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


Electronic instruments have played a part in helping to innovate and shape music over many decades. Musical eras came and went, but the synthesizer continued to evolve with more features, including the advent of Virtual Studio Technology. Today, there are 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 value of synthesizers.

By Arkteknologies

(Pictures Courtesy of SMEM)

How did the smem begin? and what inspired the vision to create it?

The idea of a museum has been in the mind of collector Klemens Trenkle for a long time.
He collected these instruments with the idea that they are part of our culture – that the
engineers who built these instruments were also artists in their own way. But the smem became real last year when the collection was moved from a place near Lucerne
(Switzerland) to Fribourg (Switzerland). In Fribourg, a small group of people helped the
collector to bring his idea to life by creating a structure, finding new ideas, expanding alot on the initial idea of a museum to a center, etc.


How long has the Museum been open?

I have to 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 part is mostly 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 storage room will become visitable by small groups

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

We currently have no curator. We’re a non-profit organization in its growing stages. We’re working on the funding of the smem too. Some people give us new instruments and we take them if they bring value to 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 offered to give us a Buchla 400 prototype. The value of the current
collection gives people the security to give us new things. They know we will care. Finding the history of each instrument is impossible. There are too many items. What we do is record what the collector says about specific instruments with the idea to transfer that into articles in the future. For the majority of our instruments, we can find infos on the internet or through manufacturers. But, because there are duplicates in our collection, what we can’t find on the internet is the special history of each unit : what were they used for? Who played them? etc. We need Klemens Trenkle (the collector) for that.

What type of instruments do you have on display?

We have a storage room that can people can visit on request. There, 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. However, there are a lot of different ways to determine in
which way it is unique: from an engineering point of view, a user point of view, the 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 appreciate the small
differences. What is interesting about synthesizer history is that each manufacturer seems to invent something for each of their new creations. 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 just in the past 40 years. If you care about the history of proto-synths, you will find a lot of great ideas. And nowadays, it continues to be an extremely innovative field. If you look at the current eurorack movement, there are a lot of new ideas. These 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 in Fribourg for a gig and come to visit the deposit. Also, it’s quite a unique place, so yes, people do come from far away.

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

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

Do you have a favorite Electronic Instrument?

I love the Korg MS-20. Never get 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 have just launched a series of events called “Gate”. The first edition has already
taken place on May 11, 2018. The second one 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?

We want the smem to become a center with different activities, based on the need of 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 create a lot of things. There’s a lot of
energy in this enterprise!

Where can people find you online?

Thank you!