Janine Wiggli: the engineer behind the musician

We visited Muriaux, in the Jura area, to meet with Janine Wiggli, the wife of the famous swiss composer Oscar Wiggli. We learned that this quiet character is actually behind many instruments used by Oscar for his experiments, and, having noticed a lack of informations about her, we seeked to further understand her role and her perspective.


Studies and meeting Oscar

Janine was studying photography at the Fine Arts Academy of Nantes when she decided to visit Paris. Still in Fine Arts, this time she joins a painting class, however she is soon attracted to the practice of sculpting due to the proximity of these workshops with the ones used by the painters. She promptly joins a beginner sculpting class. Under the supervision of a rather strict professor, she throws away or destroys most of her initial creations… Until one day where she is told that the sculpture she just created deserves to be kept, a task that requires specific molding skills. She is sent to a more experienced sculptor who is meant to help her with this task : he’s Oscar Wiggli. From there, she starts to develop an interest for his various artistic endeavors, of which music is already a part. Discovering the world of experimental music will drive her to shift her studies towards engineering and computer science, at the engineering school of Biel/Bienne. When she mentions her interest for electronic music to her professors, she isn’t really met with much understanding. This is all happening at the beginning of the 1980s.

Using her newfound coding skills (Basic, Kobol, …) coupled with her recent electronics class at the engineering school, she starts helping Oscar to manufacture musical instruments. Together, Janine and Oscar create their first modular synthesizer, called PAiA. She keeps helping him by creating various electronic tools allowing the musician to make better use of his multiple instruments. Janine is also lending a hand in her husband’s forge (where he does metal sculpting), as well as in their mutual darkroom, developing film, but her main area of interest is definitely music.



The column of white instruments at the center have been manufactured by Janine to better exploit Oscar’s many modular systems (Roland System-100)

Creating the SYHAMO

Perhaps the most remarkable outcome of the collaboration between Janine and Oscar is the SYHAMO, a “computer-controlled hybrid audio system”. This unique instrument was borne out of Oscar’s with to create an object that responds to the influences of its environment, and that creates sounds out of that. So, Janine got to work and built this complex arrangement of sensors, synthesizers, control computers (Commodore 64) and speakers, all from scratch. The SYHAMO responds to changes in luminosity, temperature and distance with its surroundings: based on these combinations of data, the composition software inside the computers (also crafted by Janine) control the synthesizers which sound is then transmitted  live to the integrated speakers (video here). The SYHAMO travels a lot: it’s transported to various museums and institutions for exhibition purposes, throughout the ‘80s and ’90s. It’s handled by many curious individuals before finally being set up in Oscar’s library. It still works to this day, a testimony to the durability of its construction.



The SYHAMO, front and back

(source of the illustrations and informations : SYHAMO — Janine et Oscar Wiggli — La vie des sons, Editions IROISE, ISBN 2-940091-11-0)

The link between Janine and Oscar

There’s a number of documentaries out there explaining Oscar’s creative drive, be it in music, sculpting or even photography. Janine even tells us about a notation technique he had developed in order to make his musical ideas meet with his visual ideas. When visiting his studio, we notice piles of notebooks, recordings and notes that retrace his artistic life exhaustively. Many of these documents remain unexplored to this day, even by Janine.

Janine describes Oscar as a rather discreet and reserved character, whose research processes generally remained private. For her part, she’s more open to sharing details of their collaboration and the origin of Oscar’s ideas. Despite all that, she explains her role as the assistant, always behind her husband’s back, but with little interest for the spotlight. The results of her own artistic activities are hardly accessible. Nonetheless, she practices photography throughout her life, still equipped with her Nikon camera to this day… She tells us that her vision of photography didn’t align with Oscar’s and that, consequently, they never really practiced it together. By the end of our discussion, it appears obvious that Janine’s ideas and help were crucial for many projects that bear Oscar Wiggli’s name. This is absolutely fine by her: she insists on saying that Oscar had his own world and identity, and that she didn’t get involved in that. She looks proud of having carried the role of technician, always ready to enable Oscar’s next crazy idea.

- Victorien Genna / 16.09.22