What the Future Sounded Like: Documentary Tells the Forgotten 1960s History of Britain’s Avant-Garde Electronic Musicians

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?

What the Future Sound­ed Like will be added to our col­lec­tion of Doc­u­men­taries, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Two Doc­u­men­taries Intro­duce Delia Der­byshire, the Pio­neer in Elec­tron­ic Music

Meet Four Women Who Pio­neered Elec­tron­ic Music: Daphne Oram, Lau­rie Spiegel, Éliane Radigue & Pauline Oliv­eros

The His­to­ry of Elec­tron­ic Music Visu­al­ized on a Cir­cuit Dia­gram of a 1950s Theremin: 200 Inven­tors, Com­posers & Musi­cians

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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  • Cathy says:

    Yes and yes but also not. From the late 60s onwards the increas­ing glob­al­i­sa­tion of disc cul­ture meant the devel­op­ment of elec­tron­ic music was pro­found­ly influ­enced nay reimag­ined by US black Afro soul funk and dis­co — dance music. Why do the Bea­t­les and Pink Floyd only get men­tioned? Oh let me guess because the British still think the world revolves around them. Elec­tron­ic sound would have stayed in the hands of British nerds if it wasn’t for peo­ple like Man­cu­so, The Loft and lat­er Afro futur­ism. I just don’t think you can claim a lin­ear path from the UK to lift music now with­out mak­ing some ref­er­ence to the syn­chro­nous and cross fer­tilised elec­tron­ic rev­o­lu­tion in the US and in fact the world (Japan, Aus­tralia — where Carey is from). Elec­tron­ic music is the first world music. And it’s not just about the Moog. By 1979 if I’m to take the date off your video as an exam­ple Kraftwerk were rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing elec­tron­ic sound, no men­tion of them. It would only have tak­en a pass­ing ref­er­ence.

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