It really is impossible to overstate the fact that most of the music around us sounds the way it does today because of an electronic revolution that happened primarily in the 1960s and 70s (with roots stretching back to the turn of the century). While folk and rock and roll solidified the sound of the present on home hi-fis and coffee shop and festival stages, the sound of the future was crafted behind studio doors and in scientific laboratories. What the Future Sounded Like, the short documentary above, transports us back to that time, specifically in Britain, where some of the finest recording technology developed to meet the increasing demands of bands like the Beatles and Pink Floyd.
Much less well-known are entities like the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, whose crew of engineers and audio scientists made what sounded like magic to the ears of radio and television audiences. “Think of a sound, now make it,” says Peter Zinovieff “any sound is now possible, any combination of sounds is now possible.” Zinovieff, London-born son of an émigré Russian princess and inventor of the hugely influential VCS3 synthesizer in 1969, opens the documentary—fittingly, since his technology helped power the futuristic sound of progressive rock, and since, together with the Radiophonic Workshop’s Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, he ran Unit Delta Plus, a studio group that created and promoted electronic music.
Also appearing in the documentary is Tristram Cary, who, with Zinovieff, founded Electronic Music Studios, one of four makers of commercial synthesizers in the late sixties, along with ARP, Buchla, and Moog. Zinovieff and Carey are not household names in part because they didn’t particularly strive to be, preferring to work behind the scenes on experimental forms and eschewing popular music even as their technology gave birth to so much of it. The aristocratic Zinovieff and pipe-smoking, professorial Carey hardly fit in with the crowd of rock and pop stars they inspired.
In hindsight, however, Zinovieff desires more recognition for their work. “One thing which is odd, is that there’s a missing chapter, which is EMS, in all the books about electronic music. People do not know what incredible mechanical adventures we were up to.” Those adventures included not only creating new technology, but composing never-before-heard music. Both Zinovieff and Carey continue to create electronic scores, and Carey happens to be one of the first adopters in Britain of musique concrète, the proto-electronic music pioneered in the 1940s using tape machines, microphones, filters, and other recording devices, along with found sounds, field recordings, and ad hoc instruments made from non-instrument objects. (See examples of these techniques in the clip above from the 1979 BBC documentary The New Sound of Music.)
Many of the sounds that emerged from Britain’s electronic music founders came out of the detritus of World War II. Carey’s first serious studio design, he says, “coincided with the post-war appearance of an enormous amount of junk from the army, navy, and air force. For someone who knew what to do, and could handle a soldering iron, and could design audio equipment, even if you only had 30 shillings in your pocket, you could get something.” With their knowledge of electronics and hodge-podge of technology, Carey and his compatriots were designing an avant-garde electronic “high modernity,” author Trevor Pinch declares. “I think you can think of people like Tristan Carey as dreaming of a future soundscape of London.” Nowadays, those sounds are as familiar to us as the music piped over the speakers in restaurants and shops. One wonders what the future after the future these pioneers designed will sound like?
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