An isolated garden shed overlooking the Thames, the first personal computer in the world and the romantic vision of creating an emotional musical machine: this was the setting in which Peter Zinovieff, composer, engineer and geologist, took his first steps towards becoming a legendary pioneer of electronic music in the 1960s.
Back then, Zinovieff was busy creating a studio in a private house in London in which he used a PDP-8 computer to control sound generating equipment. This computer had four kilobytes of memory and no hard drive. When he later expanded it with 32 kilobytes of storage, he thought he’d never fill it. Similar computers had previously only been used in factories, universities and laboratories, so it’s little wonder that Zinovieff’s compositions from that period are probing sound experiments, and that his studio was so intricate to navigate. Later that decade, Zinovieff would also use PDP-8s for the first-ever unaccompanied performance of live computer music.
The need to financially sustain this studio would eventually lead Zinovieff to launch EMS with partners David Cockerel and Tristram Cary. A company dedicated to manufacturing portable synthesisers, EMS manufactured the best-selling VCS3 as well as other pieces of electronic music equipment such as the Synthi, the MUSYS and the Vocoder. At the end of the 1960s, EMS was one of four companies offering commercial synthesizers, along with ARP, Buchla and Moog, but it went bankrupt in the 1970s leading Zinovieff to part with his studio.
Throughout his career Zinovieff collaborated mostly with Harrison Birtwistle and Hans Werner Henze, but his work and studio spurred the interest of myriad bands, musicians and composers from academia to pop stardom, from Ringo Starr to Karlheinz Stockhausen. Together with Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, Zinovieff also ran Unit Delta Plus, an organization to create commercial electronic music that mostly proved unproductive. Following a hiatus of about twenty years during the 80s and 90s, artist Russell Haswell commissioned a new work from Peter Zinovieff in 2011. Since then, he has been back at composing and challenging electronic music as we know it.
In this podcast, Zinovieff talks about how he assembled the world's first personal computer, his time at EMS and the team that accompanied him, about the listening room, academia; about engineering, experimentation and how not to keep a sound archive; about Unit Delta Plus, how to run a synthesiser off a windmill, and how to kindly ask a computer to make us a beautiful composition.
01 Peter Zinovieff, “January tensions”, 1968 (4:45)
02 Peter Zinovieff, “Tarantella”, 1966 (3:46)
03 Peter Zinovieff and Alan Sutcliffe, “March probabilistic”, 1968 (4:19)
04 Peter Zinovieff “Lollipop for Papa”, 1968 (6:25)
05 Peter Zinovieff and Alan Sutcliffe, “ZASP”, 1968 (5:10)
06 Peter Zinovieff and Harrison Birtwistle, “Chronometer”, 1971 (24:16)
07 Peter Zinovieff and Hans Werner Henze, “Tristan (long section)”, 1973 (7:39)
08 Peter Zinovieff, “Now’s the time to say goodbye”, 1978 (4:11)