An umbrella concept by François Bonnet

Spotlights 28.03.2022

François Bonnet, General Director of the GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales), gives a history of the modular synthesizer introduced into the institution in the 1970s and an overview of all the instruments that are now united under the same concept.

François Bonnet, you joined the GRM in 2007 where you are involved in the dissemination and programming of the musical season. You replaced Christian Zanesi in 2015 as artistic director and then succeeded Daniel Teruggi in 2018, taking over the management of the GRM. Before we get into our subject, could you go back over the GRM's activity and the mission that such an institution has today?
It revolves around three main areas: firstly, support for electroacoustic and experimental electronic music through musical production and a policy of commissions and concerts (our " Multiphonies " season) as well as composer residencies in our studios. Of course, we continue our research activities, both "fundamental" and "applied", notably around technological issues with software to assist creation, such as the GRM tools, but also the development of new tools (GRM Player). Our third mission is transmission, through a very varied editorial policy: book publications (we have launched a new collection "SPECTRES" which is very popular with our readers), discographic editions, production on France Musique with the weekly programme " L'Expérimentale " and pedagogical activities, in particular a partnership with the Gustave-Eiffel University for the teaching course: three areas of activity which Pierre Schaeffer had already initiated and on which the GRM is still operating. The arrival of Présences électronique in 2005 under the leadership of Christian Zanési has, moreover, largely contributed to renewing the public and crossing generations.

Research pioneers such as François Bayle, who headed the GRM for a long time, say they have gone through several technological revolutions, from the floppy disk to the computer. What role did the modular synthesizer play at the GRM in the 1970s?
When this new instrument appeared, many of the GRM's composers, including Pierre Henry who had left the institution at that time, bought a Synthi AKS, a small, handy and resourceful suitcase synthesizer. The electroacoustic palette was then enriched with complex electronic sounds and the colour of the pieces evolved somewhat. Some of these "new sounds" could be found at the time in composers such as François Bayle, Bernard Parmegiani or Ivo Malec, who found on these instruments the opportunity to play and modify the flow in real time. But this story had already begun a few years earlier, at the GRM, notably through the acquisition of MOOG modules, but above all through "in-house" experimentation.

Thus, on the initiative of researchers such as Francis Coupigny, the GRM had acquired its own modular system; moreover, Le trièdre fertile (1975), Pierre Schaeffer's last composition, is composed almost entirely of synthesised sounds from this machine. When the digital synthesizer arrived, it was let go to the Music Museum, convinced that it was obsolete. Each generation of technology had a promise that swept away the previous one. There was not yet the historical perspective that we can have today.

How do you explain the renewed popularity of the modular synthesizer since the 1990s?
The arrival of digital technology in the 1980s revolutionised working techniques, made it easier to save and store data, and introduced virtual editing, which was more accurate and faster than tape. The old machines were quickly abandoned and forgotten until it was realised that the computer had its limits and could not simulate everything, in particular the fragility of the sound that analogue guaranteed and which could generate interesting springs for the composition. The return to gesture, the fact of placing one's hands on the potentiometers, allows for a more immediate action, a more inspiring relationship with the instrument. Engineers have therefore once again looked at these tools to develop new modules and stimulate the interest of composers, notably the Eurorack format which, with the Doepfer brand, has contributed to democratising modular synthesis, allowing young creators to obtain certain inexpensive modules. The interest of the modular synthesizer comes from the fact that it works by modules and that one can progressively build one's system in stages, by having a detailed knowledge of each component. You can make drones as well as very rhythmic music with the same tool but not with the same module or combination of modules.

How would you define analogue sound, including turntables?
We have to distinguish three different angles to approach analogue sound: firstly, the analogue sound of synthesis coming from specific techniques, we'll come back to that; then the analogue sound of the electro-acoustic chain with its player, amplifiers and loudspeakers. Finally, the sound of the medium, vinyl, which has a particular grain, linked to its own technology and its mechanical limitations; it is "warmer", as we often hear; it is a bit like a silver photo that is less well defined than an HD digital photo and is therefore a bit blurred; everything is a bit more compact and this creates a particular grain.

But let's go back to the first synthesizers: their sound is partly linked to the construction of the time when all the stages of the electro-acoustic systems were of high quality; this has not always been found with the democratization of the digital tool, often manufactured with components and amplification and output stages of lesser quality. I would say that between a very good analogue system and a very good digital system with good quality converters, there is no real difference in terms of sound quality; tests of analogue and digital broadcasting were carried out at the GRM, switching from one system to another instantaneously; you don't really hear a striking difference; in fact, there have often been comparisons of things that are not really comparable, such as professional analogue systems with good output stages and very good electronics, with mass-produced digital equipment that is sometimes like a digital toy.

However, analogue specifically involves the behaviour of oscillators and voltage circuits subject to temperature changes, whereas the digital signal is a coding that cannot be easily altered; there can therefore be a real difference in behaviour. For example, when Pierre Henry or Éliane Radigue were making feedbacks with analogue circuits, they could work on a multitude of nuances. In a purely digital world, such as the MaxMSP software, logical feedback crashes the software.

Today, what place is given to the ARP 2500 by Éliane Radigue? It has become a very rare or even unobtainable instrument; will it also go to the Museum?
The idea, in agreement with Éliane, is for the instrument to be used. The advantage of these analogue synthesizers is that they are still easily repairable and can be maintained, unlike certain digital synthesizers, which are too complex and miniaturized to be repaired by ourselves; they have to be sent back to the factory, if it still exists! Analogue synthesizers have a longer lifespan. The ARP 2500 is an old machine that needs care and attention; but when the demand is in line with the spirit of Éliane's personality, we make it available to composers in our studios. It is not meant to be a museum, as long as it works and can be repaired. The last person to use it was the composer Kali Malone, a young American-Swedish composer who gave a very beautiful concert in the auditorium of the Maison de la Radio et de la Musique during a "Multiphonies" evening in October: a piece for tape with, among many other sounds, the ARP 2500. This is a studio instrument, and Éliane Radigue herself has never played it live. It allows us to create sequences and materials that are edited, mixed and added to other materials to create electroacoustic works.

Do you organise training courses or composer residencies?
No; you take precautions with such a machine; it is fifty years old! There are a few of us at the GRM who know it well. We explain the basics of how it works and then we let the composer explore it; it is not very complicated to understand. There are some specific slide connection features to create connection points; it takes some getting used to. Otherwise, the ARP 2500 has modules that people are familiar with: oscillators, filters, amplitude modulators, noise generators, sequencers. For sound artists who are familiar with modular synthesizers, the tool is fairly easy to master.

Does the GRM have other types of modular synthesizers?
We have a SERGE synthesizer, which belonged to the late Laurent Dailleau. We also have things like an EMS Synthi AKS and other machines that we acquired quite recently. We also created a new in-house synthesizer from scratch, inspired by the old GRM synthesizer. It has been brought up to date, retaining the distinctive timbre of the old oscillators. We also have some little-known but fascinating modular systems, such as those of Rob Hordijk, a very inventive engineer of today. 

More than a vintage trend, the modular synthesizer seems to have found its place in the landscape of electroacoustic composition today...
The modular synthesizer is a concept; it consists of functional modules that are linked together by different strategies: by cables like the SERGE and the Eurorack system, by matrix like the Synthi or the GRM synthesizer which avoids the forest of cables; by slides for Éliane Radigue's ARP. The approaches can be very different between a Moog, a Buchla, a SERGE, etc., with systems that are not necessarily compatible and sometimes with different control voltage values. There are also divergent "schools" and stylistic trends depending on the machines and their philosophy. All these instruments have their singularity and their personal orientations; it is not so homogeneous as that: the modular synthesizer is a little bit of an umbrella concept which has a lot of relief and difference.

One could compare the history of the Ondes Martenot with the manufacturers of today who continue to develop the instrument...
Certainly; we can also evoke the electric guitar through a whole variety of instruments, intended for jazz, rock, metal, etc... Some people will take metal guitars to play jazz and vice versa... This brings us back to the question of lutherie and orthodoxy or heterodoxy. If the modular synthesizer is experiencing such a revival today, it is also due to the fact that there are many new modules that have appeared on the market. It's a real resurrection! The instrument is developing, with inventions. But it's also worth noting that many of the modules that are being developed nowadays are digital, such as wavetable oscillators that give access to a whole bank of timbres on the synthesiser and allow you to switch from one to another in the blink of an eye.

The modular synthesizer with all the modern conveniences...
That's exactly what it is!

Interview by Michèle Tosi

Photo © Mathieu Zazzo