Saturday, 14 January 2012

Peter Zinovieff on Inside Out

Zinvovieff with the Synthi 100
It’s great to see British electronic music pioneer Peter Zinovieff in this clip from the Cambridge regional programme Inside Out (starting about 17 minutes in), which shows him still exploring and dissecting new (or old) sounds – in this case, the clanking, steaming pistons of a Victorian gas pump engine. He’s interviewed in his house, which looks very nice indeed, painted in calming blue-sky tones with an open-sided staircase climbing up along the wall. It looks like it could be akin to the sort of farmhouse in which Daphne Oram set up her Oramics studio. It’s here that he works in his computer-based studio which, as he points out, offers him a magnitude of bytage (?) several million times greater than he had at his disposal when he first started making music with a computer in the early 60s. Vintage black and white footage shows him setting off his cabinet-sized computer on the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank (which also affords us a glimpse of the NFT, below Waterloo Bridge, as it was at the time) to play a piece of programmed systems music in a concert of electronic music. And is that Tristram Cary introducing the piece from his commentator’s booth perched above the auditorium? Those familiar with the Trunk Records compilation Fuzzy Felt Folk will probably be familiar with the sprightly, bouncing tune with its organ-drenched chorus used as the backdrop to some of these old BBC clips. It’s The Troll by Reg Tilsley, originally a piece of library music available from the de Wolfe label, which someone evidently felt was appropriate for the quirky nature of Zinovieff’s inventions.

The EMS VCS3 synthesiser
Cary was the co-founder with Zinovieff of EMS (Electronic Music Studios), where they developed the VCS3, an early model of synthesiser (the VCS stood for voltage controlled synthesiser). He also joined up with Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire, then both working for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, to form the independent electronic music studio Unit Delta Plus in 1966. This was how the VCS3, or ‘Putney’ as it was popularly known, came to be used as part of the Workshop’s sonic arsenal. Although it was only officially purchased on the say-so of Workshop head Desmond Briscoe in 1970 (at a knockdown price of £300), Hodgson and Derbyshire had been using their own instruments since 1967. They’d bring them into the Workshop studios and take them back to Unit Delta Plus in the evening. These small magic boxes provided many of the special effects for Doctor Who and other programmes in the latter part of the 60s. One of the great benefits of the VCS3 was its portability, something which, for all its manifold virtues, could not be said of its successor, the Synthi 100. This was a far larger affair which expanded considerably upon the VCS3’s capabilities. When the Radiophonic Workshop bought one (Briscoe having rapidly become a convert to EMS’ wares) the door to the studio at Maida Vale had to be widened to allow for it to be wheeled in and installed. It was christened the Delaware, in honour of the road in which the studios were located. It can be heard to great effect on Malcolm Clarke’s music for the Sea Devils, as well as on his fanfare opening the 1975 Radiophonic Workshop album, La Grande Piece de la Foire de la Rue Delaware. Delia Derbyshire also used it to striking effect in a live performance of Workshop music presented in the presence of the Queen at the Albert Hall in 1971. Her piece for the centenary of the Institute of Electrical Engineers, using a Synthi 100 borrowed from Zinovieff, set the stalls trembling with its low bass notes booming out of large speakers, particularly during a recording of the launch of the Apollo 11 rocket, perhaps setting Her Majesty’s jewellery rattling.

The VCS3 and its later offshoot the Synthi AKS (which added a sequencer and an octave controller and could be handily folded up into its case) were enthusiastically taken up by 70s pop and rock bands such as Hawkwind, Pink Floyd and Roxy Music. Their easy to use, intuitive controls (far easier to master than a Moog, at any rate) allowed for a wide range of electronic textures to be added to the standard rock instrumentation. The facility with which anyone with an ear could produce a musical noise was possibly what led Brian Eno (who used it in Roxy and beyond) to declare himself a non-musician. Zinovieff himself was no fan of pop or rock music, but was happy to find his and Cary’s inventions proving to be so popular. Composers like Stockhausen and Harrison Birtwistle came to use his studios, and he was able to use the income to pursue his own compositional ambitions, as well as inventing and researching new means for creating innovative sound. Keeping such a small and idealistic enterprise afloat proved difficult, however, and EMS eventually went bust in 1977. Zinovieff didn’t compose any further electronic music for many years, the equipment being simply too expensive. All of which makes it so gratifying to see him now, with the full, affordable potential of the modern computer at his command, blending mutated Bartok field recordings with the iron and steam rhythms of an old pumping engine. He’s clearly lost none of his exploratory imaginative power.

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