenge in the performing practice of electronic musicians. Overall, this idea of live broadcast also brings extra qualities to the listening experience over the radio. Knowing that a piece of electro-acoustic music is being made right now by someone behind the speakers where you are listening, inside the radio building, is very special. Considering the difficulties in bringing the studio back to life and putting it back on the map, I am more than satisfied with the quality and volume of projects that we have done so far. Educational programmes are one of my main priorities next to residencies. We have had courses and masterclasses for local musicians that provided them with knowledge and skills to work on their own projects in the studio and to develop compositions that we would broadcast on the national frequency. I find this to be a huge accomplishment, and I wish to continue such efforts. Exchange of knowledge with artists who are in residency is another important aspect of the studio’s activities. In that sense, we are not solely a production studio – everyone’s involvement has to include the sharing part. You can share what you are working on, or share specific knowledge you have that others could benefit from. This has been realized in various forms so far such as public talks, open studio door, various social network engagements or informal meetings with artists. The way I envision the work of Electronic Studio (hopefully in the near future) is all of this plus a bigger focus on new technologies. Radio has always been a place for invention of advanced music technology, a place of radical experimentation that paves the way for as-yet unimaginable (musical) scenarios…. Well, there’s a lot more to do, but we should aim in that direction!
BM: You have recently contributed to the restoration of the EMS Synthi 100, produced in very small quantities in the 1970s, and you have successively performed live with this instrument. There is a current fascination with vintage analogue synthesisers. What does it mean for you to have the opportunity to play such an instrument?
SM: In electro-acoustic composition, I am most inclined to use a computer setup. I developed a huge library of my own sounds, micro-sounds and processes that I control in real-time through many control interfaces…and for much of the interaction that I program, I use Pure Data. When I started working with Synthi, its patch-based interface and the possibilities it provides in terms of controlling certain parameters seemed a lot like object programming. Synthi’s famous sequencer reminded me of music tracker software that I tried working with on my PC in the 1990s. For all these similarities and familiarities, Synthi didn’t feel at all difficult to work with, even though the instrument itself comes from a completely different idiom than the ones I mentioned. I learned a lot about it through a manual written by one of the studio founders who famously contributed to the design of the instrument – Paul Pignon. Curiously, as I witnessed plenty of artists working with Synthi in our studio, I noticed how everyone develops the sound that’s inherent to his/her work, no matter what other tools he/she is using. I guess the same goes for me too when I use it. I’m getting the musical results similar to those I would get with my other equipment or any equipment, because I think our awareness of musical form precedes instrumentalizing it with whatever tools. I’m trying to break from this pattern sometimes as an exercise and to use some very distinctive features that the instrument offers. I have developed thousands of patches so far, but have recorded just a few. I find working with Synthi to be a bit like making a Buddhist mandala – I work on a patch for hours and hours and develop something interesting. In the end, I listen and appreciate it for what it is and I take the pins out. It’s a good feeling.
BM: Your album “Matter of Fact” was produced with the Swiss label Norient, and as a collaboration with CTM Berlin. For this album, you made extensive use of the cut-up technique, using the human voice as a sound material while approaching topics related to the confrontation between the individual and the society. Is musical composition always a political statement for you, or are you more interested in semiotics and speech acts as aesthetic materials?
SM: The political can always emerge whenever language and music intersect, but it’s a conscious decision if you choose to work with that or not. With “Matter of Fact”, this was a starting point simply because the interviews that I used as cut-ups were very political. They were statements and thoughts of artists who approach their position in society very critically, reflecting upon many factors that influence the creation of their works and creating resistance towards them for many non-musical reasons. For example, I had recordings of a talk with an activist band from Lebanon, an interview with a gay rapper from Uganda, and inevitably what they talked about was very political. In “Matter of Fact”, I wanted to work with this on a somewhat more subtle and not so obvious level, so I brought the cut-ups of these talks to the level of stereotypes where their meaning is unstable. From these stereotypes, I created completely new, different topics and told a slightly different story. Although these spoken word cut-ups sound very bold in my work, their ambiguity is their main feature. In a way, the work remained political but I would describe it as a different kind of political. I talked about this more thoroughly in this interview.
In general, the intersections of music and language take up a large part of what I do. There are various examples of this in my works, but most significantly in the work “Matter of Fact” as already mentioned, but also in “Poetica micro-mix” (my most frequently performed piece) and “Jezik” (meaning language, tongue in Serbian), which was shortlisted for the Prix Italia award. What these works all have in common is their use of spoken word material stemming from very short, micro cut-ups to larger units such as words. I love playing with them on both planes – semiotic and musical. Since my youth, I have been very inspired by the sound poetry of Lily Greenham, cut-ups by Gysin and Burroughs. Recently I got the chance to come back to this voice/language matter during the collaboration with Katalin Ladik. In her work, the voice carries the nakedness of a body, revealing the intention so clearly but constantly oscillating from word to sound within an overwhelming storytelling experience. Her pioneering work in the domain of sound poetry should be recognized more widely for its importance, and also more thoroughly acknowledged in our own local discourse. All these works of mine will be the subject of my first solo exhibition in 2020 in Helsinki, along with some other pieces I didn’t mention here, but which deal with language and music.
BM: What can the public expect from your performance at HeK Basel on the occasion of the upcoming Noise Gate concert on 26 September?
SM: For the past two or three years I have been extensively developing the tools that give me great versatility in the live performance of electronic music. I have been playing an instrument since I was very young and have a lot of experience performing improvised music. Ensuing from this is a need to embed playful, performative elements into my setup. In the performances I realized over the past year, I have achieved the desired technical results. Then I started using part of this setup to perform on larger sound systems, which opened a new area for exploration. Now I’m working with sound that’s more massive but has the versatility that I mentioned. For this concert, I will try employing the synthesis of the two for the first time. Some distinctive sound features that relate to my music in general – dense, ever-changing textures, granular and pointillistic structures and references to musique concrète, will remain part of it. Each live performance that I develop has to bring something new to my music, as will this one. The working process has been very exciting and I hope the performance will be too.