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Back To The Future Of Electronic Music

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Post written by Miriam Hay.

While researching our new exhibition about the history of electronic music, we had the amazing opportunity to meet a few of the people who were there making music in the 1960s and 70s, when futuristic electronic sounds were being experimented with for the very first time.

Dick Mills, Roger Limb and Steve Marshall had all previously been part of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, set up in 1958 to produce electronic sound effects and jingles for radio and television including, most famously, the theme music for Doctor Who.

We were also joined by Peter Zinovieff and Alan Sutcliffe of Electronic Music Studio, a music research establishment formed by Peter in the early 1960s. It famously produced the first commercial synthesizer in Britain, the VCS3.

It was great to see the union of what had been two relatively independent strands of electronic music history around one table, as they shared with us their memories and experiences of working at a time when electronic music was startlingly new.

It was the invention of tape that was the catalyst, enabling different sounds to be cut and stuck together to make a recorded track. Before this, individual sounds had been recorded onto discs or spools of steel wire which meant that it was impossible for them to be edited together in advance.

Dick Mills gave us an animated description of the rather frantic work of playing multiple discs at the same time to provide sound effects for live radio broadcasts. Each disc ran for only 2 minutes, so you had to keep two running for background noise, playing one while you re-started the other, while adding in other effects such as wind and birds as needed with cries of “don’t forget the owl!”

Peter Zinovieff, founder of EMS, had been taught how to splice tape by Daphne Oram. She had been a founder of the Radiophonic Workshop and creator of the Oramics Machine, which is the focus of the first phase of our exhibition.

Peter told us that the tiresome process of ‘cutting and sticking’ inspired him to experiment with computers to create sound without fiddling about with tape. His desire was for a computer to put the sounds together all by itself. This eventually resulted in the first concert performance by a computer in 1968.

Peter took up making music again several years ago and talked about a recent concert in Istanbul. He had meant to finish his speech by announcing this new standing as a composer. However nerves got the better of him and in an ironically comic twist he actually accidentally concluded by saying: “At last, I am now a computer!”

The development from ‘computer’ to ‘composer’ was noted by the group as a whole. Nowadays, they said, the computer has become almost ‘transparent’ – a tool to get something else done – while in the pioneering 1960s electronics itself was an art – something to be studied, developed, and experimented with. Musicians also had to be engineers, testing and stretching the initial primitive capacities of the limited equipment available.

Almost in summary, the words of the late Delia Derbyshire (who worked at the Radiophonic workshop and introduced Peter to Alan) were quoted. She had realised that while the musical products of her generation of electronic artists weren’t yet the best that the medium had to offer, they would prove crucially important for what was to come. This was what the future would sound like.

The Oramics to Electronica exhibition is already partially open. It will be fully opened on 10th October, and will run until December 2012.

Written by Susannah Shute

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