The EMS Synthi 100 is a holy grail of synthesizers. It is dubbed by some as "The Emperor of Synths" and referred to as a "great concept of British eccentricity." Filling a large portion of a wall, it has oscillators and filters and ring modulators and two 64 x 64 pin matrix systems for infinite routing choices and a mixer and complex sequencing possibilities and dials for days. Though limited to a production run of 30ish instruments (the number changes depending on the source), it appears on many SFX compilations and Radiophonic Workshop soundtracks — including the lion share of Doctor Who themes — and is treasured / used / borrowed / has been worshipped by everyone from Stevie Wonder (the first USA customer) to Billy Corgan to Stockhausen to Meat Beat Manifesto to Mute Records owner Daniel Miller to Wolfgang Dauner.
Constantin Papageorgiadis' relationship with this particular Synthi 100 began in 2012 while restoring this abandoned unit found at IPEM, the Institute for Psychoacoustics and Electronic Music in Ghent (Belgium). "(Papageorgiadis) ... had done most of the work for free as there was no funding from the University of Ghent..." His payment, though, was free intimate access to learn from and perform on this beast. In duo with Yoshio Machida, an artist best known for his generative music, steel pan / Max/MSP "gamelan" and recent "dub-electronica" outfit Miimo, he tackles the instrument in twelve improvisations.
Because of the bonkers architecture of EMS Synthi products (i.e. the neat pin matrix), their output often leans into a sound effects realm, evoking a hauntological, nostalgic, motion picture view of the then-idea of the future, a theme typical in the aforementioned BBC programs; thundering flying saucer whooshes, plucky robots and snapping ray gun flashes are usually involved. The abyss is deep, and with two sets of hands, the work here could result in overload. Machida and Papageorgiadis, however, opt for a tightly governed palette of sequences, blips and drones, grouped in three-voice formations. Instead of unbridled flights, the restriction of dry (as in sans effects except some internal spring reverb) sonic elements presented realizes as a gurgling science lab, something boiling in a beaker instead of a lurking shadow outside the Orion III's main hatch.
Due to a fixation on grounded patterns, musical comparisons to Music from the Synthi 100 are more parallel to early 2000s Oval and Mille Plateaux's Clicks & Cuts series than Xenakis. For example, "Experiment #17" roots to a winding, pulsating snake whose scales fleck off as cheeps, squiggled noise surges and electrical buzzes. Similarly, the duo varies the tempi on "Experiment #04" to incite mildly wild spinning vowel-like bleeps on top of a tenuous foundation of shaky wobbling rope bridges. "Generation #15" embraces pointillism with a stuttering square wave rhythm and melodic micro-gestures that occasionally leap around behind the curtain. The warbling plop plop plop soggy beat and accompanying pseudo jaw harp on "Experiment #04" can't help but remind one of an unintentionally spooky caterpillar or animated dancing gum drop from a discarded Sid and Marty Kroft pilot. That's another mood bustling throughout these works: they're (gasp) fun. The playful aesthetic could brand Music from the Synthi 100 as the Clair de lune or Bach etudes of the synth oeuvre: effective, simple, memorable, inviting and lovely.
As with much landmark music gear, the Synthi 100 often steals the show by seducing the user into furious knob-wrenching chaos, like a skipper pretending he / she is in control of a ship during a tsunami. Machida and Papageorgiadis' restraint puts a yoke on that to create a distinctive whirl in the resurgent age of modular synthesizer bedlam.
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