Immortalizing sounds from the past…….. Interview with Vincent Borcard from SMEM – The Swiss Museum & Center for Electronic Music Instruments



Electronic Instruments has played a part in helping to innovate and shape music over many decades. As different music eras came and went, the Synthesizer continued to evolve with more features, including the advent of Virtual Studio Technology. Today it’s so many options in how we can create, but having an actual vintage instrument is like owning a piece of music history. In this interview Vincent Borcard from The Swiss Museum & Center for Electronic Music Instruments, elaborates on the historic and cultural values of synthesizers.

By Arkteknologies

(Pictures Courtesy of SMEM)

How did the SMEM Schweizer Museum begin? and what inspired the vision to create it?

The idea of a museum was in the mind of the collector, Klemens Trenkle, since a long time ago. He collected these instruments with the idea that they’re part of our culture – that the engineers who build these instruments were kind of artists too. But the smem became real last year with the transport of the collection from a place near Lucerne (Switzerland) to Fribourg (Switzerland). At Fribourg, a small group of people help the collector to bring her idea to life by creating a structure, finding new ideas, expanding a lot the initial idea of a museum to a center, etc.

How long has the Museum been open?

I must first clarify something. We’re not a traditional museum at all. The official name of the smem is “smem – Swiss Museum & Center for electronic music instruments.” Currently, the museum if just a long-term vision. We’re working first to develop activities with the idea that the instruments must be played. We are working on a big database of all our archive too. In a near future, the deposit will become visitable by small groups (a Schaulager in german).

What role does the Curator play to help the staff oversee the operations of the museum?

We have currently no curator. We’re a non-profit organization in a growing stage. We’re working on the funding on the smem too. Some people give us new instruments and we take them if they have an added value for the collection.

We noticed that you have a variety of electronic instruments from the past 40 years. What is the process of attaining them for collections? and how do you find the history of each one?

To find an instrument, we need some luck sometimes. For example, a couple, who came to see us at an event, offer to give us a Buchla 400 prototype. The value of the current collection gives people the security to give us new stuff. They know we will care. Find the history of each instrument is impossible. There are to many items. What we do know is to record the collector speaking about specific instruments with the idea to translate that into articles in the future. About a lot of our instruments, we can find infos on the internet or through manufacturers but, because there are multiple, what we can’t find on the internet is the special history of each unit : what were they used to ? Who played on them ? Etc. We need Klemens Trenkle (the collector)for that.

What type of instruments do you have on display?

We have a kind of deposit that can be visited on request. So you can see every single piece of the collection. In the mid-term, we will open a kind of showroom with really unique synths displayed : prototypes, rare synths, unknown synths, etc.

Is there a certain criteria that is needed for a instrument to be included in the exhibit?

Yes. It should be really unique but there are a lot of lenses possible to determine if it’s special : engineer point of view, user point of view, history of the instrument, etc.

Do you think that each instrument has its own sound
and character, based on the era in which it was made?

For sure! But sometimes, you really have to train your ear to enjoy the small differences. What is interesting about synthesizer history is that each manufacturer seems to invent something for each of her new creation. It’s really not a kind of rationalized production where every person uses the same components, the same engineering process, etc. There’s a lot of creativity in this industry and not only in the past 40 years. If you care about the history of proto-synths, you will a lot of great ideas. And now, it continues to be extremely inventive. If you see the current eurorack movement : there are a lot of new ideas. Theses engineering processes explain the sound character of each synth.

SMEM seems to be a very fun and educational atmosphere for everyone of all ages to visit. Since the Museum is based in Switzerland, do you get a lot of international tourists as well?

Yes. We have a lot of visits. Most of them come from artists who make a stop at Fribourg for a gig and come to visit the deposit. Too, it’s quite a unique place, so yes, people come from far away.

Are there any electronic instruments that is available to be played by the visiting public?

It will be the case up from the 1st of September 2018. We will open the “playroom.” A place with 30 instruments ready to be played and recorded. To fund the “playroom,” we will launch a Kickstarter campaign on June 1, 2018. It is at the core of our mission : give people access to these instruments.

Do you have a favorite Electronic Instrument?

I love the Korg MS-20. Never tired of using it. I personally own the new reissue (the small one).

We noticed that the SMEM holds different events and activities, so do you often have Speakers or Music Performances there?

Yes. We had just launched a series of events called “Gate.” The first had already taken place on May 11, 2018. The second will take place on September 29, 2018. We will have Keith Fullerton Whitman for a live act and a talk.

What do you see for the future of the Museum as it continues to grow?

Become a center with different activities based on the need for the public but also on the needs of artists and the industry. We really want to develop the smem and use the collection as a starting point to make a lot of things. There’s a lot of energy in this enterprise!

Where can people find you online?

Thank you!