Bernard Xolotl on Synclavier II and Music
This French-born synthesist describes his experiences with the Synclavier and other digital instruments
This respected Californian-based composer talks frankly as his new LP is released.
You've been using the Synclavier II for some time now. What was your first reaction to it?
"I thought it was a perfect tool for the next generation of electronic musicians, which in my opinion will be more composers than people who go on the stage for three or four hours and make some sort of a strange noise to dazzle an audience which is totally taken as if by magic by the illusion of technology.
Does your own background include a lot of experience with micros?
No it does not, but it does include a lot of experience with mathematics and geometry. The Synclavier with its additive synthesis allows the use of numbers in a very geometrical and very rational - and I would say almost Pythagorean way to create waveforms that you can relate to as a visual experience, as well as musical. A very important feature of the Synclavier is that it can really bring you in the position of seeing as well as hearing what you do in real time.
Does this mean that you have had strong interest in Webern, Stockhausen kind of music in the past - with serial music and tone rows the link is there, isn't it?
Believe it or not, I have no interest whatsoever (laughs) in this kind of music and so forth, but I've focussed a lot more on the music of Bach - to me, this is a lot more geometrical!
How did you find settling down to using the Synclavier?
It was very straightforward - that's what I mean when I said that it's made for composers. You know, the industry is so geared towards live performance (I'm not talking against this in any way). People throw in a couple of sequencers with a couple of tunes, and go on stage and play them over and over, which is the very simplest thing to do. With the Synclavier you can compose with a 16-track recorder and you totally record polyphonically, erase and bounce tracks and so forth. And with the option of the terminal and monitor, you can really compose in the style of Bach and other classical musicians of the past.
No doubt someone like Wendy Carlos with her 'Switched On Bach' would have liked this machine?
Definitely. And Patrick Gleeson has recently recorded Vivaldi's Four Seasons with it - I think it was a very simple-minded sort of thing to do because he used mostly presets from the timbre banks of the Synclavier, like the beautiful bell sounds which he used without tuning. Literally, they are out of tune with the tonality of the piece and people think it is a very far out sort of effect!
Were there any limitations apparent as you used the keyboard instrument?
I really don't like the fact that its single main control knob is spring operated. If you want to find a particular number, as is often the case when doing additive synthesis, it can take some time to locate it. The Chroma people used this same idea with their slider panel controller.
Nevertheless, the Synclavier is a very powerful machine with its 16-bit processor and tremendous potential. Of course, it does not have the bubble memory system of the Prism synthesiser, but nobody has even bought this yet as it costs so much money. It's quadraphonic and almost multi-dimensional in concept - you can target any parameter from any other parameters. Not only do you have frequency modulation, but you also have waveform blending. This allows you to have different FM simultaneously. The Synclavier makes only one FM ratio for a given set of partials at a time, although you may be able to program your way around that - but you are still limited to 4 partials.
Do you find yourself altering your approach with a totally digital system?
You see, there are a lot of different illusions about all these digital musical instruments. With the Synclavier you should be able to generate any musical sound. I have recordings that show its ability to make sounds that would have come from an analogue synth.
Do you think 4 partials are enough for full synthesis?
Nothing is ever enough - I mean, if we had 200 I'm sure there would be people who needed more.
Can you think of a sound and go to the Synclavier and try and get it?
It's a different approach from analogue instruments - we have been so used to in the last ten years to tweaking knobs to make sounds that to approach it from a different way by building up harmonics and so forth might appear at first to be a less straightforward thing. But it's all a matter really of habit and expectation.
So what's your procedure - do you find yourself building up one partial for a basic sound, say, on the fundamental and then taking the second partial to get the bright harmonics, going round the partials until you've got the timbre you want?
Well, there are so many different ways I use, I don't limit myself to any one procedure. I do whatever feels a good approach.
I have an advantage with additive synthesis because I did a demo for a guitar synthesiser that was built as a prototype for a Berkeley (California) based factory in 1977. I was able to experiment with this extensively, much more than most people at the time. It had a stereo two channel output with twelve harmonics per string which allowed you to do additive synthesis in a very sophisticated way and produce any sort of sound - I have sounds of flute done with the guitar, I mean real classical flute where I could simulate the breath with my fingers. In some ways it was more realistic than on the Synclavier because the FM in a guitar synthesiser is 'natural' — it's created by the right hand and modulated by the left hand on the strings. Of course the disadvantage is that you don't have the Prism's or Synclavier's FM LED ratio index that you can come back to at any time. We are not yet at the point where such a complex sort of FM ratio can really be analysed in the multi dimensional way, but I'm sure with computers we'll be able to do that.
I also find that you come back to listening carefully despite all the VDU facilities and graphics - the ear is still very important when you are using these FM ratios and so on.
Yes, and I think the FM ratio is so important, unlike the Alpha Syntauri, the Soundchaser, and others which use pure additive synthesis - these machines could be outdated in a few years without FM. To me, the sound seems empty without it, with an organistic feel.
It's really hard to find people who know what FM is all about, because for example, on the Prophet 5 you have frequency modulation but this is created just by the use of the low frequency oscillator for vibrato effects.
On the Synclavier, FM is more than just a second oscillator sound - you can create very complex frequency modulation, with several voices modulating several other voices.
So the partials are used to derive extra harmonics for FM?
Exactly, but it's doing that in a rational way so that you retain control of the 'Index' and that I think is marvellous — to me it's the key to everything.
It's fascinating to whisk the wheel through the FM ratio — you are conceiving a new sort of 'sound dimension'. The VDU display makes the parameter coefficients much quicker to access too, although I wonder if you use both real time memory calling as well as the SCRIPT listening formats?
Definitely, they are both useful depending on what you are trying to achieve. Some pieces will need a precision of scoring that needs the SCRIPT codes while others require the freer style of your keyboard playing.
My experience of SCRIPT has been very much under the wing of my friend, Don Robertson, who's using the Synclavier's high level languages, XPL and MAX, to create a kind of universal counterpoint software that he has called BACH - Binary Asynchronous Compositional Handling - allowing you to do the 'Art of Fugue'. Any line or sequence will be mirrored, reversed, inverted in question and answer style of Bach's fugues and that sort of thing. It also helps you develop the melody and the harmony.
Do you think this kind of composing tool will help musicians who use sequencers a lot?
It's very tricky because until now there have been two main trends in that sort of music which is the academic trend of Wendy Carlos, Tomita and so on, who have limited themselves to either copying the music of other composers of the past or doing their own music that is strongly influenced by Classical, Baroque and traditional styles - this misleads people into thinking that electronic music has been some sort of imitation.
Then the other trend is a sort of totally random improvisational style. Fortunately, what we are trying to do (my friends in California with Synclaviers, including the Greek composer Iasos - who takes three years to do a half hour piece!) is use a new method of composition that's an almost 'scientific' way of recording like that of Wendy Carlos', but at the same time using your own feelings and ideas.
Have you used the sampling system?
Yes, I have tried it with Denis Jager, distributor and designer of many of the Synclavier's programs.
Their new multisampling is so sophisticated (and expensive) - just to give you an idea, the sample time can be up to 54 minutes! This is done with the Winchester drive, with its disc you can never remove, but it costs some $10,000. You know, the Emulator also has multisampling. Sampling without multisampling is nothing! Vangelis, for example, has put all his drums on the Emulator by multisampling sounds. Of course, by multisampling I mean that sound samples are taken at different pitch ranges to avoid the 'ringing' or 'glitching' that occurs from one or two samples alone as you reach a certain point up or down the keyboard.
Publison are soon going to be bringing out this type of instrument with a 72-note keyboard that has 72 samples - one sample per note! This allows you to take ANY sound across its whole spectrum or make one sound fuse into another. You could have double bass followed by cello, viola and violin for a real string quartet, or even a grand piano. This French instrument will have presets to begin with to save on cost.
Coming back to the Synclavier, do you find any problem with memory storage?
Actually, when you have two 5" diskettes in separate drives, it can be even faster than having one 8".
During my recording of almost all of the timbre examples supplied on diskettes, I did notice its 'piece de resistance' was some superb bell sounds.
Yes, they are beautiful, but still quite hard to tune.
A friend of mine visited the Synclavier factory in Vermont recently and saw the prototype of the digital guitar that will go with the system. There have been quite a few rumours about this being the Roland Guitar Synth (GR-300). There are actually four big machines likely to have control from the Roland instrument - Con Brio, GDS and one other as well as the Synclavier.
How did you get on with the keyboard itself?
Well, it's incredible with all these American manufacturers - you cannot trust them! Many of them put things on the market before they are ready. Many musicians I know are waiting for the things that should be available for the Synclavier (and the Chroma) according to the manual. For me, these extras, like the PPG Wave 2.2's pressure sensitivity are exceedingly important.
There are two kinds of pressure sensitivity - Yamaha's kind is really more than that, it's more touch response and everybody has been using it as a solo instrument (the CS80 series), Klaus Schulze for one. Even Terry Riley cannot get rid of his old YC45 Yamaha organ because of it! But while this is monophonic, it is polyphonic sensitivity on the PPG Wave 2.2.
Now you might think polyphonic control is so much better, but there's a dilemma about that. If you are holding a chord, for example, while playing an expressive solo line on top, then your chord is going to jump up with the changing dynamics (or timbre) too. The answer to that can only be to have the choice.
I've found the Synclavier totally reliable and we've had no problem getting software in California. And it really is 'open-ended' for future developments.
Are you a pianist basically?
Guitar and piano - more guitar. I'm planning to get a PPG Wave 2.2 so that I can operate it in sync with Don Robertson's Synclavier using the interface my engineers have built. We live near each other and have basically the same record systems so that we can exchange multitracked tapes and so on. That's what we hope to do — it's the way forward for us. I am totally against this tremendously limiting idea that there should be either one system or another, or that there should be analogue or digital - that's why I like the expansible system.
You don't want to lose the years of experience you've had in using analogue?
It's not even that - I don't mind going back to zero. It's more that sound is a whole and for certain things you use additive synthesis because it gives more control (like for bells), and for other things you use subtractive synthesis (for filtering white noise etc.).
Another interesting point is that you can link up two Synclaviers to multiply the partials or give you total stereo control. But I believe there will be a stereo option soon available to convert the present mono output. I do like the stereo loudness tracking on the PPG and the GDS.
Can you do this on the Synclavier so that each track can have dynamic changes during a piece?
You can do anything you want - provided you can devise your own very sophisticated programs. This has been a problem, I think, with all synthesisers. That's why they invented that 'split keyboard' thing. On most instruments, no matter how expensive, there seem to be drawbacks, whether it's to do with volume, filtering or the envelope - the envelopes are not that congruent on the Synclavier either. It always seems that in the future we must have a closer relationship between engineers and musicians to get the best parameters, the right controls and so on. I think that the best advisers on the music side are not necessarily the big rock stars to endorse their products, but people who are knowledgeable about many synthesisers.
How would you describe your style of music that you've been developing over the years?
I would describe it by saying that in the late '60s and so forth, through Terry Riley who was one of many influences on me, Western music had a period of complete disintegration where music became synonymous with sound, and where there was no longer any rhythmic, harmonic or melodic structure, or even interest in music — as in some of John Cage where it became just anything. Through Terry Riley and the oriental influences coming into the West people made a return to modal music.
I did not become addicted to this style like many others, but it did lead me on after a few years to the harmonic language of Western music. I was able to go through the entire process of music from the Greeks to Richard Wagner and Stravinsky in terms of understanding and developing an original style (if there is such a thing) in the language of music as a whole.
Of course music becomes more and more sophisticated as you learn the evolution of music.
Your music, with its strong sequential developments, does require a good sense of orchestration.
I'm only really beginning with that - to me it's infinite. Imagine it that way. You know, orchestration (for example in Richard Wagner's 'Tristan and Isolde') reached incredible complexity in which there were the full range of traditional orchestral instruments to create a simultaneous multi-dimensional texture that was never cluttered. And now, with the infinite temporal possibilities of synthesisers, the field of orchestration is wide open. New temporal values need defining - height and stereo placement and different things. It's not only like orchestration - it's like being a sculptor of space and time.
At the moment, secular pop music for entertainment has totally invaded the world because of its commercial financial rewards and so forth, and I don't know whether the magical or sacred part of the music has gone when you see musicians who are really basically doing a job to order - down to a 30th of a second. No matter how poor or rich, how famous or not I become, I'm not ever going to do that sort of thing. I'm only interested in carrying on the sacred, religious tradition of art, no matter how esoteric.
Blending sounds together seems to be the important aspect of your music.
Orchestral, timbral, harmonic sort of structuring, yes, where there is colour, melody and rhythm.
Do people look on your music as 'meditational'?
This is a very complicated sort of question because there is this 'New Age' music scene in America, especially in California. It's represented by people like George Deuter, Peter Hamel (two Germans now in California) and Kitaro. It's funny that the Europeans think that what I do and what some other musicians do is meditative, because in America they think my music is European! That just shows we are not yet at the point where we can categorise - anyway, it's not necessary except for the music 'merchants'.
What plans do you have for releasing your compositions on the Synclavier?
I'm still working on the material at present, but I've been mixing Don Robertson's 'Star Music' recently using it. (Part of this is on Demo Cassette No. 9). Don, with Iasos, Don Slepian and myself are working together, but from our own studios and doing our own music - none of which is like any German or French sort of pop music.
Do you do any of the electronics yourself?
I don't - I have too many other things I do, like painting and video - but I understand what I need and can communicate my problems to engineers. I do believe that ultimately I shall have to develop some sort of ability in electronics and I think this will become easier to do as the digital future is moving more and more into using simple building blocks.
I'm now a full-time composer (I'm 31), married to an artist. We live just outside the Bay area in a nice wooded part, twenty minutes from San Francisco. I've just been over to Europe, mainly to supervise the mastering and disc cutting of my new album 'Procession' in Paris. The LP is now due for release by Pulse Records.
There's something I'd like to say about music now - computer music, I mean in particular, and that is I've noticed the tremendous open way people share their programs. There are many people making music in their home studios in America. The best music no longer comes just on the stage or the radio, and it's transcultural and international. I always stress that the artist is not concerned with means and categories but simply to create art: poetry, dance, music and other arts are all being integrated into the cosmic opera of the future - some sort of succession to what Wagner with his music dramas was doing. I have my own multi-media set-up at my house for developing these ideas.
I'd like to make one final point about the Synclavier and my other instruments - for me, the reverb unit that I've filtered and equalised has become one of the most important aspects now, and obviously the final sound of these instruments depends on my processing. I am looking forward to getting the new Lexicon Digital Reverb 224X, which has a whole series of digital 'plates' for situation effects (like cathedral, concert all and soon) that can be mixed as you want. And of course, I equalise reverb with 31-band EQ per channel!
Maybe one day I can afford my own Synclavier II to go with it!
Bernard Xolotl's LP 'Procession' can be obtained on mail order from Pulse Records, (Contact Details). Send cheque to Pulse Records for £5.50 (this includes p&p and VAT), enclosing your name and address.
Interview by Mike Beecher
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