I am very proud to present you, dear visitor, an interview with Bernard Szajner, the real inventor of the first laser harp ever made. The interview consists of 4 parts, concerning general questions, technical issues, Jean-Micel Jarre and questions about the person Bernard Szajner.
I would like to thank Bernard for taking his time to answer all my questions, sending pictures, drawing sketches and sending me a valuable symbolic gift: An EPROM with the computer software of his laser harp, which is the last one in existence. If you like to see it, please click here.
1. First of all, when and how did the idea of the laser harp pop up in your mind? What was the intension to build it?
I have been working for 30 years with visuals. In the 80′s, I was making projections (slides and special effects) for rock groups on stage (these were named “light shows” and the principle originated in the USA in the 70′s, one of the most famous groups to use light shows was “grateful dead”). Later on, I was the first in France to use lasers for visual effects. To be able to pay for all my experimental visual equipment (making visuals for music groups was no way to make any money), I made visual effects for “events” and “trade shows”. This enabled me to buy my first “powerful” laser, a 4w argon from spectra-physics.
At some point, I made a show in the Paris planetarium where experimental electronic musicians would perform live improvised music and I would improvise visuals projected on the dome of the planetarium. I became excited at the idea that maybe I could produce the music myself in order to try the best possible match between music and visuals. Then, came the desire to play concerts and it became necessary to find a way to play “live” and it struck me that I should create instruments (or rather interfaces between my body and the synths) that would correspond to my ideas of producing music live. As I had been using lasers to provide a visualization of music, I had the idea to reverse the process and wonder if it would be possible to generate music from laser light. As in my work with lasers, I had used “diffraction gratings” to split the beam into many beams, it quickly struck me that these separated beams were like a luminous keyboard and that I should find a way to trigger notes while “touching” these beams. This was the beginning of the laser harp (the name became obvious as the beams separated by a diffraction grating created a shape bearing a resemblance to an acoustic harp).
2. Did you build the laser harp completely on your own? Or did you get help from other people (I have heard of Denis Carnus and Claude Lifante)? If so, what role did they exactly play?
Denis Carnus, I met as the harp was only in my mind. He had created the first ever digital sequencer, providing CVs, memorizing what was played on a keyboard or programmed step by step. It was a fantastic piece of technology named “Polysequencer MDB”. When he arrived on the project, I had just made the first version of the harp. A simple triangle with the cells, interfaced to the expanders via a CV circuit made by Didier Badez (another electronic wizard). Then, with Denis, the second version was developed where he remembers interfacing the cells via a modified version of his “Polysequencer MDB”. Denis Carnus also went on JMJ’s China tour but mostly to take care of a laser “drawing” system used to generate visuals.
Claude Lifante built an accessory to the harp : a diamond shaped object, made of a steel frame and covered with aluminium, about 1 meter diameter, standing on a tripod close to the harp. The object was motorized and the the diamond shape would open like a flower, revealing luminous perspex rods (about 3cm diameter and various heights), forming a luminous sculpture. Each rod was either a push/push switch or the knob of a potentiometer. All these remote controlled (via CV) the parameters of the synthesizers). When JMJ went on tour in China, Claude built the version of the laser harp for him (it was a much simpler but more spectacular version) and went along on the tour, in charge of the laser. The Electronics and synthesizer controls were made for JMJ by Michel Geiss (an electronics musician and synthesizer specialist who setup entirely JMJs first instruments).
3. I read in the article you sent that your laser harp would cost 25.000,- Pounds. Did you bing the money on your own? Or did you have sponsors, and if so, who? And how did you “catch” them?
Part of the explanation is above (it was not sponsors but companies like Renault or Dior, etc, for whom I made laser shows for their presentations). This work paid for the research and the equipment. The sum of 25000 Pounds is a bit strange. If I remember well (and I don’t), the Argon laser and optical bench and associated bits of plumbing, cables, transformer, etc, must have cost around 10000 at that time. The synths, approximately 5000 pounds, the Polysequencer, approximately 2500. Didiers interface another 2500. The other 5000 must have been between the controller (made by Claude Lifante), the costs of the various metal structural elements (the “triangle” of the harp was also motorized and would “unfold” before playing) and fly cases for transport.
1. What kind of laser did you use (type and power)?
Spectra Physics Argon (oem type : not with solid external casing), 5W
2. How did you do the beam scanning (laser scanner with blanking? beam splitters?)?
I used a transmission type diffraction grating, 1500 or 2000 or 3000 lines per inch (cannot remember)
3. How did you callibrate your harp so that the beams exactly hit the cells?
Actually, we marked the place where the beams hit the horizontal frame and drilled the holes at those places to place the cells inside. Very unscientific but very practical.
4. I saw on your pictures that the beams are quite wide (not the typical laser beam/dot). How did you do this?
This was due to the fact that the beams arrived the laser harp via a fiber optic conductor which made the beams diverge.
5. Did your laser harp work with C/V and gate or with MIDI? Or with something different?
CV and gate.
6. What kind of sensors did you use? I use photo resistors in mine, but hey have a huge disadvantage: The harp starts playing random notes if its not completely dark. I also can’t use a lot of smoke. Did you have the problem of random notes? If so, how did you solve it?
I also used photo resistors. If I remember well, the problem of the level of the external light was done in the following way : all photoresistors were controlling each one a transistor and all those transistors’s gain were controlled by a voltage of some sort and controlled by one single potentiometer for all. Again, if I remember well, the concept was to turn the pot to lower the sensitivity of the cells, in manner that, only the beams that were hitting the cells would be capable of triggering those cells because they were brighter than the random exterior light.
7. What did you do against light emitted by other sources like spots, hall-lights, stage-lights, and so on?
My cells being placed on a horizontal metal bar were facing the floor, therefore being 180° away from the stage lights which were high above. The floor being generally dark would not reflect enough light to bother the cells. I do remember anyway that I would always turn all stage lights at a very low level. This made the cells quite unsensitive to those lights and created a better contrast to view the laser beams. In this way, I did not need a lot of smoke to visualize the beams. I do remember a couple of occasions, particularly during a concert outside where, as there was wind, it had been necessary to blow a lot of smoke. The wind was random and sometimes there would be a correct proportion to view the beams, sometimes the smoke got lost and the beams became briefly invisible, and once in a while, there was too much and the cells would go wild but although it was a bit scary to play in those conditions, I quite liked this difficulty of playing with unpredictable events. The public didn’t notice anything, for them it was all magic.
1. When and how did Jean-Michel Jarre contact you and asking for a laser harp?
I really don’t remember when. What I remember is that he did not come to me directly to meet me or have a look at the instrument. He had his manager (Mr. Dreyfus) invite me to his office and tell me that they had heard about my laser harp and how much money would I want to let JMJ use it for the China tour. Then, a meeting with JMJ was arranged in a Japanese restaurant in Paris. I have no particular souvenir of what was exchanged during the dinner except that the conversation must have been about the possibilities of the laser harp. JMJ appeared to be very friendly. We did not meet again after that but as no firm decision had been taken by me that evening, he called me a few times on the phone the following days until I gave a final OK.
2. Have you been with JMJ on the China tour?
No, I was too busy to go on the tour (I had a concert programmed for the date when JMJ would arrive in China), and I had to earn a living parallel to my musical activities. However, I do remember that for some years after that, I had a fly case with stickers in chinese on it. It must have been containing the equipment for the laser writing and drawing system which I let him use.
1. What are you doing now? Are you still working with lasers/shows?
I stopped doing laser shows when too many people started making “a business” of it, forgetting that it was a creative medium first of all. I then spend some years creating (with a team of sculptors, mechanical experts and elctronic people) robots of human aspect, their mechanical movements being computer controlled (as you find in Disney’s amusement parks for example). Then I went off to creating “simulators” for the leisure industry (platforms that move, synchronised to a video projection) in partneship with people specialised in 3 dimensional films and projection systems. Nowadays, I still take care of these simulator attractions but, in a more general way, I create attractions (using all kinds of techniques) for amusement parks. I also do some work for museums and once in a while, I create an event (but not with lasers in particular, they are each different).
2. I read that you are playing and recording electronic music…
It is quite an impossible task to speak well and briefly about my music. In very few words, I was always considered as “composer” more than a musician as I had not training in music. It has always been considered by journalists that I created a hybrid “avant-garde” music that would blend rock themes and tempos with abstract sounds and ambiences and sometimes leading to classical tones. I am personally not at ease in classifications. All my albums were totally different to me but probably had more in common that I would know. Finally, one thing I can say for sure is that, although I am, as every person, attracted by music that is expressed in “major” mode, I tend spontaneously to create “minor” mode music. This clearly means that my music mostly sounds dark, nostalgic and sometimes harsh if not violent. I have no idea why, as I consider myself quite pleased with life, but that’s the way it is. If you are very patient, you might hear some bits of my music in the following way : try a search motor (Google seems to work) and punch in my full name. In the list (you will find quite a few things including some that do not relate to music) you should find sites that sell music on the net and are distributing a CD re-edition by Spalax (a french label specialized in re-editions of mostly german musicians of the 80′s such as Can, Ash ra tempel, etc). I believe some of those sites may play bits of the CD.
Here is my discography :
- Visions of Dune (Zed) – 1979 – Pathe/EMI
- Some Deaths take Forever – 1980 – Pathe/EMI
- Superficial Music – 1981 – IRC
- Back to Siberia (the Prophets) – 1981 – Epic
- Wallenberg (the Prophets) – 1982 – Hypothetical records
- Brute Reason – 1983 – Island records
- Around the World with the Prophets (the Prophets) – 1983 – Epic
- The big Scare – 1985 – New Rose
- La vie en rose (compilation) – 1985 – New Rose
- Indécent délit – 1986 – New Rose
- Visions of Dune – 1999 – CD release by Spalax
- Some Deaths take Forever’ – 2000 – CD release by Spalax
- Death and other small Illusions – 2004 – no label yet
3. Is there a Website of you?