Friday, November 06, 2015

GRM pt.3: What made Syter original

(Continued from pt.2)

an excerpt from the booklet about the Syter system at INA - GRM | Archives GRM (CD 4) - by Daniel Teruggi

Looking back on it now, it is not easy to describe just how original the tool was for the time. It was at this time that the first "black boxes" were beginning to appear in the shops, at very high prices, enabling users to do a limited amount of processing to sounds. It was impossible to programme these devices. They had a certain number of parameters which were determined in advance and could be controlled using buttons and potentiometers to simulate analogue devices. At the same time, the first samplers were appearing, enabling users to record a sound just a few seconds long into memory and then to replay it, by transposing it and modifying certain parameters.
Syter was all of that and much more besides: processing and synthesis tools, rapid memories, the possibility of reading and recording sounds in real time on a hard disk (500 Mb, which was considered to be absolutely fabulous at the time) and above all, the possibility of reprogramming the processing tools and building new ones to your heart's desire, using a modular programming approach. Syter was the potential book of magic on the basis of which all the existing processing and synthesis methods could be rethought and new processes imagined and designed. All of this had a cost, and the price of the system was such that only one institution was able to buy it (although it was only about 10 times the cost of a synthesiser or a digital processing box at the time), and it required maintenance engineers to keep it running.
The originality came from the fact that processing methods that had come from studio work, and which had been used from the outset for GRM concrete music, were made readily available, without the need to learn programming languages or to have an assistant constantly on hand. In other words, the real originality was to be found in the algorithms and the interfaces.
Concrete music and the use of electroacoustic studios had stabilised and modelled a certain number of sound-related operations on the basis of perception-based concepts. For example, an extremely powerful analogue studio process, "micro-editing", involved cutting minute fragments of sound from magnetic tape (using scissors!), which were then stuck end to end to create a new continuity. This principle was very successfully applied by the deferred time software and by Syter, making it possible to reorganise the material into new coherent sequences. This became known as "brewing". But brewing is not the end of the story, because the difficulty lies in controlling the way the brew comes together. Graphical interfaces, which these days are at the very heart of all computer technology, but which at the time were practically unheard of, were used to visualise the sound and the control parameters, and there was even an interpolation screen for exploring the intermediary terrain between two processing states.
Syter was a hit with musicians, both for studio work and instrumental work. In the studio, it could be easily built into the existing environment and breathed new life into the palette of processing possibilities. The system was essentially used for the processing of sound, meaning that the composer would record sounds and then modify them using the processing tools that were already built in, or by creating his own tools. In so doing, he would be faithful to the GRM tradition of processed sound, even though many hybrid processing techniques (between recorded sounds and synthesised sounds) provided entirely new kinds of sound. This material would then become (whether or not mixed with other sounds from other sources) the basis on which the composer would build his work.
Furthermore, at the time there was a unique relationship between composers and technical designers, who thanks to the modular programming techniques and their user-friendliness, could quickly build the tools necessary for creative work. A number of models that were later to become GRM Tools were a result ot this experimental relationship (in particular Doppler and Pitch Accum]. Once they had been built up, these algorithms were simple to implement, and integrated the whole palette of processing tools available in the system (around 40 different algorithms were designed and 15O variants of these basic algorithms).

An approach founded in pedagogy

The philosophy of the GRM has always been that the creator should work independently on his own process of composition, without the assistance of anybody else. Most composers had the training necessary to handle the techniques, to understand and work the analogue studio, and only in very rare cases were they assisted by the technician-musician. There was such a great interest in the deterred time software or the Syter system, and it was aimed at musicians of such varied backgrounds, that a training programme had to be set up in order to help them come to grips with the different systems. Man of these composers who came from an electroacoustic background, and many others were not familiar with studio techniques but who wished to become acquainted with them and develop projects bringing together instrumental and electroacoustic techniques. There were many other professionals from other fields: artists, radio and sound technicians, teachers or musicologists.
Week-long courses with small groups of trainees began to be organised 2 or 3 times a year, involving generally 6 to 8 participants (a total of 20 courses between 1985 and 1993]. During these courses, the system was explained and the participants had the chance to experiment and play with sounds. The objectives of these courses were manifold: the first was to provide composers with the training necessary for them to be autonomous in their work and to enable them to develop a project.
Another objective was to test the system with users. Because it was such an innovative system, using original approaches with regard to algorithms and interfaces, it had to demonstrate that it was up to the task and that the composers could use it easily and efficiently. Around 120 people followed these courses, and 80 works were composed, sometimes several of which were written by the same composer.

From pedagogy to production and concert presentation

Many of the composers were attracted by the possibilities offered in terms of the real time processing of acoustic sounds, and embarked on projects that brought together live instrumentalists, real time processing and recorded sounds. Others used the system in the studio, for acousmatic works, either to complement other existing studio technologies and tools, or sometimes as the sole production tool.
I was personally involved in this pedagogical and production aspect of the Syter system for some ten years. When it was first presented in-house in 1984, everybody underlined the technical prowess it had been to develop a system of that kind, but there was little enthusiasm on the part of the GRM composers, in light of the small number of existing algorithms and the fact that there were no instructions for use. I was fascinated by this approach and I proposed to Jean-François Allouis that I would help him in his project, in particular by explaining to composers how the system worked and by writing up a manual. We then organised the first training sessions in August 1985 and August 1986, and thereafter I took charge of the courses and production associated with the system and the development of variants of the instruments, in response to requests made by composers. I was therefore able to meet everybody who participated in the courses and I followed everything that was produced using Syter. I also played a great many works that involved Syter for the real time processing of instrumental sound Ia task that we became particularly involved in with Richard Bulski, the system technician, especially for moving it and setting it up for concerts).
I was able to gain an extensive and in-depth knowledge of how the system functioned, so much so that I was able to write my PhD dissertation on Syter (The Syter system, its history, development, musical production and implication in contemporary electroacoustic language, presented in December 1998 at the University of Paris VIII). I composed ten pieces on the system, some of which were with instruments, using the system only to produce electroacoustic sound, and others which were acousmatic, where a great deal of the sound creation work was done on Syter from start to finish. I began to move away from the system in around 1993, when it was beginning to become obsolete and when the first versions of GRM Tools were becoming available on Macintosh, designed and built by Hugues Vinet, who took much of his inspiration from the algorithms of Syter. I also realised, in 1993, that my life had been too wrapped up in the system, when a composer asked me seriously whether Syter was an acronym for System Teruggi!

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