Marta SmiLga: ‘Each time I’m synthesizing I can reach countless parallel realities’

Marta SmiLga* & asterisk untitled** are projects of Liga Smirnova, a Riga-based musician who lives for electronic music. Since early childhood, her main interest has been music, though her deep passion for electronic music and sound synthesis was established when she conducted in-depth research into electroacoustic music while studying musicology at the Latvian Academy of Music. As she is currently a product specialist at Erica Synths, her research into sound synthesis is continuing in an even more practical manner.

You researched electroacoustic music while studying musicology. Can you talk about your research?

The main idea of this research was to compile an overview of electroacoustic music in Latvia from its first occurrences during Soviet times till the end of 2014 – the composers, compositions, biggest events, performers etc. But, to be honest, overall I spent much more time reading synth user manuals, glossaries, books about the history of electronic music and electronic musical instruments, as well as books about acoustics and electronics, than interviewing composers and musicians. I did, however, collect most of the compositions (as audio files mostly) and it was really exciting and inspiring to spend all those hours listening to and analysing this music.

Maybe this research doesn’t give as great an overview as it could (and/or should?), but, as it’s the first research into this topic, I think it’s pretty OK. And I’m really happy that I could spend so much of my official studying time reading and listening to so many things that a classical education in the Department of Musicology would hardly mention. Maybe if I had studied in the Department of Composition I could have done even more, though I’m pretty sure that I couldn’t compose a single piece for acoustic instruments (which is the main part of the education in the Department of Composition), because I’m kind of obsessed with synthetic timbres & countless digital and analogue effects and I also want to perform and record my music by myself.

Does the history of electroacoustic music and experimental music influence you, and if so, which strands are most important to you?

Yes, I think it does. I really like music from the earliest period, when composers got their first devices. All the happiness and also craziness (for that time) about the exploration process that you can feel while listening to this music suits my own feelings about making music & synthesizing very well. Maybe nowadays all these sample-and-held sine/square waves in huge reverbs etc. that you can find in early pieces of electroacoustic/electronic music, as well as in the soundtracks of old sci-fi movies, are a little old fashioned, but I still can’t get enough of them. And modular synthesizers are perfect for creating that kind of music. Actually, electronic musical instruments influence me the most. I’m not the kind of composer who hears motifs and themes in my head, usually everything starts with one particular instrument, one particular patch, one particular timbre. As soon as I hear it with my ears, my brain starts to lead my hands over the instrument. That is a very magical moment, which educates, relaxes, entertains, gladdens, heals and makes happy my whole body and soul.

I really tried, but never got this while conducting, playing piano or singing. Thankfully, synthesizers can do wonders and each time I’m synthesizing I can reach countless parallel realities, parallel versions of the Matrix and so on and so forth. And, even though I don’t have so many synthesizers (there are three Korg keyboards, two Erica Synths systems and some small Korg & other manufacturer’s gadgets in my home studio), the possibilities of putting them all together are countless. I guess I could say that more synthesizers mean more problems, for example, when I sometimes try to patch something at the Erica Synths showroom it can be very confusing because there is a whole wall with Eurorack modules and more, and it takes a very long time to choose the starting point; natural random gambling with dice could be the best solution in that kind of situation and, probably, in making music in general too (I love any kind of randomness in music).

Can you talk about your work at the Riga-based synthesizer company Erica Synths?

Well, it is a very happy chapter in my life as well in my music making career. I started working at Erica Synths about two and a half years ago. In the beginning, I was testing and packing modules, during that time I learned so much from the testing process itself and also from my great colleagues (and there was a lot to learn for me, but I think I can learn almost anything as long as it really fascinates me). I also started to make music intensively. The more I made music, the more I understood each module and so could test them more professionally. The more I tested, the more I “heard” and found and explored new ideas for my music. This process still continues, though at the moment one of my main tasks at Erica Synths is planning and coordinating the manufacturing process (as much as I love the random in music, I need everything to be organised in daily life and at work). It’s really inspiring to see the whole long process, from the moment my ingenious colleagues discuss their ideas, talk about new products, create the first prototypes (and I have the great opportunity to try them out), to seeing how all the gaps in the plan gradually get filled in, till the moment someone writes an email about the module he or she just got (I also answer emails related to the tech support).

Of course, quite often these emails contain questions that people could answer themselves if they read the user manual, but sometimes there are some pretty interesting questions about the modules I use each day, but haven’t thought about using them in the way someone describes, so I can learn from that too. Also, I’ve travelled to many synths exhibitions. It’s sometimes pretty hard to carry all the synths around, but I really enjoy chatting about music and synths with our customers and other manufacturers at these events. I could say, however, that I’m really not the most talkative person when I’m among people I don’t know in new places etc.: synthesizers (and also Tuna the Cat, who is our office cat) are the only things I can talk about anywhere and with anyone who is also interested in this topic. That’s what I’m really passionate about. And I’m really happy and very grateful that something like this happens in Riga, Latvia and that I can be a part of it. Lately, all my life has been about synthesizers and electronic music and I hope that it stays that way forever (even in other dimensions and alternative versions of the Matrix).

You have a new project called “asterisk untitled”. Can you talk about it and how it differentiates from your solo project under your own name?

Mostly I express myself as “Marta SmiLga” (my real name is Liga Smirnova), that’s why even my business card says “Marta SmiLga”; all I’ve said previous is mostly related to Marta. But there is another side of my personality, which I have named “asterisk untitled”. Sometimes it can be really weird, a little aggressive, arrogant, edgy, self-obsessed, rude etc. and I’m a little scared of it, so I express it (I call it ‘heavenly noise’) and explore it quite slowly so I don’t hurt myself or anyone around me (by the way, I really recommend using earplugs while listening to asterisk’s performances). I guess I could call this something like a manifestation of all the things that annoy me in this world. And pure noise and primitive rhythmic structures help me to deal with them and make something (good?..) out of it. I guess it’s quite banal, though; if we look through the history of music, most of the greatest pieces made by brilliant composers are all about different kinds of problems, sadness, illness, even death. At least, no one dies in my music (the last two sentences are a joke, more or less).

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