what the future sounded like (2006) full documentary on tristram cary, peter zinovieff, ems, and early electronic music in britain


From the performance of Peter Zinovieff’s Partita for Unattended Computer – Queen Elizabeth Hall, London (1967)

Electronic music was in there air yesterday. I posted my review of Carl Stone’s remarkable new release of early works on Unseen Worlds. Pitchfork put out a strange, but interesting list of 50 historic Ambient albums – introduced by the always brilliant Keith Fullerton Whitman. While The Guardian published an article, and restored recording of early computer music by the (later unjustly persecuted) mathematician Alan Turing – credited as being the first person to recognize and program a computer as a musical tool.

All of this brought back the memory of a wonderful Australian documentary from 2006, exploring the efforts of Tristram Cary and Peter Zinovieff (with the technological genius of David Cockerell). During the 1950’s and 60’s, the two composers occupied a central role in the advancement of British electronic and computer music  – culminating with their short lived, but profoundly influential synthesizer company Electronic Music Studios (EMS). They are among a handful of composers of this era, who’s ideas and ambitions out-stepped the possibilities of offered by the moment in which they were conceived – pushing them to embark on developing new technologies. As such, few better embody the Modernist spirit I mentioned when discussing Carl Stone. As in so many cases, particularly those occupying an avant-garde position, the music of Cary and Zinovieff is lost to all but a few – while the influence of the equipment designed to conceive it, continues to live on. While the sounds of Brain Eno, Hawkwind, and Pink Floyd are credited with changing the world, it’s worth remembering that it was from the silent position and achievements of experimental music, from which they grew.

By way of disclaimer, I am not a modular synthesizer guy. On the other hand, nearly every one of my closest friends is. One, who was also my flatmate in London for a number of years, is even a well respected builder and designer  – cluttering my life with resistors, capacitors, knobs, solder, and strange sounds for that period. For better or worse, these instruments permeate my life. I spent years standing to the side, listening to a language beyond my means – excited alien chatter about parts, processes, and practices. At the breaking point, I endeavored to gain enough insight to enter the opacity of their words. I read up, and watched some films. It helped. Of what I dove into,What the Future Sounded Like was among the most fascinating and enjoyable – which is why I offer it here. Though in many ways a documentary about the advancement of technology, these two men had a remarkable influence on the history of both popular and avant-garde music. It offers great insight into how sounds many of us take for granted, came to be. A just under a half an hour, it packed to the gills, and time well spent. If you are interested in electronic music and its history, there couldn’t be a better place to begin.

-Bradford Bailey


What the Future Sounded Like (2006)

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