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Music from the SYNTHI

img  Tobias Fischer

Even after many decades of electronic music history, most artist are still regarding synthesizers as mere tools. What, however, would happen, if one could observe them composing and playing their own tunes, discover their tastes and preferences, revel in their personal sounds and techniques of arranging them? On Music from the SYNTHI, Japanese multi-instrumentalist, producer, improviser and thinker Yoshio Machida has tried to find out. The title refers to its main protagonist, a classic analogue synth first released in the early 70s, prominently used on classics such as Oxygene or Dark Side of the Moon and blessed with a talent for self-generating repeating sounds. In the liner notes to Music from the SYNTHI, published on forward-thinking French imprint Baskaru which also issued the final installment of his much-applauded Hypernatural series, Machida has described the process of arriving at these repeating patterns as 'making complicated patches like feedback', which sounds technical, but yields phenomenally playful and intuitive results. So is this another step in the evolution of synthesizers from cold, emotionless machines to equitable creative partners? Not really, as Machida reveals in the interview, since human intervention is still required. In terms of discovering a kind of creativity that is both different from human logic and fascinatingly complementary to it, meanwhile, this may be as close as we can currently get.

Is Hypernatural finished or do you see the potential of re-visiting some of its themes again at some point?
The Hypernatural series is definitely finished (#1-1999, #2-2001, #3-2008). It's a work dealing with the relationship between meaning and sound, specifically between the meaning of titles and their sounds. The titles of the pieces on the Hypernatural albums are very important, they're as important as the sounds. You could call them "very short poems with sound". On the other hand, I have other musical interests in parallel, including acoustic improvisation (steelpan works) and organic electronics (Music from the SYNTHI). I wanted to create undigital minimal rhythmic electronics on this work. It's neither a static digital one nor a noisy chaotic one …

How did your interest in analog synthesis develop?
When I was about thirteen years old, I laid my hands on a synthesizer for the first time. I often went to instrument shops to touch analog synthesizers such as the Mini Moog. I used to listen to pop music of the late 70s to 80s: Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Throbbing Gristle, Yellow Magic Orchestra. I had used a Korg synthesizer for a long time. Of course I already knew the SYNTHI at the time - because Eno used it - but it was so expensive. After a few years, I had a chance to get it and bought it off the Internet in Japan. I had been thinking about the conceptual idea for the album before getting it. Whenever I saw the picture of the SYNTHI panel, I could imagine the kind of sounds it is capable of producing. I sometimes play it, together with some instruments, for improvisation with other musicians. Right now, it is the only synthesizer I own, but I'm also interested in a Buchla and some Eurorack modular synthesizers.

It is remarkable that more and more electronic musicians are returning to analog sound synthesis because of its potential to directly influence and shape sound in an intuitive way. Are there, from your perspective, also some more recent digital tools and equipment which offer similar qualities?
I like the range of instruments by Czech manufacturer Standuino, their activity and approach are interesting. From my point of view, equipment manufacturers should try to make more specialized devices – I feel there's no need for an almighty one. As an example, the SYNTHI's oscillators can not be synchronized, so it's not that easy to produce different cycles when it is used as LFO. In itself, this not useful generally, but the impossibility of synchronization can be a special characteristic and show us another perspective. The Ondes Martenot and Theremin are not useful instruments either, but they have their very own characteristics to make up for that.

Your concept for the album, the way I understood it, was to coax very direct improvisations from the SYNTHI. What are some of your personal ambitions and quality criteria when it comes to improvisation?
Yes, you are right. The important point of this album is "improvising and generating" by both the SYNTHI and me. There's no timeline controlled by BPM and scales. Whereas an acoustic instrument is not good at "generating", an analogue synthesizer is and the SYNTHI especially. On this album, I just recorded sounds from the SYNTHI by controlling some parameters with my hands. It's like a performance by by the SYNTHI and me and would have turned out very differently had I used sounds from the SYNTHI as short "loops or samples" and loading them into Live, then edited them on the timeline, adding effects, etc … that wouldn't be like this album, it would be more digital. This work is more like traditional dub mixing. It contains good parts and mistakes at the same time. But for next time, I'm thinking about using the "edit" function in my DAW.

How did you arrive at the basic patterns which are the point of departure for each piece?
It is hard to explain … First, I'll find a basic rhythmic sound that I like. After recording it, I'll change the patch and parameters to arrive at suitable sounds for the first track. The number of tracks in a piece was confined to three to five. There are no logical steps, every action I take is instinctive. I only used the DAW as a tape recorder and after recording, I did not edit the material in any way. I recorded more pieces than ended up on the CD, but strictly speaking, I did not discard anything. Simply, a few pieces did not get used for this album. In some cases, the results were quite similar, so I chose to use more contrasting pieces.

The press release stresses the organic quality of the sounds and patterns of the SYNTHI. I have always found it hard to define this term. What are some of the factors to you that constitute the sensation of something being "organic"?
Yes, it is difficult to define it, I agree with you. It's a relative term. For this album, it means "more live". It's like the difference between a line drawn with a ruler and a line drawn by hand. Life is not perfect. This work is unstable like life because of the characteristics of both the SYNTHI and the improvisation. I had a chance to play the SYNTHI at a solo improvisation in Berlin last year. I only used it without any effects and loop systems. If you watch the video of the gig, you can feel something organic, even though it's an electronic sound.

It's a collaboration between man and machine.
Yes. All by itself, the SYNTHI could not produce this album. A human is still needed. I, as a human, decide on the routing, pitch, color, trigger, etc. The SYNTHI generates something with me, its reaction influences my decisions. To me, technology is "help". To know the time, you check the position of the sun. A sundial will help you to know the time more precisely, whereas a clock also helps you in the shade.

I sometimes feel as though your work deals with the underlying topics from an angle far bigger than just music. When it comes to the future – do you see yourself as an optimist or a pessimist?
Hmm … Maybe I'm a worrier, but not a pessimist. What will be, will be. In their interesting book Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization, Adrian Bejan & J. Peder Zane write that "everything generates shape and structure and evolves in a sequence of ever-improving designs in order to facilitate flow".

Yoshio Machida Interview by Tobias Fischer
If you enjoyed this interview Yoshio Machida, why not continue reading our first interview with him about his Hypernatural series?

Homepage: Yoshio Machida
Homepage: Baskaru Records