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Peter, who has died at the age of 88 and whose career in electronic music ran, on and off, for almost 50 years, was born in London in 1933, the son of Sofka and Leo who had both left Russia after the Communist Revolution in 1917, when his mother was Princess Sofka Dolgorouky. She had arrived in Britain, with her grandmother, at the age of 12 in 1919, in a British warship, in a party led by the Dowager Empress who was met at Portsmouth by Queen Alexandra, the Empress's sister.
At the age of 11 in 1942, he joined Royal Grammar School for Boys in Guildford and recalled : "Occasionally at school there were communal choirs, otherwise there was no music". He was only at the school a few years before he was packed of to the boys public school, Gordonstoun in Scotland as a boarder. It was described some years later by another alumnus, Prince Charles, as “Colditz in kilts”."I was allowed to play the piano a couple of hours a day, which was a great privilege. There was something called 'Musical Refuge' which was 40 boys would lie on the floor for 20 minutes after lunch and listen to very good classical music presented by a music teacher on a very good gramophone system and that was the only music we had during the whole of the term. There was no other music. None. So a lot of boys had no music. It's rather extraordinary. There were no phones, of course, no Walkmans, no ipads. Nothing. I did listen endlessly to my little gramophone system with LPs. I would listen to Beethoven Quartet 40 times over"."I think it was the playing badly that led me to think : 'Why not hit something and see if it sounds nice with it or force a flautist to play out of register ?' That's what gave me the first inspiration - that it was possible to, on a rather high brow level, to make experimental music without danger". In practical terms it meant he formed a group called 'Biscuit Tin' and “We would bang around with sticks and stones and tins and things, as well as our instruments”.
After graduating he continued his studies and gained his doctorate, a D.Phil in Geology at the age of 25 in 1958, having been supervised by the geologist, explorer and mountaineer, Lawrence Wager and having stayed in a bothy mapping dormant volcanoes in the Cuillin Mountain Ridge on the Isle of Skye in Scotland."I had a job in Pakistan's St. George's, looking for water. (link) I then got married. Married a girl of 17 whose parents did not want their daughter to go to Antarctica or wherever it was the jobs were on offer". It was 1960 and the upper class girl in question was Victoria Heber-Percy. "So I decided to stay in London and became a mathematician at the Air Ministry which was a terrible, terrible Civil Service job". From working on atomic physics he said :"I thought I'd do something completely new and I started to do electronic music. So I bought a tape recorder and a few oscillators from junk shops in the East End of London and the hunt was on. I got bitten by the bug and at that time I was very, very innocent, really. I thought that this is a new subject. Nobody, nobody had heard about electronic music. Nobody knew about this. Only me. And so I continued in this lovely, idyllic really, notion, that whatever I did, I was alone in the world".
Paul McCartney recalled visiting Peter and Delia in “a hut at the bottom of the garden full of tape machines and funny instruments”. This led to a 1967 collaboration at the Roundhouse in London billed as a 'Million Volt Light and Sound Rave' with 'music by Paul McCartney and Unit Delta Plus'. The works performed included McCartney’s 14-minute avant garde electronic composition 'Carnival Of Light', which the Beatles recorded, but which has never been released. Peter once said : “I’d like to get in touch with him about it, but I’m quite in awe – how do you get in touch with God?”
It wasn't long before differences emerged between Peter and his partners : "The idea was that we would make a fortune doing commercial sounds, but I wasn’t interested in doing commercial sounds. We did one for Philips, which was something like “Whoooop”, and that was it. We got a lot of money for that, but I didn’t want to do that, so we split. But they didn’t succeed either. I didn’t want to have a commercial studio, I wanted an experimental studio, where good composers could work and not pay. In fact, rather like this organization, the same sort of philosophy. If anyone had a good project, they could come and work in my studio and I wouldn’t charge them'.
At the age of 36, Peter started, what were to be, the most important collaborations in his life when he started working with Tristram Cary and David in his newly formed company, 'Electronic Music Studios' with its slogan : 'Think of a sound - Now make it'. In the years that followed they pursued ground-breaking creativity, designing portable and elegant synthesisers including their bestselling VCS3. Peter recalled that in his working relationship with David : "I would say some mad idea : "Can we have this ?""I want this" (link) and he would produce it. He would understand exactly what my pathetic way of putting something was. He would be able to interpret it into a concrete electrical idea and make the bloody thing and it worked". He recognised David as the "the real, real genius in electronic music device making".
Peter's synthesiser was used by Pink Floyd on the track 'On the Run' (link) on their 1973 album, 'Dark Side of the Moon'. In 1977 Brian Eno used it on the atmospheric flourishes on David Bowie's 'Heroes'. (link)
Peter's studio workshop was passed to the National Theatre for 'safe keeping' and placed in storage in a basement. When he paid it a visit it pained him to say : "It had been chopped to pieces with wire cutters and saws and there was a leak and rain was pouring on it. It was heart-rending". (link)
Peter now moved to Raasay, an island off Skye, where he had built a home from the ruins of an old crofter’s cottage. Harrison also bought a property on the island, where one of Peter's last remaining synths was reputedly powered by a windmill in what Peter called “the dying echo of my work”.with the new works of violinist Aisha Orazbaveva, (link) several of which were broadcast on BBC Radio 3. This led to a revival of interest in his earlier work, a selection of which was released in 2015 on the compilation album 'Electronic Calendar - The EMS Tapes'. In the same year, at the age 82, he said : "Being alone in the world doing geology was incredibly satisfactory, and I have the same feeling in music now. I want to be doing something no one else is doing. If I took up gardening, it would be the same”.
“I went to Beethoven and asked him : "Good morning Ludwig, I want to do some variations on your work – what would you like me to do?" So we had this conversation”.'Sun' (link) in 2016 and Peter based his composition for her 'Under the Ice' (link) on recording taken of sounds made by Antarctic glaciers. The 30 min performance was broadcast online on the 23rd June - the day Peter died.
Looking into the future in 2018, at the age of 85, Peter said : "I would like to have much more human communication with whatever it is that makes electronic music, even though its electronic music and not instrumental music. There's a huge way to go and even then, it will only be the beginning". Two years later he was thrilled to have been given a state-of-the-art Syntryx synthesiser and enthused that : "It's really a marvellous bit of kit (link) and it reminds me so much of 50 years ago when I got my first VCS3".
“My wonderful head full of wild things bursting out and having to be tamed. Lots of people would say, "Oh, this is too daring". But I’ve never felt that. Perhaps because I’m Russian, I’m not afraid of going too far”.