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 progressiverocky, especially from Great Britain and Germany. The company’s slogan was “Think of a sound, do it now”.

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

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

“I had this facility to put pieces of wire together to make something that received or made sounds,” he said. 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, the electronic music composer who was co-founder of BBC radio workshop, taught him musical creation techniques by assembling pieces of sound recorded on magnetic tape during the time of concrete music.

But Mr. Zinovieff decided 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 shed was now a 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 was the future like.”

In 1966 Mr. Zinovieff formed the short-lived Unit Delta Plus with Delia Derbyshire (who created the electronic arrangement of Ron Grainer’s theme for the BBC “Doctor Who” science fiction institution) and Brian Hodgson to create electronic advertising 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. He used numbers to control sounds in a way that anticipated the Digital Musical Instrument Interface (MIDI) standard introduced in 1983.

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

Mr. Zinovieff lent a computer to 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 the 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.

The musicians adopted VCS3 as well as other EMS instruments.

EMS synthesizers are predominant in songs like “On the Run” by Pink Floyd “Virginia Plain” by Roxy Music and “Autobahn” from Kraftwerk and the Who 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 said. 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 to have a commercial studio,” he said. said in 2010. “I wanted an experimental studio, where good composers could work without paying. Mr. Zinovieff and Mr. Birtwistle climbed to the top of Big Ben to record the clockwork mechanisms and the sounds of gong which they incorporated into a quadraphonic 1971 piece, “Chronometer”.

Like other revolutionary synthesizer makers, EMS has 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 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 that were exponentially more powerful than his 1970s equipment, and returned to composing throughout the 2010s, including parts for cello and computer, for violin and computer and for computer and speech. In 2020, during the pandemic, he collaborated with a granddaughter, Anna Papadimitriou, the singer of the group Hawxx, on a play haunted by death titled “Ambulance painted red.”

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, Risen EMS in 1997, reproducing the models of period equipment. An iPad application emulate 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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