Early Electronic Pioneer Peter Zinovieff, In His Own Words

Geologist, librettist and adventurer in sound and music, Dr Peter Zinovieff was the first person to own a home computer – or rather a computer at home, as his huge device is unrecognisable from the modern PC or Mac.

At EMS he helped design and build the acclaimed VCS and Synthi series, which have now become the stuff of legend and the dreams of collectors. The roots of EMS began in the mid-’60s, when the cream of the British music circles would come to the studio Zinovieff had built in a shed at his house in Putney. Everyone from Bowie and The Beatles (he gave Ringo synth lessons and played with Paul McCartney) to Pink Floyd and Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson of the Radiophonic Workshop.

It was while teaching electronic instruments and selling synthesizers to Stockhausen and Studio für Elektronische Musik and similar pioneering institutions around the world, that Zinovieff developed MUSYS, a performance controller operating as an analogue-digital hybrid. Soon after, Zinovieff formed EMS with David Cockerell and Tristram Cary, and by the end of the 1960s, EMS Ltd. had become one of four companies offering commercial synthesizers – the others being ARP, Buchla, and Moog.

Perhaps ahead of its time, EMS went bankrupt and a flood at National Theatre destroyed the remains of the studio. While Zinovieff would class himself more of a sound-researcher than a composer, he has developed a whole new career after Russell Haswell commissioned him to compose for Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, and working with Kazakh-born violinist Aysha Orazbayeva. In his excerpt from his recent chat with Red Bull Radio’s Hanna Bächer, Zinovieff discusses all of this and more.

Denis Klero

I first became interested in music by being taught how to play the piano by my grandmother. I was 9 years old or so. (One of my recent pieces, Good Morning Ludwig, was based on the Coriolan Overture by Beethoven, which I loved playing four-hands with my grandmother.) Then, when I went to school, I did very serious piano study and had a brilliant teacher – Frau Ochmann, at Gordonstoun School – who had been the first violinist in a quartet in Germany before the war. Then, when I went to Oxford University, where I did tons of music and also started with experimental music: kicking around funny instruments and recording them, that sort of thing.

When I was very young – again, being brought up by my Russian grandmother – I started making crystal sets and radio sets, radio transmitters with valves, and rather big, elaborate things. I can smell them now: the smell of the solder, and lots of wire (which wasn’t like printed circuits in those days); I had transmitters and they often made terrible noises, and I was fascinated by that. I had this facility of putting pieces of wire together to make something that either received or made sounds.

When my EMS studio (or the prototype for the EMS studio) started to get going, I had a huge array of old valve equipment – like ex-army valve equipment – and I met up with David Cockerell, who I got to design my first sequencer. After that, he designed amplifiers and oscillators for me, and my wish list for him got longer and longer. He said, “There’s only one way we can control this array of equipment – not with the sequences which I made for you, but with a computer.”

After a lot of debate I got a PDP8 4K computer, which cost £4,000. If you think of it in today’s terms, £4,000 is the equivalent of about £70-80,000 today. It was a gigantic investment. If I could spend £80,000 on a computer now, what would it have? This computer was the first computer in a private house. That means that I’ve had a computer longer than anyone else in the world. (I love saying that. It’s a good boast.) This computer had no screen, no CMOS to start up, no hard drive; had 4,000 words of memory, and was infinitesimally small compared to what I have now. The computer was dedicated to music from scratch. That’s the only thing it had to do – control the musical environment around me.

Peter Zinovieff - Agnus Dei

It’s curious for me to try to think about what I was doing in those days with composition. Now, I call myself a composer, but then, the experimentation and the building of a studio was (in a way) the most important thing. “In the future, I will be a composer.” That’s what I thought. “In the future, I will have the equipment, the gear to write music.” One of the first compositions that I made, rather than experiments, was “Agnus Dei.” I recorded a solo soprano and then multi-tracked it; with several two-track tape recorders and loops, and with the rather primitive electronic equipment I had at that time. It was a very conventional sort of tape-recorded electronic piece, but for me it was marvellous. It was the first properly structured composition that I’d ever done. I think it’s too long now, and I would completely change it, but it’s got elements of that nice innocence of somebody thinking that they can compose.

It was very strange to hear it coming out. There was feedback from a microphone and this was such a lovely sound, because it was controlled feedback. I’d say, “Oh gosh, I’ve got to turn this down, a level down,” but I actually left quite a lot of little feedback things in it because it was a nice, strange sound to use. In those days, I used my computer as a process control. You can generate the actual waveforms themselves nowadays, but you couldn’t then; auxiliary equipment generated the sounds, and I would write a program that would assemble these commands in a certain order. Then, a command of sequences, oscillators, frequencies, amplitudes, attacks and decays would be sent to the equipment.

It would take quite some time to assemble and write the program. A lot of my time was spent bent over the keyboard (because there was no screen editing) and regenerating the tape, because it was a paper tape that had to be fed in again. With tape, people have said that it’s an immediate answer, but it’s not. It’s terribly slow, cutting up tape and sticking it together. (If you have one thousand notes, you’d have a thousand cuts.) I decided that I no longer want to cut up tape. Some people are very slick, but I think that I was rather bad at it. I thought it was a deadly way of 20th century working.

Score for Four Sacred April Rounds studioseen.blogspot.com

In those days, I didn’t write with notes and in the staff notation. I tended to write scores that looked beautiful. Out of those scores, I would take a pattern and I would try to program it as a pattern, rather than as particular notes. It was, even then, the evolution of the sound (rather than the specific individual notes) that was important to me. In the end, I did make this computer program called PMMABC, which is Please Make Me A Beautiful Composition. You just typed that into the computer and, after a bit, there’s a little note that comes out of a typewriter.

Then, a sound, when the computer says, “This is a beautiful composition.” Then you have to ask back, “Is this a beautiful composition?” It’s between you and the computer, is it or not? The only way to go on is to say, “Please make me another beautiful composition.” This is the ultimate computer program. I really did think that we could have a score that had things like anxiety, tension, dependence, greyness and individuality, back then. You could draw a line through a score, give it to a computer, and out would come something that expressed this huge, ambitious, psychological composition.

I had a friend, Alan Sutcliffe, who worked across the river at Putney in ICL. ICL was the only British computer manufacturer, which (famously) made the ICL 1900 series computers. Alan was a programmer there and was working with a punch card system. This was in the early to mid-‘60s, and so he was able to write in Fortran a composition that came out on a paper tape. That was only a text composition: “We’ll have this note and that note, and this amplitude and that...”

He came across a railway bridge to where I lived, with a canister and his paper tape, and I wrote a program with my PDP8 that would interpret the text and then send instructions to the oscillators and amplifiers. We made this composition called ZASP [an anagram of Alan Sutcliffe and Peter Zinovieff’s initials]. Then, we sent it off to an international competition, and we came second! That was an amazing achievement for us. It was very significant in the progress of my studio.

Everyone said, “Stockhausen is coming, Stockhausen is coming!” It was like the second coming of Jesus.

Stockhausen even came to visit us. There was always this great aura about Stockhausen, of course. When he came to visit the EMS studios, everyone said, “Stockhausen is coming, Stockhausen is coming!” It was like the second coming of Jesus. When he came downstairs, we had this big synthesizer ready. In his rather god-like way, he put a few pins into a synthesizer and hoped that something would come out of it, but nothing did. I think this was just before he was going to buy one to loan – or his West German radio was going to buy it – and so he casually put pins arbitrarily into these patch boards. There was this slight look of shock when nothing happened: the pins had to be put into specific orders. It was rather marvellous to see him slightly, disdainfully, putting these pins in.

I didn’t know very much about writing music, and so my course was to try and work with composers who did. I started working with Harrison Birtwistle, and then it progressed to working with Hans Werner Henze. One of the pieces that were marvellous at EMS, Chronometer, was by Harrison Birtwistle. We recorded clocks. We went to the of Big Ben Tower and put microphones all over Big Ben’s clock; recording the chimes and the tick-tocks. We did the same in the Science museum, too, so I had a marvellous library of clock sounds which Harry and I were then able to sequence with rather rough charts into a piece called Chronometer. What’s interesting about that process is that it’s exactly how I work now. I won’t work with sample libraries. I use libraries that I make myself.

Later, after working with quite a lot of composers, two people from the Radiophonic Workshop, Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire, asked me whether we would like to form a company to make commercial electronic music, and we formed Unit Delta Plus. Unit Delta Plus was a sort of part-time activity as part of my music studio. The trouble was that neither Brian nor Delia could understand the studio. In fact, nobody could. I was the only person who could control it, and I didn’t like the idea of making commercial music. It was extremely boring to me. It wasn’t the sort of thing that I hoped the studio would be used for. We did make one jingle for Philips and I don’t know if we made – well, we must have made some money from that, but we never made anything else.

Although it’s mentioned quite a lot, this Unit Delta Plus, it was actually nothing. Then we did do a thing with Paul McCartney at the Roundhouse. That was a pity, in a way: the Beatles have – or the Beatles Society, or whatever – refused to release the music. There is something that Paul McCartney was involved in. I still want to contact him and say, “Come on, what did we actually do together there?” It would be interesting because he came to the Putney studio once or twice. I also gave Ringo Starr some lessons with the VCS 3, too.

One of the pieces that we made was Tarantella. Now, I’m still very pleased with Tarantella. (Last year, I wrote my second violin concerto, and the last movement in it is called Tarantella. It actually uses the tape of the track that I made in the ‘60s.) What was interesting about it was that it was very simple: random variations of one oscillator. With my computer, though, it was almost impossible for it to generate random numbers. As soon as you played the sequences over and over, with random numbers, they sounded similar. There were repetitions of the same notes. I had to get round this.

Real randomness is a joy, so the only way that David Cockerell could come up with was to use my wristwatch (which was luminous, and had a Geiger counter which measured its radioactivity) to control a random number generator, which I then fed into the wave tech, voltage-controlled oscillator. This was the most expensive oscillator you could buy in the world – from America, and made by WaveTech. It produced this random sequence of notes, which I could then control. It was a really wonderful expression of a musical aim as well as a technological feat.

The studio was extremely expensive not just because it had the first home computer, but also because we had to buy a hard drive for the PDP8 4K, and that cost exactly the same as the computer itself – and it was 32,000 bits. It was nothing, although gigantic. Then either David or myself had the idea to make a synthesizer to finance the studio. I had a pretty clear idea about what I would have loved to have, instead of the great, lumpy machine that I first bought.

America got very interested in us, and our “American company” (as it were) tried to make us into a public company there. This cost a huge amount of money, we got more and more in debt, and then the American company cheated us and we just couldn’t cope. If you’re a small and successful company, it’s a big mistake to try and grow too big. That’s what we did, and then we closed down because we just didn’t have the money to do it.

I kept and ran the original PDP8 off a windmill.

After EMS closed, I stopped doing electronic music altogether. It was terrible, actually. It had dedicated many years to it, and it was only much later that I would come back to it. I had a computer on the Isle of Raasay, but I kept and ran the original PDP8 off a windmill. That must be a world first, too: this windmill running it, my then wife’s sewing machine and this computer. It’s rather sad really to think of it on a remote island, without electricity, on the West of Scotland.

What happened in the end was that the National Theater had been promised funding to start a national electronic music studio, and so they agreed to take my studio when it had moved from Putney to Oxford, and set up the studio. Basically, at the end of EMS, the bank didn’t want the studio, so the National Theater took it. They unfortunately dismantled it in a brutish way, cutting all the wires without any idea of what they were doing.

They put it in the basement of the National Theater, and it turned out that the government refused the funding because the greater London authority refused to allow them to have advertising on the top of the National Theater. That was what was going to provide the funding, and so it stayed in the basement. Then the basement got flooded. The last time when I saw it was really sad. There is a very good Russian film called Rublev where, at the end, there is a cathedral that has been plundered by the Tatars. Rublev, this wonderful icon painter, is inside, and he says, “It’s very sad when you’re rained on in a cathedral.” That’s what it was like, this EMS studio just dripping with water.

In 2010, there was a knock on the door. It was Russell Haswell and Tony Myatt. They asked if I would be interested in writing a piece of music for a sculpture that was in Seville, and was going to go to Istanbul. I said, “What are you actually talking about – a piece of music?” They said, “Yes: a 30 or 45 minute composition, because we like very much the music that you did for The Offence with Harrison Birtwistle,” a film I worked on, “and admired the stuff which you did at the EMS.” I leapt at the chance to start a new career proper, as a composer.

Peter Zinovieff - Bridges from Somewhere and Another to Somewhere Else

It was a commission from Francesca von Habsburg for an Austrian organisation called TBA21. She had asked Russell Haswell and Tony Myatt to curate five European pieces. I must say that Francesca von Habsburg is probably one of the most important sources of commissions for modern music in the last few years. She and TBA21 must have commissioned 50 or so modern pieces of music, and that’s amazing for any foundation. The pieces were called Bridges from Somewhere and Another to Somewhere Else; the Bridges from Somewhere were different sources of my musical inspiration, whether it was Beethoven or Mendelssohn, and Another to Somewhere Else was the bridge to Istanbul, where the piece was shown.

The structure was enormous. You could walk through it and since there were 50 different loudspeakers, you had spheres of sound in its six areas that you could walk around and through. It was a very beautiful thing – and then it went. Now, it’s been given to ZKM by von Hasburg and is now the responsibility of ZKM. It’s a very amazing enterprise: it cost a million pounds to move and to regenerate. After Bridges from Somewhere I did two violin concertos and then several pieces with a poet called Katrina Porteous. At that time, I was very interested in the idea that the way in which we listen to electronic sound is very irritating. It has to come from loudspeakers. In Istanbul, the structure gave you the idea that the sound was coming from somewhere else, not directed from loudspeakers.

With Good Morning Ludwig, I had the idea that I would have a conversation with Beethoven and agree on a number of variations that I could do on his Overture, Coriolan. It was a very difficult conversation because he hated the idea of people playing around too much with his tempi. Beethoven said, “You must not alter the tempi too much.” I suggested various things to him, such as that we could make the orchestra vertical, and he loved the idea of that. He liked the idea of the players being able to be suddenly switched so you could have a cello suddenly put up in the left-hand corner. He thought this would be a great variation if you could change where the instrument sounded. He also didn’t mind playing around with pitch at all. He liked the idea of strange harmonies that you couldn’t produce from instruments.

Of course, the biggest difficulty with Beethoven was to explain loudspeakers. He just could not understand what a loudspeaker was. It would have terrified him if one could have, for instance, said, “Well, here’s a recording of your Fifth Symphony.” He would have died. I thought that if we could make this piece so it appeared as if the instruments were in three-dimensional space, that would be the best thing of all, so there weren’t loudspeakers. The only way to do it would be to have a huge array of loudspeakers actually configured in direction and height, but so controlled by a computer that it would appear that the sound appeared to be projected into space, and not from the loudspeakers themselves.

With the help of Tony Myatt, who is now Professor of Sound at Surrey University, and TBA21’s commission, the entrance hall at ZKM was taken over with these loudspeakers for a one-off performance. It must have cost a bomb to put on. It’s never been done again, but it would be marvellous to do, though. It was extraordinary to walk around in this entrance hall at ZKM, with its very high ceiling, and to hear the sounds as you walked through.

There’s no real satisfactory way of writing microtonal music.

Now, I use keyboards. I have my lovely Yamaha electric piano downstairs, which has a beautiful tone, but what I send to the computer is interpreted in any way I like. That’s one of the difficulties I have at the moment with the cello piece I’m doing: I want it to be very microtonal, and there’s no real satisfactory way of writing microtonal music. How do I tell a cellist that it looks like ordinary music, but that the notes are actually screwed up in some way? This is a big challenge.

There isn’t any way of scoring electronic music because there is no convention. In order to have a satisfactory scoring system such as wonderful, conventional notation… it’s incredibly clever that you can get a whole symphony in a few sheets of paper, and that everybody from the conductor to each player understands what they’re going to be playing. But in electronic music, how would you? How would you differentiate between “ehh” or “uuh” or “sss”? None of those could be notated, could they? You’d have to describe them. That’s why I think graphic scores are still the only way, and maybe it’s not necessary to write it down. Maybe this sort of music will always be haphazard and improvisational. Stockhausen did write down exactly what you wanted with Studie Five, but nobody’s actually been able to recreate it.

I always preferred to use real sounds at EMS. Before he went to work with Akay and others, David Cockerell says that I invented the sampler because when I first got a computer, the first thing I did to it was to be able to speak in it and get it to speak back to me; after only a second or two, distorting the speech. I still feel that synthesized sounds always have artificiality about them: a lack of richness. Real sounds are full of unexpectedness. You can go on dissecting them: slowing them down, taking little bits and speeding them up. There are always curiosities. I love sampled sounds. With programs now, the things you can do with Scripts, Kontakt and Sample Sound is completely extraordinary. It’s much more sophisticated than what you can do with any program in synthesized sounds, in my opinion.

We only made 36 models of the Synthi 100.

I had a very nice young person working for me, Robin Wood. He’d come just before going to university as a holiday job, and then he went to university. He wrote pleadingly saying he wanted to leave Surrey University and come to the studio permanently. He came and he stayed throughout the rest of EMS’s time and when, unfortunately, EMS went broke, he bought up the rights of EMS. He lives in Cornwall near where we’ve got a cabin, and I see him quite a lot. He’s now remaking VCS 3, albeit at a slow rate.

He’s got lots of orders. He could make hundreds, I think, but he does it himself, slowly and lovely. What with EMS was that we got more and more ambitious, so after the VCS 3 and the Synthi A and the AKS, we built a huge synthesizer, the Synthi 100, which went into various conurbations. One was with a vocoder that we’d invented ourselves, and the other was with a vocoder and a computer. They got huge, and only a few of these later models were made: we only made 36 models of the Synthi 100.

It was also an enormous surprise to me when, a few weeks ago, a copy of the Peter Zinovieff Electronic Calendar came in the post. I had no idea that Pete Kember was making it. He says he’d been working on it for years and years, and that he had had all the EMS tapes to look after for a time when I didn’t have a place of my own. In fact, I didn’t even have a house at that time. He was obviously, and with great affection to EMS, putting this together himself.

In a way, now, I see it as a retrospective thing. I’m not very proud of a lot of the pieces in it, because they are just little things that I did. They each have a little bit of history attached to them. I so much prefer the pieces which I worked on with other people, and which I do now as my grown-up music. On the other hand, I think this childhood of mine was very interesting in electronic music because of the things it gave rise to. It’s a luxurious thing to have been given. It’s wonderful.

By Red Bull Music Academy on June 23, 2015

On a different note