Electronic music

Peter Zinovieff, composer and synthesizer innovator, dies at 88


Peter Zinovieff, a composer and inventor whose pioneering synthesizers shaped the albums of Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Roxy Music and Kraftwerk, died on June 23 in Cambridge, England. He was 88 years old.

His death was announced on Twitter by his daughter Sofka zinovieff, who said he was hospitalized after a fall.

Mr. Zinovieff oversaw the design of the first commercially produced UK synthesizers. In 1969, his company, EMS (Electronic Music Studios), introduced the VCS3 (for “voltage controlled studio”), one of the oldest and most affordable portable synthesizers. EMS instruments quickly became a staple of 1970s progressive rock, especially in Britain and Germany. The company’s slogan was “Think of a sound, do it now”.

Peter Zinovieff was born January 26, 1933 in London, son of Russian aristocrats emigrated: a princess, Sofka Dolgorouky, and Leo Zinovieff. Her parents divorced in 1937.

Peter’s grandmother started teaching him piano when he was in elementary school. He attended the University of Oxford, where he performed in experimental music groups while earning a doctorate. in geology. He also dabbled in electronics.

“I had this ease of putting pieces of wire together to create something that received or produced sound,” he told Red Bull Music Academy in 2015.

He married Victoria Ross, then 17, from a wealthy family. She and her parents were unhappy with the long journeys that a geologist’s career required. After Mr Zinovieff briefly worked for the Air Ministry in London as a mathematician, he turned to electronic music full time, supported by his wife.

He bought tape recorders and microphones and found high quality oscillators, filters and signal analyzers in military surplus stores. Daphne Oram, composer of electronic music and co-founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, taught him the techniques of musical creation by assembling pieces of sound recorded on magnetic tape in the era of concrete music.

But Mr. Zinovieff decided that cutting tape was tedious. He built a primitive sequencer – a device for triggering a set of notes repeatedly – from telephone switching equipment, and he began working on electronic sequencers with electrical engineers Mark Dowson and Dave Cockerell. They realized that the first digital computers, which were already used to control factory processes, could also control sound processing.

Mr Zinovieff’s wife sold his pearl and turquoise wedding tiara for £ 4,000 – now around $ 96,000 – to finance Mr Zinovieff’s purchase of a PDP-8 computer designed by Digital Equipment Corporation . Living in Putney, a district of London, Mr. Zinovieff installed it in his garden shed, and he often cited it as the world’s first home computer. He added a second PDP-8; the two units, which he named Sofka and Leo, could control hundreds of oscillators and other sound modules.

The hangar was now an electronic music studio. Mr. Cockerell was an essential partner; he was able to build the devices that Mr. Zinovieff envisioned. Mr Cockerell “would be able to interpret it into a concrete electronic idea and do the bloody thing – and it worked,” Mr Zinovieff said in the 2006 documentary “What the Future Sounded Like”.

In 1966, Mr. Zinovieff formed the ephemeral Unit Delta Plus with Delia Derbyshire (who created the electronic arrangement of Ron Grainer’s theme for the BBC’s sci-fi institution “Doctor Who”) and Brian Hodgson for create electronic jingles and other projects.

Programmer Peter Grogono, in collaboration with M. Cockerell and M. Zinovieff, designed software to perform digital audio analysis and manipulation, presaging modern sampling. It used numbers to control sounds in a way that anticipated the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) standard introduced in 1983.

On January 15, 1968, Mr. Zinovieff brought his computer to Queen Elizabeth Hall in London for the first fully electronic public concert in Britain. His “Partita for Unattended Computer” received skeptical reviews: The Financial Times acknowledged a technical achievement, but called it “the most dismal neo-Webern, stretched to an inordinate length”.

Mr. Zinovieff loaned a computer for the 1968 exhibition “Cybernetic Serendipity” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Visitors could whistle a tune and the computer would analyze it and repeat it, then improvise variations.

Continually improving the Putney studio was costly. Mr Zinovieff offered to donate the studio’s cutting edge technology to the UK government, but he was ignored. To support the project, he and Mr. Cockerell decided to start a business.

So in 1969, Mr. Zinovieff, Mr. Cockerell and Tristram Cary, an electronic composer with his own studio, formed EMS. They built a rudimentary synthesizer the size of a shoebox for Australian composer Don Banks which they later called the VCS1.

In November, they unveiled the more elaborate VCS3, also known as Putney. It used Mr. Zinovieff’s specifications, a box and controls designed by Mr. Cary, and circuitry designed by Mr. Cockerell (who drew on Robert Moog’s filter design research). It was priced at 330 pounds, around $ 7,700 now.

Still, the VCS3 was smaller and cheaper than other early synthesizers; the Minimoog only arrived in 1970 and was more expensive. The original VCS3 did not have a keyboard and was best suited for generating abstract sounds, but EMS quickly made a tactile keyboard module available. The VCS3 also had an input to be able to process external sounds.

Musicians adopted the VCS3 with other EMS instruments.

EMS synthesizers are featured prominently in songs like “On the Run” by Pink Floyd, “Virginia Plain” by Roxy Music and “Autobahn” by Kraftwerk, and the Who have used a VCS3 to process the sound of an electric organ on “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. King Crimson, Todd Rundgren, Led Zeppelin, Tangerine Dream, Aphex Twin and others have also used EMS synthesizers.

“I hated everything about the business side,” Zinovieff told Sound on Sound magazine in 2016. He was more interested in contemporary classic uses of electronic sound. In the 1970s he composed a lot, but much of his own music died out because he was recording ideas he hoped to improve.

He has also collaborated with contemporary composers, including Harrison Birtwistle and Hans Werner Henze. “I didn’t want a commercial studio,” he said in 2010. “I wanted an experimental studio, where good composers could work and not pay. Mr. Zinovieff and Mr. Birtwistle climbed to the top of Big Ben to record the clock mechanisms and gong sounds which they incorporated into a 1971 quadraphonic piece, “Chronometer”.

Like other revolutionary synthesizer companies, EMS had financial problems. It filed for bankruptcy in 1979 after branching out into other products including a video synthesizer, guitar synthesizer, and vocoder.

Mr Zinovieff handed over his entire studio – including advanced prototypes of an interactive video terminal and a 10-octave pressure-sensitive keyboard – to the National Theater, London, which belatedly discovered it could not collect funds to maintain it. The equipment was dismantled and stored for years in a basement, and it was eventually destroyed by a flood.

Mr. Zinovieff largely stopped composing for decades, but he has not been entirely forgotten. He worked for years on the intricate libretto for Mr. Birtwistle’s 1986 opera “The Mask of Orpheus”, which included a language that Mr. Zinovieff constructed using the syllables of “Orpheus” and “Eurydice”. “.

In 2010, Mr. Zinovieff was commissioned to write the music for a sculpture in Istanbul with 40 sound channels. “Electronic Calendar: The EMS Tapes”, a collection of Mr. Zinovieff’s work and collaborations from 1965 to 1979 at Electronic Music Studios, was released in 2015.

Mr. Zinovieff learned new software, on computers exponentially more powerful than his 1970s equipment, and returned to composing throughout the 2010s, including pieces for cello and computer, for violin and computer, and for computer and oral creation. In 2020, during the pandemic, he collaborated with a granddaughter, Anna Papadimitriou, the singer of the group Hawxx, on a death haunted play titled “Red Painted Ambulance”.

Mr. Zinovieff’s first three marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his fourth wife, Jenny Jardine, and six children – Sofka, Leo, Kolinka, Freya, Kitty and Eliena – and nine grandchildren.

A former employee, Robin Wood, relaunched EMS in 1997, replicating vintage equipment designs. An iPad application emulating the VCS3 was released in 2014.

Even in the 21st century, Mr. Zinovieff was looking for better music technology. In 2016, he told Sound on Sound he felt limited by unresponsive interfaces – keyboards, touchpads, linear computer screens – and by playback through fixed and directional speakers. He longed, he said, for “a three-dimensional sound in the air around us.”


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