Sunday, 4 July 2021

Britain says "Farewell" to its brilliant pioneer of electronic music and uncrowned 'Prince of Synth', Peter Zinovieff

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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. 

In comparison Peter's father, although related to the Kings of Serbia, arrived as a penniless émigré and subsequently built a successful career in Britain as a civil engineer. Leo amicably separated from Peter's mother when he was 4 years old in 1937 and when this photo was taken in 1939, his mother had married Grey Skipwith and Peter, on the left, and his brother Patrick, on the right, sit between their mother and new step brother, Ian. 

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Peter and his brother went to live in Guildford with his grandparents, Olga and Leo, who before the Revolution had served in the Russian Duma, while father Leo served in the War as a major in the Royal Marines. No doubt, speaking nothing but Russian at home in these formative years, it is not surprising that Peter would consider himself to be, throughout his life, first and foremost, 'русский'.
He recalled : "I was taught piano by my grandmother. So the music in my life consisted of going to concerts occasionally, playing the piano and playing thundering duets with my grandmother and listening occasionally to classical radio, the Third Programme, which my grandfather would mark on the Radio Times and we would specifically stop talking when that programme was played. Then the conversation would start afterwards". In addition to music, Peter also had a youthful fascination with building DIY radio sets and recalled : “I can still smell the shellac. I was fearless about wiring – and about music”. 

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”. 

Peter remembered tearful phone calls home, punishing six-and-a-half mile hikes across the Moray floodplains and the dearth of music : "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".

Peter gained a place at University College, Oxford as an undergraduate to study for a degree in geology in 1951. At Oxford he played piano duets with violin and cello and later confessed : "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. 

Now, employed as a geologist : "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". 

A complete novice, Peter found that he "really didn’t even know how to cut up a tape. So somehow I found out about Daphne Oram (composer and electronic musician) and asked her to give me lessons, which she did. She gave me homework like making up a tune out of bits of spliced tape and things like that; speeding up and slowing down tape recorders". Supported financially by Victoria, Peter recalled he "built up this amazing cacophony of gigantic instruments without any clear notion as to which direction I should take". 

Between 1966–67, Peter worked in the shed with Delia Derbyshire, from the BBC TV Radiophonic Workshop, who had created BBC TVs 'Doctor Who' main theme in 1963 (link) and Brian Hodgson, the series Sound Effects Creator. Together they ran 'Unit Delta Plus', an organisation to create and promote electronic music and ran a concert of electronic music at the Watermill Theatre in 1966. 

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'. 

In 1968 Peter's existence was publicised  when he featured in an episode of BBC Television's 'Tomorrow's World' (link) with the narrator explaining : "On the river near Putney Bridge there's a computer at the bottom of the garden. This is the workshop of a composer, Peter Zinovieff, where you no longer have to twiddle the knobs and produce  electronic music; a computer does it for you and it can produce random scales, drumbeats or even perform a quartet". 

Although he admitted that his garden shed set up was “incredibly cumbersome and primitive”, it enabled him to compose such works as 'Partita for Unattended Computer', which he organised with Tristram and performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1968(link) It was, he claimed, “the first real-time performance on stage of any electronic music not using tape”. 

Peter now formed a working relationship with the brilliant electronics engineer and designer, David Cockerell and said : "He made me voltage-controlled oscillators and amplifiers and envelope generators. (link) Then one day he said : "That's enough. It's ridiculous. You can't have all these wires connecting these things. What you need is a proper controller. You need a computer". (In fact it was David's predecessor, Mark Dowson, who first suggested a computer would be the next step). Peter realised that the expense involved in the purchase would involve "a gigantic change in my life from being a hobby, it now had to be a very serious endeavour indeed, to invest that amount of money".

To raise the money to buy it he turned to Victoria. He recalled : “I’m afraid I went cap in hand. My father-in-law had given my wife this ridiculous tiara, made of turquoise and pearls. We managed to sell that for the same price as the computer. She didn’t miss it. It’s often told rather against me, this story, but it was a worthwhile thing to do". The £4,000 raised by the sale bought him a PDP-8, which had four kilobytes of memory, no hard drive and worked by feeding in commands on ticker tape. Peter said : “The computer was incredibly cumbersome and primitive, but it was definitely the way forward. I spent day after day, and a lot of nights, huddled in front of it, until it would churn out whatever I wanted”. He later drew attention to the fact that similar computers had previously only sat in factories, universities and laboratories : “Mine was certainly the first in a private house, anywhere. I personally have had a computer longer than anyone in the world – brilliant!” (In fact it was Harry Huskey in the USA who had a Bendix G-15 installed in his home long before 1967). Peter's computer was installed with his oscillators and amplifiers in the garden shed at the family house which overlooked the River Thames at Putney. Peter said his aim was : "To be able to : analyze sound. Put it into sensible musical form on a computer; manipulate that form and recreate it in a musical way".

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". 

In 2014 Peter's daughter Sofka painted a picture of family life in the 1970s Zinovieff household when they 'were living in a house by the river in Putney that shook when tube trains went past. My two younger brothers and I ran around barefoot and 
 didn’t get many haircuts. My mother wore long Indian skirts and listened to  Leonard Cohen while my father ran an electronic music studio in the basement, visited by experimental composers and fashionable pop groups. All my childhood holidays were spent on a remote Hebridean island in a house without electricity or a telephone.' By this time Peter had two computers and named them after his children. Peter said : "Leo is a fast computer and does most of the mathematics. Sofka obeys exactly what Leo tells her and delivers the calculated information to a very large number of electronic music apparatus". Peter's marriage to Victoria broke up in 1973 and although she didn't directly contribute financially to EMS, she probably subsidised Peter's living expenses from her private income. Peter, who went on the marry another three times in his life confessed : “Some of the marriages were tumultuous. It was always difficult. Well, there were different difficulties with each”.

By this time Peter had moved the studio from the shed into the house "It was very luxurious in the end. (link) It occupied the bottom of the house and then we bought the house next door, so it was two houses and one half of the basement was the studio and the other was a wonderful listening room. It was like a little theatre with a range of carpet seats and I could control everything in the studio, it was sound-proofed from there".

Short of funds, Peter and David decided to embark upon a substantially different money-making scheme in taking synthesisers, generating audio signals, out of studio and to the public with products such as their best selling portable VCS3 and Synthi A.  

When it came to the VCS3, Peter recalled : “I had a nice time teaching Ringo Starr how to use it. I would go to his house in Hampstead. He wasn’t particularly good. But then neither was I”. 

Further customers included Pete Townshend and 'The Who' used it in 1971 in 'Won't Get Fooled Again' (link) and used its audio-in function to filter and sample Townshend's Lowry organ.(link)                                                               
In 1972 it was used by Brian Eno on Roxy Music's 'Virginia Plain' (link) and was his instrument of choice for filtering and warping the band's early music. Also in 1972 Dim Mak and Del Dettmar were behind the VS3 controls to produce the electronic trip and vortex of sound that surrounded Hawkwind's 'Silver Machine'.(link)

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) 
Another 'god-like' visitor to the studio was Karlheinz Stockhausen who visited the studio Peter described as :  “He was very brusque and German. I didn’t find him very sympathetic. It was as if he knew everything, but he didn’t know anything about my equipment.” Nevertheless, he still used one of Peter's later synthesizers, the Synthi 100, on his 1977 electronic composition 'Sirius'. (link)

Although Peter supplied his synthesizers to rock bands, he preferred his collaboration and friendship with Harrison Birtwistle and Hans Werner Henze and said : "That side of music could be called classical electronic music, or serious electronic music rather than pop". He wrote the libretto for Harrison's opera, 'The Mask of Orpheus' during the 1970s.
Peter had never intended the studio to make vast amounts of money and said : "It was always on the limit and  in fact everything at EMS was always on the limit. Money was always on the limit, and we never got any finance and I never charged people to work in it. So people like Hans Werner Henze, or Harry, or anybody, actually - all the people who worked there, didn’t pay any money to it. We often had Arts Council courses and perhaps 20 people would come and study over a month, so in that way it’s very similar to the Red Bull Music Academy, I think". The break up of Peter's marriage to Victoria in 1973 and their divorce in 1975 did cause some financial problems, but more significant was the impact of the white elephant in the shape of VOCOM which absorbed vast amounts of the Company's time and money, during 1973 in particular. It was an attempt to use EMS studio technology as the basis for an impossibly ambitious data compression system for international telephony which Peter hoped would bring in large amounts of money. An invalid promissory note for a substantial sum of money also damaged the company financially in that year. 
The studio finally went bankrupt in 1979 after Victoria's marriage to Peter broke up and the company lost its financial benefactor and at the same time bigger manufacturers entered the market. It was the failure of the first of his three failed marriages. He confessed : “Some of the marriages were tumultuous. It was always difficult. Well, there were different difficulties with each”.
Before the bankruptcy Peter said :"I tried very hard to get it transformed into a 'National Electronic Music Studio'. I offered it to the nation and there was an appeal in the Times, but the Government or the Arts Council wouldn't take this up". Peter was more that a little bitter about its demise and said : "When EMS was at its height we were at the very front of technology, (link) not just electronic music, but in all technology, but our studio never had any support from the Government whatsoever. It seemed such a shame looking back on it that we were foremost in the world and in the end we became famous for a rather pathetic little synthesiser". "People do not know what incredible mechanical adventures we were up to". 

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”. 

Peter returned to composition in 2010 and had a last burst of creativity in his late seventies 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”. 

In 2012 when Matthew Ritchie's sonic temple, 'The Morning Line', made from 20 tons of black coated aluminum was to be moved to its permanent installation in Karlsruhe in Germany, Peter was  commissioned to provide the audio composition to be delivered via 40 Meyer speakers controlled by an advanced multispatial audio system designed by Tony Myatt from the Music Research Centre, University of York. Peter provided 'Good Morning Ludwig'. He said : “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”.

He also worked with the poet Katrina Porteous on her poem '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".

Peter's daughter, Sofka said : 'Amongst Peter's very last creations - this year - was a collaboration with his granddaughter, my musician daughter, Anna Papadimitriou. It’s a terrifying piece about Covid called Red Painted Ambulance. Peter uploaded it to his website just before the fall that led to his death - an indication of how much he was still working and thinking about ambitious  music'. Anna plays in the band, HAWXX.   

Once asked where his inspiration came from, Peter said : 

“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”. 

My thanks to Peter's daughter, Sofka, for her interest in this post and for putting me in touch with James Gardner who is an expert on Peter's life and work and who kindly offered suggestions which have improved the accuracy of the piece.    

Further links :

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