THE FRENCH ARTIST ZANOV IS KNOWN FOR HIS SPACEY SYNTHESIZER MUSIC WITH LAYERED ANALOGUE SOUNDS AND PROGRESSIVE STRUCTURES. BEHIND HIS MUSIC OFTEN LIES A PROFOUND PHILOSOPHY NOT INFREQUENTLY BASED ON HIS OWN EXPERIENCES AND THESES BOTH AS A SCIENTIST AND MUSICIAN. THE VIRTUOSO IS NOW 76 YEARS OLD, BUT STILL ACTIVE IN MAKING PROGRESSIVE SYNTHESIZER MUSIC. HIS NEW ALBUM ‘LOST IN THE FUTURE’ CARRIES THE CONCEPT OF THE FUTURE AND THE SORT OF QUESTIONS WE SHOULD ASK OURSELVES WITH THIS THEME.
How long did it take to complete ‘Lost In The Future’?
“It took me about eighteen months to complete this album. It is a long time, but it comes from my composition and recording process and also my way of thinking about the music I am creating. My way of composing is still that of the 70s in the sense that I don’t use current techniques of copy/paste or loops, I make all my sounds and I bring my sound material to life, I don’t do meta- music. I record all the synths simultaneously on the first pass of the entire song. I do a lot of experimentation to get the consistency and overall structure of the song. Then, I record the other sounds one by one on several tracks. I spend a lot of time and attention creating sounds, sound structures and sound combinations to achieve the aesthetic and feeling that moves me. I also spend a lot of time on the final mix, listening not only in the studio but also on iPhone, paying attention to all the details and not giving up any modifications.”
It’s a somewhat melancholy-sounding album. Almost ‘dark’, if you know what I mean.
“It was not my intention to make a ‘dark’ album, and I do not feel it that way. My purpose was to express my questioning about the distant future and my powerlessness to imagine scientific and technological developments as well as their impacts on human society. I don’t see a dark future, but maybe my feeling of the unknown has something to do with melancholy.”
Do the song titles point back to topics that concern you regarding the future?
“My musical personality was formed by the combination of my scientific training, my obsession with imagining the distant future and my refusal of the musical constraints of the past. So, questioning the future and the evolution is part of me, which means it has always been part of my music. My previous album ‘Chaos Islands’ was a questioning about what is driving the evolution, in the light of the so called chaos theory, which has been guiding my thinking for a very long time. How very simple rules, without anything random, can create very complex systems which have completely unpredictable results ? This new album ‘Lost In The Future’ is a questioning about the distant future. I organized this album around today’s scientific ideas, trying to imagine the most surprising discoveries that will change our future. What will happen when we master gravity, master quantum effects on a human scale, live with intelligent robots, cure every disease in the human body, communicate directly from brain to brain, exceed the speed of light and will travel to any planet in our galaxy and beyond? Everything that is impossible today can be possible in a million years, a billion years, we have time if we do not destroy our planet ourselves. I would love to be there. These are the words which would be in my songs if they were not instrumental.”
Talking about words; how about a Zanov album with vocals?
“Actually, I’ve already tried that, in 1981. I began composing a fourth album entitled ‘Nous reprenons nos Avenir’ [We are taking back our Future], which was never released. It was composed with a new concept mixing music, poetry spoken in French, processed by vocoders, synthesizers and deeply integrated into the music, and even a video composed on an analog video synthesizer. But when I tried to mix the lyrics from my voice and those processed by the vocoder, I couldn’t get lyrics that were both musical enough and comprehensible enough, which was very important to me. In 1983, following changes in my private life, I no longer had enough time to compose music and I decided to take a long break. At the same time, I also made a promise to myself to return to musical creation when life allowed me enough time to fully commit. 2014 was the time to keep my promise. I decided to start again from ‘Nous reprenons nos Avenir’, to leave aside the lyrics, and to compose new parts and new pieces with an Arturia Origin synthesizer. 32 years after the start, the 4th album ‘Virtual Future’ was born. But I have no plans to try vocals again.“
Your compositions are constantly evolving. Even on your new album, you bypass the pop cliché of reciprocal melodies based on a recognisable rhythm. Since the debut ‘Green Ray’ you have a very distinctive style of making music. What led you to this particular way of composing?
“From the start, I pushed all musical constraints out of my head. That’s what brought me to synthesizers. Sounds, combinations of sounds, sound structures come directly to my mind at any time, during the night and I can feel them in my head. I build my own sounds, I give them life, I evolve them, I combine them and I compose what I feel. In life, there are stable and chaotic periods. There are events that happen, surprises, order, disorder. I organise my songs like that, I make all my sounds. They have hidden relationships between them and they evolve over time. In my music, I pay attention to aesthetics, technique and emotion. To add emotion, I try to build the basis of the whole song as if it were live. I try to make music that is aesthetically beautiful and capable of surprising with unusual structures.“
The Zanov sound is warm and analogue. Do you use real synthesizers or softsynths like a lot of other artists do?
“No, I don’t use software synths. For me, touching the knobs and sliders on the hardware and visualizing them with the lights on the panels is part of my creative process. My setup and recording process hasn’t changed much since the previous album. An Arturia Origin keyboard, Access Virus TI keyboard, Arturia MatrixBrute for synths and a Dave Smith Tempest drum machine. iMac, Pro Tools, Berhinger X32 for recording. Everything is synchronized with a Midi clock generated by an Arturia BeatStep Pro. The Arturia Origin offers me the visibility of modulars, even if it is through a screen. The Virus TI offers me a lot of sound possibilities, but access is difficult. Both provide numerous functions in multi mode which allow access to several presets at the same time, in polyphony, in split keyboard. I use the MatrixBrute more as a complement, for the simplicity of its matrix, and therefore for the sequencer. The Tempest is used for its functions of creating synthetic percussion sounds.”
How did you become an electronic music artist? What was your influence and was there a moment when you decided to become a synthesizer wizard?
“I started playing piano at the age of six with an archaic method that made me hate the music I was making. I started working at seventeen and bought myself a guitar. For five years I was part of a band with whom I played in nightclubs. I was thinking in terms of sounds and I couldn’t get what I really wanted from my guitar. I’ve always had a forward-looking mind and felt the need to create sound structures that didn’t exist anywhere other than in my head. I had finished my studies and in the summer of 1975, as part of my work as a computer engineer during an English training trip, I met a French musician Serge Ramsès. We toured the music stores in London and I discovered devices that would perhaps allow me to satisfy my need for sonic creativity: synthesizers! When I returned, I took out a loan and bought myself a VCS3. After a few months, I added a 4-track tape recorder and a small mixing desk to record my first compositions. I had to study and experiment extensively with VCS3 to find the techniques that gave me the sounds I wanted. I try not to let myself be influenced by other composers. But it must happen unintentionally. At that time, the music that had the most impact on me were Pink Floyd with their song ‘Echoes’ and their album ‘Wish You Were Here’. Tangerine Dream with their ‘Ricochet album and King Krimson’s ‘ In The Court Of The Crimson King’. I never set out to become a synthesis wizard. It is through my scientific training and my quest to innovate with sounds and musical structures that I became the musician that I am.”
You do not often play concerts. Why not?
“Well, I love doing concerts, but there are two reasons for this rarity. The first comes from my choice of wanting to play pieces from my albums entirely live, without back tracks and without a computer. When you record a piece of music, you use the same synthesizers several times to make simultaneous sounds. But when you’re in concert, you can’t anymore. You must therefore reconstruct your pieces by other means using the particularities of your synths. I had to use keyboard sharing, multi-preset, midi channels, sustain pedals, and other tricks extensively on the Arturia Origin and the Virus TI. It takes a lot of time to re-compose and to play there are a lot of things to memorize which are totally different for each piece. Not to mention the original videos that I created myself. To make ninety minutes of concert, I spent four hundered hours making the videos. The second reason comes from the fact that, when all this is ready, you have to find venues and festivals that accept progressive, new age electronic music. For sure, once the concert was set up, I would have liked to do more. For the first concert at SynthFest France 2017, I had a video professionally produced. Those interested can obtain the limited edition dvd on my website, Bandcamp or Discogs.”
Can you tell anything about your future plans?
“Quite easy, I have no plan. I have not yet decided anything. The only thing I know is that I have a lot of musical ideas and will continue to satisfy my need for musical creation, but I’m leaving the future open.”
Thank you very much, Pierre.