Peter Zinovieff, British Composer and Synth Pioneer, Dies Aged 88 | Experimental music

Peter Zinovieff, a hugely influential figure in British music whose early synthesizers helped change the sound of pop, has died at the age of 88. He had had a fall at home earlier this month.

With their marketing slogan “think about a sound – now do it”, his company Electronic Music Studios (EMS) was one of the first to bring synthesizers out of studios and to the public. With products like the portable VCS3 and Synthi A, EMS customers – including David Bowie, Kraftwerk, the Who, Tangerine Dream, and Pink Floyd – have often learned to use Zinovieff’s instruments. Paul McCartney was a visitor to his studio, and Zinovieff also taught Ringo Starr to use the VCS3.

He was also a respected composer of his own work, including his early experiences with composing and AI sampling – he claimed to have invented the latter technique.

Zinovieff was born in London in 1933, the son of Russian aristocrats who fled during the country’s revolution. He was raised by his grandparents during World War II, then attended the University of Oxford, studying geology while immersing himself in experimental music. He gave up his burgeoning career in geology to pursue his hobby professionally, later calling it “a decision in the middle of the night … a crazy thing to do.” At that time, there were only a handful of people making electronic music.

Peter Zinovieff working in his home studio in 1963. Photograph: Kaye / Getty Images

With their permission, he sold family jewels to help build a home studio, including a first computer with just four kilobytes of memory that now costs the equivalent of £ 100,000. He collaborated with Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson of the Radiophonic Workshop – who created the strange theme of Doctor Who – on Unit Delta Plus, a collective creating and promoting electronic music, and began to develop synthesizers, founding EMS in 1969 with Tristram Cary and David Cockerell.

Other EMS instruments included the cabinet-sized Synthi 100, used for Doctor Who music, by composer Karlheinz Stockhausen on his epic piece Sirius and most recently by contemporary musicians such as Sarah Davachi and Soulwax. Synthi A can be heard on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, as well as recordings by Brian Eno, Jean-Michel Jarre and more. A collection of Zinovieff’s own compositions from the EMS period, Electronic Calendar, was released in 2015.

The studio went bankrupt in 1979 and much of its equipment was subsequently destroyed in a flood. Zinovieff spent the 1980s and 1990s mainly away from music, including teaching. He had previously written the libretto for Harrison Birtwistle’s 1986 opera, The Mask of Orpheus, part of which in a newly invented language. It was relaunched by the English National Opera in 2019.

Zinovieff returned to composition in 2010, and worked with a younger generation of musicians, including cellist Lucy Railton and violinist Aisha Orazbayeva. He has also produced several works with the poet Katrina Porteous.

He has been married several times – first to Victoria Heber-Percy, then to Rose Verney, then to Tanya Richardson – and is survived by his fourth wife, Jenny Jardine. He is also survived by six of his children: Sofka, Leo, Kolinka, Freya, Kitty and Eliena. Another child, Kyril, died in 2015.

This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Zinovieff did not collaborate with Paul McCartney on the play Carnival of Light. He founded EMS in 1969, not 1966, when he met Cary and Cockerell.

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