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Escape Velocity

Glitch And Aberration: Svetlana Maraš Interviewed
Lucia Udvardyova , May 27th, 2020 09:33

Svetlana Maraš talks to Lucia Udvardyova about music education, Belgrade and escaping repetition

Portrait by Branko Starčević

Composer and sound artist Svetlana Maraš works at the intersection of experimental music, sound art and new media. Her musical work is finding expression in various media, genres and representational contexts and encompasses live electronic music performance, electro-acoustic composition, radiophonic art, sound and media installations.

She was musically educated from an early age and graduated from the renowned Aalto University (Helsinki) where she worked as a research assistant. She also received training in composition and art at such places as the Bang on a Can Summer Institute (MASSMoCA), Columbia University – School of the Arts, the Mozarteum Summer Academy, KlangKunstBuhne at UDK (Berlin), the Berklee Summer School, the Darmstadt International Summer Course and others.

As composer in residence and artistic director of Radio Belgrade’s Electronic Studio since 2016, she has initiated various projects and activities such as EMS Synthi 100 restoration, artist residencies and educative programs.

Her new radiophonic piece called “Postexcavation activities” will be aired on Saturday, 30 May, 11PM on Radio Television Serbia - Radio Belgrade III.

I'm interested in your history and the genealogy of your sonic work. You were born in Serbia, but later went on to study in Finland. Was the development of your professional musical interest a conscious decision from early on?

Svetlana Maraš: I started my musical adventures at the age of five. I was inspired by witnessing my sister’s piano lessons, so I enrolled in the music school too. Those studies, where my principal instrument was piano, lasted for another 12 years. However, I was never such a great classical pianist as from an early age I would always find it easier to learn the compositions by ear than remember the score exactly as written. Also I would re-compose the pieces a bit when I played... that wasn’t greatly appreciated by my piano teacher. She would go mad at me during my lessons to be honest!

But we had other classes in music school such as solfeggio, harmony and counterpoint that were more interesting to me. So I began diving into the logic of music, the ways it works, the ways we can deal with it, the way we can compose with what we know. This was a journey commenced in school which has continued ever since. There was literally never another thought that I would do anything other than music. There was just a shifting through various musical areas where I would learn different particularities of music as a language, as a world in itself.

So, after my formal, classical music education, accompanied by constant experimentation beyond the school curriculum (I learned and played everything from jazz to computer music and analogue electronics), I did the last bit of my studies in Finland at the amazing Helsinki Media Lab. It was the right place for me to make a kind of synthesis of my skills and knowledge and to start developing my own work. Studying in Finland, I acquired not only a vast amount of knowledge, but also confidence in my work methods. Therefore, immediately after finishing my MA there, I was able to continue my journey outside of the music education system.

Although I had already played with various ensembles, had concerts and took part in some recordings, such as Szilard Mezei's Leo Records album, and had various collaborations, it was not until after my studies in Finland that I became capable of working professionally as an artist and living from my music.

Why did you decide to leave Finland and return to Belgrade? Superficially one would assume there are more opportunities in Western Europe when it comes to career prospects in experimental music.

SM: Belgrade was supposed to be just a temporary stop - for a month or two, before I would move to Berlin. I was considering New York as well. But, as often happens, different circumstances started piling up, which led me to the decision to leave moving to one of these cities for later. And that “later” never came. I had a manager in Belgrade when I got back who was helping me to organise projects and performances in Serbia and abroad. And things started moving in a very good direction. They started rolling towards this moment now I guess, when I can fully support myself from what I do; I have a very good infrastructure to develop my work and I travel a lot while living in Belgrade, where I feel comfortable.

When things started working for me, after coming back, I could also start giving back to the city and the local scene. Today, for example, many of us who are working in similar areas have teamed up. We support each other and we are doing some good things for experimental music on a local level. This includes my collaboration with Radio Belgrade, with Ensemble Studio 6 and also with the team of friends who run Drugstore and Dim - two independent art venues where you can hear experimental and electronic music performances on a daily basis almost.

The academic music realm tends to be sometimes too conservative. How did the period spent in academia form you?

SM: I was always happy to learn new things about music. The problem with me and the classical music education I received at University (where I studied composition), was that apart from presenting me with the historical facts and figures about different works and composers, it didn’t bring me many new insights that I found relevant for my work as a composer at that point. The studies didn’t engage me too much in the learning, discovery or the creative process and I looked for what I needed elsewhere.

I played free improvised music with various people, organised concerts of experimental music and was reading about the most novel music and technology: things that were happening at that time. I compensated independently for the many hours and days that I spent in classes completely stagnating creatively. After those formative years, when I already knew to a certain extent where my interest in music lay, it became incredibly easy to move through different fields in search of the knowledge that I needed. It could be the underground and experimental or the academic realm where I would look for information and inspiration, but this time around, when I was myself in charge of designating the learning process, it was completely different. That is to say that the academic context itself is not so problematic or conservative as the learning context.

Teaching methodology at classical music conservatories is often outdated, not the works that they teach you about. Baroque compositions or semiotic analysis can sometimes unveil more original musical concepts than the newest track in your Soundcloud feed. And vice versa. So, my opinion is that to be able to move fluidly (and consciously) through different contexts in search of knowledge is a plus and this can be a path towards many surprises, discoveries and inventions.

Portrait by Cate Schappert

You published an article that later became a book chapter, entitled 'The Thingification Of The Compositional Process – The Emergence And Autonomy Of Extra-Musical Objects In Western Art Music'. Can you talk about the subject of your research?

SM: In dealing with music, especially nowadays, whether as listeners, performers or composers, we rarely interact with musical content on its own devoid of a multitude of other simultaneous physical sensations. The majority of us play music on our computer while staring at the screen, not so rarely while reading something else and typing on a keyboard. Music as a form related to the sense of hearing, is hardly ever produced and consumed completely in its material purity. There are so many buttons to be clicked on our MIDI controllers and on our DAWs, knobs to be twisted on our modulars, for music to be made. Sounds are not visible or touchable per se and yet our ways of interacting with them are heavily bound to both of these realms. So, corporeality is an undivided part of the musical experience and this could be taken as an ontological fact.

But what interests me is how the physicality of the extra-musical world, which appears contradictory to musical substance, which operates in a non-visible, non-touchable domain, inspires and inhabits musical content, and also how certain ways of musical representation question these relations of music and material reality. I think that by going deeper into this subject, we could find answers to why so few musical works (and artists) in general are represented in art museums. The only museum exhibition I have seen that is entirely dedicated to sound art, was one at MACBA recently, by Christian Marclay, called Compositions. This is no wonder, because Marclay is an experienced creator between the two domains of the musical and the visual, and the exhibition is full of artefacts such as graphic scores, vinyl records from his exhibitions and other objects. To my knowledge, after a pioneering Sound Art exhibition from 1979, MOMA had a single major exhibition dedicated to sound art, called Soundings in 2013. So, although “music is made for listening”, we challenge the ways of its perception, constantly.

In my article that you mentioned, I focused on examining how objects (physical things) other than orchestral instruments became embedded into musical discourse. These objects were brought in from a different context, a non-musical one and often from the domain of everyday life and include the things that surround us (kitchen utensils, hand tools etc.) Some of them were used as an inspiration, some of them as a sound source and some of them were used to extend the possibilities of playing on existing instruments. So, from Honegger, Satie, George Antheil to Futurist musicians and Stockhausen and Cage, I analysed the different approaches of these composers in extending musical vocabulary by using objects that are not orchestral instruments, and I derived from this some conclusions about the functionality of such objects and made their classification within a described system.

Writing about music and sound takes a lot of time for me and needs a different mindset than that for making music, so I don’t do it that often, unfortunately, but I hope I’ll be able to go back to it sometimes in the (not so distant) future and develop these ideas further.

When I hear your music it is as if I have entered a delicate, detailed new acousmatic world - the sound envelops you and immerses you in this colourful and complex dreamworld. How do you treat sound and sonic work and creation? Are various sounds and ideas juxtaposed deliberately and consciously, or is the process more intuitive and improvised?

SM: Probably a great deal of my music and how it sounds in the end is determined by the material that I choose to start working with. In most cases it comes from the vast collection of sounds that I have made throughout the years. I have no idea of the exact origin of these sounds, but mostly they come from whatever sound source (a digital sound file, a sine wave, white noise or a voice recording) that I import into software so I can jam with it. I tweak that input and play with it, recording the end result, and that becomes the sound I will work with. I love granular sounds, pointillistic sounds, clicks and glitches. I love creating from scratch, completely digital sounds that seem organic, like a field recording almost. I like to think of it in relation to musique concrète that inspired me big time when I was younger, as an inversion of it - re-creating the “real” sounds by digital means and creating a sort of virtual reality of the sound world that I work within.

The duration of the sounds (the material) I work with is always rather short, very short, and can be anything from a click, just a few grains or a glitch up to something that is five seconds long. But usually not longer than that. And then, as you said, I work with this and anything up to 15 other layers. If it’s a live performance, usually there are between four and eight simultaneous layers that I’m controlling in real-time. Every smallest detail is very relevant for me, and such a way of working demands a pre-compositional process which is developed to the tiniest aspect. Once I prepare all the possible ways to manipulate each of the samples, then I’m able to combine them and play with them live. The preparation process takes a lot of time and work, but in the end it’s an interesting combination of material that is prepared in advance and that becomes on the spot when I play live. What I can say for sure is that minimalism of a kind doesn’t interest me much. I can even say that a complexity of musical structure, a density of musical structure and forms which are not repetitive in terms of literal repetition, which are ever-changing and morphing through time in different ways, are much more my cup of tea.

What is the role of glitch and aberration in your work?

SM: These two things come into their own immediately after I switch on the software and I start using it. If any of the programmers who made this software or the people who teach electronic music production saw me doing what I do in order to compose or play live, they would be shocked. There is no such thing as elegance or subtlety in the way I use software. If three different choruses in a row and a reverb before them give me a result that I like, then that’s the order I’m gonna use them in, so it’s not by the book really. There are also numerous ways in which I misuse the Ableton Live when I’m controlling it from a Pure data patch. I do these things in order to escape the regularity and norms (usually in terms of structure) that most of the commercial equipment that we use imposes upon us. This way of thinking can also reflect on how I work with the material.

You are also composer in residence and artistic director of the recently resurrected Radio Belgrade's Electronic Studio. Can you talk about your day-to-day work there as well as its overall vision?

SM: My Electronic studio-Radio Belgrade journey started in 2016. The studio had very limited activities at that point, almost none, and the instrument that the studio owns and is famous for – an EMS Synthi 100 - was broken and had been out of use for over 10 years. I remember my first day there as a composer in residence and artistic director and almost nothing was connected or working and the studio was all dusty. I got that job but I had no idea where to start or what to do. The place was also at that time completely useless for me creatively because I worked mostly with the newest computer technologies, and except for the non-working Synthi, there were just a couple of 80s Yamaha devices, some amazing Studer tape recorders and an outdated PC. So my first action was an easy decision - I had to bring back the Synthi to life, keep the tape recorders and get an up-to-date computer unit in, so I could turn the place into a useful studio.

And that’s what I did, together with my team at the Radio and many other people who used their knowledge, skills and enthusiasm to bring the Electronic studio back to life. It was amazingly difficult to do so because the majority of people lacked the belief that the studio was ever going to work again in full force, like it did in the 70s and 80s. But we were determined and we figured that to revive the studio was a first step only, and not the major one. What we did with it afterwards, was what was really important. I wrote about these days extensively in an article. Once the studio was functional, we started activities such as artist residencies, educative programs, live broadcasts from the studio, guest visits and many many more things.

Nowadays, I share the studio with local and international artists who go there to realise different kinds of projects and works. They first have to go through an educative program that we established and those with more experience and skills just go through an introductory session with me. For me personally, depending on the piece I’m working on at that moment - if I need a Synthi part, I go to the studio to make a patch, record the sounds and take them home to work on them further while someone else can use the Synthi. We also have a rich archive that we digitised. For example, one of the last projects we did was a collaboration with a new local music ensemble, Studio 6. We re-arranged one of the electronic pieces from the archive for the ensemble, which was comprised of classical instruments, and me with live electronics. The piece we played was a composition by the only female composer [featured in the archive], Ludmila Frajt, whose work was released on one of the two notable records that came out of our studio. Some months before that, we also organised a conference about electronic music studios with international guests and exciting guest speakers. And we also have a radio show where we broadcast people performing live on Synthi from the studio. In my opinion, this is our main contribution to re-purposing the Synthi to suit the modern-day tendencies of electronic music. That synthesizer was made to be a workstation and not a live performance instrument, and this way of using it is bringing some new challenges to the artists and is also giving some interesting new results sound-wise.

To summarise, my work at EMS Radio Belgrade is a combination of using the studio for composing purposes and organising its programs and activities. It is one segment of my own work as an artist, and I am very happy that this goes very well with my own schedule and also relates to what I do in many ways.

Svetlana Maraš is part of the SHAPE platform for innovative music and audiovisual art, supported by the EU's Creative Europe programme. For more information on Svetlana Maraš, visit her website