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Topic: What the Future Sounded Like

Jack Hertz

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Post-war Britain rebuilt itself on a wave of scientific and industrial breakthroughs that culminated in the cultural revolution of the 1960’s. It was a period of sweeping change and experimentation where art and culture participated in and reflected the wider social changes. In this atmosphere, a radical new group of electronic musicians utilized technology and experimentation to compose a futuristic soundtrack for the New Britain. In the early 60’s pioneering electronic musicians Tristram Cary and Peter Zinovieff established EMS (Electronic Music Studios) with wunderkind music engineer David Cockerell.

EMS’s legacy is the VCS3, Britain’s first synthesizer and rival of the American Moog. The VCS3 was a uniquely British invention used by some of the most popular artists of this period including The Who, David Bowie, Brian Eno and Pink Floyd, whose iconic album Dark Side of The Moon utilized the unique sounds of the VCS3 to startling effect. The album is still one of the top selling records of all time.

The individual backgrounds of the EMS characters show them as pioneering vanguards in their own right. As early as 1945 Cary hand-built the world’s largest private electronic music studio from war-surplus junk and went to lead London’s electronic avant-garde. He also moonlighted as a composer for pop cult films like The LadyKillers and the seminal television series Dr Who. Peter Zinovieff, an exiled Russian aristocrat and fringe dwelling avant-garde composer, borrowed money from his rich British wife to buy two military grade computers specifically for his personal experiments in electronic music. With David Cockerell’s ability to make anything that Cary and Zinovieff dreamed up, EMS’s musical inventiveness opened up a world of new musical possibilities. Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously declared in 1964, ‘Britain will forge itself with the white-hot heat of a scientific revolution. As leaders of a group of machine-based musicians, EMS was the ideal sonic-architects for a society where technology was God. They created incredible sounds for films about nuclear power reactors, adverts for early Olivetti computers and for the British Pavilion at the ‘67 World Expo. Played back today this early electronic music still arouses wonder at its creation and power.

The cross-pollination of swinging London’s psychedelic rock scene elite with the cardigan wearing ‘straights’ of EMS, changed the course of British rock and roll. Today in the avant-garde world of British electronica, the analog reverberations of EMS equipment and inspiration have come full circle and are being harnessed by bands like Add-N-To-X, Radiohead, and Aphex Twin. In an electronically dominated music world where one synthesizer can be preprogrammed to make any sound, these analog revivalists see the pioneering legacy of EMS as electro-genesis.

What The Future Sounded Like mixes experimental visual and sonic techniques with animation and never-seen-since archival footage. A sonic and visual collage, this documentary colors in a lost chapter in music history, uncovering a group of alchemical composers and music engineers who harnessed technology and new ideas to reimagine the boundaries of music and sound.


What The Future Sounded Like is in many ways theculmination of my on-going love of electronic music.This affair began subconsciously in early childhood inthe U.K, listening on the radio to things like War Of TheWorlds, Kraftwerk’s Tour De France and watching Dr Whoon television (the sound was always much scarier thanthe papier mache monsters!). Later on I spent years insidedingy clubs listening to Detroit Techno, Chicago House andBritish Electronica.

When I met Claire Harris and she told me that she knew Tristram Cary and that he lived in Adelaide we thought that he would make a great documentary subject. This was a chance to delve into the back history of a subject I thought I knew about. Whenever people talk of the beginnings of this music it usually starts with bands like Kraftwerk. But people like Tristram Cary were pioneering electronic music techniques from the late 40’s using machines hand built from war-junk. Tristram’s scores are monolithic soundscapes, grating and beautiful and unlike anything I’d ever heard before. He also scored for Dr Who and films like the Ladykillers and Hammer Horror films. Thus our project began as a bio-pic about Tristram before morphing into a story about the Electronic Music Studios (EMS).

The story of EMS is truly amazing. In the mid 60’s Peter Zinovieff, an exiled Russian aristocrat, bought a computer which, at the time only the military and large factories had access to. But Peter didn’t want to launch rockets or control food processing; he wanted to change the boundaries of how to make music. From the late 50’s Peter and Tristram led a vanguard of avant-garde electronic music makers who sought to re-define what music could be. One of the most intriguing ideas for the film is that these artists were making music and sounds which had never been heard before, using equipment which was either hand built or appropriated from cutting edge scientific hardware. What a beautiful idea that such an alchemical process should be used to make music. Together with Tristram and genius-engineer David Cockerell, Peter Zinovieff established EMS one of the first computer music facilities in the world. They pioneered techniques now taken for granted such as digital sequencing, sampling and analysing. Prime Minister Harold Wilson declared in 1964 that England would be ‘forged in the white-hot heat of a scientific revolution’. This idea forms another key to our story; that EMS was breaking new artistic ground with the science and technology of music, and in a way provided a futuristic sound-track for the New Britain.

When they needed more money to fund their ideas EMS invented England’s first synthesizer, the VCS3, which coincidentally changed the sound palette available to mainstream rock bands in the late 60’s. Suddenly iconic bands like Pink Floyd and Roxy Music were turned on to electronic music through a crosspollination with the avant-garde EMS. Today bands like Radiohead and Aphex Twin are still using this EMS gear. This was another seductive idea in telling this story, that these fringe-dwelling avant-garde musicians had influenced the sounds of iconic albums like Dark Side of The Moon and the glam rock of Roxy Music!

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