The buzz around the legendary sound synthesizer EMS Synthi 100 of former Yugoslavia is still going strong since the instrument was restored in 2018. Svetlana Maraš, electronic music composer and sound artist from Serbia, shares her experience with “Synthi”.
Belgrade (Serbia), correspondence
“With all of its constraints, it opens new and unusual possibilities, and I think it proves to be an absolutely relevant instrument for electronic music-making,” says Svetlana Maraš, a sound artist with a background in new media, explaining the advantages of working with this very rare, yet still functional synthesizer.
However, this was not at all the case in 2016 when public Radio Belgrade 3 (Radio Television Serbia) invited her to take on the project. When Svetlana saw EMS Synthi 100 for the first time, it was in an old dusty electronic music studio of Radio Belgrade.
“The initiative for the studio’s revival came from different sides,” says Svetlana, currently head of Electronic Studio Radio Belgrade. “Within the radio, mainly from the music editors of Radio Belgrade 3—Ksenija Stevanović and Ivana Neimarević—two important figures in the development of the local contemporary and experimental music scenes; and on the other side, all the way from Sweden, from one of the studio founders, Paul Pignon.”
In the 1970s, synthesized sound preoccupied a number of forward-thinking minds in Europe. Already in the late 1960s, the composer Peter Zinovieff, in collaboration with David Cockerell and Tristram Cary, institutionalized his private studio in London to found Electronic Music Studios (EMS), a company specialized in building electronic musical instruments.
Similar studios were created to host EMS synthesizers in Warsaw, Köln, Stockholm, Moscow and Utrecht, but the studio in Yugoslavia was special. “Crazy Yugoslavs” were among the first to order a custom-made instrument made by the EMS factory in London, inspired by the ones in Warsaw and Stockholm, which they delivered to Belgrade in 1972.
“Synthi wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t ordered it,” explains Svetlana. “The one with the serial number 4 is now in Belgrade, while the others, based on the same model, were made and shipped to the BBC, University of Cardiff, etc.” Only 30 units were built and sold.
The EMS Synthi 100 was a modular system, very bulky and very expensive (£6500 in 1971). The Synthi 100 basically consisted of 3 VCS3, one of the first synthesizers produced by EMS London, providing a total of 12 oscillators and 2 duophonic keyboards for a 4-note “polyphonia” and a 3-track digital sequencer. It could also incorporate optional modules, such as the Vocoder 500, as well as a visual interface via a PDP8 called “Computer Synthi”.
After lying dormant for over a decade, the Synthi 100 needed to be restored—not to become a museum relic of the past but as a fully functional instrument. British artist Paul Pignon, together with multimedia artist Vladan Radovanović, co-founder of the Serbian Electronic Studio in 1972, initiated the renovation.
The instrument was then restored by Daniel Araya, from EMS Stockholm, and Jari Suominen, a repair specialist from Finland. They had already worked together in 2016 on restoring a similar synthesizer for the Documenta festival in Athens. Due to “an unusually positive and enthusiastic set of circumstances”, the restoration work was completed in 2018.
Visit to the Electronic Studio in Belgrade:
A future for Synthi with Svetlana Maraš
Svetlana, also a sound artist formed in digital environments, was pretty much self-taught on the Synthi 100. With no video tutorial on how to use it, the 100-page manual written by Pignon serves as the Studio’s holy grail.
“It functions more as a workstation than an instrument,” adds Svetlana, describing the Synthi’s role in today’s music-making. “It gives you an opportunity to make things with the sequencer that led the way to digital.” According to the artist, this convergence “offers incredibly interesting possibilities and implies different ways of thinking in music”.
The EMS Synthi 100 is currently protected as a tangible cultural heritage, under the auspices of the Science and Technology Museum of Belgrade. Svetlana is determined to open the studio doors and unveil the aura of exclusivity of the old days. The aim is to reinterpret the old works and to revive the Studio’s rich sound archives.
Since last year, Electronic Studio Radio Belgrade hosts art residencies for international sound artists and composers who engage with the local sound art scene (resident artists have included Thomas Köner, Paul Omen, Robert Lippok, Lisa Stenberg, Mia Zabelka and Rastko Lazić, Zlatko Baracskai). The Studio continues to actively promote knowledge transfer by organizing courses, from the basics in electroacoustics to more practical instruction in sound synthesis with “Synthi”.
Compilation of works composed between 1972 and 2000 at Electronic Studio Radio Belgrade: